Life in the Fast Lane

Ways Lane House, Toronto, Ontario
Diamond + Schmitt Architects Inc.

This relatively compact residence for a landscape architect is exemplary of Toronto laneway housing in its articulation as a contextually scaled form on a tight site, accomplished without sacrificing any of the mod con requirements of contemporary urban life. Situated near the entrance of a laneway, the house is located in an enviable downtown location close to the busy intersection of Queen and Bathurst Streets. As the site measures a mere 29 by 44 feet, the front of the L-shaped house is pressed right to the lane’s edge, allowing for a landscaped courtyard in the back. In this modestly sized outdoor space, provision is made for ample seating and a water garden. Generous plantings soften the hard edges, and vines creep up the pale brick enclosure of the high wall separating the house from the adjacent property, creating a welcoming urban oasis.

Additional outdoor space is available on the roof deck, accessed via an exterior stair. The cleft in the building visible from the front elevation contains the stair, sandwiched between the two volumes of the second level of the house. Access to the stair is gained from either the bedroom or the studio on the second level, and is screened from view by horizontal mahogany strips. A tension is created in the narrow space of the stairway, with the walls of both volumes closing in on either side. But ascension through this potentially claustrophobic space is rewarded with increasing amounts of daylight, and upon final destination, the wide open expanse of the roof deck, from which clear views in every direction of the low-rise residential neighbourhood can be enjoyed. Even single-car parking is cleverly accommodated for and protected by a sliding mahogany screen which enhances the composition of the front faade, contributing a dynamic component to the abstract orthogonal assemblage of concrete panels, horizontal wood slats and glazed openings.

The first floor of the house contains the basic public spaces of living, dining, kitchen and powder room. Through the provision of ample glazing and pivot-door access to the courtyard, interior and exterior spaces flow seamlessly into one another. Interestingly, cooking appears not to be a priority in this household; the extremely compact linear kitchen is fitted with small-scale stainless steel appliances and a tiny bar sink only, while functioning as a corridor leading from the front of the house to the dining area at the back. The private zone of the second level contains one bedroom, one bathroom, and a generously sized studio for the owner. Handsomely scaled mahogany-framed windows, cleanly detailed plaster, and Ontario stone and natural wood floors create a tactile and warm interior. Fortunately, the house also contains a partial basement, an extremely valuable and much coveted entity in dense urban conditions where adequate storage space is of paramount importance.

Although the siting of the house right at the border of the laneway maintains the ever-critical urban edge, no intermediary zone between the front entry and the vehicular traffic of the lane exists, creating an uncomfortably close relationship between public and private space. However, the Ways Lane residence represents an entirely satisfying solution to new housing in an urban context. Everything is accommodated for in this simple but exquisitely detailed project, and economically so, both in terms of space and expenditure. Not a single square foot is wasted anywhere in the fluid flow of living spaces. As real estate prices climb ever higher, the price of a house (more often than not a decrepit fixer-upper) on a standard lot in the downtown core is prohibitively expensive. By exploiting the availability of such residual sites as longtime Toronto practitioners Jeffery Stinson, Terence Van Elslander, Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe have done, it is possible to commission a custom-designed home for a relatively modest sum without having to endure a dreary commute to the suburbs.

Client: Claire Ironside

Architect Team: Donald Schmitt

Structural: Yolles Partnership Inc.

Landscape: Claire Ironside

Contractor: Ed Gaigalas Contracting

Area: 2,175 ft2 including basement

Budget: $110,000

Completion: 1997

Photography: Robert Burley