In & out in Toronto

There’s only one thing to do when you’ve got a double-wide lot and an uncomfortable, rundown house with zero insulation and severe sewage problems: flatten and reconfigure. Christina and Simon, married mid-30s professionals, knew that they and the children they planned to raise deserved something better, and they could afford to do something about it. The couple asked Nelson Kwong, principal at Toronto’s nkArchitect, to step in. Kwong, a close personal friend with a shared taste for modernity, obliged by razing the decrepit 1920s structure and filling in the Beach neighbourhood twin lot with a 3,000-square-foot home featuring every client wish-list item, from a media room and two-car garage to his-and-her closets.  

But this wasn’t just a case of conventional, cut-and-paste design: front yard, big house, big garage and back yard. Kwong saw the site’s east-west orientation as an opportunity to engage in passive building strategies for the home’s natural heating, cooling and lighting systems. It also gave him his key inspiration: carving away a portion of the traditional block-house plan to create an outdoor living space that melds seamlessly into the interior. The south-side terrace, in fact, became the pivot around which the whole house was planned. 

“Once we settled on the side terrace,” Kwong says, “the functions fell into place. We established an L-shaped plan that sheltered the terrace in the wintertime by having the house itself act as a windbreak, and a cantilevered second floor that shaded it in the summertime.”

Southern exposure means sunlight streams in through the main floor’s facing floor-to-ceiling glass doors, illuminating a great deal of the living space. The huge, 10-by-7-foot sliders framed in Douglas fir are set in their own L-shape, with the corner pointing inward rather than out, so that when the doors get thrown open in clement weather, the exterior cedar-plank terrace and interior kitchen and living room form a single, integrated unit. Even when closed, the glass wall appears to be no wall at all, and the effect remains.   

Such transparency, which carries through to the open staircase and motor-operated windows rising a full two storeys on the west side – overlooking a pool and hot tub – offers not only fresh air and kitchen ventilation during much of the year, but also almost unimpeded sightlines. This is important for Simon and Christina, because in the three years since the house was commissioned and a year-plus after moving back in, as planned, they now have a small family, consisting of 2½-year-old Jackson and 2½-month-old Joshua. “I love the openness,” Christina says. “There are so many different spaces on one floor but I can still keep an eye on the kids.”

One of those different spaces is a dining room, tucked behind the kitchen and up a short staircase on the north end. Here, the main floor’s 12-foot ceilings descend to a more intimate nine-foot height. LED artwork spots and twin white-glazed glass fixtures from Artemide assist the natural light from the back glass door that leads to an eight-foot-long cedar balcony

Upstairs, in the hallway dividing the kids’ bedrooms and bathroom, laundry, den and guest bathroom, an elongated light well/air shaft looks directly down on the kitchen’s twin-trough sink-counter. Instead of a typical skylight slicing the roof above, however, Kwong employed south-facing vertical glazing that allows for indirect natural light to filter softly downward and also permits overwarm air to drift upward and outward.

Like the downstairs area, the second-floor master bedroom is artfully designed around a pivot point – in this case, the central wall partially dividing the sleeping area from the bath-soaking area. Flaunting overhead flat TV screens on either side, the wall’s main focus is a punch-through, glassed-in gas fireplace at bed and bath eye level, which forms a centrepiece for the entire space and incidentally looks breathtaking when backlit. 

“In the master suite, we were conscious of taking the same approach of open seamlessness,” says Kwong, referring to himself and his associate Neal Prabhu. “The bedroom, bathroom and double closets rotate around the fireplace in a circuit, so the space actually feels like a suite, not three different elements.”

Discretion or modesty prevents him from adding it’s a highly romantic setting: so much so that in a few years’ time, even this large house may require a new addition.  cI