PROJECT Cabbagetown House, Toronto, Ontario
ARCHITECT Dubbeldam Design Architects
TEXT David Steiner

Dubbeldam Design Architects (DDA) is a small Toronto firm of five, distinguished by a steadily growing portfolio of crisp, straightforward houses. Four years ago, a professional couple asked DDA to renovate their semi-detached heritage house in Cabbagetown. It is an area of Toronto that long ago left its humble, working-class roots for an overpriced future. Carefully restored Victorian brick homes line Amelia Street, a narrow road that is shaded by giant hardwood trees. In neighbourhoods like this, staunch preservationists often take root, objecting to anything that deviates from accepted nostalgia.

“If it’s worth preserving,” said principal Heather Dubbeldam, “then there’s no reason not to.” Seen from the street, the century-old house has changed little. The masonry veneer on the house’s face was restored, all but obscuring the unequivocally contemporary design apparent from the back elevation. Neighbours got what they wanted–a uniform streetscape of well maintained, noble old houses–while from the laneway nothing remained the same. What was preserved, beyond the faade, was nominal: a fireplace, the first-floor staircase, mouldings and floors of the front room, and the original two-by-four exterior stud wall, thereby retaining the original footprint of the house. After the insides were carted away, the structure was plumbed, shored up where needed, and furred out to obtain the required depth for insulation. A contemporary house, filled with southern light and views to the laneway behind, has been inserted into the existing shell.

Only 5.5 metres at its widest (stepping back to 3.2 metres), the house was once a collection of small rooms. It has been reinvented as a home of connected spaces that flow together both in plan and section. Subtle changes in floor elevation, materials and views suggest the house’s past configuration. Period details in the front room have been preserved–though muted with a cool colour palette–and make a smart contrast to the contemporary design beyond. Jatoba, an exotic hardwood used for flooring, creates a visual connection between the second and third levels. Sunlight filters in through a skylight above the stairs and through the full-height, south-facing aluminum windows on each floor.

Ambitions for a sustainable home resulted in simple solutions for passive heating and cooling: open risers on the second floor allow warm air to circulate upward and out of the operable skylight; a ductless air conditioner, set into the millwork of the master bedroom on the third floor, lets the cool air sink through the house. The roof structure is built to support the weight of a future green roof. “We incorporate sustainable systems as a matter of course,” said Dubbeldam, pointing out that the operable window on the short south wall in the middle of the house is key to creating a cross breeze.

The architects took evident pleasure in making the most out of small spaces using clever details and economical materials. Between the north end of the master bedroom and a freestanding wall clad in wood flooring is a walk-through closet. Off-the-shelf, chest-height cabinet doors have been made to look custom by joining two shorter ones together at a horizontal seam, which were then lacquered and given discreet vertical handles. A narrow laundry chute, made from ductwork and recessed into the wall, channels soiled clothing to the basement. While lying in bed, one can look past a single-sided fireplace, through the ensuite bathroom and into the tops of the laneway trees.

As the only bit of new construction, this bathroom is a direct extension of the master suite making the two rooms a breezy, brilliant puzzle of space for bathing and sleeping. A heated limestone tile wall runs down the middle, dividing the wet and dry spaces. Both the toilet and stand-up shower are placed beside the full-height, partially frosted sliding glass doors–a decadent and delightful luxury. Through the sliding doors is a private deck, flush with the bathroom floor and just big enough for two lounge seats.

This 100-year-old house pushes the expectations of a family dwelling in a dense neighbourhood. The interior brightness and the fully glazed south wall do not detract from the privacy one feels inside. High ceilings, carefully placed lighting and clever storage, recessed here and there between wall studs, gives the impression of a space far bigger than the house’s 220 square metres. Dubbeldam’s ambition is for her firm to design larger institutional projects while continuing to work on contemporary houses. The promise of future buildings designed with clear ideas and executed with boldness and wit are evident throughout a house so unassuming from the sidewalk. CA

David Steiner is a freelance writer living in Ontario.

Architect Team Heather Dubbeldam, Tania Ursomarzo, Katya Marshall, Heather Ross, Katrina Touw
Client Robert Bristow and Nick Foglia
Structural K.H. Davis Consulting Ltd.
Interiors Dubbeldam Design Architects
Contractor Troke Contracting
Area 2,300 ft2
Budget $320,000
Completion 2008