Canadian Architect

Feature

MODERNest Houses 1-4: Feathered Nests

A boutique architect-developer has carved out a niche in building design-led, modern-styled homes on irregularly shaped Toronto infill sites.

April 20, 2016
by Gabriel Fain

MODERNest homes are clad with alternating horizontal and vertical pine panels, here adapted to House 3’s street elevation.

MODERNest homes are clad with alternating horizontal and vertical pine panels, here adapted to House 3’s street elevation.

PROJECT MODERNest Houses 1-4, Toronto, Ontario

ARCHITECT Kyra Clarkson Architect

TEXT Gabriel Fain

PHOTOS Steven Evans Photography, unless otherwise noted

Over the past decade, Toronto has experienced an incredible housing boom fuelled by millennials investing in the downtown real estate market. As condo units become smaller and home renovations too complicated, an increasing number of young families with financial means have opted for new builds on infill sites located in well-established neighbourhoods.

A vocabulary of repeatable elements was established in House 1, including open-riser stairs flanked by a glass wall.

A vocabulary of repeatable elements was established in House 1, including open-riser stairs flanked by a glass wall.

Situating itself within this context is the company MODERNest—led by architect Kyra Clarkson with the support of her partner, planner Christopher Glaisek. Clarkson and Glaisek have so far built four exceptionally crafted houses. Moreover, they’ve also explored the potential for a new type of architectural practice and development model, and pushed the boundaries of the typical Toronto house.

Like all of the houses in the MODERNest series, House 4 includes a skylight over the main stair.

Like all of the houses in the MODERNest series, House 4 includes a skylight over the main stair.

MODERNest is unusual in Toronto in that it’s a hybrid between a development and architecture firm. Clarkson started the company after noticing the limited choices in the market for contemporary homes. The idea, she says, is to provide completed houses for buyers “without the time, budget or inclination to commission a custom-designed home.” MODERNest eliminates what is often considered the stressful process of purchasing and financing a property, hiring an architect and contractor, and negotiating with the building and planning departments. 

A secret garden was carved out in the rear of House 2’s awkwardly shaped site.

A secret garden was carved out in the rear of House 2’s awkwardly shaped site.

Rather than simply working at the service of clients, where much time is often spent debating the smallest design decision, Clarkson and Glaisek offer a final product that is the result of their own careful understanding of infill site conditions. As designers, they can see unexpected potential in difficult sites that other developers have overlooked. Take House 2, located in the King West neighbourhood. It’s squeezed between century-old row houses, such that both the siting and access required careful planning on a narrow, irregularly shaped lot. By taking advantage of the narrow rear access, the design team created an intimate urban garden
between the house and the required parking space.

An unusually wide, short site allowed for a side yard in House 3.

An unusually wide, short site allowed for a side yard in House 3.

Waiting for those diamond-in-the-rough sites to arise can be chancy, so MODERNest has actively sought awkward infill lots in traditional neighbourhoods—even going so far as knocking on doors to find
potential house sellers. House 3, located near Trinity Bellwoods Park on Robinson Street, was developed in exactly this way. Clarkson found a semi-detached house on a wide-yet-shallow lot, and made an offer to purchase it. By negotiating with the attached neighbour, she was able to reconstruct the party wall, and site the house in a manner that both contrasts and complements the existing street fabric. The site offered the additional possibility to create something quite rare in Toronto—a side yard façade, with large openings facing a fenced courtyard.    

Developing, especially at a small scale, is of course not easy. Even though interest rates are relatively low, the high price of land, taxes, development charges and permit fees makes a good return on investment a rare feat. Clarkson and Glaisek took enormous financial risks to complete House 1—a narrow 1,250-square-foot house located in Leslieville—in 2012. Although they did break even, more importantly, they were able to use the project to establish an easily replicable design language, which could be adapted to any given site.

The rear of House 1 features full-height glazing that connects the patio to the living areas.

The rear of House 1 features full-height glazing that connects the patio to the living areas.

With their minimalist yet warm design aesthetic, the four built houses present a stark contrast to the neo-traditional builder-homes that have become all too common in the city, characterized by a collage of incoherent stylistic elements. MODERNest houses demonstrate a clarity and consistency that is the result of serious design thinking, and of working closely with contractor Collaborative Ventures. Each of the four houses is clad in black-stained pine boards oriented in alternating vertical and horizontal patterns. Black aluminum siding is used where limiting distances prohibit the use of wood. The façades are further articulated with areas carved away to form deep entrances, overhangs over decks, and operable windows, all clad in Douglas fir. Simple landscaping features such as grasses and permeable pavers complement the muted exterior palette.

A rooftop patio adjoins the master bedroom of House 4.

A rooftop patio adjoins the master bedroom of House 4.

Clarkson worked for many years with Tod Williams Billie Tsien in New York and later with local luminaries Shim-Sutcliffe, and has carried the lessons of precise detailing into her interior spaces. The open and flexible floor plan of House 4, which currently doubles as Clarkson’s family home and office, synthesizes many of the features of the previous projects. Here, small details make the spaces generally feel light and airy: there are no bulkheads, doors and windows go all the way to the ceiling, skylights bring in light above open-riser stairs, and large sliding doors open to the exterior courtyard.

In House 4, the kitchen is located at the centre of the plan, making it a gathering spot for Clarkson’s young family.

In House 4, the kitchen is located at the centre of the plan, making it a gathering spot for Clarkson’s young family.

The houses have given Clarkson and her team the opportunity to explore the latent potential of the usually unvaried Toronto house typology, characterized by long and narrow plans with circulation at one side and most of the windows at the front and rear. Although the plan layout of their houses is almost a given, the location of key elements, such as the kitchen, can be customized to create varied experiences. In Houses 2 and 3, the kitchen is located at the front so as to connect the inhabitants with street life. In House 4, it’s directly in the centre of the main floor, acting as a focal point for a family with young children. Perhaps most significant is the way each house is able to create a dialogue with the context. Whether it is the strategic framing of the adjacent mid-century homes in House 3 or the sweeping city view from the roof deck of House 4, each house creates a heightened awareness of its place in the inner core.

A custom, modular bookcase system enlivens the second floor of House 2.

A custom, modular bookcase system enlivens the second floor of House 2.

As I toured the houses this spring, I couldn’t help wondering: why aren’t other architects following suit? A simple design formula, combined with design-driven business decisions and excellent craftsmanship, produces great value. Toronto architects have been slow to keep up with the pace of the hyper-inflated housing market, where innovation and design thinking have generally been sidelined in favour of speed and profit. By gaining agency, firms such as MODERNest are able to take an active role in the real-estate market, rather than reacting to it. It will be interesting to see how the MODERNest initiative evolves, and whether a similar approach could be applied to larger scale developments, such as townhouses or even mid-rise buildings. The demand for a modern lifestyle in the heart of the city is certainly not slowing down anytime soon.


Gabriel Fain is an architect working in Toronto.


CLIENT MODERNest Inc. | ARCHITECT TEAM Kyra Clarkson, Christopher Glaisek, Allison Boyes (Houses 2-4), Sheila Mathies (Houses 2-4) | STRUCTURAL Blackwell Engineers | MECHANICAL Fulford Supply | LANDSCAPE Elise Shelley Landscape Architect | INTERIORS Kyra Clarkson Architect | CONTRACTOR Collaborative Ventures Inc. | AREA 1,250 ft2 (House 1); 2,500 ft2 (House 2); 1,500 ft2 (House 3); 2,600 ft2 (House 4) | BUDGET $800,000 (House 1); withheld (Houses 2-4) | COMPLETION Summer 2012 (House 1); Spring 2014 (House 2); Summer 2014 (House 3); Winter 2015 (House 4)