Modern Love - Funky homes may not blend in, but they do fit in
Sarah Dobson

The quaint streets of Toronto's historic Beach area are lined with picturesque brick or cottage-style homes featuring welcoming verandahs, leaded windows, wood trim, hardwood floors and lush gardens. But lately, modern homes with imposing walls of glass, stainless steel accents, crooked angles, black-and-white exteriors or whimsical shapes have struck a pose in this traditional, tight-knit neighbourhood.

If these funky interpretations don't exactly blend in, they still manage to fit in. "The nice thing about the Beach is the eclectic mix of homes and that adds character to the whole neighbourhood," says Henry Bliss, a Re/Max real estate agent in the Beach. Builders and owners are winning over neighbours by embracing local flavour while presenting an updated look. "Whenever you build something modern when there's nothing else modern around it, you never know [how people will react]," says Merike Reigo, partner at Reigo & Bauer, a design and development firm in Toronto. "But the overall market in Toronto is becoming design-savvy, and the interiors have been getting modern for quite some time, so it's not such a jump to see a modern exterior."

Reigo & Bauer recently filled a small empty lot tucked between a row of houses near Woodbine Avenue and Kingston Road. The property was only 16½x55 feet so the architects approached the design much as they would for a condo, building a tall, thin white house, with black side walls, whose front is almost entirely glass; passersby can easily gaze Into the upper and lower rooms.

Also striking is the roof line, symmetrically pitched on the street side and matching those of the houses next door. "The barn-type roof is a strong form in the neighbourhood, and we wanted to work with that," says Ms. Reigo. But the roof ridge veers from tradition by stretching to the northeast corner at the back of the house, adding "intrigue and spatial character."

The new house took a while to sell, whether because of the price, the small size or the striking design. Initially on the lookout for a condo, the owner, Richard Godin, was attracted to the 1,000-sq.-ft. home "because it was different, first and foremost. It appears to be paper thin and like a fishbowl. It's all glass - it's not for a bashful person."

Having previously lived in a larger, traditional home, he admits it took a few drive-bys to picture himself living there, but the newfangled amenities - the radiant floor heating, external ductless air conditioning, commercial-grade windows, contemporary kitchen and an open-riser stairwell - sold him." It has a lot of peculiar lines. I found it interesting and every room has a different feel."

For the most part, in-fillers put in homes that respect the neighbourhood, says Gloria Smith, an agent for Royal LePage in the Beach. But really modern properties can be a challenge to sell or resell, she says, particularly dream homes designed by the people living there who have chosen a personal style.

Diana Kolpak and Michael Melling built their ideal home in the Beach in 2003. The flat roofed blue-and-green stucco house, with a laser-cut stainless steel street number, noticeably stands out from its modest redbrick neighbours. The house was originally a small bungalow built in the early 1900s, but the new owners envisioned a modernist design; however, they were not keen to build a monster home on the 25x220-ft. lot, says Ms. Kolpak, 'We tried to stay within the scale of the neigbbourbood." Working with WK Lim Architect in Toronto, the couple created a colourful, boxy home that is dramatic both inside and out The open-concept house takes advantage of the sloping lot to expand from three floors with eight-ft. ceilings at the front to two floors with 14-ft. ceilings at the back. The south-facing, garden-side exterior is all glass, allowing light to shine in on the artwork on the ample walls, custom-designed wood furniture and silver accents.

Cars often slow down to take a look and passersby, now and during construction, have often said they admire the design, says Ms. Kolpak. "I believe modern houses can fit into traditional neighbourhoods. It's good to challenge people's ideas on what a house should look like."

Just around the corner live Gibran Guts and Margot Rockett, who have done major renovations to their home over the years. Built during the 1930s as a bungalow, the two-storey house now features an updated wood porch in dramatic shades of grey, offset by vertical posts and fascia trim in stainless steel. Inside, black and white accents are prominent, with a darkly, stained pine floor, white furniture, white walls, a dark wood staircase trimmed with square aluminum posts and a zebra wood handrail with horizontal airplane wires.

The couple have done all the work themselves, trying to stay true to the house's original layout, while adding their own contemporary style. Ms. Rockett says she knows of one neighbour who is not so keen on the upgrades, but most are appreciative, "I don't know what traditional is," she says. I've lived in this neighbourhood all my life; I know the Beach style. A true Beacher welcomes something different and creative.'

A fresh face among the mini-chateaux
John Bentley Mays

On the face of it, the pleasant post-Second World War suburb that stretches northeastward from the intersection of Bathurst Street and Lawrence Avenue West is hardly Toronto's ideal location for a thoroughly contemporary house. The little bungalows in this old and well-rooted, mostly Jewish neighbourhood are being rapidly replaced by larger homes, but the preferred style of the newer building in this district is mini-chateau, not modernism.

The 3,500-square-foot house is wide, like all the newer homes in the district, and, at two storeys, no higher than they are. The garage has been dropped under the house, which boosts the level of entry by about six feet—another common feature in the neighbourhood. And the front of the house is a strong, warm composition of jatoba wood and chocolate stucco that seems to retire slightly from Ledbury, as though not wanting to pick a fight with the more fanciful façades round about. The main entry is at the side of the building, which keeps the front geometry bold, clear and uncluttered. This ruggedly handsome front makes a good case for modernist architectural ideas—their powers to quicken and revive old streetscapes, their sound urbanity—in a suburban setting of long, shady streets.

But the most exciting things about this house—all of them having to do with light—happen behind its sturdy façade. In sharp contrast to many old Toronto homes, which tend to have dark interiors lit by end windows, 132 Ledbury has been designed to capture every available ray of natural light from dawn to dark, and draw it into the heart of the house. The interior areas that the visitor sees first, after coming in through the side entry, are organized around an unroofed atrium that stands at the core of the building—an unusual gesture that works beautifully here. Even on an overcast day, ample light washes down into this central courtyard, and flows through tall glass sliding doors into the adjoining rooms and beyond. In another bid to incorporate natural light into their architecture, Ms. Reigo and Mr. Bauer have put skylights in four of the five bathrooms, and designed the staircase around an open slot that falls without interruption from the second-floor skylight to the basement floor. Also, large windows open to the ample backyard, with its ancient pear tree, and fine sunset views over the back gardens beyond.

These are real windows punched in walls, by the way, not the more usual modernist expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass. This conservative move lends a pleasant sense of enclosure and privacy to the interior spaces. One of the more remarkable features of this house, in fact, is the way it admits so much light while maintaining a very high degree of privacy—not an easy feat in this neighbourhood, where newer houses (including this one) stand chock-a-block beside each other along the sidewalk.

To keep the layout of their structure similar to more traditional houses in the Bathurst and Lawrence area, the designers have lightly defined the uses of rooms with certain conventional markers. One room off the atrium has a fireplace, for instance, designating it as the living room. Another, adjoining the kitchen but clearly separated from it, is long and narrow, suggesting a dining room—and so on. Home-owners who prefer the traditional divvying-up of space into formal categories will find that this house lends itself readily to such a scheme. There are definite places for the library (at the front of the first floor), the nanny's suite and the media room (in the finished basement), and for a family room off the kitchen area.

But little about this house—except, perhaps, its four-bedroom arrangement upstairs—absolutely dictates specific uses in specific areas. The little library, with its balcony running across the front of the building, could conveniently become a home office. Or a large and luxurious office could be set up in the "living room"—which is immediately adjacent to the entry area—and the "dining room" could be turned into a place for entertaining guests. Such architectural flexibility should be welcome these days, when the whole relationship between the home and the workplace is changing, and many professionals are working at home.

Do modernist beauty, sophistication and efficiency have a place in even the most staid Toronto neighbourhoods? I think 132 Ledbury proves they do.

How to Build with Elegance on a small plot of land
Alex Mlynek

On a quiet residential street lined with the occasional barn-roofed house you'll find one of the smallest and most modern-looking dwellings in the Beach area. The tiny three-storey home was built last year by husband and wife Stephen Bauer and Merike Reigo. The duo first met in 2001 as architecture students at the University of Toronto. Three years later, they started their own design and development firm, Reigo & Bauer, even though they were not yet fully licensed to build anything larger than a house. In 2005, they turned their sights on 12 Cassels Avenue - a vacant residential lot with a footprint of just 84 square metres, or about the size of a one-bedroom condo. Their aim was to design and build their first home from scratch.

Every inch of the tiny house has been maximized, with six rooms and two bathrooms over three floors, in a design that includes a finished basement for added living and storage space. The stairwell discreetly zigzags its way up the middle and is capped by a skylight to draw light into the interior. But the most inventive feature is the use of glazed walls on the front and back of the house, which not only maximizes natural light, it makes the otherwise small rooms feel big and airy. The main-floor kitchen looks out onto a small garden patio that is accessible through double swing doors, while the windows in the top-floor master bedroom reach to ceiling height. Viewed from outside, the exterior front glazing extends beyond the usual point where window meets supporting walls, giving the house an unusual paper-thin look.

"We were interested in achieving a very contemporary and minimal aesthetic, white still being approachable and not too hard and austere," says Reigo. They also wanted the new build to took comfortable on a street where most of the houses date back more than a half-century, a feat accomplished by echoing the rooftop lines of the nearby homes. "We were shocked that people were generally pleased with how much the house fit in with the neighbour-hood," says Reigo. "It's the power of the pitched roof. A pitched roof registers 'house' with everyone."

While this may be a small house with an overall floor area of just 93 square metres, the designers' ultimate goals are large. Designing a house, and building it on spec, was their way of demystifying the idea that architecturally designed houses are beyond the realm of the average homebuyer. "The perception is that architecture is mostly for wealthy people or large institutions," says Bauer. But that's not necessarily the case. "What's really important to us is thinking about a different way to practice," which includes removing the intimidation factor. After months of planning and nine months of building, 12 Cassels Avenue was sold for $414,000.

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