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The architourist

A one-storey cottage, rethought

Architect Kevin Weiss takes a methodical approach to an east-end Toronto rebuild

The Danforth and Greenwood area home of Yiwen Zhu and Robin Chubb.

Architecture is a slow burn.

You want fast? Work in a newsroom or a bar, or become an air-traffic controller. From initial discussion to concept to permitting to construction, it can take the better part of a year – and probably more – to see a building project to completion. And that's when dealing with a small house.

That's why it's interesting to talk with Kevin Weiss. Mr. Weiss will often begin a sentence three different ways before settling on its direction. Then, he'll get it over with quickly so he can move to his next thought. But although his mind may be racing, his chosen profession forces him to adopt a Zen-like calm. And while it would be wrong to say he's laissez-faire – in fact he's very hands-on when something of his is being built – during the inevitable in-between times, he's able to relax … and wait.

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For instance, the living room we're sitting in, which belongs to urban planning couple Yiwen Zhu and Robin Chubb, remains untouched by his hand. It's a modest, small, perhaps even tired room: Cracks are visible in the ceiling and, a few feet away, the "one-person" kitchen (as Ms. Zhu describes it) is stuck in the 1990s and lacks a dishwasher. It's what was here when the couple bought the 16-foot-wide, mobile home-like, one-storey home almost a decade ago.

"It looked like what my grandmother lives in, in Medicine Hat – you know, a little granny house," laughs Mr. Weiss, who started Weiss Architecture & Urbanism Ltd. only a handful of years ago.

‘House 93’ boasts large windows, creamy-white drywall and tons of natural light.

Above our heads, however, the first phase of "House 93" – a tongue-in-cheek moniker to remind us that only 7 per cent of homes built in North America each year are designed by an architect – has utterly transformed this Danforth and Greenwood area home. Up there, light, air and more light are made even more dramatic by sheets and sheets of creamy-white drywall and massive windows sporting white mullions.

"You'll notice there's no marble, there's no fancy [material]; it's all pretty straightforward stuff," says the architect, who is still in no hurry to bring your humble Architourist upstairs to have a look. "The expenses in this building were windows and more drywall because the volumes are bigger. … There was a budget, and it was tight, very tight, and we tried to figure it out with that in mind."

Since the home's existing single bedroom would be eliminated to gain more common space on the main floor, the following had to be figured out: Could a second storey be erected on top of the one-storey home while the couple still lived there (they didn't want the additional expense of renting)? And was it possible to create three good-sized bedrooms and shower them in natural light?

"It was a real head-scratcher," Mr. Weiss admits.

The guest area on the upper level of the house encourages daytime napping.

The solution, he says, was to build a hybrid balloon– and standard-frame building on top of the existing home; with thinner studs that reach all the way up to the roof, balloon frames are lighter and quicker to erect. Next, by gaining approval from the city's Committee of Adjustment to erect a large (albeit boring) box and then "carving away" a great deal of it to create a sort of "checker-board pattern," natural light would be given priority.

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Well, that's after even bigger priority was given to eliminating the massive termite infestation.

In the project's early days, Mr. Weiss explains, the couple asked the contractor, Andes Construction, rather innocently, what possible hurdles they might come up against. Antonio Savone listed a few things, then, as an afterthought, mentioned termites. "A few hours later, Yiwen sent me a picture with the caption, 'Are these termites?'" says Mr. Weiss, able to laugh about it now.

The area, it turns out, is known for termite problems, "which we didn't know when we bought," Mr. Chubb says.

The middle room has a curtained-off area for the couple's three-year-old.

So, after "tearing off all of the exterior" and bringing in specialists – and using up a good chunk of the budget in the process – work could begin.

And just to make things even more interesting, Mr. Weiss says, Ms. Zhu asked if the project could be completed by a certain date. "And I said: 'Oh my God, you're pregnant,'" he laughs. While this necessitated all sorts of ramps and cleanup each day so Ms. Zhu could enter and exit the home, Andes was willing to accommodate in order to save the couple money.

"I would never do that again," Ms. Zhu says about the experience.

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"It's a very hard thing," agrees Mr. Weiss, who indicates that it's finally time to venture upstairs.

The washroom is clean, bright, and has a heated floor.

Up here, the living is easy: With a commanding view of the street, the front room is a library/guest room that encourages daytime napping; the middle room, with its dual clerestories but curtained-off area for the couple's three-year-old, is both a sunny playroom and a private sleeping cubby; the big washroom is clean, bright, and has a heated floor; and, in anticipation of the day the poorly-constructed first-floor sunroom is replaced with a higher ceilinged, Weiss-designed addition, there's already a sliding door installed in the master bedroom.

For a construction budget of approximate $250,000, a great deal was achieved in this first phase. So much so that the couple is in no hurry to begin the second. And neither is Mr. Weiss, who points out the window to the hodgepodge of East York houses, many little one-storeys that are ripe for a rethink: "This is a common situation," he finishes. "We referred to this project as a 'Case Study'… look, they're all down the street."

And slowly, house by house, that will change.

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