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From the ground up

Early stage construction at the home of Tory Crowder and Shawn Thomas.

Tory Crowder and Shawn Thomas embark on a full rebuild of their Etobicoke house

Over the coming year, Globe Real Estate will follow the evolution of the construction of a 2,700-square-foot home in an Etobicoke neighbourhood that's become, like many Toronto residential enclaves, a hotbed of demolition and rebuilding activity.

'Lovely day we're having today," chuckles a baseball-cap wearing contractor, his arm slung out the passenger window. He casts a bemused glance at the slushy snow drifting down on the warren of holes and retaining walls behind his pickup.

Tory Crowder, who co-owns what is now little more than a gash on the north side of a quiet Etobicoke street, offers an upbeat greeting in return. The 40-year-old publicist has donned rubber boots for the site visit, now a regular part of her daily routine. After years of often frustrating preparation involving architects, bureaucrats, contractors and neighbours, construction crews last month finally began building a new house for Ms. Crowder, her husband, Shawn Thomas, a 43-year-old investment professional, and their three young children.

Somewhat tentatively, she asks how all the unseasonal rain/snow that's fallen in the past day will affect the poured concrete walls poking out of the muddy craters where their previous house and pool stood until just a few weeks ago.

"Water helps concrete cure," the contractor replies with a sufficiently confident tone that Ms. Crowder doesn't make further inquiries.

Instead, she picks her way onto the site: The basement walls are in place, as is a long, narrow pool foundation extending deep into a leafy backyard that shares a lot line with the Park Lawn Cemetery. The backyard, at present, is accessible only via a wobbly plank slung across a three-metre-deep ditch.

"Hey, they have done some stuff," Ms. Crowder says, surveying the mess. Two cement trucks turned up earlier in the week. "There were a whole bunch of guys here for the pool." She looks back at what will become a rear-facing family room.

"It's funny how small it looks when you see it like this," she muses.

A pool is being constructed in the backyard.

Ms. Crowder and Mr. Thomas's new house – which will go up over the next six to eight months – won't be much larger than the one they bought for $820,000 in 2007 and are now replacing. It will feature a modern design, a large functional pool and a configuration the couple hopes will evolve as their family grows.

Like many homeowners taking this step, their budget – $1-million – was not only finite in a market oriented toward big spenders; it has also forced them to constantly make and re-evaluate their choices, including one that turned out to be a game-changer. "We have no interest in building a 3,500-square-foot home," Ms. Crowder says, adding that quality of life was more important than quantity of house.

The foundation under construction.

When they bought, before kids, they reckoned the house was good for five years. Built in 1946, it had been owned for years by a single woman and was in good shape. In 2014, instead of incurring the cost of moving, they decided to do a major facelift, a process that involved auditioning architects and weighing design options.

Initially, they didn't want to knock down the house and start from scratch. Because of all the tear-downs in the area, neighbours complained about living in a perpetual construction zone; Ms. Crowder and Mr. Thomas agreed they didn't want to make things worse. "We thought we could reface and do all the windows."

But when the couple began interviewing contractors last spring, one told them that while demolition would add $70,000, it was worth the extra cost.

Ms. Crowder initially had reservations and didn't want to spend more money asking the architect to rejig the plans. But a completely unexpected regulatory obstacle involving a neighbour's tree transformed the demolition option into a solution to what seemed, increasingly, like an insurmountable roadblock.

Demolition begins on the old house.

For Mr. Thomas and Ms. Crowder, a former competitive sailor, rebuilding the pool had been key to their dreams: Not only was the old one small and poorly maintained, the family also made heavy use of the space as an alternative to a cottage in the summer. "We cared a lot about our backyard," Ms. Crowder says.

Problem was, building the pool posed a risk to a neighbour's black walnut. So while the project passed muster with the Committee of Adjustment, they still had to satisfy the City of Toronto's urban-forestry officials, who stood between Ms. Crowder and a building permit.

As it transpired, relocating the pool away from those black walnut-tree roots and icing plans for a larger cabana weren't enough of a concession for city officials.

If the couple chose not to tear down the house, the construction equipment would have to trundle across a neighbouring property into the backyard, damaging and compacting other root systems. But, as the couple's contractor explained, if they decided to knock down the entire house, the bulldozers and other heavy gear could sit on their driveway, with the excavation proceeding from the back of the lot, and the site of the new pool, to the front, and their rebuilt house's foundation.

The old house, nearly demolished.

Realizing they had no workable alternative short of dropping the pool altogether, Ms. Crowder and Mr. Thomas ran the numbers and signed off on the demolition plan. They then commissioned several arborists' reports to confirm the proposed construction staging satisfied urban forestry's conditions.

The third report was submitted this past February and the building permit arrived almost immediately. Three years had passed since they had begun looking for designers. "Everyone was shocked when we finally got the clearance letter," Ms. Crowder recounts. "It almost seemed like this was never going to happen."