Keeping Up With The Joneses

PROJECT Åbenbare House, Toronto, Ontario
DESIGNER D’Arcy Jones Design Inc.
TEXT Leslie Jen
PHOTOS Bob Gundu

Åbenbare: the Danish word for “reveal.” And a suitable name for a new house in the north Toronto neighbourhood of Wanless Park that embodies this notion in a number of imaginative ways. Designed for a family of four including two young children, the project is technically a renovation of a mid-century bungalow, one that builds upon the foundation of the pre-existing structure. In stark contrast to the bloated and vulgar ostentation of so many new-build residential projects in the adjacent Bridle Path neighbourhood, the Åbenbare House is a paradigm of restrained elegance. 

Comfortably nested in its site on a quiet street, the low-slung bungalow reveals traces of its past through its insistence on a contextually appropriate profile and scale. There is no maxing out of building envelope; in fact, the massing and gently sloping hip roof are remarkably similar to what existed before. The overall footprint expands on the original only slightly. It just feels right.

Upon approach, views of the house produce a slight quickening of pulse and a sense of anticipation. The façade is a calming composition of wood screens and concrete planes, and the poetic minimalism of the entry sequence is enhanced by a series of stepped concrete slabs forming a path from the driveway to a discreetly concealed front door. Instead of an unsightly aluminum downspout, a single rain chain hangs silently against the backdrop of a beautifully cast concrete wall. It is moments like this that reveal a certain West Coast Modernist sensibility. 

Not surprising, given that designer D’Arcy Jones received the inaugural Arthur Erickson Memorial Award in 2010 from Western Living magazine in conjunction with the Arthur Erickson Foundation for Excellence in Architecture. Born and bred in British Columbia, Jones received his Master of Architecture degree from the University of Manitoba in 1999, and has worked in Vancouver ever since, opening up his own practice in 2000. Despite his assertion that he “did not want to transport an aesthetic from BC to a suburban project thousands of miles away,” He has imported a certain sensibility to the Åbenbare House that is uncommon in the Toronto market. Which is not at all a bad thing.

As this is Jones’s first Toronto project, he was not familiar with the region’s climatic constraints and consequent patterns of life. He says, “I was immediately aware of a culture that spends way more time indoors than we do in Vancouver, with humid summers and cold winters, so the elegant ‘lining’ of a bungalow where this family will spend so much time trumped any exterior expression, maybe more than any project I have ever worked on. The exterior is striking and unfamiliar, but mute and subtle at the same time.”

The contemplative solemnity and quiet cadence of the exterior of the house extends into the generous front foyer. A room unto itself, honed charcoal basalt tiles underfoot contrast with vertical panels of rift-cut white oak stained with a translucent white wash, and an immediate view into a tiny enclosed wood-screened garden court surprises and delights. It is clear that the house is resolutely articulated in the language of Modernism; spare, yet warm. Straight away, the conceptual driver of the reveal is expressed in a formal sense. The overexaggerated separation of materials through gaps, spaces and contrasts is apparent in the perfect reveal between the bottom of the oak wall panels and the hard tiled floor, becoming a graphically satisfying composition that follows the profile of the generous oak stair treads leading up to the home’s primary spaces.

A dynamic is established in the episodic progression from the front of the house to the back, and the design accentuates the low-ceilinged, subdued compression of the entry foyer giving way to the increasingly bright, sun-filled and energetic spaces at the rear of the house. A subtle origami-like folding of the oak-lined ceiling planes reflects the intersecting hip-roof forms that provide a sculptural complexity, and a skylight in the wide corridor introduces constantly shifting patterns of light throughout the day.

The main floor contains the expected living and dining areas, along with a spacious open kitchen and the family’s three bedrooms tucked discreetly along the east side of the house. Remarkably, the bedrooms are all modestly sized, in keeping with smaller room sizes from a previous era. They are unadorned–almost Spartan–though Jones designed the beds, night tables and all storage millwork. An oasis of greater calm claims the central core–a semi-enclosed office that is prevented from being hermetic through partial walls that don’t quite reach the ceiling. 

Expansive floor-to-ceiling glazing opens up the back of the house to capture southern sun that illuminates and warms the main gathering spaces. The L-shaped configuration forms a hardscaped courtyard containing a fire pit. This assemblage is anchored by a cast-on-site concrete pavilion with a generous cantilevered overhang–a cabana/storage shed that incorporates a built-in barbecue that theoretically permits year-round outdoor cooking.

Reveals are present everywhere. Wall planes of gypsum board pull away ever so slightly from the complex symphony of oak-sheathed ceiling planes, and built-in millwork pops out from walls through intentional dark crevices and gaps. Jones maintains that this strategy “elevates drywall to the same level as white oak or basalt, and enables each material to be singularly sculptural and part of a considered composition at the same time…like people in a family, like houses on a block.”

The sense of contrast is continued further in the kitchen, where, unlike the pale millwork present in the rest of the house, the full wall of oak cabinetry is instead stained dark to match the bronze anodized frames of the windows and doors. This device enables the appliance wall to function as a powerful anchor in the open-plan kitchen/dining area. 

While most of the budget was spent on the main floor, the basement level is equally considered in terms of program: playroom, hockey room, ballet/yoga studio, laundry room and two guest suites, plus an astonishingly vast amount of storage space. Strategically placed light wells open up the basement, and illuminate otherwise potentially dark rooms.

It is the insanely detailed customization of the house that reveals how this family actually lives. A nine-month dialogue between clients and designer preceded the construction process; all this only after they had already consulted with a number of architects that had proposed predictably generic boxy structures. Instead, Jones offered up a vision and ethos that meshed seamlessly with the clients’ own perspectives.

Delightfully effusive, one-half of the client pair jokes that her wish list began with a desire for a suitably configured storage closet for her Swiffer–something she got, along with a plethora of other well-considered features such as a separate shower for the family’s large dog, a deeper than usual counter for folding laundry–particularly for bed sheets which require more surface area, a massive closet in the mudroom to contain bulky hockey and sports gear, benches at entries to facilitate footwear removal, and loads of built-in storage throughout the house to mitigate the inevitable clutter. Superfluous items were dispensed with: a carport accommodating a single vehicle takes the place of an enclosed heated garage, and the master ensuite is equipped with only one sink because the extra counter space is so much more useful.

Despite the fact that this is an extraordinary kind of home prohibitive to most budgets, it does reflect a refreshing honesty
in how people really live and how they want to live. It is designed for specific and unique functions rather than operating on preconceived notions about what luxury living ought to be. In this regard, Jones has raised the design exercise to sublime heights, exhibiting a deftness and mastery for one so young. He has exceeded what he sought to accomplish in the Åbenbare House. And it is a revelation indeed. C

Client Withheld
Design Team D’Arcy Jones, Amanda Kemeny, Milos Begovic, Daniel Laubrich, Daan Murray, Douglas Gibbsons
Project Manager Melani Pigat
Structural Moses Structural Engineers
BCIN/Building Code Gordon Crowhurst
Landscape D’Arcy Jones Design Inc. with Rina Zweig
Interiors D’Arcy Jones Design Inc.
Styling Catherine Wilkie Designs
Contractor Derek Nicholson
Area 2,500 ft2 main floor plus basement (partially unfinished)
Budget Withheld
Completion October 2012