On a balcony high above Church and Adelaide streets, two roommates – one starting a career as a real estate developer, the other studying to be an architect – would cradle glasses of scotch and gaze at the city below.
"We'd dream about building big things," says Craig Race, now an intern architect at Sustainable.TO. "Our entire friendship is based on a mutual admiration for Toronto's buildings and a desire to contribute to the city."
They'd dream about small things, too, says Alex Sharpe, now a principal at Spire Commercial Realty and co-founder of IQ Office Suites at the recently restored Dineen Building: "We'd talk about how awesome laneway houses were and how much we wanted the opportunity to do a project."
Fast-forward a few years and the "power of intention," says Mr. Sharpe, has resulted in a striking laneway house in Toronto's east end that he and his fiancée, Lia, have occupied since April. Mr. Race, the designer, has transformed an illegal, one-storey apartment (a converted garage) into a fully legal, classically proportioned (Mr. Race studied in Italy), two-storey stunner with a distinctive "fin" that bisects its length.
Not that Mr. Sharpe knew anything was amiss when he purchased the old cinder block building – and the traditional home that came with it – in November, 2011.
All he knew was the triplex, situated on a busy street, would continue to generate money as he built his dream home in the backyard.
He'd fallen in love with the unusual lot, too: a long private driveway led to the front door of the garage-cum-apartment, plus a doorway from the alley opened to a tight little
passageway to get to its side door.
Interestingly, a jog in the quiet residential street on the other side of the alley meant the ugly building didn't face backyards, as laneway houses usually do, but rather a row of tidy front porches.
That Mr. Race's sleek design would improve the view from those front porches helped win approval from the city's Committee of Adjustment (when combined with detailed shadow-studies prepared with help from Mr. Race's boss, sustainability guru Paul Dowsett, who didn't mind that his employee was moonlighting).
Ironically, it also helped that the building had already been illegally occupied: "It's completely counterintuitive but, basically, if you go and buy things that are totally illegal you get grandfather status," says Mr. Sharpe.
"If you go and try and do it right and in conformity with the building code, [the city] says forget it."
Once the city gets an eyeful of how things turned out, that may change.
On the 1,200-sq.-ft. main floor, Mr. Race has carried the fin inside, where it becomes a feature-wall that separates public from private space. Rather than running parallel to the main walls, this wall is placed at a slight angle.
So, while it narrows the area devoted to Mr. Sharpe's home office at front of the house, it also helps position a window with a perfect view to the main street; at the back of the house, the wider guest bedroom has a view that aligns with the quieter residential street.
"It helps the building fit into its context better," explains Mr. Race.
For further drama, the simple cedar deck boards that clad the feature-wall have been charred using a Japanese method known as shou-sugi-ban. This labour-intensive process of burning the wood, dousing it, drying it, and then applying a coat of oil renders it practically maintenance-free while adding resistance to fire and rot.
On top of the already thick concrete slab, a new concrete floor with a radiant heating system was poured; even when not switched on, sunlight entering the home's big windows warms the polished floor.
Near the kitchen area, a window was punched into the existing cinderblock wall (two and a half original walls have been retained) and a previously sealed door has been reopened to access a narrow walkway to the alley.
"This was a huge feature for me," Mr. Sharpe enthuses. "At night it's lit up very nicely and it's quite inviting after coming down a gritty, urban scape." Mr. Race adds:
"We wanted to remind people inside the house that they're in a laneway house, so we were really careful about where we placed windows so you'd get views of alleyways and sky; because the building is massed the way it is, you get great views in every direction but you're not looking into anyone's house."
To keep with the home's industrial vibe, Mr. Sharpe commissioned Zac Ridgely to create a strikingly minimalist staircase using an I-beam. At the top of the stairs, a sculpture of welded Indian cricket chairs basks in natural light from a skylight that doubles as a heat chimney. A cozy master bedroom with a generous walk-in closet and a big master bath complete the 600-sq.-ft. second floor.
Mr. Race and Mr. Sharpe have gotten their wish: Although small and tucked away, this home is a big contribution to the city fabric.
It demonstrates that challenging sites beget thoughtful designs. It shows, eloquently, that laneway houses can add to a streetscape rather than detract.
And, most importantly, it adds fuel to the fire already burning at city hall that will, hopefully, relax restrictive laws to make laneway living a real possibility for the rest of us.