New Kid on the Block

With many preconceived notions relating to an appropriate aesthetic for an established and exclusive neighbourhood, building a contemporary home is no easy task. With their children grown, empty nesters Joseph and Valerie Schatzker wanted to scale down from their 1886 home in Toronto’s tony South Rosedale which they had enjoyed for nearly 30 years. The Schatzkers were able to sever a separate lot from their large property, with plans to sell the existing home while building afresh on the severed lot. However, the fate of the existing coach house at the rear of the property and the complexities of designing a contemporary home to satisfy conventional neighbourhood sensibilities became a proverbial thorn in the side. Rosedale’s residents are largely comprised of lawyers, politicians and other influential homeowners with the power to restrict new development. The Schatzker residence provides an excellent case study of contemporary design succeeding in the context of a neighbourhood’s traditional architectural fabric along with the usual restrictions of applicable setbacks and building height regulations.

Severing their existing property resulted in a new lot measuring 13.5m * 42.2m containing no other structures aside from the existing coach house at the rear along with several mature trees, including a 48-year-old magnolia at the front of the house. Taking cues from the adjacent homes, a palette of red brick, dark Ipe wood siding, and bronze anodized window frames were used. Massing studies were conducted to ensure that the front faade and building mass of the new residence would respond to the conditions of the adjacent houses.

The house is essentially a two-storey brick and wood box containing a two-and-a-half-storey atrium in the centre. The soaring height of this central slot of an atrium demarcates the transition from the living room at the front of the house to the kitchen and dining area which face the courtyard and coach house at the rear. A wash of diffuse light from the clerestory windows of the atrium above further enhances this sense of transition. On the second floor, the bedrooms and study ring the atrium, permitting views down to the first floor. Within the atrium and wrapped by a staircase, a small elevator has been installed to allow the residents to age in place, should stairs become an issue. Respecting the ten-metre height restriction and well below the three-storey height of the adjacent houses, the atrium is capped by a clerestory rising above the two volumes, providing passive cooling and ventilation by convection through the use of motorized operable vents. The coach house is a legally enforced “accessory building.” A ten-year restrictive covenant deemed that the kitchen and bedroom had to be removed in order to make the structure a non-inhabitable garage.

The entire process of building the Schatzker’s new home lasted four and a half years. An initial proposal put forth by Marianne McKenna of Kuwabara Payne McKenna Blumberg Architects failed to get the necessary approvals from the Ontario Municipal Board due to the strength of opposition mounted by the neighbours. After the lot was severed, Andre D’Elia, who was starting up his own firm at the time–Superkl Inc., Architect–was offered an opportunity by McKenna to continue with the challenge.

There are not many remaining empty lots in South Rosedale. In fact, all the empty sites were essentially built upon by the 1950s. Any subsequent changes have amounted to the demolition or severe remodelling of existing homes. A notable recent event just prior to the Schatzkers’ attempt at building their new house occurred when Heather Reisman and Gerry Schwartz purchased several adjacent properties to their home in order to develop a rather large residential compound down the street, dubbed “Fort Schwartz.”

Frustrated at the lack of clear planning and design guidelines, Valerie Schatzker felt that in South Rosedale, “the neighbours do the planning.” Something had to be done. With the construction of “Fort Schwartz” combined with insensitive demolitions and renovations in the neighbourhood, the South Rosedale Ratepayers’ Association, an organization that Schatzker once led, decided to initiate the South Rosedale Heritage Conservation District Study (SRHS) in 2002 to help qualify the heritage aspect of the neighbourhood and discourage the demolition of significant buildings while encouraging the construction of compatible buildings in the neighbourhood. Indeed, Gerry Schwartz offered to pay a substantial portion of this study in order to help smooth the process of developing his own home. The effectiveness of the study completed by E.R.A. Architects for the benefit of the South Rosedale Ratepayers’ Association Heritage Committee, Heritage Preservation Services and Urban Development Services in the City of Toronto helped clarify appropriate qualitative changes to the future of South Rosedale through the identification and evaluation of the historical and architectural character of the neighbourhood from its origins to the present day. The ultimate goal was to develop design guidelines that would clearly define appropriate change.

The study helped pave the way for 108 Crescent Road to receive its building permit but the project still necessitated a clear dialogue amongst the various neighbours about the appearance of the yet-unbuilt residence. One of the key documents produced was a simple letter by D’Elia explaining the design rationale of the building. For those city officials and neighbours who are unable to read drawings, words help explain the architect’s intention to work with the existing context. The letter defused the situation and was instrumental in clarifying the design intentions of the architect.

In the letter to the City and to the neighbours, D’Elia notes that while “the design of the new house for 108 Crescent Road is of a contemporary style and form… it takes its most significant cues from the houses around it, one of its chief goals being to reinterpret and respect the heritage character of its neighbourhood.” The letter also explains how the front canopy aligns with the entrance canopy of the existing home at 110 Crescent Road as well as the lower eave on the east volume of 106 Crescent Road. The second floor roof parapet aligns with the neighbour’s roofline and the clerestory of the central atrium respects the roof peaks of the neighbouring houses. This last point was meant to explain why a pitched roof is not always essential when building to match an existing context.

Construction began in the late spring of 2003. Superkl had to make convincing arguments for their choice of building materials by explicitly lobbying to the city that the project’s materials are frequently used throughout the neighbourhood, such as the red brick on the existing old coach house at the rear of the property, and the dark wood cladding that matches the Tudor detailing of the existing house located at 110 Crescent Road. It was only when the Schatzker residence was complete that the neighbours were convinced that new residential construction in an established traditional neighbourhood like Rosedale need not incorporate ornamental pastiche. Understanding what is compatible, contemporary or pastiche is not easily understood by the general public. It is only through a clear dialogue and a careful explanation of an existing context where a result such as the house at 108 Crescent Road can be achieved.

Client: Joseph and Valerie Schatzker

Architect Team: Andre D’Elia, Arash Afshar, Jamey Richards, John Wall, Margaret Graham

Design Consultant: Marianne McKenna

Structural: Robert Brown and Associates

Mechanical/Electrical: G & M Technical Services

Landscape Architect: du Toit Allsopp Hillier

Contractor: Farzin Group

Area: 2,700 ft2

Budget: withheld

Completion: De
cember 2004

Photography: Tom Arban Photography