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A generation ago, U.S. architect Steven Holl (not yet the celebrated designer he would later become) compiled a handy field guide to North American building types. He had every city on this continent from which to pick examples of the structures people live, play and work in. But when it came to illustrating what he calls the "double house," Mr. Holl decided to feature specimens of the type from only one place: Toronto.

It's not hard to figure out why he did so. Living in two-family dwellings is a tradition with especially deep roots here. Indeed, no residential form is more abundant in Hogtown's old blue-collar and middle-class neighbourhoods. Enormously popular with local developers and builders from the Victorian era through the 1930s, semi-detached houses were cast in every style that enjoyed a moment in the sun. Architectural scouts, rambling along Toronto's prewar streets, can find Second Empire double-ups; steeply gabled Gothic semis, plump and be-columned Edwardian duals; neat Art Deco boxes joined at the hip.

Not all double houses in the downtown area are so chic, of course. But the vogue for putting down roots in the T.O. core – now some 40 years along, and showing no signs of slackening – has made even the frumpiest doubles desirable. As a result, many a homeowner has ended up in a semi-detached house with great urban location but a homely exterior and not-so-great interior layout.

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If you're not inclined just to gut the place and slap up some white paint on the inside – surely the least interesting solution to the problem – what can be done to turn an unpromising semi into a home you can be proud of?

This was the question that recently faced a Toronto professional pair – he's a doctor, she's a lawyer – after they bought half a dowdy double house in northern Deer Park for $550,000, only to discover it would cost at least $300,000 to make the 1,600-square-foot residence livable.

Mere livability, however, wasn't good enough for the couple. They wanted a beautiful, ample home in which to start and raise a family, a refuge to come back to at the end of their busy days at hospital and office. And they wanted to enjoy these things, not in some far-flung Toronto suburb, but in Deer Park, near the heart of the city.

So they decided to tear down the semi, and put up something entirely new. Designed by Rudy Bortolamiol, the handsome, 2,400-square-foot result, which cost the couple another $550,000 to construct, plays the old tune of the semi-detached house in a modern key.

The exterior styling has a contemporary air, but the house's three-storey front introduces little discord into the staid, conventional visual music of the surrounding Edwardian streetscape. The dark brown stucco and wheat-coloured brick match the colours and materials to be found elsewhere in the vicinity, and the sloping roof and projecting attic do not really interrupt the rhythm of rooflines and dormers along the street.

Even external features that seem, at first glance, to be quite up-to-date can turn out to be more traditional than they look. The square, wood-framed window at the front of the main level, for example, is certainly much wider and taller than anything a local builder a hundred years ago would have allowed. Yet it's still just another typical bay window overlooking the front yard and sidewalk, inserted into this new house's street side façade exactly where you will find a bay window in any Toronto semi from yesteryear.

Inside, Mr. Bortolamiol's architectural moves are bolder, while remaining respectful of the intimacy and ordinariness that are among the attractive features of the double-house form. The designer has carved out a large void at the centre of the three-bedroom structure, opening up the ground floor to light falling from above. But despite the broadness of this light-well and the height of the ceiling over the engineered-wood floors at this point – more than 17 feet – the open-plan space at the bottom feels hospitable, inviting.

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This effect is due, at least in part, to the small, carefully thought-out scale of the appointments – a scale that is appropriate to a semi-detached house. The travertine fireplace in the stepped-down living room area, for instance, is the right size, neither massive nor trivial. The marble wall near the dining table, similarly, is just formal and elegant enough; any larger, and it might become overbearing. Also, the dropped ceiling over the kitchen and dining area slightly compresses these spaces, lending them an atmosphere of comfortable containment.

Mr. Bortolamiol's engaging modernist interpretation of the semi-detached house reminds us that the creative possibilities of this elderly Toronto building type have not been exhausted – not by a long shot.

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John More

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