All Lined Up

PROJECT Bala Line House, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Williamson Chong Architects
TEXT Leslie Jen
PHOTOS Bob Gundu

Toronto’s ravine system is legendary, featuring prominently in so many novels and poems by the country’s literary greats–Ondaatje, Atwood and Dewdney, to name but a few. While the ravines hold the promise of shadowy secrets, mysteries and hidden life below, no such darkness exists in this light-filled single-family home located in the established Governor’s Bridge district in midtown Toronto. Sited some 60 feet above a decommissioned rail spur–itself running along the steeply sloping Don Valley ravine–the Bala Line House is a modestly scaled infill on a gently curving crescent lined with homes built between the 1920s and 1940s. The insatiable appetite for real estate in Toronto’s overheated market and the continual reinvention of the city can be seen in the increasing number of renovations and new-builds (of varying degrees of success) in this desirable residential neighbourhood.

The site’s history and rich topography informed Williamson Chong Architects’ design process. Behind the house and downslope, the historic Bala rail line was once active in the early 20th century in an industry-focused Toronto; today, it has morphed into a well-used pedestrian thoroughfare connecting the local ravine pathway system to nearby community attractions such as the much vaunted Evergreen Brick Works. Because of the property’s specific and privileged site condition, the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) imposed strict standards for physical grade preservation to ensure stable soil structure and integrity, and the architects eagerly embraced the opportunity to craft a residence that addresses and enhances the relationship to the particularities of the site.

Designed for a charming couple and their three young energetic daughters, the house, at first glance, appears to be a fairly standard modern infill addition to a traditional streetscape. Closer inspection reveals subtle manipulations that integrate structure with site in a meaningful way. The floor plate of the three-storey home shrinks as one progresses up successive levels, resulting in a terraced form that respects the sloping condition of the site. Consequently, the side elevation boasts a ziggurat profile–the stepping down of volumes reflecting the cascading topography of the ravine beyond. In this way, light and views are maximized, and the provision of exterior decks on each floor encourages further engagement with the outdoors.

Additional geometric manipulations are present in the front elevation, revealing a pleasing textural interplay of materials and a faceted sculpting of the second and third floors. The architects have carved into the façade on an angle, creating a shallow void that provides both western and southern light and orientation. A poured-in-place concrete structure is both an attractive and economically efficient solution; dark stucco and sapele wood form the additional cladding complement. The upper two storeys are cantilevered over the ground floor, which–in addition to the faceted front elevation–creates a compositionally sophisticated form.

The living spaces are compact, and there is nothing superfluous or excessive about the plan. There is not much in the way of an entry foyer; while there is a proper front door, family and visitors prefer to enter–at least during the warmer months–through the generously scaled sliding window wall that leads directly into the dining/kitchen areas. An abundance of glazing on the ground floor in both front and back elevations results in complete transparency, with views from the street right through the house to the lushly forested ravine landscape beyond. The warm and welcoming nature of the clients is underscored by the fact that they’ve not seriously considered the need for window coverings. And their gregarious personalities are illustrated by the cheerful assertion that they very much enjoy the two additional outdoor semi-public living areas of the small front patio and the more generously sized backyard space, both of which the family use abundantly.

On the interior, ceiling heights are kept modest to squeeze three storeys out of the structure while still respecting neighbouring height limitations. However, sectional shifts within reflect once again the sloping condition of the site, and create a dynamic sense of compression and expansion. Entry at grade into the studio-like environment of the kitchen and dining areas gives way to a stair down to the sunken living room at the rear of the house, embedding it into the site and creating a much higher ceiling as a result. An unusual feature emerged from the TRCA’s mandate prohibiting disruption of the existing slope; because the architects could not excavate to permit direct at-grade access to the backyard from the sunken living area, they implemented a sort of reverse Spanish Steps condition. A shallow wide set of stairs flows into the interior space, further defining a sense of snug enclosure while providing substantial informal tiered seating for family and guests, fostering an atmosphere of greater sociability. 

One of the most striking features of the house is the sliding east window wall at the rear of the house, which blurs the distinction between interior and exterior space. This absence of boundary is further enhanced by the wraparound condition at the corner, where the north wall of glass also pulls away, creating a completely eroded corner that captures even more expansive views of landscape and sky. On the day of my visit, the children were running and jumping between the backyard and living room, moving effortlessly in and out of the two spaces as if they were one.

Two bedrooms and a generously sized bathroom are located on the second floor to accommodate the children, while the master bedroom and ensuite occupy the entire third floor. Ample operable glazing and access to two roof decks provide additional engagement with natural light and air. And it is in the passage up and down and around the stair to these upper floors that one can fully appreciate the manipulations in the front elevation; the carved inverted bay window offers a surprise slice of southern sun and a view down the street.

With such a degree of porosity designed into the house and the consequent opportunities for cross-ventilation and a constant supply of fresh air, there is no central air-conditioning system, a bold move given the oppressive heat and humidity characterizing summers in Southern Ontario. Significant savings were achieved in this manner–which, in addition to the efficient design and relatively humble building materials, means that the house was built on a surprisingly modest budget. 

It is a rare thing indeed to establish such an ideologically harmonious relationship between architect and client, and here, the rewards of such are evident. While the house is modest, Williamson Chong’s perfectly tailored design enabled the family to stay in the neighbourhood they so love and were loathe to leave. In exchange, the enlightened attitudes and easygoing nature of the clients made it possible for the architects to continue their ongoing design investigations and to further develop their significant award-winning residential portfolio. CA

Client Withheld | Architect Team Donald Chong, Chris Routley, Shane Williamson, Betsy Williamson | Structural Blackwell | Construction Management Derek Nicholson Incorporated | Millwork BL Woodworking | Custom Wood Windows and Siding Fusil | Area 2,400 ft2 | Budget Withheld | Completion May 2014