LABOUR OF LOVE
METROPOLITAN HOME JANUARY-FEBRUARY 2005
This Canadian architect expanded the 19th-century worker’s cottage into a home and studio compound for the 21st.
John O’Connor, Toronto, ON “It was the last bad thing on a good block in a great neighborhood,” architect John O’Connor says of the dilapidated worker’s cottage in Toronto’s Cabbagetown-exactly the kind of property he could buy cheap, fix up quickly and sell for a tidy sum. “But the more I worked on it,” he says, “the faster the ideas kept coming. Pretty soon, I liked it too much to give it up.”
So instead of renovating it for resale, he tailored the place to his own needs. The original 600-square-foot structure became headquarters for his own firm, Basis Design Build. Behind it, he built a three-story, 1,400-square foot residence for himself and his partner, corporate executive Rick Hayward. Connecting the two buildings, a courtyard garden and an open kitchen create a seamless flow between work and life.
“Its great to have my office right here at home,” O’Connor says. “If I have an idea late at night, I just go into my studio and get it out of my head. Also, the place functions as my portfolio. A lot of architects have to rely on a reception desk to represent their sense of design to prospective clients. Having a whole house to represent you is very powerful.”
As in most of his projects, O’Connor juxtaposed old and new materials for a modern look without an expiration date. “Using reclaimed wood along with the steel and aluminum adds a sense of history. I wanted to avoid the usual architect’s-own-house cliches-the austere white box with the black-leather-and-chrome Corbu furniture.”
At first, neighbors in this district of well-preserved Victorian homes worried that O’Connor’s sense of history wasn’t quite literal enough for their tastes. “But you can’t just replicate a vintage look,” he insists. “If you try, it ends up looking like Disneyland. My approach is, keep your head down, do the best work you can and hope people come around when they see the finished project.”
Most of the project’s early critics did come around eventually, and the house has become a beloved part of the neighborhood. It still stands out, however-not just for its architecture but because of its landscaping, unusual compared with the English cottage gardens cultivated by most of O’Connor’s neighbors.
“We wanted something much lower maintenance,” he says. But while the plants themselves are unremarkable, the place isn’t lacking curb appeal. The 1870 cottage still boasts its charming gabled roofline, and Spanish cedar trim punctuates the new building’s cement-board-and-metal exterior in an eye-catching but elegant way. In the backyard, a series of stair-stepped fountains and a retaining wall made of weathered concrete slabs dragged from Lake Ontario add far more character than one might expect on a plot of land that measures only 25 by 130 feet.
“Some of the things I did here wouldn’t translate to any other setting,” O’Connor acknowledges, “but still, when you work on your own home, you get ideas that can be introduced to other projects-and you learn what it’s like to be the client, making all of these big and little decisions knowing that you have to live with them.
Maggie, an Irish water spaniel, enjoys the indoor/outdoor portion of the living room she shares with architect John O’Connor and his partner, Rick Hayward. There’s a cozier end of the living room, too. O’Connor, who designed most of the furniture himself, turned the original cottage into a working studio.
White leather chairs in the dining room are so cushy that the homeowners often have trouble uprooting dinner guests. O’Connor placed the windows carefully so that the home is bright yet private (only the bedroom window requires a curtain); the kitchen stools, by designer Martha Sturdy, are more comfortable than the look, O’Connor says; each of the stone garden “steps” is a mini-fountain. “