Although it looks like the most delicate little dollhouse – thin foam board walls held together by tiny pushpins with bushes of crumpled tissue paper at their base – it can withstand being yanked apart, flipped over and fiddled with.
“I feel like there’s no other way, really, to get a sense of what something is going to be like,” says architect Kyra Clarkson as she pulls off a wall to reveal tiny rooms and tiny access to a green roof. “So do we do a ship’s ladder, and are we going to tuck the laundry in behind here?
“So, anyway, we play around,” she continues, her preference for time-consuming, physical models over flat computer ones now abundantly clear, “and then the kids, they can play Star Wars Lego in them after,” she laughs.
We’re examining a miniature representation of the third home her development company, Modernest, built a few years ago near Trinity Bellwoods Park – notable not only for its big windows but for the long thin one over the kitchen sink in place of a backsplash – while standing in the life-sized fourth one on Brunswick Avenue, which she and husband/business partner Christopher Glaisek snatched up for themselves rather than place on the open market.
It’s not that they didn’t want to provide the city with another of their swarthy spec homes; in fact, after a break-even sale price for Leslieville’s House 1 in 2012, they’d managed to make enough profit on the next two that they were confident their “better-than-a-developer, cheaper-than-fully-custom” hybrid model would work. It’s just that as House 4 was nearing completion, Ms. Clarkson was having a hard time letting go of the prime location; not only do her two young boys attend school a stone’s throw away (thereby saving all of that ferrying time), being able to walk to the cornucopia on offer in the Annex was attractive.
It wouldn’t hurt living in a calling card of one’s own creation, either.
And what a calling card! Standing no taller than its red brick, Victorian neighbour, House 4 is dressed in black-stained pine siding that switches to unstained Douglas fir wherever there’s a window or door – just like its three predecessors. “They’re conceived as black prisms,” Ms. Clarkson explains, “where we carved away a natural underbelly.” This is more pronounced at the rear, where a second-floor bedroom cantilevers to create a sheltered, woodsy seating area underneath.
Inside, it’s an interesting mix of standard items, such as drywall, Ikea-hacked closets and forced-air heating, combined with upgrades such as floor-to-ceiling doors, massive windows, tall custom kitchen cabinets and a glass-enclosed stair originally conceived as a House 1 space-saver, since that one measured just shy of 15-feet across (for comparison, House 4 is 19 feet).
And because there is so much light – photons rain down from a long skylight crowning the top of the stairwell as well – and a complete lack of bulkheads, the 9-foot, 6-inch ceilings feel more like 11-feet or 12-feet. To get a proper ceiling height into the basement, the first floor was raised a few feet above the street; this also meant contractor Collaborative Ventures, Inc. didn’t have to dig deeper than the original foundation.
The third-floor master suite has been “pinched” on both sides so that, from the street, the home’s visual impact has been decreased and, at the rear, the couple enjoys a deck with a sweeping view of the downtown towers.
Because the home was designed for an unknown buyer originally, the basement level, which currently houses Ms. Clarkson’s architecture practice and a playroom for the boys, is fully roughed-in and ready to become a separate apartment in future.
Like its dollhouse version, Modernest House 4 is a wonderfully tactile, sturdy and practical home that masquerades as more expensive and twee due to the talented hands of its designers. And this quality, the couple hopes, will appeal to homebuyers who want to avoid the myriad decisions that come with commissioning a fully-custom Modern dwelling.
That’s why despite the extra work – the American-born Mr. Glaisek is vice-president of planning at Waterfront Toronto and Ms. Clarkson and her two staff members design all sorts of things for private clients at Kyra Clarkson Architect – Modernest is currently searching for a lot for House 5. It’s also because owning “a little business building single-family, downtown houses,” has been the couple’s dream since living and working in Brooklyn more than a decade ago; even then, however, New York real estate was too expensive to turn a profit.
And while that’s quickly becoming the case here, Modernest thrives on sites that cause other developers to run screaming back to the wide, uncomplicated lots of suburbia: “The ones that are 42 feet deep and 23 feet wide, and attached to another house,” Ms. Clarkson, says with a laugh, “because we’ve done that now two times.”
Which also means Modernest has become an expert at “de-semifying” houses: tearing down one half of a pair of semi-detached homes in order to build a new one, but also reinforcing, waterproofing, insulating and fireproofing the remaining half in order to create two fully detached structures.
It’s this unorthodox approach, increased risk-taking, honest design philosophy and sensitivity to neighbourhood context that has resulted in a waiting list at Modernest. Not surprising in a city full of developers who choose off-the-shelf decoration, fake columns and Styrofoam pediments fit for a child’s toy.
If you live on the 40th floor or higher of a Toronto high-rise and would like to help The Architourist with a fun upcoming column, please email him at firstname.lastname@example.org