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Great Spaces: four extremely cool laneway houses

Peter Tan and Christine Ho Ping Kong’s laneway house near St. Clair and Old Weston Road (Image: Juliana Sohn)

Peter Tan and Christine Ho Ping Kong’s laneway house near St. Clair and Old Weston Road (Image: Juliana Sohn)

Some of Toronto’s most spectacular homes are tucked out of view, nestled in narrow alleyways that run between city streets. Laneway housing is deeply urban, relatively cheap, environmentally smart and seriously stylish. Here, four families that have it all figured out.

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This Old Coach House: a century-old house in the Annex that’s as quiet as a cottage

This Old Coach House: a contemporary coach house in the Annex

The People: Klaus Nienkämper, 43, and Marisa Simunovic, 40, who together run the King East design store Klaus.

The Place: A contemporary coach house in the Annex.

Nienkämper is a connoisseur of quirk. He collects cast iron toys and kitschy cuckoo clocks. He stocks his King East furniture store with doughnut-shaped fruit bowls and lamps inspired by Mickey Mouse. And he’s drawn to unusual homes (he used to live in a former railway conductor’s house in the Annex). The century-old converted coach house he shares with Simunovic and their twins, Oliver and Otto, is only 1,400 square feet, but Nienkämper says that’s more than enough: “In my line of work, you see a lot of enormous homes. You don’t really need that much space.” It helps that the house feels as private as a cottage—it’s backed by an acre of wooded green space.

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Steel Beauty: a wonderfully mod metal box near Dupont and Shaw

Steel Beauty: a mod, 1,300-square-foot house near Dupont and Shaw

The People: Steve Bugler, the 52-year-old owner of Radiant City Millwork, and Valentina Nedelcu, a 52-year-old engineer.

The Place: A mod, 1,300-square-foot house near Dupont and Shaw.

Bugler and Nedelcu bought their property from a semi-retired metalworker in 2008. They tore down the existing rental house and, with input from architect Michael LaFreniere, designed a steel-clad box. Bugler and his three-man crew did all of the framing and most of the finishing, including walls of custom windows (Bugler’s specialty) in the front and rear. But on the side of the house that hugs the laneway, he limited himself to a single, high window to showcase the rusted-steel exterior—and keep passersby from seeing inside.

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Tall Order: a 2,000-square-foot tower in Corktown with almost no interior walls

Tall Order: a 2,000-square-foot tower with two home offices in Corktown

The People: Julie Dyck, a 43-year-old jeweller, and Michael Humphries, a 44-year-old mobile app designer.

The Place: A 2,000-square-foot tower with two home offices in Corktown.

Dyck and Humphries were living in a converted storefront near Queen and Parliament when they noticed a For Sale sign on a 25-by-25-foot lot next door. This was a decade ago, and they weren’t quite sure what could be built in such a tiny space, but Dyck has a DIY bent and was determined to figure it out. She enlisted the architect Drew Hauser, a childhood friend, and together they designed a five-storey glass, brick and steel structure. The house has almost no interior walls—aside from those that surround the two bathrooms—which makes it feel surprisingly large.

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Live-Work-Play: a laneway house in Carleton ­Village with an amazing courtyard centrepiece

Live-Work-Play: a courtyard house in Carleton ­Village, near St. Clair and Old Weston Road

The People: Peter Tan, 44, and Christine Ho Ping Kong, 47, the husband-and-wife team behind the custom woodworking and design shop ­Studio Junction.

The Place: A courtyard house in Carleton ­Village, near St. Clair and Old Weston Road.

As an architecture student at U of T, Tan wrote his thesis on laneway houses. He and Ho Ping Kong wanted to design their own and found the perfect lot in 2001, behind a Davenport Road house. They stayed in their Junction apartment on the other side of the tracks while they built their new home over six years. The centrepiece is the courtyard, flanked by floor-to-ceiling sliding glass doors. They use the space as often as weather allows—for client meetings, art shows, to host parties of up to 300 guests—and sometimes even when weather doesn’t: as their kids, Abbe and Ian, can attest, designers make the best snow forts.

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Great Spaces: a Haliburton cottage that turned a die-hard city slicker into an amateur woodsman

Great Spaces: a Haliburton cottage that turned a die-hard city slicker into an amateur woodsman

Stephen Grant is one of Toronto’s top divorce lawyers, the man one-­percenters like David Thomson and Michael McCain go to when their marriages ­falter. He’s also a city guy who never dreamed of owning a cabin in the woods. That is, until he met his wife, Sandy Forbes, in the early ’90s. She’s a lawyer too, a partner at Davies who specializes in commercial litigation. She yearned for a ­weekend escape from their frenetic schedule. “Sandy wanted a cottage,” says Grant, “and like any sensible husband, I said yes.” (His line of work has made him an expert on matrimonial arbitration.) Their decade-old retreat is on a forested lot in ­Haliburton facing a quiet lake. But its design, by architects ­Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, is thoroughly urban. The structure is encased in Shim-­Sutcliffe’s signature rusting steel, and the burnished concrete floors belong in a downtown loft. In these modern surroundings, Grant has learned to enjoy the relaxed pace of country life: while Forbes lounges for hours with a paperback, he passes ­leisurely afternoons trying out recipes from Saveur and Bon Appétit.

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Great Spaces: a starkly beautiful haven above a furniture shop in the Junction

John and Juli Baker, owners of the cultishly popular Mjölk, built a home that’s as starkly beautiful as their shop below

John and Juli Baker met by chance seven years ago at the Cloak and Dagger pub on College Street. She was studying art curation and photography at OCAD. He played guitar in a folk-rock band. They were both obsessed with modern design, and they sparked immediately. Their first collaboration was a blog where they gushed over graceful chairs, well-­proportioned teapots and other striking examples of Japanese and Scandinavian design. It proved so ­popular that, in 2009, they bought a Victorian storefront in the Junction and started selling the rarefied products they’d been blogging about. They ­married in the showroom a year later and set about gutting the two-storey living quarters above the shop. The couple’s ­minimal aesthetic—all white or wood, with no ornamentation—is the kind of thing that looks great in Dwell, but can seem impossible for people with pets, kids or both. And yet they’ve made the look work in a busy household that includes a two-year-old girl, a newborn baby boy and a cat (Elodie, Howell and Isha, respectively). Working with architects Peter Tan and Christine Ho Ping Kong of Studio Junction, the Bakers chose durable materials—copper, soapstone, white oak—and used them throughout the 2,000-square-foot space. The cohesive palette helps to maintain the streamlined effect. So does having really nice stuff: when the kids’ shaggy rocking sheep gets left out, it looks more like a sculptural statement than clutter.

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Great Spaces: a subterranean house in Wychwood Park that got the whole neighbourhood talking

Two decades ago, Ian MacDonald and Diane ­MacDiarmid fell in love with a sloping lot in Wychwood Park. They figured it would be easy enough to expand the 1950s bungalow perched on it—­MacDonald is an architect, after all. That was before they encountered the ­Wychwood Park ­Heritage Advisory Committee. The ­couple’s new neighbours were convinced the structure would block views, cause stress to the trees and clash with the Arts and Crafts–­dominated enclave. After months of ­tension, ­MacDonald came up with an unorthodox solution: dig into the hill so that the main floor of the old bungalow would become the top floor of the new house. Although the new living space sits eight feet below grade, the lot’s slope allowed for floor-to-ceiling windows, which make the house feel bigger than its 2,600 square feet and not at all like a basement. The windows also frame ­exterior views: a 450-year-old oak tree outside the dining room and the pond where their two boys, both studying engineering at ­Dalhousie, still play shinny in the winter. It took the neighbours a while to warm to ­MacDonald and his modernist aesthetic, but they eventually came around on both fronts—he’s been elected chair of the Heritage Advisory ­Committee for the last 12 years straight.

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Great Spaces: Inside a North Toronto fixer-upper that’s been custom-outfitted for fun

Alister Campbell and Colleen Mahoney like to host dinner parties. Lots of them. It’s not unheard-of for them to have friends or extended family over one night, colleagues the next. Campbell, who runs a private insurance firm, and Mahoney, who sits on the board of the non-profit Action Against Hunger ­Canada, also have two teenage boys, Dugald and Declan, and two boisterous labradoodles, Poppy and Prudence. In short, it’s a madhouse—but a happy madhouse custom-designed to suit their needs. When they bought the rundown ­Tudor-style place in North Toronto two years ago, they hired the design firm Nivek Remas to bring in an elegant, modern aesthetic that would accommodate their special brand of contained chaos. The end result includes a living room that’s formal enough for cocktails with colleagues but that also has cushy couches for watching CFL games. The Hans ­Wegner table in the dining room expands to seat 18—perfect for when family members from Ottawa or ­Saskatchewan are in town. And when Mahoney wants to get away from the hubbub, she retreats with her laptop to the airy new master ensuite, which has an extra-long vanity overlooking the trees in the backyard.

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The Suite Hereafter: four of the most impressive master bedrooms in Toronto

Oversized and opulent master bedrooms are the busy Torontonian’s favourite new indulgence. Here are a few of the city’s best

The Suite Hereafter: four of the most impressive master bedrooms in Toronto

The master suite in Vivian Reiss’s Annex home

The Person: Vivian Reiss, a 61-year-old visual artist and renovator
The Place: A 5,000-square-foot house in the Annex with an 800-square-foot master suite

When Reiss moved into her Romanesque Revival mansion 26 years ago, it was a dilapidated warren of small rooms and gloomy corners. The woman who built it in the 1880s was the widow of a prominent Upper ­Canada politician and had 11 children; Reiss only has two, both of whom have now moved out. She’s an artist and she wanted her home to be as brightly hued and full of light as her exuberant oil paintings. Unafraid of taking on a top-to-bottom overhaul (she now renovates apartment buildings and offices professionally), Reiss immediately started tearing down walls. She turned three bedrooms—two on the second floor and one on the third—into a two-storey master with a sitting area, and filled it with salvaged fixtures from old Toronto buildings and curios from frequent trips abroad. Her dressing salon was formerly a porch, which she glassed in, adding curtains for privacy. Finally, Reiss repurposed the library to create an enormous tiled ensuite inspired by the Moorish tiles of the Alhambra palace. Her reasoning: she loves books, but enjoys bubble baths by the fire even more.

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Great Spaces: see inside a Moore Park home that feels like a family-sized tree house

Great Spaces: see inside a Moore Park home that feels like a family-sized tree house

Mary Abbott grew up outside of Guelph in an old farmhouse so secluded that her parents didn’t bother with curtains. “The land around us was made up of fields and forests,” she says. “It was extremely private.” Abbott has since left the rural life behind. She’s a corporate lawyer, her husband, Kevin Gormely, is an executive at a printing company, and they live in the middle of the city with their two small boys. Still, she channeled her upbringing when they rebuilt their home last year. The property is ensconced in the tree canopy of the Moore Park ravine, so she opted for giant picture windows with no coverings. Even the master bedroom is ­drapery-free—Abbott and Gormely enjoy waking up with the sun. The couple, working with architect John O’Connor of Basis Design Build, also kept the ­interiors spare to better showcase their extensive collection of contemporary Canadian art. Spare, but not spartan: O’Connor incorporated natural materials like soapstone, birch and Douglas fir to add rustic warmth. So even though the house looks modern, the palette is as ­elemental as the towering trees outside.

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Great Spaces: inside a Midtown home where there’s art on the walls, on the floor and in the driveway

Great Spaces: inside a Midtown home where there's art on the walls, on the floor and in the driveway

(Image: Derek Shapton)

Astrid Bastin recently gutted her century-old, midtown ravine-side house. Just about everything was updated—except the barn-shaped gambrel roof, which she maintained. Bastin, who was born in Bogotá, runs AB Projects, a cultural exchange program for established Canadian and Latin American artists. She mainly works with avant-garde mixed media artists and often gives them a live-work space in her home for a few months, then helps sell their work; the commissions are invested in the organization. As a result, the first floor of the house is a showcase for experimental pieces. A tiny TV shows a blinking eye, for example, and a series of speakers play noises such as crunching gravel. Even her driveway is an installation, with a piano that plays Chopin every evening from 5 to 7 (the tunes are quiet enough not to irk the neighbours). The ­renovation, by Dean Goodman of LGA Architectural Partners, was tailored to highlight the ever-­changing assortment of artwork. The expansive walls are MoMA white and there’s plenty of room for the crowds of curators, collectors and art lovers Bastin often entertains.

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Great Spaces: transforming an East York bungalow into a series of welcoming cubes

An actor and a TV writer create a dramatic turning point for their mid-century bungalow

Great Spaces: transforming an East York bungalow into a series of welcoming cubes

Before Yannick and Shantelle Bisson moved into their three-bedroom East York bungalow in 2007, Shantelle was a freelance writer, and Yannick was a gigging actor booking the occasional movie of the week. With three daughters to support, Yannick would often turn to contracting to help pay the bills. The ­couple’s luck changed that year when ­Yannick landed the lead role on CBC’s popular detective series Murdoch ­Mysteries. A few years later, feeling squeezed for space (and a little more flush), the Bissons went hunting for a bigger house, setting their sights on Rosedale. But the more they looked, the more they realized how much they loved their little cul-de-sac overlooking the Taylor Creek ravine and wanted to stay put. They hired the architect ­Gordon Ridgely who, along with Upside Developments, transformed their ­bungalow into a series of interlocking cubes. ­Yannick pitched in, too: he crafted the fireside bench out of pine beams salvaged from a 200-year-old barn used on his show. In more ways than one, this is the house that Murdoch built.

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Great Spaces: Inside the dramatic modernist makeover of one Annex manor

Great Spaces: Inside the dramatic modernist makeover of one Annex manor

For five years, Jen Grant and Dave ­Dattels lived the high life in London. Grant was there to do a PhD in security and intelligence at Cambridge, and ­Dattels was working in finance. They had a loft in trendy Clerkenwell, which they filled with a budding collection of modern art. But the couple were itching to be closer to family, so in 2009 they packed up and moved back to Toronto—and started looking for a place that would rival their London pad. They fell in love with a 4,200-square-foot house in the Annex that was nothing short of disastrous. It was divided into 11 apartments and had been sitting empty for two years. Grant and Dattels enlisted the help of the architect Heather ­Dubbeldam to completely transform the space. They now have two kids and a finished home that’s open and loft-like. They even renovated the backyard coach house, which they use as a guest suite when their ­London friends come to visit.

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Great Spaces: Take tours of four of Toronto’s boldest, boxiest new homes

Torontonians are finally rejecting fussy Victorian architecture and going bold. In almost every neighbourhood, there’s a house or two that stands out. They’re tall, modern and boxy—the new Toronto aesthetic. Here, a look inside some of our favourites

Great Spaces: Take tours of four of Toronto's boldest, boxiest new homes

See the first house »

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