- MARCH 29,2008


“We just bought the ugliest house in Rosedale,” its owner confessed to architect John O’Connor. Without missing a beat, my friend John replied, “Oh, you must mean the house at ?” Shock, then laughter all round. John had begun to design a renovation for the previous owners of the house and their real estate agent had referred John to the new owners.

Two years later, the transformation is formidable, but ugly was the wrong word to describe it then. Located in an established area of mostly traditional and considerably grander homes, this 1958 suburban-style bungalow was more out of place than unattractive. Still, being perceived as ugly was certainly a handicap. The house had self-esteem issues: Its plan was confused, its rooms poky, and a large, 1970 indoor-pool addition felt awkward.

Exacerbating the home’s problems were the expectations of the new owners. They wanted a family house where their three children would feel comfortable with friends. Comfortable for the kids means they have p-r-i-v-a-c-y. It’s smart parents who want their kids to hang out at home and not at the mall; it’s fortunate kids who have enough space so that it doesn’t seem like mom and dad are spying. (To say nothing of parents wanting privacy, too–not that kids would understand this.)

The owners knew that trying to turn a classic, if unloved, contemporary house into something Georgianesque would only create a mess. John says, “They understood the potential of keeping the modern aesthetic, simple and clean, both in terms of the style of house and how this approach could create the comfortable family home they wanted.”

Fortuitous for John, the owners are not pretentious and didn’t want the house to look flashy from the street. He wasn’t going to be asked to add a columned portico, for instance. Similarly, the owners appreciated John’s flair for subtle detail and didn’t demand the ridiculous affectation of elaborate cornice mouldings and gigantic door trim that would be contrary to the home’s DNA.

It’s useful when architect and client get along well, as John did with the owners of this house. While it sounds like silly, new age spirituality, every house has a vibe and you can tell when a client and architect have got along or not as soon as you walk in. The vibe is good here, too, because there isn’t a conflict between the architect, owners and the contractor. John’s firm is Basis Design Build. He’s the contractor as well as the designer. I joked that design/ build made it difficult for the architect to blame mistakes on the contractor. I think John laughed.

What was the reno strategy? First, John reorganized the spaces and oriented them by adding a new entry pavilion. This new room establishes a visual/circulation spine to which the living and dining rooms, the kitchen and great room, and, finally, the indoor pool, all connect. It’s like a centre hall plan, only the hall is invisible.

Second, John added a great room. “The house needed a large, noteworthy space, not only as the main entertaining area but to balance the smaller areas of the house and relate to the large pool area.” It’s also the part of the house that connects to the garden and brings the outside in. The new great room feels expansive but not out of place. Its careful detailing stops it from feeling too big. “The lowered ceilings on the south and west give a sense of a wrap-around porch and this makes an easy transition to the exterior,” explains John.

He also added space for the kids and a second floor. What’s remarkable is that the facade of the house barely hints at the second storey, with its new master bedroom, ensuite and office. The bungalow spirit has been retained, though the house is now much larger, having expanded from about 8,200 square feet (including a finished basement) to 11,600 sq. ft.

In any renovation, even if the transformation is stunning, it’s often equally amazing to learn what’s been done that you can’t see. Such is the case here. If you need a lesson in how home technology has progressed in 30 years, renovate. “It was a complicated renovation, from a technical perspective, with most everything needing to be redone,” says John. “An indoor pool adds another set of issues.” In this regard, my fear of homes with indoor pools — they reek of chemicals — is unwarranted. Precise balancing of air pressure keeps the poolside ambience out of the house where endless doors couldn’t before.

The owners certainly picked up on the contemporary sense of the house when they moved in; when they decorated, new modern furniture and bold contemporary art appeared. It all adds up to a welcoming house. It’s always enjoyable to visit a well-designed contemporary house, but it’s even better to see one where everyone feels at home.