Two adults would’ve bumped shoulders while walking through it, but the little laneway between my childhood home and the neighbour’s was perfect for a nine-year-old. I’d sit there with my Hot Wheels in hand, bathed in the sweet-smelling steam pouring from the laundry vent, and feel perfectly protected while looking up at the clouds.
And while you can’t copyright a feeling, architect Heather Dubbeldam would be wise to safeguard her “Skygarden” concept, since her brand of protected outdoor space brought it all back to me.
“I come up here and I just don’t want to leave; I feel very at peace,” she says, echoing my sentiment. “This is the best part of the house.”
To Ms. Dubbeldam’s right is the bed. Behind her, a massive triangular window boasts an edited view of tree trunks and the third-floor shingles of across-the-street neighbours. To her left, a sliding door opens to a cozy, ash-trimmed rooftop terrace: the Skygarden. Out here, a balcony affords a view of the street below and the chunky frame of the former Imperial Oil headquarters a few streets over, while a massive roof cutout frames the swirly clouds of my childhood.
If Dubbeldam Architecture + Design could bottle the feeling I get up here, I’d buy the first case.
Down the hall, an entire wall of glass and massive roof deck are the knockout features of bedroom No. 2, which Ms. Dubbeldam’s empty-nester clients call “3E” for third-floor, east. The two lawyers, she explains, use this bedroom sometimes, if the mood strikes. While custom blinds roll up from the floor at the touch of a button, my guess is 3E, which overlooks the backyard, works for bold, take-on-the-world days, while 3W, the Skygarden bedroom, is for introspection.
And though you’d never know it, there’s a place right next to the front door where both are possible: an outdoor dining area where one can stand up and wave hello to passersby or sit down and disappear into a summer salad and a daydream.
If all of this seems ostentatious, I assure you it’s not. At 2,400 square feet, Skygarden House is no larger than its street mates; in fact, it’s probably smaller. Its north and south walls are original, craggy brick, (now painted dark grey), that stand no taller than those of neighbouring houses. The house’s new faces are composed of glass, charcoal-grey metal spandrel panels and an abstracted roof peak, which push the home, visually, into the background. Like a geode, the sparkle is on the inside.
“We wanted it to be something quite modern, but also try and keep it warm and welcoming,” one of the homeowners says.
Even before the front door opens, that welcoming feeling is apparent. A wooden wall envelopes visitors as fingers reach for the doorbell. Inside, a big opening allows easy entry into the dining area. But when dinner is served, the entire wall slides over to tuck everyone in, leaving only a long window exposed to keep an eye out for stragglers. A powder room hides behind a similar wall.
Finishes in the dining room, kitchen and living room are held to a neutral-yet-warm palette of white, grey and white oak. “When they first came to us they had some photographs of Scandinavian-style houses that they liked,” Ms. Dubbeldam remembers. “So this mix of texture and very muted colours.”
This allows the vibrant red light fixture over the Dubbeldam-designed metal dining table to pop, as well as the collection of colourful bowls over the Boffi kitchen “backsplash,” which is really a long, thin window framing some flowerbox greenery. Two steps down into the living room, a lipstick-red Saarinen Womb Chair beside the sliding glass wall framing the backyard acts as a visual bookend. And rather than looking out at a rude brick wall, the view is straight across a dozen other backyards, so there’s nothing but foliage and flitting birds.
“That was serendipitous,” says the homeowner, laughing, who kept Ms. Dubbeldam on retainer during the house hunt. “We didn’t really realize we bought that [view] when we bought the house.”
This, plus the Skygarden concept, helped delivery on the couple’s wish: “The whole, driving idea behind the project was that they used to spend their weekends up at their place in the country … surrounded by forest and a little stream,” Ms. Dubbeldam explains. “And this is trying to mimic that experience in the city.”
And while it looks like delicately folded paper, a solid steel staircase leads down to a big basement family room, or up to a second floor that contains a home office and a library. All floors are heated via an in-floor radiant system and other sustainability features, such as superinsulated walls, keep energy bills low.
Landscaping, also by the Dubbeldam office, picks up on the house’s interior cues, with thin metal planter boxes, ash decks (dark in colour due to being baked, not stained!), and plantings that remind the homeowners of their country place.
The Skygarden House is an expertly tailored, top-to-bottom renovation/rebuild that’s “an example of how architecture can respond to a client’s lifestyle,” says Ontario Association of Architects president Toon Dreessen, who will present Ms. Dubbeldam with a Design Excellence Award tonight at the OAA’s annual gala. And that’s not the first: The house has already been recognized by the popular U.S. website Architizer and Interior Design magazine in New York.
And yes, it deserves all of those accolades, and more. Of course, any nine-year-old craving a little alone time and some cloud gazing could’ve told you that.
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