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The Globe and Mail

A for effort, but DIY renovator could have used an architect

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This 2,800-square-foot home in the Trinity-Bellwoods area of downtown Toronto was renovated by its owner who did much of the work - from laying out the scheme for the interior and exterior to steering the proposal through the city’s approvals process, from conception to move-in day - on her own. Like brain surgery, the job of planning, designing and building a home of one’s own, even (or especially) a little one, is always complicated and sometimes dauntingly difficult. Which is the reason many people gladly drop the whole business into the laps of architects, who (if they really know their stuff) bring to the table all the necessary practical know-how and art.

Peter A. Sellar/www.photoklik.com

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The owner was well-organized, and savvy about people. Her professional training as a lawyer served her well when, for instance, she had to formally present an argument for allowing her scheme to depart, in small ways, from Toronto’s official plan. (She didn’t get to build out the rear of the house as far as she wanted, though she won on other points.)

Peter A. Sellar/www.photoklik.com

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The design, inside and out, was the owner’s own handiwork. She made the final decisions on all creative questions. But when out of her depth, she wisely turned to expert guns for hire: an architect-friend (especially for the preparation of construction drawings), an architectural technologist, a structural engineer. With such help, flair for getting things done, a knack for handling people and situations, and an estimated $1.3-million, she realized her dream: a modern, flat-topped, three-storey, four-bedroom house, tailored exactly to her plans and located in what, pre-gentrification, was a dense blue-collar residential zone close to the heart of the inner city.

Peter A. Sellar/www.photoklik.com

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While the effort expended on this project was surely outstanding, and the goal was admirable, the outcome, in my view, is less so. Take, for example, the downstairs area, where the house opens to the street, and where the family cooks, eats and socializes. One comes into a large, bright, double-height place that has a stove, fridge, an enormous Caesarstone island and cupboards in it, but it isn’t a kitchen. In the same place is a lovely custom-built dining table with a sculpted cast-iron base, but where it stands is no dining room, or even a modernistically ambiguous 'dining area.' The owner said she wanted the house to be open-plan, but this space appears to have no plan of any kind, no articulation of function.

Peter A. Sellar/www.photoklik.com

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Coming through the main entrance, I found myself in a close, luxuriously wood-panelled compartment too sharply disjunct from both the city outside and the interior beyond – a too-small keyhole between large territories, that is, instead of a generous transition from one to the other.

Peter A. Sellar/www.photoklik.com

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By way of contrast, the owner has super-defined the living room by putting it on a mezzanine raised high over the undifferentiated cooking-eating area. Climbing the steps to the living room (or family room), one senses a sudden change in atmosphere from postmodern no-plan to a architectural specificity that is almost Victorian. The switch doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Peter A. Sellar/www.photoklik.com

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I would like to appreciate this house more than I do, since the owner’s enthusiasm for her project is infectious and sincere. But the building proves, to my mind, that the world does need architects, after all, not merely when technical expertise is required, but from the very first moment the client is struck by the idea of building a house, right to the very end.

Peter A. Sellar/www.photoklik.com

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Peter A. Sellar/www.photoklik.com

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