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A tiny patch of history

A 460-square-foot house in a former east Toronto 'shacktown' is expanded and transformed into an efficient urban living space

421 Craven St., Toronto.

The home's previous owner lived well into her 90s in the 460-square-foot space.

THE LISTING: 421 Craven Rd.

ASKING PRICE: $950,000

TAXES: $2,390.21 (2017)

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LOT SIZE: 17- by 73-feet

AGENT: Mimmo Galati (TheRedPin)

The back story

In 2005, architect Meika McCunn walked in the door of a tiny house for sale on Craven Road and walked right back out. Ms. McCunn, an associate with KPMB Architects, saw no potential in the dark and dilapidated one-bedroom cottage.

"For me, it was definitely a scary house," she recalls.

It was her contractor who changed her mind.

Ms. McCunn had taken the builder to inspect another nearby house that he deemed unworthy. But he urged her to take a second look at 421 Craven Rd. The house had a basement and the structure was straight, he pointed out. He thought Ms. McCunn would add good value with a renovation of the property.

Ms. McCunn found herself in competition with another builder who planned to tear down the house. She won the contest with a bid of $130,000.

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Once she took possession of the property, the architect had to figure out how to add light, functionality and comfort to 460 square feet, where the previous owner had lived well into her 90s with one tiny washroom.

"It was very meagre," Ms. McCunn says.

Still, Ms. McCunn saw lots of charm in the diminutive building, which reminded her of the saltbox houses on the East Coast, where she grew up.

Craven Road, near Gerrard and Coxwell in the city's east end, was originally named Erie Terrace. According to the Leslieville Historical Society, the original residents lived in a "shacktown" that sprang up outside of the City of Toronto limits in 1906.

Over time, speculators divided up the land into extremely small lots that the working poor could afford. Many of the first inhabitants were immigrants from England, Scotland and Ireland. Although the families were impoverished, they formed strong bonds and helped each other to build small frame houses.

In 1909, the area voted in favour of annexation by Toronto. The change meant that Erie Terrace residents would be required to install running water and indoor plumbing, which they were compelled to hook up to the city's sewer system. Many could not afford the work and tried to fight the new expenses and property taxes, but they were forced to comply or leave, records show.

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A living space at the back of the home opens to the yard.

One of the quirks of Erie Terrace was that the houses ran along only the east side of a rough lane. The opposite side was the border of a large farming estate. When the farm was subdivided some years later, the backyards of newly built houses faced Erie Terrace. In 1916, the city widened the lane and erected a tall wooden fence that ran along the backs of the new houses.

Neighbours on the crowded road continued to band together. When a woman with seven children lost her husband to the influenza epidemic of 1918, an area resident appealed for funds and workers to help finish the family's partly-built house.

In 1923, the city changed the name to Craven Road – in part to mitigate some of the ignominy associated with downtrodden Erie Terrace.

The city still maintains a long, tall wooden fence along the west side of the road. Today many residents embellish it with their own idiosyncratic art work and the odd repurposed gardening tool, Ms. McCunn says.

"People have always done this," she says of the linear gallery. "You often see paintings emerge."

When she purchased number 421, she knew immediately she would preserve the exterior's urban cottage appearance and the pitched roof.

"That's the character of the street."

The house today

The kitchen features creative space-saving storage solutions.

Right away, Ms. McCunn opened up the interior by removing the ceiling and walls on the main floor. The rafters that held up the roof were rather spindly, so she had them clad with new boards in order to add heft and character.

The architect used a minimal palette of white and black to keep the interior feeling light and spacious. The heated floors are covered in large-format Italian tiles that have the appearance of painted wood.

Ms. McCunn turned the front of the house into a large dining area so that she could gather lots of people at once.

In the kitchen, Ms. McCunn found creative ways to add in storage areas so that she could eliminate the need for upper cabinets which would close in the space. In her down time, Ms. McCunn likes to bake architectural desserts, so she had double wall ovens built in and designed floor-to-ceiling cupboards for her stand mixers and baking tools. A retractable exhaust disappears into the countertop and a small return provides a casual spot for coffee and breakfast.

"The kitchen was very important to me," she says. "I wanted to keep it really spare to maximize the openness of it. Everything is concealed."

Downstairs, Ms. McCunn reinforced the basement walls with concrete block, poured a new floor slab and finished the interior. There's a recreation room, which could serve as a bedroom, and a full bathroom. There's a laundry area, and a small room at the rear is currently set up as a home office.

"The basement is extremely cool in summer and cozy in winter," she says. "It has basically almost doubled my living space."

Throughout the house, Ms. McCunn found little bits of space for storage wherever she could. She has hidden shoe closets inside the wall beside the stairs to the second floor, for example.

The upper level looms over the backyard but is hidden from view on the street side of the house.

While the architect worked on her petite house, she was concentrating on much larger buildings in her work for KPMB. Ms. McCunn was the project architect for the acclaimed Koerner Hall, and now she is working on the revitalization of Massey Hall.

About two years ago, Ms. McCunn decided to undertake a larger transformation in her own home. She knocked off the rear wall of the house and expanded her living space with a two-storey addition. Now the main floor has a living room with doors opening to the garden. Above that, she created an open and airy bedroom with a high ceiling, a wall of windows and an outdoor balcony.

The new ensuite bathroom has a large tub and floating vanity. The window openings on the upper level provide sightlines into the surrounding treetops.

Ms. McCunn says the modern, two-storey addition has a sloping roof so that it's mostly hidden from view and the house maintains its appearance as a one-storey urban cottage. "It's so deceiving from the street."

The low-maintenance exterior – including the metal roof – is finished entirely in white. "I did want to have an all-white little house."

While the work was under way, passing neighbours often stopped to ask about the renovation.

"People are very, very friendly," she says, "and they were excited to see what was going on. People were just interested to see what you could do with a small house."

This summer Ms. McCunn refreshed the backyard with a large deck, a gravel seating area and a fire pit. She stuffed the garden beds with spring flower bulbs.

"It's small but very social," says Ms. McCunn of the outdoor space.

The architect says the house, which now has 1,200 square feet including the basement, is suited to someone who wants to live minimally and doesn't mind street parking.

Including the basement, the home now features 1,200 sq.-ft. of living space.

"People walk in and they really love the space," she says.

Real estate agent Mimmo Galati of TheRedPin says some potential buyers view the home as an alternative to a loft.

Over the years, the street has seen many transformations. In the 1990s, Habitat for Humanity unveiled its first Toronto project on Craven Road.

Several notable Toronto architects – including LineBox Studio and Shim-Sutcliffe Architects Inc. – have undertaken projects on Craven Road. Ms. McCunn says the street has retained very long-time residents and added new arrivals during her 12 years there.

"There's a heritage consultant, another architect and writers - along with people who have lived here their whole lives," she says. "It's a real mix."

Gerrard Street East has long drawn visitors to the stretch known as Little India. Sari boutiques, home emporiums and classic restaurants such as Lahore Tikka House create a vibrant street scene, but in recent years, many businesses have moved to the suburbs. As traditional businesses have moved out, independent coffee shops, innovative cooks and a brew pub serving beer and Japanese comfort food have moved in.

The best feature

Glass doors flood the bedroom in natural light.

The bedroom has a high, sloping ceiling and sliding glass doors to let in light. The balcony has a glass rail so that nothing obscures the view.

"This is my favourite room," Ms. McCunn says. "It's like a little tree house."

A door to the ensuite bathroom disappears into the wall.

"Every door in this house is a pocket door," she says. "There's no wasted space."

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