July 1, 2007
by Canadian Architect
PROJECT HUNTER RESIDENCE, TORONTO, ONTARIO
ARCHITECT TED WATSON
TEXT LESLIE JEN
PHOTOS ANDREW FILARSKI
For most people undertaking a home renovation, one obvious target is the kitchen, often the symbolic hearth of the home and a showcase for the latest and greatest in culinary mod cons. The Hunter Residence is no exception, or at least it wasn’t when the project first started.
Impressed with the recent renovation that their architect friend Ted Watson completed on his own home a few short blocks away in Toronto’s central and vibrant Annex neighbourhood, Chris and Cindy Hunter attempted to cajole Watson into tackling their own renovation, which initially focused on expanding the tiny kitchen. But with their third child on the way and the need for more space, the scope of the project grew and the Hunters were ready to reclaim the other half of their home that they had been renting out. As Watson was exhausted by the process of doing all the design work and a good portion of the physical labour of his own renovation, he initially balked at their suggestion. However, in further conversations, the Hunters revealed themselves to be knowledgeable and adventurous about design, and Watson realized that if he refused, he would be missing a rare opportunity to work with enlightened clients.
Currently an associate at Toronto firm MacLennan Jaunkalns Miller Architects, Watson has been with the firm for nine years. The work on the Hunter Residence was performed strictly outside of office hours when Watson was still an intern architect, which meant a fairly gruelling schedule of all work and little play. But Watson maintains that it was a rewarding process that involved yet another neighbour in the role of contractor.
The kitchen reno blossomed into a more involved project encompassing the conversion of the existing two apartments into a single-family residence. Living and dining spaces comprise the main floor, while two children’s bedrooms and a family room occupy the second floor. On the third floor, the master bedroom exists as it was prior to the renovation. The clients desired a spatial environment of clean lines, clarity of planning, abundant natural light, and loads of storage space. For this energetic family of five, the house needed to perform as “a machine for organizing the daily rituals of active family life,” in Watson’s words.
Typically, the standard move in any home renovation or extension would be to blow out the back wall to face the private enclosure of the backyard, opening the rear of the house to light, air and the outdoors. However, in this instance there is little available backyard space, as a two-car garage and driveway occupy most of the residual property. And since the Hunter Residence is ideally located on a corner lot where Howland Avenue and Wells Street intersect, Watson proposed instead to open up the side wall facing Howland Avenue and a sizeable sideyard to more actively engage with the street, challenging conventionally held notions of privacy and community. Watson maintains that the sideyard is a commonly neglected or overlooked space that is infrequently utilized in the city, and which deserves further exploration. Furthermore, he argued that the lush green views and dynamic light qualities of the southwest-facing orientation would also be a shame to waste.
Oddly, the Hunters were enthusiastic and needed little convincing on this possible intrusion into their privacy. Something else that charmed them was Watson’s retelling of his own experience years ago, renting a former pickle factory loft off College Street in Toronto’s Little Italy neighbourhood where, with the huge loading bay doors thrown wide open, he and his wife would dine al fresco on the loading dock of the building, engaging with curious passersby as naturally as if they were sitting at a sidewalk caf.
A two-year work stint in the UK a decade ago with the London-based firm of Paxton Locher Architects provided Watson with experience in high-end residential design and an appreciation for literally opening buildings up with monolithic sliding wall and roof elements. Consequently, his solution here was the installation of a massive 600-pound operable sliding window measuring 10′ x 10′ which provides the family with spectacular natural daylight and views of neighbouring houses, while allowing them to make use of the sideyard and to actively engage with pedestrian street life. To complete the dialogue, the neighbourhood is given a striking focal point in the centre of the house’s 50-foot-long Howland Street elevation, a framed view of domestic life and activity that the family can easily control with the lowering of a solar shade.
For now, this window on the world and the sideyard remain as is, the latter a sizeable swath of land that the children and their friends use as they would any backyard. The intention is to develop the sideyard into a landscaped urban court, but budget constraints mean that construction on this phase will likely begin next year. Watson and the Hunters will engage in design development discussions over the coming winter about how to create a sense of containment and enclosure without defeating the purpose of carving out the original opening. Inspired by Ron Thom’s courtyard configuration at the University of Toronto’s Massey College (1963), Watson hopes to achieve a semblance of a beautifully contained courtyard space that effortlessly and fluidly extends the interior space. He is already thinking ahead to perhaps incorporating a water feature, capitalizing on its soothing auditory qualities.
Contrary to what most might assume, the Hunters insist they don’t feel as though they live in a fishbowl: instead, the creation of a dialogue through the window engenders a sense of community in a city not unacquainted with hermetic urban alienation. Interaction and exchange results. Watson’s bold design move translates into an inviting neighbourly gesture that’s caused many to pause and chat with the family, who are more than pleased to give tours of their happy home.
CLIENT Chris and Cindy Hunter
DESIGN TEAM Ted Watson, Dan Kronby
STRUCTURAL Blackwell Engineering
INTERIORS Ted Watson
CONTRACTOR Nicolas Nichols Contracting
MILLWORK O & C Custom Cabinets
WINDOWS Bauhaus Windows and Doors
GROUND FLOOR Area 950 ft2
Two of the Hunter children and their friends face Howland Avenue, happily posing in the vast opening carved into the side of the house.
To passersby, the group around the dining table engage unselfconsciously as if they were enjoying themselves at a sidewalk caf.
A view of the Hunter Residence from across the street offers a sense of scale and neighbourhood context while revealing the open and neighbourly gesture that the large window engenders.
A view of the renovated interior main floor reveals a cleanly minimalist aesthetic and a fluidity to the open plan. The ten-foot square sliding glass window draws the outdoors in, extending the living space beyond the perimeter of the exterior wall to the sideyard.