Speculative Modernism

Generally speaking, architects are much better known for the design of idiosyncratic custom homes than for their contribution to contemporary speculative housing. Although this building type ultimately makes up a large proportion of the overall built environment, it has received scant design attention and is generally mass-produced from predictable plans that follow widely accepted models. A recent project in Toronto’s Cabbagetown neighbourhood represents an architectural exploration of this neglected building type.

Cabbagetown is regarded as a well-preserved Victorian enclave, its quiet streets lined with narrow three-storey houses in polychromatic brick and modest cottages set back behind lush rose gardens. Its history, however, is considerably more complex, and before the 1970s onset of gentrification, it accommodated a mix of uses that included low-rent rooming houses and light industry. The area south of Gerrard Street was considered so derelict that in the 1940s a large tract was bulldozed to create Canada’s first social housing project, Regent Park.

Parts of Cabbagetown display remnants of this complex history. On the west side of Sackville Street, a free-standing Victorian cottage sits adjacent to the three-storey erstwhile Peanut Warehouse, converted into condominiums in the late 1980s. A few years ago, the owner of the cottage severed the deep property to create two new lots at the rear, which now accommodate two townhouses built as speculative properties.

Baird Sampson Neuert Architects have long been recognized for unique projects like Toronto’s Bay-Adelaide Park (see CA August 1994), the Butterfly Conservatory in Niagara Falls (CA August 1998) and the Erindale Student Residence at the University of Toronto in Mississauga (CA April 2000). These townhouses, however, represent the firm’s first foray into speculative housing.

Access to the townhouses is by way of a walkway from Sackville Street to the south of the original cottage. The walkway and forecourt are finished with unit pavers, establishing a small scale appropriate to the size of the garden. The north side of the garden is bounded by the concrete block wall of the Peanut Warehouse, which in summer is covered in ivy and in winter shelters the garden from north winds. In addition, its thermal mass reradiates enough solar energy to create a winter microclimate condition a few degrees warmer than its surroundings.

Designed as mirror images of each other, each of the compact townhouses has an area of 1,300 square feet. A high water table precluded the construction of a basement, so the ground floor of each house is designed to accommodate a service room and laundry room, as well as a bathroom and a large space that can serve as a home office. Upstairs, living areas are organized in a loft-type arrangement, with living, dining and kitchen on the second floor, and the bedroom and bath overlooking them from the third floor loft. Double-height living spaces open onto a well-treed rear yard to the west, while the kitchens face east, with views of the forecourt. The two-storey living space has been designed to accommodate the addition of a second bedroom at the loft level.

In terms of expression, the townhouses break with the neighbourhood’s Victorian conventions. The project is consistent with the scale of the neighbourhood, but is distinguished by a stripped-down Modern expression reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s houses of the 1920s. The exterior’s stucco finish is detailed flush with the window frames, and the crisp, flat faades are punctuated not with extraneous ornament but by functional details like balconies and canopies.

Principal-in-charge George Baird notes that with few exceptions, materials, details and fixtures are typical of speculative housing, allowing the project to be built for $90 per square foot (in 1999). The exceptions include oversize windows, maple floors and tempered glass for the exterior balcony and interior guards. Other elements, however, are standard; for instance, the stucco colour was chosen to match one of the available standard colours for the window frames.

Baird notes that the townhouses’ location at the rear of the property prevented their frank modernity from impacting on the traditional streetscape. Besides, adds the architect, “we’re discovering that there’s a market for Modern housing.” If this is indeed true, architects may be called on to contribute more actively to the speculative housing market. MP

Sackville Speculative Infill Housing, Toronto, Ontario

Baird Sampson Neuert Architects









9.open to below

Client: James Lorimer

Architect team: George Baird, Jon Neuert, Geoff Thn, Tom Kyle

Structural: Blackwell Engineering

Contractor: Celcon Contracting Ltd.

Area: 2,600 square feet

Budget: $244,000

Completion: Fall 1999

Photography: Richard Seck and Associates