The home of Francesco Di Sarra, an architect, and his wife, Brenda, a real estate agent, appears to make no sense. It’s on the edge of Toronto, just off a major highway and minutes from Canada’s Wonderland, a massive amusement park. Logically, it should be as generic and chock-a-block as the many nearby subdivisions.
Instead, the 6,000-square-foot place feels like a rural, if modern, country villa. Outside, sleek grey boxes sprawl across a valley ridge. Inside, the attention to detail is anything but rote – the bricks backing the fireplaces are arranged in a herringbone pattern that echoes the inlaid walnut floors. All around, large windows frame views to two acres of century-old oaks, trees that hide any neighbouring homes.
That the property hasn’t been converted into a townhouse complex or a set of McMansions can be explained by the Toronto Region Conservation Authority, which prohibits building on the site. But how did the Di Sarra’s manage to construct a house over the past five years that gleams with newness (and just gleams period, with lines of brass incised into the exterior)?
When the Di Sarra’s bought the property in 2013, there was already a more modest house on the site (no herringbone, no brass). Because of the grandfathered structure, the conservation authority would allow them to renovate extensively, just not extend the original footprint.
At the time, Mr. Di Sarra was hoping to experiment with his architecture. He had graduated from the Carlton University School of Architecture in 1996, then spent 16 years as a contractor before launching his own architecture firm, FrankFranco. He wanted to build a home that could showcase his ideas, not necessarily be constrained by a 60-year-old layout.
The existing building had certain characteristics that he appreciated, though, including the fact that it wasn’t open-concept, as many modern homes are, but was separated into distinct rooms, including a sunken basement den beneath a mezzanine that’s still there. “I like having separate rooms because they are more intimate,” Mr. Di Sarra says. “The house is 6,000 square feet, but it doesn’t feel that way.”
Mr. Di Sarra’s willingness to work with the architecture helped secure the purchase. “When we made the offer, I wrote the owner a letter because I knew that she was tied to the house,” Ms. Di Sarra says. “She had been here since the sixties, raised her family here and I knew she wanted it to go to another family, not a builder looking to flip. So I explained that Frank was an architect, that we would be living here with our two boys and that we would maintain the integrity of the house. She had other offers but took ours in part because of that commitment.”
The current incarnation is far more contemporary, such as the black-and-white op-art lining the back of the car port. But if the house were a song, it would be a remix, not a rewrite. Even features that seem entirely new aren’t. The backyard pool surrounded by geometric landscaping and adjacent to a fun, graffiti-inspired mural doesn’t seem very 1950s. But the pool itself is, in fact, original – only the previous owner had filled it in with dirt, so the Di Sarra’s uncovered and revived it.
Likewise, much of the home’s exterior is Eramosa limestone that seems to have the polish or recently quarried cladding. However, it all once formed retaining walls for the previous owner’s gardens, gardens that had overgrown. “The blocks were 10 inches thick,” says Mr. Di Sarra, who did most of the construction himself, including digging out the stone. “I was able to split them to make the cladding. I almost had enough to clad the whole house, but where I didn’t I used black brick.”
The ability to find an existing material and turn it to his aesthetic advantage is something that Mr. Di Sarra does very well and is evident elsewhere in his home. For the design, he worked a bit like a chef shopping in a food market, tailoring his ideas to the finishes he could find as he went along (often off-cuts or end-of-stock items), rather than envisioning something specific that might not have been available.
A dramatic feature wall in the foyer is clad in slabs of glittering green marble. Gold flecks in the rock pick up the warm tones in the surrounding walnut, as well as the large brass handle inset into the front door. The composition looks considered, but the marble was left over from the lobby of Mississauga’s curvy Marilyn Monroe towers and bought at a warehouse clearance sale.
“I have an idea of what I want the space to look like in my mind,” Mr. Di Sarra says. “But I also adjust to suit as I go.”
The sense of pragmatism is ostensibly at odds with the many poetic aspects of the house. The inside edge of the aforementioned brass door handle is laser etched with a love note to Mr. Di Sarra’s family. It’s not visible, only felt every time someone opens and closes the door. Similarly, the aforementioned exterior brass insets, as well as a series of walnut wall panels in the kitchen, are shaped as stylized tulips – Ms. Di Sarra’s favourite flower, another architectural love note.
“For my own home, I pushed every detail as far as possible,” says Mr. Di Sarra, who points out that the interiors of his bathroom drawers have been mitered to make them more smooth, less box-y.
But the seeming frivolity is balanced by rational business sense. Mr. Di Sarra estimates that the woodwork alone in the house would have cost him $250,000. Instead of spending that on one-off items – such as the inlaid tops of the standing desks in his home studio – he used it to hire a team, buy woodworking equipment and launch his own millwork business, Pomegranate Cabinetry, a separate entity to FrankFranco that now works with other architecture offices including long-established studio, Giannone Petricone Associates.
“Having the millwork business is great,” he says, “because it allows me to think of something and make it happen, especially difficult things. Sometimes I drive the guys crazy asking for details, but it’s those things that make a place special.”
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