written by:
photos by:
July 4, 2011
Originally published in A New Slant on Family Fun

With ingenuity and plenty of elbow grease, architect John Tong turned an old Toronto dairy into the ultimate family clubhouse.

  • 
  The house’s open-plan layout encourages the entire family to hang out together, even while partaking in different activities. The durable area rug, made from carpet tiles by InterfaceFLOR, is the ideal base for both reading and playing with trains, as Luka, three, demonstrates.

    The house’s open-plan layout encourages the entire family to hang out together, even while partaking in different activities. The durable area rug, made from carpet tiles by InterfaceFLOR, is the ideal base for both reading and playing with trains, as Luka, three, demonstrates.

  • 
  Daughters Uma and Maelle have the run of the house.

    Daughters Uma and Maelle have the run of the house.

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  With its reclaimed-wood cladding, the kitchen is a rough-and-ready backdrop for the family’s tableware.

    With its reclaimed-wood cladding, the kitchen is a rough-and-ready backdrop for the family’s tableware.

  • 
  Maelle paints up a storm.

    Maelle paints up a storm.

  • 
  The courtyard is an extension of the house, with a big table that hosts parties, a stage for impromptu performances, and part of an old loft overhead that will one day become a treehouse for the children. Photo by Stacey Brandford.

    The courtyard is an extension of the house, with a big table that hosts parties, a stage for impromptu performances, and part of an old loft overhead that will one day become a treehouse for the children. Photo by Stacey Brandford.

  • 
  John and Anne love to cook, but with three kids running around at mealtimes, “it’s mayhem in here,” John says.

    John and Anne love to cook, but with three kids running around at mealtimes, “it’s mayhem in here,” John says.

  • 
  Uma has a private room just over the wall from her parents. She’s sitting in a vintage Eames chair that John’s friend scored at an auction.

    Uma has a private room just over the wall from her parents. She’s sitting in a vintage Eames chair that John’s friend scored at an auction.

  • 
  John built a shelf system for the basement when it was Anne’s office; he adapted it to store the kids’ toys when the area became a playroom.

    John built a shelf system for the basement when it was Anne’s office; he adapted it to store the kids’ toys when the area became a playroom.

  • 
  In the bathroom, the twins take advantage of a custom-built Corian sink and wooden base with integrated step when it’s time to wash up.

    In the bathroom, the twins take advantage of a custom-built Corian sink and wooden base with integrated step when it’s time to wash up.

  • 
   Double Jointed  In the downstairs bathroom, John chose a “potwasher” fixture by Encore that’s often used in restaurant kitchens. Its double-jointed arm lets it reach every corner of the custom Corian sink, where all five family members wash up—sometimes at the same time.componenthardware.com

     

    Double Jointed

     

    In the downstairs bathroom, John chose a “potwasher” fixture by Encore that’s often used in restaurant kitchens. Its double-jointed arm lets it reach every corner of the custom Corian sink, where all five family members wash up—sometimes at the same time.componenthardware.com

  • 
   Behind Closed Drawers  To continue the spare lines of the kitchen cabinets, John designed and built an “appliance garage” by cutting up Ikea drawer fronts to build hinged doors that enclose an area beneath the cabinets, hiding a toaster, microwave, breadbox, and electrical outlets.ikea.com

     

    Behind Closed Drawers

     

    To continue the spare lines of the kitchen cabinets, John designed and built an “appliance garage” by cutting up Ikea drawer fronts to build hinged doors that enclose an area beneath the cabinets, hiding a toaster, microwave, breadbox, and electrical outlets.ikea.com

  • 
   Buddy Hacked It  The light fixture hanging over the stairs to the playroom is another Ikea hack: The hanging hardware is actually for curtains, and the six Grundtal lights are meant to be hung under cabinets. They’re mounted on a horizontal three-quarter-inch-thick piece of pine, and two other slats hang vertically along the two sides. “It’s really an afternoon project,” says John.

     

    Buddy Hacked It

     

    The light fixture hanging over the stairs to the playroom is another Ikea hack: The hanging hardware is actually for curtains, and the six Grundtal lights are meant to be hung under cabinets. They’re mounted on a horizontal three-quarter-inch-thick piece of pine, and two other slats hang vertically along the two sides. “It’s really an afternoon project,” says John.

  • 
   Kids’ Lit  To display the children’s artwork in a fun and flexible way, John designed a four-foot-high lightbox, custom-built by Geron, and installed it above the staircase. The front panel is non-glare acrylic held in place with magnetic strips; low-voltage LED strips provide the backlighting. “We’ll change out the art at least at every holiday and birthday,” says John.geron.ca

     

    Kids’ Lit

     

    To display the children’s artwork in a fun and flexible way, John designed a four-foot-high lightbox, custom-built by Geron, and installed it above the staircase. The front panel is non-glare acrylic held in place with magnetic strips; low-voltage LED strips provide the backlighting. “We’ll change out the art at least at every holiday and birthday,” says John.geron.ca

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The house’s open-plan layout encourages the entire family to hang out together, even while partaking in different activities. The durable area rug, made from carpet tiles by InterfaceFLOR, is the ideal base for both reading and playing with trains, as Luk

The house’s open-plan layout encourages the entire family to hang out together, even while partaking in different activities. The durable area rug, made from carpet tiles by InterfaceFLOR, is the ideal base for both reading and playing with trains, as Luka, three, demonstrates.

Project 
Tong Residence

As a founding principal of 3rd Uncle Design, Toronto architect John Tong spends his days dealing with contractors, tradespeople, and demanding clients. So when he’s home with his family there’s nothing he’d rather do than…build. Since he and his wife, Anne, bought an old dairy in a back alley in 2001, the incorrigible DIYer has given it his stamp by hacking Ikea shelves, repurposing his boutique-hotel designs, and scooping vintage treasures from the trash and the auction block. His greatest feat: He’s made the century-old industrial building into a colorful playground for three kids.

John: When I was single I lived in dumpy warehouse lofts with my photographer friends.

Anne: John’s homes were more like ateliers. At one point he was living with a bunch of architects in Toronto—they all had platform desks to do their work on. We had great parties there.

John Tong Backyard portrait John Luka Uma Maelle

The courtyard is an extension of the house, with a big table that hosts parties, a stage for impromptu performances, and part of an old loft overhead that will one day become a treehouse for the children. Photo by Stacey Brandford.

John: When our relationship became more serious and Anne decided to move to Toronto, our concern was: Where are we going to live? This space was a godsend. We bought it from a photographer friend of ours. It’s in a residential neighborhood, it has a brick chimney, it’s open, and it was up to us to make it what we wanted.

Anne: But there were so many problems! No one but an architect could have really fixed up this place. We had to repair the foundation and bring in an engineer. And when we had kids, we started adding bedrooms.

John: The guy who lived next door, Harry, was great. He had a big courtyard but he was 80 and he didn’t go out there himself. He said, “You guys are young, you use it.” So we treated it like it was ours. As we were renovating and investing in this place, Harry had a stroke and we started to realize the complications of the property line.

Anne: The house is about 2,000 square feet, but the backyard is really another room. When we first moved in, it was pretty much a parking lot. Now we have a table out there for family gatherings, and we built a porch that the kids use as a stage: They sing, they do clown shows, and the adults sit at the table below. We also have nine inflatable pools—some days in the summer we’ll put them all out and the little kids will bounce between them.

Anyway, Harry was fond of our daughter Uma. So when he got sick, he gave us the chance to buy his place. He wanted Uma to have a backyard.

Uma has a private room just over the wall from her parents. She’s sitting in a vintage Eames chair that John’s friend scored at an auction.

Uma has a private room just over the wall from her parents. She’s sitting in a vintage Eames chair that John’s friend scored at an auction.

John: So we went to the bank and we made the deal; it was Harry’s last piece of business before he died. We fixed up his house and uncovered the tin ceiling. We have two apartments up there now.

Anne: Our house is still evolving. John loves mixing things together, and there’s a lot of experimentation. With the kids it makes sense to live that way. I think if you come back in two years it will be very different.

John: The kids have really changed our priorities. The day Anne told me we were having twins, I was literally speechless for ten minutes. Right away I knew everything had to change.

Anne: With one child, the space was perfect. But now we have three—Uma is ten and the twins, Maelle and Luka, are three–—and it’s time to expand. We intended to add a second-floor addition while I was pregnant. But we didn’t, and then the twins came, and there was no way I was renovating with twins. It’s been three years now.

In the bathroom, the twins take advantage of a custom-built Corian sink and wooden base with integrated step when it’s time to wash up.

In the bathroom, the twins take advantage of a custom-built Corian sink and wooden base with integrated step when it’s time to wash up.

John: Sometimes it’s like the shoemaker’s barefoot children here. But I don’t know if that’s bad. As a designer, I’m not a buyer as much as I am a do-it-yourselfer. If I can lift it, if I can cut it, I can probably do it. I think I got that attitude from my parents. They were immigrants. If they could repair something, they would. Now that we have three kids, I do less and less around the house. Anne tells me, “You don’t have the time!” So if I can’t do it in a weekend, it doesn’t get done.

This is still a loft. In terms of our privacy, it’s tricky. Uma can stick her head over the top of the wall, from her bed, and say hi! So we do have to choose our moments.

Anne: I don’t feel uncomfortable with it. There are three-quarters of the planet where entire families sleep in the same room. I never saw myself in
a traditional home.

John: What you see here is real life. At dinner it’s mayhem: I cook every night, and pots are everywhere. We have three kids and it’s, like, craziness. And we’ve realized that’s what it needs to be. We’ve learned you can live in the eye of a tornado and everything can be okay. Eventually we’ll finish the upstairs renovation, and when the kids grow up we want to move to France. But for now this is our hideout.

 

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