Upstairs, Downstairs

PROJECT ARCHITECTS’ HOME/OFFICE, TORONTO, ONTARIO

ARCHITECT SUPERKL INC | ARCHITECT

TEXT DAVID STEINER

PHOTOS BEN RAHN/A-FRAME INC.

Home/Office, as the Toronto architecture firm Superkl has titled their recently constructed residence and workspace, is located at the junction of two neighbourhoods. To the west is High Park, one of Toronto’s most bucolic districts, where a century-old tree canopy covers the street and stately brick homes are lined up beside one another. To the east is Parkdale, an area that was until recently, a mix of mainly working class and marginalized folk. Many of the local buildings are in dire need of repair. A network of civic streetcars, a subway line and a commuter train criss-cross the surrounding area.

With a degree of foresight, the principals of this firm of eight, Andre D’Elia and Margaret Graham, bought what was then a two-storey, street-front wreck, and rebuilt it as a simple manifesto on how to live and work in a tight, urban space. The renovated building exudes competence. It is an exercise in creating simple open spaces that bring in a maximumamount of light. Finicky, expensive details have been omitted in favour of common materials (mainly gypsum board, paint and metal siding) and a compact, clever plan allows for future flexibility.

For those in the city who fret about their neighbours fitting in, Superkl’s architecture causes no worry. Home/Office faces the street with horizontal cedar planks and dark-grey block, laid in a stack bond. Even with the additional height from the third storey, set well back, the renovated building sits quietly on a gently curving portion of busy Dundas Street West, squeezed in by other brick buildings of early-20thcentury vintage.

Starting from below, tucked under the wood joists of the dug-out basement is a small meeting space with a plywood table, a library and a kitchenette. Above, the old storefront has been revived as an airy office. The glass to the south, set in aluminum frames, is frosted, allowing in light and a glimpse of passing streetcars. To the back, through a new wall of windows, is a view of the courtyard, where four white birch trees have been planted amongst pea gravel. An original tin ceiling, the sole survivor of the renovation, has been repaired and painted white. Stud walls were erected in front of the existing brick side walls to allow for insulation, a clean surface and a place to install wiring.

A staircase at the back, accessible from inside or out, leads to the second floor. At a glance you can see clear across the house, with views through both front and back windows. A custom Ikea kitchen (even the best architects use this Swedish cost-saver) is set in the middle of the plan, while the living and dining spaces are oriented to the front of the house to receive south light. The study is situated at the rear of the second floor.

A one-storey addition, with bedrooms at either end, was built with the new structure spanning across the existing roof. Both rooms look out onto cedar-clad terraces. The front wall of each terrace rises up 1.1 metres, giving the adjacent rooms visual privacy, which allows the architects to sit outside, unseen from the street. When the sliding exterior doors are open in both bedrooms, a cross-breeze whistles through. Or, pop open the skylight near the top of the stairs, and the warm air of the house is drawn up and out.

Despite the privacy and protected views, Home/Office is still definitively urban: when standing in the master bedroom, it sounds like the street traffic might well be coming right out of the closet. Graham describes it like “living in a hotel,” where a connection to the city is felt all the time. And the city is indeed close at hand: to the south, on the main street, is a peninsula of asphalt–formed by two streets crossing at an acute angle. A coffee shop inhabits an old bank at the corner, and streetcars circle all day long. To the north are a jumble of garages, squat brick buildings and an inland lake of parking for a grocery store. Two residential towers, both square brutes, mark the end of the view from the back bedroom.

Superkl used their Home/Office to explore what Graham calls a “bigger idea about life and work,” where the buildings they inhabit can be sustainable and flexible. The office portion has been configured to expand, and the house component to retract. When they grow (they now have a waiting list of clients), a partition wall will be erected on the second floor. The office meeting room will be relocated from below to where the dining room is now. Everything else will be part of a one-bedroom rental, accessed by a covered staircase to be built in the alleyway.

With an economy of resources and design decisions, Superkl have crafted a prototype for development along the city’s main streets. This kind of housing could be affordable (relatively), flexible and convenient, relieving the burden of commuting and revitalizing city streets in an intensive way. Its modest scale and refined style is adaptable to almost any location, making Home/Office a catalyst for progressive change in an area of the city looking to redefine itself. CA

David Steiner is a freelance writer living in Ontario.

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CLIENT ANDRE D’ELIA AND MEG GRAHAM

ARCHITECT TEAM ANDRE D’ELIA AND MEG GRAHAM

STRUCTURAL ROBERT E. BROWN AND ASSOCIATES LIMITED

MECHANICAL KEYNON MECHANICAL DESIGN INC.

LANDSCAPE SUPERKL INC | ARCHITECT

INTERIORS SUPERKL INC | ARCHITECT

CONTRACTOR KEYSTONE CONSTRUCTION (TORONTO) WITH ANDRE D’ELIA AND MEG GRAHAM

AREA 2,800 FT2 (INCLUDING BASEMENT)

BUDGET $275,000 (BUILDING), $50,000 (GARAGE/STUDIO), $20,000 (LANDSCAPE)

COMPLETION JULY 2006

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