Starting Out Small
Tim McKeough

By building a single-family house on land too tiny for other developers, one young Toronto firm is making a name for itself. Even in Toronto's overheated real estate market there are parcels of land that no one seems to want. That's just fine with Reigo & Bauer, a young design and development firm that is making its mark by building on infill lots otherwise written off as worthless. While the concept is popular in Japan in its most extreme form (so-called "pet architecture"), it's a different way of thinking in a land-rich city that seems to be continually pushing its boundaries. The firm—run by husband and wife Stephen Bauer and Merike Reigo—completed its first project this summer, squeezing a sunny single-family home into a lot so small that it sat unused in the desirable Beaches neighborhood, near the shores of Lake Ontario.

"We actually purchased the land from a developer," Bauer says, explaining that the previous owner had unsuccessfully tried to change the setback and height restrictions on the lot, which he described as the size of a "postage stamp" (16 by 55 feet). "He thought it wasn't possible to develop within the footprint of the neighboring buildings. We thought it was completely possible." In fact the site restrictions inspired the design from start to finish. Because the house is shoehorned tightly between two worker cottages typical of the area, Reigo and Bauer used solid walls on both sides to maximize its width—the fire code would have required a greater setback for windows. That decision made it necessary to introduce plenty of natural light through the front and back, where they used full walls of glass, painting the back of some panels white for privacy. Lastly the staircase that runs across the center of the house to provide lateral support also defines most of the interior rooms.

The architects were economical in other ways too. From the street the building's peaked roof crisply echoes its next-door neighbor, but with a distinctive touch: Reigo and Bauer ran the roofline diagonally from the center peak to a back corner. "It wasn't more costly to twist the ridge," Reigo says of the move, which gives each upstairs room a different spatial quality. "That's something we're really excited about—finding ways to do things architecturally that don't increase the cost."

The project was a business success—the house sold soon after completion—and it allowed the pair to move quickly from paper to built work; as intern architects they are not yet fully licensed by the Ontario Association of Architects, but they are able to build single-family houses. "We lived in London two years ago and were so inspired by how many young firms were there," Reigo says. "We were completely convinced that it has everything to do with our licensing system in North America, which is gruesome. We decided we didn't want to wait until we were fifty to build our own projects." With one inventive building now standing as a proud example of their ideas, and a second infill house under way in another Toronto neighborhood, it's not just Reigo and Bauer who stand to benefit from such ambitiousness—it's also the perked-up communities that surround their creations.

Beaches home fits in while standing out
John Bentley Mays

Toronto's Beaches neighbourhood has long been one of the city's most agreeable and attractive residential districts. It's a charming, relaxed resort only minutes, via the Queen streetcar, from the financial district, but also a place of long sandy shoreline that can make the bustle of urban life seem very far away indeed.

The only problem with the neighbourhood (as developers like to say) is that God isn't making any more of it. Hence the new interest in building lots that, until quite recently, were thought too tight to put a house on. Such a lot was discovered on a leafy Beaches street by the new architectural design team Reigo & Bauer - Merike Reigo and Stephen Bauer are partners in both life and art - who then embarked on the daunting job of filling it with a little house that worked as well as a big one.

The result, which was finished last week, is a success in every respect: intelligently designed for comfortable, compact urban living, efficient but hardly austere or constricting, and respectful of its gentle old streetscape of peaked roofs and modest front gardens.

Designed entirely within the prevailing official limits on height and size, the house is a snug stack of six rooms and two baths, each room sensitively tailored for its special architectural function. The heart of the house is the kitchen, which opens in one direction through a tall glass door to the walkout deck and back garden, and, in another direction, to the dining area facing the street and adjoining the front door. (The view beyond the kitchen and back garden reveals a sequence of other backyards rising up the hill - a pleasing, sociable sight common in many older Toronto neighbourhoods.)

Reigo & Bauer have made kitchen and dining room fill the whole main level of the house - a bold signal that declares their house to be less a retreat than a focus for the common life of a Beaches family. From this centre, the house spirals outward and flourishes - upstairs, to two rooms, one the master bedroom; downstairs, to the finished basement, and a space that, in the present configuration, is designated as a living room.

The other basement room has a slot window running across the top of the rear wall, and would make an ideal study for a couple whose jobs allow them to work from home.

But so bare a description of the interior arrangement - which, after all, is largely a matter of what was possible within the constricted envelope - does not do justice to the details that constitute the building's real beauty.

By making a steep cut outside the basement's front (south) wall, for example, the designers have opened the below-grade living room to direct sunlight, and provided a view of a rock garden that imaginative plantings could make a year-round delight. Instead of running perpendicular to the street, the ridgepole of the pitched roof extends from the peak at the centre of the street façade to a corner at the rear - a delightfully eccentric move that creates surprises and unusual variety in the top floor ceilings.

The most lovely refinements in the scheme, however, occur at the expansive windows fore and aft, where the interior dwelling space meets the city.

In most of our homes, windows are simply cuts in the wall, framed and glazed; they are nothing more than punched-out openings to allow in light and air. In this house, the floors and walls do not quite touch the windows, which makes the glazing appear to be floating slightly beyond the house.

This beautiful effect is a kind of optical illusion, since house and glass are in fact quite firmly joined. But by making the outer window frames invisible from inside the building, Reigo & Bauer have softened the normally hard edge between inside and outside, making the rooms seem larger than they are.

The designers have also found an opportunity for unexpected grace and presence in a feature too often treated with indifference by residential architects and builders.

With the children of suburbia decamping for the old parts of town their parents abandoned, small building lots (along with laneways and other off-beat crevices in the urban fabric) are certain to become more attractive to architects and developers. The Reigo & Bauer house is a good example of what can be done on an unlikely plot of ground, and an instance of smart architectural imagination at work on the never-ending problem of finding the perfect house.

all images and text within this page copyright © 2011 by reigo & bauer.