When he began an investment project – a renovation of a postwar house in Scarborough – the contractor Vahid Derakhshan did something too few people in his line of work do: He hired a bespoke architect. “Sometimes, in your life, you want to try something different,” he says. Conventional wisdom has it that this a bad idea. The real-estate business is all about making money and architects cost money. Plus, they tend to impose good taste – which is a virtue, sure, but one with limited market utility. Buyers, apparently, want houses with massive garages and as many bedrooms as possible. Architects think such features are gauche.
What’s more, the specific architect Mr. Derakhshan hired – Reza Aliabadi, principal of the Toronto firm Atelier Rzlbd – has what you might call strong opinions. He is very much a 20th-century modernist. His heroes include Peter Zumthor and Louis Kahn, men who specialized in austere buildings with large voids and heavy massing. Is such a vision compatible with the economic diktats of the Toronto resale market? Mr. Derakhshan’s project suggests that it is – and that, even from a cold-blooded, business-minded perspective (which, by the way, isn’t his perspective), there’s a case to be made for investing in architecture.
The unit he bought was a 1950s bungalow on a 5,520-square-foot lot. To avoid cost overruns and lengthy bouts with the committee of adjustments, Mr. Derakhshan insisted on maintaining the original footprint of the unit and keeping the windows where they were. In response to these constraints, Mr. Aliabadi decided to simply remove the cap of the house and build upwards, adding a second level.
His design program has two distinctive features. The first is a rethink of your typical domestic layout. Most houses have a bottom-to-top arrangement, with the public areas on the downstairs and the sleeping quarters above. Instead, Mr. Aliabadi’s design runs front-to-back. The first half of the house is a kind of stacked living room – two levels of interconnected public space. The second half has closed-off bedroom suites, one on each floor. This unusual arrangements “offers possibilities,” Mr. Aliabadi says, “and encourages people to live differently.” When your space changes, the way you relate to it changes, too.
The other noteworthy design feature is the expansive lightwells, which are in the front section, albeit near the threshold where the two regions meet. The public (or front) part of the house has a ground level with a kitchen and living room, and then, above it, a T-shaped configuration of bridges. These bridges are large enough to contain common areas, including a fireside roost, but they also leave two gaps, which are topped with skylights.
To accentuate these lightwells, Mr. Aliabadi adorned the adjacent walls and ceilings with slats of knotty cedar. This warm feature offsets the otherwise demure interior palette, which mainly consists of white-oak floors, white walls and touches of grey porcelain tile. Among its neighbours, the house stands out: it is a stark, capacious dwelling with an irregular spatial arrangement. But can such a thing find a tenant? Or is the Toronto market really as hidebound as real-estate agents make it out to be?
As Mr. Derakhshan was applying the finishes, Louise Abbott and Philip Brown, a couple approaching retirement, were scouring Toronto for a new place to live. They were looking to sell their home in the Beaches neighbourhood and contemplating an eventual move to Costa Rica, where they own an investment property. “We said, in the meantime, let’s rent a place, but it has to be better than what we’re in,” Mr. Brown says. The Toronto market, he discovered, has a way of grinding people down. The couple’s experience was comically absurd and also brutal – Don Quixote meets the Book of Job.
They saw upwards of 40 places. Some were mouldy; others had rotted floors and cardboard walls. They saw “charming” old homes with impossibly steep stairways, like a grisly death waiting to happen, and shoebox condos where the price a square foot was so high you’d think the place was gilded in silver leaf. Ms. Abbott recalls one unit that looked like something out of The Amityville Horror. It was dirty and old, with dark carpets and a hidden office in the basement, suggesting some kind of illicit business. “I said out loud that I hate this house,’” Ms. Abbott recalls, “and at that exact moment the lights started flickering.”
A few nights later, during a spell of 4 a.m. insomnia, she went online in a desperate, impulsive search to see if there’d been any new openings. That’s when she found the place in Scarborough. The listing had a kind of integrity to it: the pictures were sparse and simple, and instead of using deceptive angles – the kind that make interiors seem bigger than they are – the photographer had shot the home with an honest, one-point perspective. When morning came, Ms. Abbott called her real-estate agent. Within a few days, the couple had signed the lease.
To the question of whether experimental architecture is a safe investment in Toronto, the answer is a resounding yes. Ms. Abbott and Mr. Brown’s story shows that, right now, you can rent out pretty much anything. Even the grubbiest, smallest, or most unkempt unit will eventually find a tenant. And if renters will tolerate squalor, surely they’ll tolerate thoughtful design, too.
In fact, they might even love it. “There is nothing as special out there as this house,” Ms. Abbott says. She likes the roominess, the sense of geometric precision that makes the space seem ordered even when it’s cluttered and the lightwells that draw your eyes toward the sky and away from the minutiae of daily life. The couple’s daughter, an art student at George Brown College, occupies the bedroom suite at the bottom, and her parents have the suite up top. The double-height public space not only connects the two regions; it also knits them together. It is an architecture of independence – and interdependence, too.
While the home may be a rental, that hasn’t stopped the couple from contemplating a more permanent arrangement. “This house would be great for somebody to get old in,” Ms. Abbott muses. “We could live downstairs. There’d be plenty of space on this level for the two of us.” Her husband nods. “Now we have to win the lottery and buy it,” he says.
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