- JUNE 18, 2004


Renovation adds a thoroughly modern twist while staying true to a house’s humble roots

How do you hide a three-storey addition to a one-storey cottage?

Toronto architect John O’Connor figured it out when he set out to expand one of Cabbagetown’s humble worker’s cottages into a spacious residence and office for himself and partner Rick Hayward.

Mr. O’Connor’s ingenious solution? He built the immaculate modern addition, which he playfully calls “the tower,” several metres behind the cottage and connected the two structures with a cunning “link” – a combination single-storey kitchen and open-air courtyard that can be viewed from both the tower and the cottage.

From the vantage point of a pedestrian or driver on the street, the set-back addition barely peeks over the top of the cottage gable and even then is obscured by foliage from neighbouring trees.

“You know something’s there but it’s not in your face,” says Mr. O’Connor, who was anxious to ensure his modern creation would not intrude upon the quaint streetscape.

“It’s important to work in the historical context with an old house. I [wanted to] show you can have a modern house in the context, scale and pattern of the neighbourhood without being literal.”

His street has one of historic Cabbagetown’s enclaves of tiny wooden cottages that were thrown together for area factory workers in the 1870s.

Not built to last, virtually all of these 500-square-foot gabled dwellings have undergone extensive restorations over the decades – each according to its owner’s individual idea about how best to enhance its charm.

Some have been clad in red and yellow brick to resemble the two- and-three-storey Victorian homes of the gentry of the time. Others have been done up in stucco, vertical boards, horizontal boards, aluminum siding or stone panels.

“What most people do is put on fake gingerbread trim,” Mr. O’Connor says. “[But] these weren’t noble houses – the workers couldn’t afford trim – so when you add that it’s fake.”

For the facade of his cottage, which now serves as Mr. O’Connor’s professional offices, the architect chose a light grey cement-board siding that gives it a simple, clean and ageless appearance.

He fitted the cottage with a studio, bathroom and spare bedroom and then turned his ingenuity to the creation of a 2,000-square-foot home for himself and Mr. Hayward that would reflect their love of modern Italian design, provide a sanctuary of calm – and also double as a showcase of ideas for clients of Mr. O’Connor’s firm, Basis Design Build. Three steps lead from the cottage to the “link.”

The left side is a kitchen that opens through glass doors on the right to a 12-foot-by-11-foot courtyard garden that sits in a well created by the walls of the cottage, the tower and a steel garden wall.

The courtyard’s main feature is a mosaic-lined fountain with a cement water wall that can be viewed from all areas of the office-and-home complex including all three storeys of the addition.

A sense of continuity between the kitchen and courtyard is created through the use of a slate floor and concrete-counter island, which gives an outdoor feel to the cooking area, and the courtyard’s stainless steel wall is echoed in the kitchen’s facing wall.

In winter, the falling water freezes into a “wedding-dress” skirt of ice that is illuminated with coloured light. On the other side of the link, the living-dining area overlooks the courtyard on one side and on the other a landscaped back yard with Italian Renaissance-inspired geometry featuring a stepping-stone fountain that trickles downhill from one rectangular stone pan to another.

Pale grey aluminum window casings harmonize with warm brown Douglas Fir pillars in the glass wall looking out to the back yard.

Cream ultra-suede sofas and chairs face each other across a floor of 8-inch reclaimed-oak boards.

The main living-room wall is covered by an immense, organic wall-hanging created by Giulio Gorga, an Italian artist Mr. O’Connor met during a four-year sojourn in Venice.

The tan-coloured coarse fabric made from the bark of sequoia trees is daubed with bold white symbols depicting the creation of man from the elements of earth, water, fire and air.

The hanging, once used as a stage backdrop in a play in France, is especially dear to Mr. O’Connor for having almost disappeared on its way to Canada.

“It got lost on a runway in Milan, but I got it back after a week,” he recalls with a shudder.

Mr. Gorga will also be creating a fresco on the ceiling shared by the dining room and the second-floor bedroom, which has a cut-out corner in the floor to maximize the view of the courtyard garden from the bedroom.

The bathroom design is spectacular.

A rectangular shower room has a wall of frosted glass that is lit from outside. The floor is slats of teak that lift up to reveal a sunken bathtub underneath.

The third level was conceived as a retreat, and indeed feels comfortably removed from the home’s front door down in the cottage.

“It’s far enough up that no one knows you’re at home,” Mr. O’Connor smiles. “You don’t have to answer the door.”

It’s a sort of recreation room at treetop level instead of in a basement, and without a television. There are comfortable chairs, a stereo, and a cow hide on the floor. “It’s a little bit like a cottage to go to at the end of a work day,” Mr. O’Connor says. This room has a walkout to a large wraparound deck with views across the treetops to the downtown skyline, and even the lake in winter. Looking down over the perforated steel railing you can see the courtyard fountain and a silver expanse of galvanized aluminum roofing on the original cottage. An outdoor shower and, eventually, a hot tub, are to be added. “I intend to live in this house forever, so there will always be things to do,” Mr. O’Connor says. And that’s despite a local market-price explosion that has seen typical cottages on his street rise in value from $200,000 to $600,000 in five years.