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The General Aces

Modern Toronto home built with 45-foot-tall tree in mind

Modern Toronto home built with 45-foot-tall tree in mind

Anthony Adams’ home in the Toronto neighbourhood of Wychwood.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

Just as adulthood has its totems, such as mortgages, insurance, cocktail parties or home renovations, so, too, does childhood, with its skinned knees, bicycles, junk food, and ball hockey. Oh, and trees: remember how intimate we were with trees? Climbing them, leaning on them for hide-n-seek countdowns, sitting in their shade to read … trees were our friends.

“I’ve found a place beside a friendly tree,” agreed poet Annette Wynne in 1919′s The Friendly Tree. It would be a place to “hide my face when the world hurts me.” Since trees never hurt us, it would become a “true and silent friend.”

If only there were a way to bring these friends back into our lives.

Architect Brenda Izen has, for at least one family. Anthony Adams’s home in the Toronto neighbourhood of Wychwood doesn’t just sit near a tree, its whole façade has been sculpted with the intent of creating a relationship with the 45-foot-tall Northern Catalpa out front.

“We wanted to carry that whole line of natural light and a flow and energy through the house, and capture the beauty of the tree through this amazingly huge window,” says Ms. Izen, who adds that the 17-foot-tall pane had to be special ordered from Poland. “You feel all the seasons so acutely … and so you’re always feeling the time of day, the natural light, the season, based on the tree, and it’s all very interrelated with the experience of the house.”

To create that experience wasn’t easy. The house, like others on the street, placed full rooms at the front to maximize light, and buried the main staircase further inside. So, Ms. Izen had to rejig both storeys – thankfully she was able to add some square footage at the rear for more juggling room – to create the wide volume necessary via a stair tower.

  • Anthony Adams’ home in the Toronto neighbourhood of Wychwood. Renovation deign by architect Brenda Izen.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

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And the actual staircase that inhabits the space is no slouch either: a light wood, ziggy-zaggy sculpture terminates in two final blocks that spread into the foyer. “We talked about the scenario [of] when you have people over and everyone’s leaving and then the good conversation starts at the door at midnight,” she laughs. “This is another impromptu sitting area.”

The other side of the foyer is the Yin to the light- and staircase-filled Yang. Here, all is black and brooding board-and-batten doors with massive (and hidden) doors for bicycle and coat and just-about-anything-else storage. The creamy grey floor ensures things don’t get too moody, however.

To give this three-person (soon to be four) family extra room without added bulk on the street façade, Ms. Izen created a three-foot bump out about halfway back that then carries into the backyard to become a 25-by-25-foot addition. Back here, in contrast to the red brick and hip roof, it’s all cool grey Roman brick and floor-to-ceiling windows under a flat roof; in other words, completely modernist.

“We wanted to be respectful of the vernacular language that’s set up by several houses in a row,” Ms. Izen says. “But we want it to be really obvious that something new and special is happening inside that there are modern interventions.”

“I love a modern aesthetic, I love big windows,” Mr. Adams adds. “In terms of the concept of the home, with the stairs, with the window, with the back of the house, [Ms. Izen] kind of nailed that right from the beginning.”

There was a lot to, um, nail, too, since like all young families, this one had very specific requirements. Some were common, such as a large primary bedroom with an equally large ensuite, or a large kitchen. Others were more unusual, such as various types of bicycle storage, (Mr. Adams is a very serious cyclist and refers to himself as a MAMIL – Middle-Aged Man In Lycra), which required deft handling so as not to interrupt the flow of space and light.

A walk around proves that all was handled quite well. Rooms flow nicely into other rooms, and the bump out made it possible to create a handsome mud room, which tucks coats and shoes and boots away from the main spaces. The bump out also allowed for a second-floor window into a child’s bedroom.

Tried and true architectural trickery to create the illusion of more space was used; this included wide plank flooring; a limited (and neutral) palette of grey, white and black; high ceilings; actual floor-to-ceiling glass to borrow space from outdoors; “floating” the staircase from one wall; the absence of crown moulding; a long clerestory window in the basement; and minimalist light fixtures. All of these fool the eye into seeing more volume.

Izen Architecture’s renovation/addition is a quiet, intelligent response to providing more space to a growing family without showmanship or fuss.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

To help the eye land – and rest – a few interesting features have been incorporated, such as the microcement finish in the ensuite, which has also been applied to planters outside. “We’re seeing more of the hand-applied, artisan finishes,” Ms. Izen says. “We’re doing microcement in a few of our projects; in the same way that Venetian plaster has that hand-finish, it’s concrete but with that same [look]. Microcement is really good in bathrooms because it’s waterproof.”

Over all, Izen Architecture’s renovation/addition is a quiet, intelligent response to providing more space to a growing family without showmanship or fuss. Which makes the rare showy moments, such as the big window and how it relates to the tree, shine even brighter. Just ask Major, the family’s mini bernedoodle: it’s his favourite spot in the house.

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