Looking East

You can’t help but hear the faint trace of an Asian accent in Paul Raff’s serene update to Echo House, a mid-century modern home in Toronto’s Bridle Path. With its spare, clean lines, quietly attractive materials such as limestone and slatted wood, and its wide windows over the landscape, it has a meditative, settled quality that feels distinctly Eastern.

Much of Raff’s work reveals a sensibility that orients itself figuratively towards the East, particularly in ideas about the relationship between architecture and the natural world. And in the case of this house, which fronts onto an expansive ravine garden, opening the interior up visually to nature was the guiding aesthetic of the design.

A graduate of the University of Waterloo, Raff has travelled extensively throughout his life, particularly in the East, and interned and worked in Hong Kong as well as New York City and Barcelona before launching his practice about a decade ago. He has also become a champion for sustainable architecture, and lectures regularly on the subject at several universities. “Larger buildings are like larger animals, in that they have smaller volume ratios, so they are inherently energy-efficient,” he says. “But that’s not necessarily what is happening today. Nearly 40 per cent of energy use is devoted to buildings and architecture, larger than the entire transportation sector. It’s fair to say that the attention being paid to sustainability issues continues to increase dramatically, but it’s not enough.”

In fact, Raff’s focus on energy efficiency in his work was one of the factors that attracted the owners of Echo House to him. Originally built in the Fifties, the house had started as a comparatively modest ranch bungalow that had been added to several times over the years, most recently in the 1980s. Over time it had become a hodge-podge of rooms and walls and corridors, and the whole thing was incredibly energy-intensive to operate.

“It was stark and white, with a series of what can only be called ‘stupid’ features,” he laughs. “In the front, there were a pair of boldly curved accent walls of glass block, and at the top of the house, there were slanted clerestory windows that let in direct light in midsummer (adding to the heat in the interior), and obscured the light in winter. And there was no view through them, of course.”

But the home’s greatest asset was nearly hidden beyond its leaky rear windows. “The landscape it sits on is beautiful! An amazing collection of mature trees, lawn and sky. Yet the house separated people almost completely from this beautiful setting, in every way: in terms of light, the view, the way sunlight fell inside the house…even the access to the garden was not fluid.”

Raff and his team kept the best features of the existing house: its wide, low profile and the idea of windows along the back. But in every respect, the entire envelope was essentially rebuilt, with much broader window walls that slide open to a full 42 feet, the entire width of the house. Insulation and mechanicals were completely upgraded, ultimately cutting the home’s energy footprint by over 50 per cent. But the most interesting transformation was to relate the entire interior to the view, making a sense of the landscape a feature almost anywhere in the house you happen to settle.

At the front, the strange and rather unwelcoming glass block curves were replaced by a series of woven pivoting wood screens that, through a clever trick of the slats, afford privacy from without and a screened view from within. The repeating pattern of the screens enhances the low-slung, calm feeling, like a visual chant.

From there, the house opens out to a wide, open main space, dominated at the rear and through upper mezzanine windows by a vista of woods and sky. What few architectural embellishments there are in this room are exquisitely simple: a rectangular opening for fireplace and log storage in a white wall; polished walnut floors; simple black steel window frames.

Peripheral spaces in the home are a bit more elaborate, but only by comparison, and illustrate the Asian theme a little more literally. Some spaces are loosely separated not by doors, but by delicately scrolled wrought-iron screens (allowing sunlight and views to flow through them). And a wing that houses a photography studio and art space is clad in wood blocks fastened with black-finished metal hardware. “It emulates antique Korean furniture, which features very refined joinery similar to this. I think of it like very fine stitchery on a couture dress, and it adds a traditional reference in this very spare, modern design.”

From its quiet, horizontally oriented front façade, to the delicate tracery of the interior screens, to the constant presence of the landscape beyond the enclosure of the home, there’s a contemplative quality to Echo House that’s very affecting.

“You feel like it serves all the senses: not just vision but, if you open the back, the sound of birds, the scent of the woods, the feel of breezes,” says Raff. “There’s a real feeling of serenity here that’s greatly uplifting.”

Photography by Ben Rahn/A-Frame and Steve Tsai