In the shed behind Steve Bugler's house, there's a handmade steel sign that reads: Nichols Sheet Metal. The corrugated-metal building is still a working metal shop. But right in front of it is an ad for Bugler's craftsmanship in the form of a building: a box wrapped in colourfully corroded steel, with windows milled from sapele wood.
This is the kind of detail you would find on some of Toronto's best contemporary houses – especially those custom windows, which are the specialty of Mr. Bugler's company Radiant City Millwork. It works with top architects such as KPMB on high-profile and high-budget buildings. But this house is on an industrial stretch of Dupont Street, across from a body shop and next to an alley. It's also just a few steps from Radiant City's workshop. Welcome to Steve's world. "I work seven days a week," Mr. Bugler says. "Now I don't have any excuse for being late any more."
The house's architect, Michael LaFreniere, knows him and his hard-working ways well. So in designing the building for Mr. Bugler and his wife, Valentina Nedelcu, Mr. LaFreniere created a home that also reflects his craft. "The plan was to make something simple and iconic," he says, "and to showcase some of the things Steve can do."
The result is about 1,200 square feet of tightly planned space full of beautifully made woodwork. It's all made by Radiant City, from the white oak floors to the walnut cabinetry that lines each room. On the main level, woodwork covers one entire wall, concealing ducts and structural columns right next to a slim wine rack, media storage and even the house's side door.
Clearly, the home is tailored for the needs of the couple. "We describe it as a small big house," Mr. Bugler says. "There aren't many rooms, but they're all a good size. A good kitchen and living room, and upstairs, two big bedrooms and a bathroom. And that's it."
Mr. Bugler and Ms. Nedelcu made deeply knowledgeable clients for Mr. LaFreniere, whose office Setless Studio was just launching when they began working together in 2008. For starters, Mr. Bugler went to architecture school, and Ms. Nedelcu is an engineer; then, of course, Mr. Bugler works closely with some of the most decorated architects in the country. That's how he met Mr. LaFreniere, while he was on staff at Hariri Pontarini Architects. Mr. Bugler and Ms. Nedelcu decided to bet on the designer. "Mike is young, and he has lots of creative ideas, but he's also very practical," Mr. Bugler says. "That's rare. With a lot of architects you get a lot of charisma, but they're not serving the client or the budget. Mike has it all."
The two men seem to think alike, and despite their records of producing rarefied work, they both talk about buildings with an unpretentious, nuts-and-bolts language. "Part of that is just that I grew up with buildings – my father was a contractor for a while, and my grandfather was a house builder," Mr. LaFreniere says. "So when Steve and I talk about where a beam is going to go, I can debate it out with him."
Which was handy, because Mr. Bugler and his crew of half a dozen built almost the entire house. (They brought in tradespeople for the electrical and the heating/air conditioning systems.) Mr. Bugler bought the property from an Eastern European metalworker, who went by "Nichol" and who collaborated with Mr. Bugler for years. He tore down the old cottage on the site, but kept the shop intact for his use; and he worked there to fashion the new house's exterior panels out of Cor-Ten steel. "A lot of the house was fabricated right here, in the back," he says.
Mr. Bugler is just as comfortable debating the house's architectural moves. "The most important thing Mike suggested was putting the entry at the side and having a transverse stair," he says with an architect's jargon-y ease. "That way you don't lose all that space to circulation" – hallways and walking space – "like you do in a typical narrow Toronto house." He has pinned down the house's most unusual quality, which makes its spaces work very well. As you walk up to the front of the house, you cross a limestone patio to a windowed wall of the kitchen. This is not the main entry, although there's a sliding door here; rather, the principal entrance is down an alley at the side of the building.
You enter there, at the middle of the first floor, and walk straight across to the stairs. Look forward, and you see a window and skylight in front of you, opening a shaft of light at the middle of the house. And the passageway where you are standing divides the kitchen at the front from the living room, a large sunken space at the back, which looks out on the wall of the metalwork shop. Every square foot and every bit of light is well used. It's a simple solution to a classic Toronto problem.
In other respects, though, this place is very unusual. Few people would choose to build a new home on a busy block like this, especially with all the traffic and the light industrial neighbours. Mr. LaFreniere's design buffers the house with the front courtyard, which is screened surprisingly well by small pine trees. And along the alley side is that wall of raw Cor-Ten. This steel, which has already rusted to its characteristic orange colour, is a favourite tool of many thoughtful architects. Mr. Bugler knows that very well, but he makes a simpler case for it: "It's quite a cost-effective material, and it's a tough material. It fits in the alley," he says.
And rusty though it is, it's still pristine: "Nobody has graffiti'd it yet," Mr. Bugler says, obviously pleased. "That was a big concern for us, and I figured we could just power wash it if we need to. But maybe the kids don't want to waste their paint on such a rusty old building – or maybe the kids respect it."