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New Toronto home aims at the infill ideal

While prices for detached homes in Toronto's working-class Victorian and Edwardian neighbourhoods continue to climb toward (and exceed) the million-dollar mark, many of the much-desired houses themselves are past their structural prime, and nearing the ends of their natural lifespans.

Renovation can add years to the useful career of an old house. But all elderly dwellings can't be effectively or economically overhauled. And even after extensive surgery, a lot of them are still too small for the relaxed lifestyles of singles and families nowadays. For at least some of these home buyers – especially those allergic to suburbia and committed to living in single-family digs on shady old streets not far from the downtown towers – the best solution may involve a tear-down and the raising of fresh, modern infill housing on the site.

In the belief that more and more house-hunting Torontonians will be resorting to this strategy, architects Kyra Clarkson and Christopher Glaisek, partners in life and art since their graduate-school days at Yale, have fashioned a new infill house near the intersection of Coxwell Avenue and Dundas Street East that they hope will be the first in a series of similar dwellings. (For the record, Mr. Glaisek is vice-president of planning and design at Waterfront Toronto, the public agency overseeing the development of the city's harbourside brownfields.)

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Called MODERNest House 1, and now on the market priced at $699,000, the detached two-storey building stands alongside a street lined with century-old cottages and bungalows, none of which it faintly resembles. Ms. Clarkson and Mr. Glaisek could have opted, of course, to give their project a pseudo-historical face of some kind – a bad architectural move, in my view. Instead, they have let their work, inside and outside, appear to be exactly what it is: a very plain, efficient house that is purely and simply modernist.

So far, so good. But because this residence is meant to be a pilot project for a line of modernist downtown homes, it's worth asking what, if anything, MODERNest is adding to the conversation about modern living.

The basic interior layout, for instance, is entirely routine, and not very different from the result you'd get after most any modernizing renovation. (With one exception: There is a single washroom on the bedroom level for everyone, and none on the ground floor. Individual bathrooms, powder rooms at entrances and such have proliferated in houses built recently, and it's unusual to find a new family residence with just one where everybody sleeps.)

The open-plan main level features a dining area near the front window, a kitchen in the middle, and a living-room zone at the rear, overlooking the ample back garden and the foot of an enormous ash tree. The three bedrooms are on the second level, up the glass-sided, open-tread staircase.

But if this general scheme is completely familiar, the refinements Ms. Clarkson and Mr. Glaisek have introduced into their design go part of the way – though not the whole distance – toward rescuing MODERNest from being just another humdrum modernist house.

Take, for example, the attention paid to making sure most of the interior is brightened by natural light. A wide window at the front of the main floor opens toward the parking pad and the street beyond. The living-room area is bountifully lit by nine-foot glass doors that give on to a deck running the nearly 15-foot width of the house. At the top of the staircase, in the middle of the upper storey, is a fine skylight that spares the bedroom corridor from gloom. All these moves are good.

But then there's the middle bedroom, almost as dark as any similar place in a Victorian Gothic semi, despite a little notch-like opening that, in fact, admits so little light one wonders why the window is there at all. It's always hard to get natural light into a room at the centre of a house, of course, but trying to solve this old problem here would have been worth the architects' effort. By not tackling it, the designers have simply reproduced, in a modernist idiom, a bothersome condition common in conventional Toronto houses that are, like this one, packed tightly within the city's residential fabric.

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In launching this initiative, Ms. Clarkson and Mr. Glaisek are responding to what they believe to be a real phenomenon in the local real-estate market: the desire of home buyers to move into well-designed detached downtown houses that don't require massive, expensive renovation. Future dwellings in the MODERNest series may go beyond the ordinary. This one doesn't.

Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version quoted the architect's estimate of what the home would eventually list for. They have since settled on a listing price. This online version has been updated.

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John More

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