Lisa Rapoport was listening to her clients' list of desires, but she was more focused on what she could see out the window.
"How do we bring that kind of view further into the house?" the architect wondered as she gazed out at a veritable woodland while taking in the homeowners' plans to move the powder room, organize the kid stuff and expand the kitchen.
Ms. Rapoport, a principal at Toronto-based Plant Architect Inc., says she and her team had their own ideas during that first planning meeting.
"We had an agenda," she admits, "because there's this amazing ravine."
For homeowners Laura Trachuk and Martin Katz, the renovation of their three-storey house in midtown Toronto required that they endure eight months of disruption and tough decisions.
All of the competing visions came together in the end, however: The modern, family friendly house snagged a gold award for residential interior design from the Design Exchange in 2007. The project included revamping the interior and adding lots of built-in cabinets and trim. The architects raised the third-floor dormer roof and dramatically remade the rear facade.
The defining feature for Plant Architect was the shallow ravine to the north. None of the existing rooms in the house, which was built some time between 1913 and 1920, took advantage of the stunning views, Ms. Rapoport says.
She decided to rearrange the main floor to create a continuous flow of entertainment space with the ravine as a backdrop.
She had the side windows frosted to ensure the view stays focused on the ravine. On the second floor, the windows were reconfigured to take advantage of the view and harmonize the facade. On the third floor, the team raised the sloped roof at the rear to create a panoramic window for the new master bedroom and ensuite bathroom.
Throughout the house, elements such as panels of frosted glass, open slots in the walls, a metal mesh curtain and layered colours were used.
These elements keep some definition between rooms in the open space.
Ms. Rapoport asked the homeowners to come up with a menu of all of the things they had hated about their house during nine years of living there. The couple asked for a space polished enough for entertaining on Saturday night and still comfortable for hanging out with the kids over breakfast.
"We identified all of these problems and Lisa came up with the solutions," says Mr. Katz, the president and founder of Prospero Pictures, a Toronto-based film production and finance company.
One problem was the location of the main-floor powder room, which limited the size of the kitchen to a very small galley space.
"You'd almost say it was efficient but it wasn't because it wasn't planned that well," Ms. Rapoport explains.
The architects considered enlarging a small addition at the back, but instead they decided that the clients' needs could be accommodated within the existing walls.
"Lisa had the brilliant idea of building up," says Ms. Trachuk, a lawyer who works in dispute resolution.
Opening up the third floor, Ms. Rapoport suggested, would also make the bedroom more appealing and allow more space for a lavish ensuite bathroom.
Plant Architect's ideas made sense during the conceptual stage, the couple says, but during construction problems inevitably surfaced. The house is located on landfill put in place decades ago to make building possible on the escarpment that slopes up toward St. Clair Avenue. Over the years, the land has settled unevenly.
"The house is very, very crooked - phenomenally crooked," Ms. Rapoport says.
She worked with contractor Allan Guacci of Guacci Ltd. and carpenter Dave Edwards of Edwards and Wilson Cabinetmakers for the millwork.
Adding a window in the kitchen at the side of the house turned into a massive job because of the difficulty of working an the narrow space between two houses. Similarly, lengthening the window in the dining room was tricky because of the wonky brick walls.
"It all seemed like lots of trouble for small adjustments, but in the end it made a huge difference," Mr. Katz says.
The homeowners and the architects also debated whether to use frosted opaque glass in the windows along the side. An existing window looked out at the brick wall of the neighbouring house.
"It had this urban, industrial look and we talked about whether it was interesting or not," Ms. Trachuk says. "The truth is, the brick is really uninteresting."
The couple also kept budgeting in mind: They decided to maintain the original staircase to the second floor, for example, in order to save money.
"We could have gutted the house and spent twice as much," says Ms. Rapoport.
Creating a separation between the kitchen and dining room was also a challenge. Ms. Rapoport decided on an expansive island around which guests can mingle while the homeowners cook.
"Once we've finished that kind of casual entertaining, we want to leave it behind," Ms. Trachuk adds. The solution was a mesh curtain that slides between the kitchen and dining room. At night, the metal turns opaque under the lights.
"The curtain is a great innovation because it acts sort of like a theatre scrim," Mr. Katz says.
Ms. Trachuk adds that the tradesmen working on the house were fascinated by the curtain. Many, she says, were jotting down notes.
"People went crazy over it. You'll be seeing it all over the place," she jokes.
The island is often a staging area for elegant dinners. "We've had dinner for 20 people and we've never run out of room to plate," Mr. Katz says.
The family also loves the heated floors that have been installed throughout. One result of that is the breakfast nook in the rear, once the coldest area in the house, has been transformed into the warmest, making it particularly inviting.
"I used to cringe when I thought about making coffee in the morning because the floor was so cold," Mr. Katz says.
There's also the pastoral view, which provides a great sense of serenity, the homeowners say. The couple spends time at their cottage in the summer, so they let the garden run untended for the most part. Many of the yards at the back ramble along with vines and bushes instead of fences.
"There's a decades-long tradition of co-operative gardening," says Mr. Katz.
Meanwhile, the problematic powder room has been relocated near a front door and the vestibule is warm and inviting with heated tile floors, an open coat rack and funky shelves for mittens and sports bags.
Upstairs, the new expanse of glass on the third floor replaces a dormer and a pokey window.
"It has this great airy sense, whereas before it was quite attic-like," Mr. Katz says.
"In the summer, we can open all of the windows and it is like being in a tree house," adds Ms. Trachuk.
And in the winter, the couple can look out to the glittering lights of the city.
Mr. Katz says one of the most interesting aspects of the completed renovation is that friends and family find it so consistent with the couple's taste.
They credit Ms. Rapoport and colleague Lisa Moffatt for successfully dealing with the issues of the existing house while creating a space that looks modern and composed.
"We're really interested in spaces that have a lot of complexity - like the idea that you have a lot of art and the art's going to change," Ms. Rapoport says. "They could be in Cannes and see something they like."
The modern sensibility of the house comes from creating a visual informality, she adds. And, because there are no straight lines in the old structure, they don't try to create them.
"It's interesting for us to work with a house that's old," the architect says. "That's part of the palette."