Commuting 25 kilometres across Toronto each day to look after her daughter's two children was tiring Susanna Farkas out. Similarly, bundling two little kids and all the associated paraphernalia into the car every time they wanted to visit grandma was beginning to aggravate Julia Lenke Knezic and her husband Nick. But what to do? These inconveniences are a fact of modern life. However, when the house beside Ms. Lenke Knezic's came up for sale it seemed like the perfect answer. Move Mom in next door.
Ms. Farkas, a spirited sexagenarian of Hungarian descent, was keen to be closer to her family and to cut out her daily commute but the circa 1920s house was in poor condition, leaning to one side, its foundations slowly sinking.
"I told them, 'I'll move but I want a new house, not an old one,'" says Ms. Farkas with a grin.
Good thing her daughter is an architect.
The lot was purchased and the existing house demolished while Ms. Lenke Knezic began designing a new home for her mother but all was not straightforward. The narrow site presented a challenge. There was opposition from neighbours, concerned that a modern house would clash with the period style of the street in Roncesvalles Village. Then, there were the "great expectations" of her mother.
"Buying the house was the opportunity of a lifetime: an inexpensive site right next door. But my client had a long list of demands, some realistic, some that she had to be talked around from," says Ms. Lenke Knezic, smiling back at her mom.
The outcome of this mother/daughter, designer/patron tit for tat is a Modernist delight of a home that nestles unobtrusively between its Victorian neighbours. Externally, Ms. Lenke Knezic has combined vertically striated metal siding with horizontal "courses" of a sustainable hardwood called Ipe. The metal is used for its cost effectiveness; the wood to add a quality feel in areas such as the veranda: "where people are up close, where they can touch and feel it," explains the architect.
The contrasting materials and patterning also break up the mass of the house, lessening its impact upon the street. And, although strikingly different, it does seem perfectly at home amidst the bay windows, pitched roofs and dormers of neighbouring properties. So much so that Ms. Farkas tells of neighbours and strangers stopping to admire and even photograph her new home.
"Initially, there were fears from residents about the modern nature of the house but since its completion everyone has loved it; there have been no negative comments at all," she says. "A group of teenage girls who passed by while I was in the garden stopped and told me, 'we love your house.'"
But the external facade is only part of an intelligent design that has made much of this restricted site. Step through the front door and the home opens up, somehow feeling bigger than its external shell. Light and airy, a dining area with a table to seat up to 12 is easily accommodated next to the open stairs, which allow light and views right through the first floor. Beyond, the space morphs seamlessly into a living area with fully glazed rear wall overlooking the garden.
Ms. Lenke Knezic describes this floor as the public element of the house. "Mom said she wanted to be able to have the whole family round, to entertain," she says, "and so I created a space that enables her to do that while keeping the kitchen semi private, one of her other, most specific requests.
The pocket-sized Bulthaup kitchen is a study in engineered design efficiency: the clean lines and concealed drawer and door hardware disguising a wealth of storage. Ms. Lenke Knezic worked with Antje Bulthaup to design the space for her mom and, while it is open to the rest of the first floor, the kitchen's galley-like shape and position mean that the chef is not on show and guests won't be attracted to linger there.
Upstairs, in the private part of the house, the home takes on a more intimate feel. Still predominantly open plan but laid out in a series of spaces, it includes an office area at the front of the building. "This could be converted into a third bedroom in the future, if needs be," says Ms. Lenke Knezic. The middle section is a library and TV space, lined with shelving and storage designed by the architect to include a nook for a vintage sofa and a space for Ms. Farkas's piano.
To the rear is the master bedroom suite. Clever tweaks such as the linen cupboard door that opens to create a partition and screen off the bedroom and space-saving sliding doors maximize the room in this small but perfectly formed boudoir.
The basement is home to an extra large laundry room, "on mom's insistence," a spacious guest bedroom, and a bathroom suite.
"It's all so clever and so modern, and yet, it suits my antique tastes so well," says Ms. Farkas, beaming as she points out a vintage clock, family photographs, even three deer antler mounts, which contrast but complement the 21st Century feel of the architecture.
Grandma's new house is a role model of efficiencies and intelligent design. It takes a small site and maximizes its potential. However, Ms. Lenke Knezic has done this so well that you don't notice. Instead, what is most apparent is the elegant design, created with care for a classy lady.
The house is the perfect solution to the family's annoying cross-city commutes. It is a wonderful juxtaposition of new with not-so-old (this journalist would never give away grandma's age!) and, a blend of ideals and generations wonderfully suited to its location and to Julia's mom.