Starting Out Small

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.

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