November 1, 2009
Drawn to its weathered facade, a Toronto couple decides to call a tiny industrial building home.
A century-old shed with a wall of rusting steel panels sits in a back alley—this is not, to most people, a recipe for a dream home. But Elena and Jorge Soni, who had a view of just such a structure behind their garage in a tony Toronto neighborhood, recently decided to move in. The major selling point was the decaying steel, which changes its hue with the seasons and the weather. “For us it had been a source of inspiration for the past twenty years,” says Elena, an artist. “It was very organic, a living thing. But the neighbors did not believe we would keep it.”
Today, after a deft renovation of the building by the local architects Superkül, it’s easy to see what moved the Sonis. The designers had the steel recut and in-stalled in a fresh composition of ocher and russet patches. Also, the shell of the 40-by-12-foot building—once a blacksmith’s shop—has been stretched upward to make a house with two bedrooms and two roof decks with killer views.
For Superkül’s two principals, Meg Graham and her husband, Andre D’Elia, the project was a case study in solving a common Toronto problem: How to build in the fallow space along the city’s 19th-century network of alleys? The “laneway house” is a favorite genre for architects and creative homesteaders like the Sonis. (Jorge studied architecture in Mexico before becoming a psychiatrist.) Laneway sites are cheap but tricky, complicated by privacy concerns and zoning restrictions that make residential use challenging. True to type, this house “is a three-dimensional puzzle in the way that it gets light in and reconfigures the usual elements you would use to put a house together,” says Graham. On the second floor, the two bedrooms are separated by a courtyard and lined on the west side by light shafts that carry sun down to the ground-floor living room. The courtyard has stairs to the roof, where a patio is nestled amid the surrounding trees. It’s a remarkably complex program in just 800 square feet of indoor space.
Superkül also delivered on the Sonis’ green agenda, keeping as much of the original structure as possible and adding a green roof and a rainwater cistern. But most obviously the house is an exercise in downsizing. When their oldest child leaves home next year, the Sonis will move in, giving up their traditional house up the block. (Meanwhile, they’re renting the new place to a friend, a New Yorker who drives “the most enormous SUV,” Elena says peevishly.)
Despite its tiny scale, the house packs in a lot of poetry. The Sonis were determined to shock the neighbors by keeping the scruffy parts intact, including the steel wall and a graffitied steel door, which Superkül reintegrated next to new cedar cladding stained a deep black. The architects clearly had fun: Graham talks about a square window that’s an homage to Le Corbusier, and the interior’s Piranesian tumble of spaces. D’Elia calls the house a “ship,” and from the alley it looks like a strange little submarine in dry dock. To Soni, it’s worthy of the original appeal: “The architects have allowed the eye never to be bored.”