GLOBE AND MAIL - MAY 9,2008
Iain Morris and Fiona Macfarlane lamented the one-of-a-kind Vancouver home they left behind even as they celebrated the career moves that brought them to Toronto.
The couple had spent three years building a contemporary family home with a spectacular view over the water. But they had scarcely settled in when Ms. Macfarlane was lured to Toronto by an enticing position with an international accounting firm.
Mr. Morris, a partner with a rival business giant, also shifted to the east and the couple began looking for new real estate.
But even as they searched the established neighbourhoods of Forest Hill and Rosedale for properties, they were yearning for the modern simplicity of the house they had built on the West Coast.
“That was fresh in our minds,” says Mr. Morris.
The couple had also experienced a predicament common among those who commission a custom-built house: the Vancouver property they had tailored to exactly suit their needs proved to be hard to sell.
So the duo approached their Toronto real estate search with a deliberate five-year plan and a down-to-earth exit strategy: they decided to look for an undervalued property in a sound neighbourhood. The budget for renovation would be strictly controlled so that they could recoup their investment — and possibly make a profit — if they decided to move on after a few years.
Real estate agent Kathryn Harris of Chestnut Park Real Estate Ltd. helped to fulfill the first part of their mandate. She found a grand old house on Binscarth Road that had been in the same family for 75 years.
Then the couple brought in architect John O’Connor of Basis Design Build Corp. to find out if they could turn a heritage-protected home on one of Toronto’s most prestigious streets into the type of modern dwelling that would accommodate a lively family with two children, three dogs and two cats.
“We were in a bit of a dilemma,” says Mr. Morris, “[wondering] how are we going to achieve what we wanted to do in Vancouver while respecting the heritage of Rosedale?”
The result is a house that sticks to rules governing Rosedale’s heritage protection on the outside, while appealing to the couple’s modern sensibilities on the inside.
“We wanted a house that we would enjoy living in, but not to be so edgy or so off-the-beaten-track that it would lose a broad sector of the market,” says Mr. Morris.
From the start, Mr. O’Connor could see the house on Binscarth had potential, but first he would have to undo decades’ of interior changes and additions that had created lots of small rooms and poorly placed staircases. Upstairs, for example, residents had to cut through a closet in one room to get to a bedroom beyond.
“It was a rabbit warren inside,” he says. “You literally used to get lost in here.”
Mr. O’Connor called for the house to be virtually gutted. The living room and dining rooms remain in their original position overlooking the street, but little else of the original plan remains.
The main floor has been designed to create open space and sightlines from one room to another. Sliding doors can be pulled across the doorway to provide privacy, but most of the time they are left fully open to disappear against the wall.
There are no coverings on the doors or windows to close the house in.
“We wanted to have as much natural light as possible,” says Mr. O’Connor.
The architect also kept the palette and materials simple and consistent. White walls, stone floors and deeply-stained walnut doors and trim are used in most rooms. People sitting in the living room, for example, can see the cabinets and woodwork in the family room, so Mr. O’Connor had them made of the same walnut.
Cabinets in the main hallway, family room and kitchen are sleek and uncluttered.
A wall in the living room had what Mr. O’Connor describes as a strange and off-centre fireplace. He reconfigured the wall so that it can accommodate a large and dramatic painting visible to diners sitting at the dining table.
Ms. Harris of Chestnut Park advised the couple on designing for resale.
She gave them suggestions on the features that would make their home appealing to potential buyers in a few years.
Lots of families consider a mud room important, for example, but Mr. Morris and Ms. Macfarlane thought that keeping the space open was a priority. Mr. O’Connor solved the problem by creating a rear entrance to the kitchen and lining it with walnut cabinets.
“Ideally, you’d have a mud room in a house this size but there’s just no way to do that without compromising the view,” says Mr. O’Connor.
At the centre of the house, he designed a shaft that holds a floating staircase of steel and glass. “We had to look for architectural opportunities,” says Mr. O’Connor of the design.
Upstairs, the second floor was entirely rebuilt to provide three bedrooms and three bathrooms. Bedrooms were given generous storage and, in one case, he split a small room into two closets.
“It’s important to have big, walk-in closets for resale,” the architect says. “The two of them together would have been a decent-sized bedroom.”
Similarly, each bedroom has an ensuite bath. Mr. O’Connor points out that a child’s bedroom with bath could easily be used as a home office that takes advantage of south-facing windows.
The master bathroom has a deep tub, walk-in shower, and a serene palette of walnut and Loire stone.
The third floor provides a guest suite and nanny’s quarters, but Mr. O’Connor says another family with older children could make the top floor a kids’ level. “It’s hard to anticipate how other people would use a house.”
Nevertheless, he tried to make the spaces as flexible as possible. The home’s seven bathrooms make it easy to create smaller suites for family members, guests and workers.
A large third-floor deck of wood and glass can’t be seen from the street, so Mr. O’Connor designed it to blend with the contemporary interior.
“It’s an indoor-outdoor space so you have to do something that will make it look modern and clean,” says the architect.
Mr. O’Connor added 45 centimetres of ceiling height in the basement by having the floor excavated. Using a concrete bench underpinning was an economical construction method. Throughout, the architect worked with Mr. Morris, Ms. Macfarlane and interior designer Connie Braemar to choose finishes that are not too trendy.
“I always think that these houses should look good in 10 or 15 years,” Mr. O’Connor says.
The infrastructure, meanwhile, should last decades: He had the lighting and electrical systems upgraded, and heated all of the stone floors.
“I always think if the house is designed right, it’s classic — it’s a liquid asset. You could sell it at any time.”
Mr. Morris says the result is a house that fits the family and is mindful of the resale value. He’s hard-pressed to think of any changes they would have made, no matter how long they planned to stay. “I’m not sure that we would do a whole lot differently.”
And while the family may stay for decades, the couple is happy to know they very likely have a solid investment if fortune takes them elsewhere any time soon.