written by:
photos by:
March 4, 2009
Originally published in Before & After

Designing an innovative house is a rite of passage 
for many young architects. But building in a city doesn’t always make experimentation easy; after all, neighbors have their own ideas about how a block is supposed to look.

A wide cut across the top of the structure made room for a second-floor courtyard where the family can catch some sun but maintain their privacy. On the ground level, the front door is tucked into an ivy-covered alcove lined with ipe, a material used thro
A wide cut across the top of the structure made room for a second-floor courtyard where the family can catch some sun but maintain their privacy. On the ground level, the front door is tucked into an ivy-covered alcove lined with ipe, a material used throughout the house.
Photo by 
1 / 17
A 2002 photograph of the courtyard in progress.
A 2002 photograph of the courtyard in progress.
Photo by 
2 / 17
Four-year-old Ian plays in the courtyard, which is the center of family life in warmer months.
Four-year-old Ian plays in the courtyard, which is the center of family life in warmer months.
Photo by 
3 / 17
An outbuilding that belonged to the warehouse complex; today the same space holds the courtyard.
An outbuilding that belonged to the warehouse complex; today the same space holds the courtyard.
Photo by 
4 / 17
Framing the interior.
Framing the interior.
Photo by 
5 / 17
In the living room abundant daylight can pour in, but rain and snow keep a safe distance from the family’s well-loved collection of vintage furniture.
Photo by 
6 / 17
Tan built storage into every available corner of the house, including the stairs, each of which contains a drawer.
Photo by 
7 / 17
In the kitchen, wall-to-wall cabinets hold files from the adjacent home office in addition to storing servingware and kitchen appliances. The custom island shows off Tan’s craft. The range hood is wrapped in millwork, and the countertop is a 1-inch slab of solid plantation teak. When there’s no cooking going on, “the kitchen can just disappear” behind another piece of wood, Ho Ping Kong says.
Photo by 
8 / 17
Only a set of sliding doors separates the kids’ room from the master bedroom in a Toronto, Ontario, home. When the time is right, there's a track inlaid in the ceiling for a four-panel bifold wall to divide the space into two private rooms for the childre
Only a set of sliding doors separates the kids’ room from the master bedroom in a Toronto, Ontario, home. When the time is right, there's a track inlaid in the ceiling for a four-panel bifold wall to divide the space into two private rooms for the children. Read the whole story here.
Photo by 
9 / 17
A photograph, taken in 2002, shows the warehouse in its original context.
Photo by 
10 / 17
In the hallway another set of sliders shows off a mix of influences from shoji to Schindler, with multitoned wood reflecting the sunlight.
Photo by 
11 / 17
With windows looking out onto the second-story courtyard, the laundry/bathroom area has a custom-made and a picturesque view.
Photo by 
12 / 17
The workshop is used for messy model-making and creative playtime for the kids.
Photo by 
13 / 17
A photograph from 2002 shows the renovation in progress.
Photo by 
14 / 17
The main courtyard is a “communal” space, Tan says, and the couple keeps a second teak dining set at the ready for occasions when family or friends come for a meal.
Photo by 
15 / 17
This warehouse on a back alley in Toronto wasn’t desirable to most buyers, but Christine Ho Ping Kong and Peter Tan looked at it and saw an ideal site for their new house.
Photo by 
16 / 17
A narrow garden and climbing ivy soften and brighten the house’s blank front facade.
Photo by 
17 / 17
A wide cut across the top of the structure made room for a second-floor courtyard where the family can catch some sun but maintain their privacy. On the ground level, the front door is tucked into an ivy-covered alcove lined with ipe, a material used thro
A wide cut across the top of the structure made room for a second-floor courtyard where the family can catch some sun but maintain their privacy. On the ground level, the front door is tucked into an ivy-covered alcove lined with ipe, a material used throughout the house.
Project 
Courtyard House
Architect 

Though some architects choose to go ahead and prove the skeptics wrong, others resolve this dilemma by limiting their far-out ideas to the interior or rear elevation. Still others—like Christine Ho Ping Kong and Peter Tan—bypass the neighbor issue by seeking out building sites that are concealed from the public eye. Ho Ping Kong and Tan designed their first home on a back alley in Toronto, where they could pursue their ideas without compromising their vision of a perfect place for their young family.

When Ho Ping Kong and Tan found their site 
back in 2001, it held a building you could literally back a truck into: a contractor’s warehouse with 
a storage yard. Yet the two-story concrete-block structure seemed like the perfect place to begin. “Here, you don’t have to conform with the facades of the street,” Ho Ping Kong says. And the building itself “was so elemental—a block and an empty space,” Tan says. “It was perfect. We weren’t paying for things we didn’t want to use and we could experiment with all our crazy ideas.”

The two were following in a local tradition of “laneway housing.” Since the late 1980s, some of Toronto’s most creative architects have been finding sites on laneways—back alleys—on which to build houses, coming up with inventive ways to achieve privacy and space in these cramped quarters. Ho Ping Kong and Tan wanted to push that effort to an extreme with a house totally sealed off from the street, where all the windows looked inward.

Four-year-old Ian plays in the courtyard, which is the center of family life in warmer months.
Four-year-old Ian plays in the courtyard, which is the center of family life in warmer months.

Today, it seems that their idea isn’t so crazy after all. They’ve rebuilt the warehouse as a two-story home for themselves, their children, and their growing business. From the outside, there’s not much to see: Most of the warehouse’s walls remain, the front door is notched into a blank facade, and the yard is hidden behind a rampart of concrete block. “When we first moved in, a lot of neighbors didn’t even believe this was a house,” Tan recalls.

Inside it’s a different story. As you enter from the alley, the interior unfolds like a magic trick, with 
a 30-foot-wide main floor that opens onto a broad, sunlit courtyard. It’s a project that evolved as it  
went along, the couple says, sitting in their wood-paneled living room while their kids, five-year-old Abbe and four-year-old Ian, play nearby. When they first started they never would have imagined that they were building for a family of four.

The couple met while studying architecture at 
the University of Toronto. Ho Ping Kong, a longtime Toronto resident, was born in Jamaica to a Chinese-Jamaican family, and Tan moved to Toronto with 
his family after a childhood spent in Cambodia, Thailand, and Hanover, Ontario. Together, they traveled the world after college and found some common architectural passions—especially in the buildings of Spain, Mexico, and the Indian province of Rajasthan. “The places we liked had courtyards,” says Ho Ping Kong, “spaces where the light comes from above.”

Their own living room shows how they’ve transformed the ancient idea into something contemporary. A long wall of cedar-framed windows opens onto the main courtyard, and the setting sun washes in from both sides to paint the patio stones and a single Japanese maple with the last drops of daylight. There are no views of the world outside the walls—just another glassed-in pavilion across the way, which provides storage and a model-making workshop for their growing architecture firm, Studio Junction Inc.

courtyard house after stairs
Tan built storage into every available corner of the house, including the stairs, each of which contains a drawer.

The house was one of the first major design 
projects for their firm. “The process,” Ho Ping Kong explains, “was about carving out space to let light in.” That meant slicing out the middle of the second floor, changing the warehouse’s front elevation 
from a rectangle into a U. The end result, a modest
2,200 square feet of space, looks simple on paper. The open ground floor contains an office, kitchen, and dining and living room leading onto the main courtyard, which stretches to the workshop across the way. Upstairs, the cut forms a second courtyard on the roof, next to a laundry/bathroom area and adjacent to the two bedrooms.

Tan built the house largely by himself over five years, laboring in the early mornings and late evenings and teaching himself the necessary trades along the way. “It’s not rocket science,” he says offhandedly. “All the information you need is out there.” It was a demanding process that he worked on right up to the last minute: Ho Ping Kong remembers him laying patio stones on the morning of their housewarming party.

The project provided Tan’s apprenticeship as a woodworker, a craft that is now his other job. “It was the three years of doing woodwork for this place that took me to a different level,” he says. The house is dense with his handiwork: The interior looks like a giant, complex piece of cabinetry. Every surface 
is wrapped in gleaming mahogany, Douglas fir, or teak, every panel book-matched and cut to perfection. That attention to detail “is in his personality,” his wife says of him. “There’s a level of finish and craftsmanship that has to be reached; if not, it’ll get done over again.”

The woodwork also reveals the house’s complex mix of architectural influences. The cedar-wrapped windows and built-in furniture evoke the couple’s hero, Louis Kahn, but other areas employ traditional Japanese joinery, Victorian building, and California modernism. Upstairs, Tan shows off a set of sliding doors he made using Douglas fir milled from a structural truss that came out of the old warehouse.

Only a set of sliding doors separates the kids’ room from the master bedroom in a Toronto, Ontario, home. When the time is right, there's a track inlaid in the ceiling for a four-panel bifold wall to divide the space into two private rooms for the childre
Only a set of sliding doors separates the kids’ room from the master bedroom in a Toronto, Ontario, home. When the time is right, there's a track inlaid in the ceiling for a four-panel bifold wall to divide the space into two private rooms for the children. Read the whole story here.

The unusual site and limited budget created a crucible for Ho Ping Kong and Tan’s intense creativity. Beyond the constraints of building codes and cost, the extremely tight quarters presented their own challenges. “In this house, the small spaces were massaged to hold as much as possible,” Tan says. The pair met the demands of the compact design, but just as they got all of the pieces arranged, along came their two children. “Originally, Pete wanted only one bedroom,” Ho Ping Kong remembers with 
a grin. “I had to say to him, where will our kids sleep?”

“I was in my purist phase,” Tan counters, smiling. “I was thinking: Here are the architectural elements we need—now how can we fit bedrooms inside?” The solution is a testament to their inventiveness. The bed in the master bedroom sits up against three small screen doors with the children’s beds on the other side. The flexible barrier creates a semiprivate room that can be kept open while the children are young. A second sliding wall system will be installed when the kids are ready to have their own rooms.

Though flexible design is key to accommodating a growing family, the most important element in making this building work as a living space is the abundant daylight that pours in from above. The second-story courtyard that was carved out of the house creates windows in every room, and a clerestory lets light into the first floor.

The transformation of this alleyway warehouse into a sophisticated piece of architecture was a remarkable feat, but while the couple acknowledges the creative achievement, they’re quite pragmatic about its function as an industrial reclamation project. It makes for good urbanism, they argue, by adding another family to a city block without disrupting the fabric of the neighborhood. Having literally made their dreams into a concrete reality, they feel better equipped to do the same for others. “We’re better architects, ” Ho Ping Kong says, “for learning how to build.”

courtyard house after courtyard table
The main courtyard is a “communal” space, Tan says, and the couple keeps a second teak dining set at the ready for occasions when family or friends come for a meal.

Join the Discussion

Loading comments...

Latest Articles

San Francisco dining room with chandelier and Eames shell chairs
Brooklyn-based RBW's work—from diminutive sconces to large floor lamps—shape these five interiors.
February 09, 2016
Glass-fronted converted garage in Washington
These garages go behind parking cars and storing your drum sets.
February 09, 2016
Modern Texas home office with sliding walls, behr black chalkboard paint, concrete walls, and white oak flooring
From appropriated nooks to glass-encased rooms, each of these modern offices works a unique angle.
February 09, 2016
picnic-style table in renovated San Francisco house
From chandeliers to pendants, these designs make the dining room the most entertaining space in the house.
February 09, 2016
Midcentury house in Portland with iron colored facade and gold front door
From preserved masterworks to carefully updated time capsules, these homes have one thing in common (other than a healthy appreciation for everything Eames): the conviction that the '40s, '50s, and '60s were the most outstanding moments in American architecture.
February 09, 2016
Modern living room with furniture designed by Ludovica + Roberto Palomba
These oases by the sea, many done up in white, make stunning escapes.
February 08, 2016
A Philippe Starck standing lamp and an Eames chaise longue bracket the living room; two Lawrence Weiner prints hang behind a pair of Warren Platner chairs and a table purchased from a River Oaks estate sale; at far left of the room, a partial wall of new
Texas might have a big reputation, but these homes show the variety of shapes and sizes in the Lone Star State.
February 08, 2016
Montigo gas-burning fireplace in spacious living room.
Built atop the foundation of a flood-damaged home, this 3,000-square-foot Maryland home features vibrant furniture placed in front of stunning views of a nearby estuary.
February 08, 2016
Studio addition in Seattle
An architect couple sets out to transform a run-down property.
February 08, 2016
West Elm coffee table, custom Joybird sofa, and matching Jens Risom chairs in living room of Westchester renovation by Khanna Shultz.
Every Monday, @dwell and @designmilk invite fans and experts on Twitter to weigh in on trending topics in design.
February 08, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment living room vertical oak slats
For the modernists among us, these spare spaces are a dream come true.
February 08, 2016
The square fountain at the courtyard's center is a modern rendition of a very traditional feature in many Middle Eastern homes.
From a large gathering space for family or a tranquil sanctuary, these seven designs feature some very different takes on the ancient idea of a courtyard.
February 08, 2016
stdaluminum 021
Since windows and doors are such important aspects of your home, it’s always a good idea to take the time to evaluate how they fit within the lifestyle you want. Whether you’re in the middle of constructing a new home, or you’re considering replacing your current setup, there are multiple elements to consider when it comes time to make the final decisions. Milgard® Windows & Doors understands how vital these choices are to the well-being of your home and has developed ways to turn the process into a journey that can be just as enjoyable as it is fulfilling. Not sure where to start? We gathered some helpful insights from their team of experts to help us better understand what goes into the process of bringing your vision to life.
February 08, 2016
modern fire resistant green boulder loewen windows south facade triple planed low-e glass
These houses in Broncos Country prove modern design is alive in the Rocky Mountains.
February 08, 2016
french evolution paris daniel rozensztroch living area eames la chaise butterfly chair moroccan berber rug
A tastemaker brings his distinct vision to an industrial loft with a centuries-old pedigree.
February 07, 2016
senses touch products
The haptic impact can’t be underplayed. The tactility of a material—its temperature, its texture­—can make the difference between pleasure and discontent.
February 07, 2016
senses taste products
Ambience is a key ingredient to any meal—materials, textures, and mood all impart a certain flavor.
February 07, 2016
senses smell products
The nose knows: Though fleeting and immaterial, scent is the lifeblood of Proustian memories, both evoking and imprinting visceral associations.
February 06, 2016
design icon josef frank villa beer vienna
Josef Frank: Against Design, which runs through April 2016 at Vienna’s Austrian Museum of Applied Arts/Contemporary Art, is a comprehensive study of the prolific architect, designer, and author.
February 06, 2016
senses sound products
From an alarm to a symphony, audio frequencies hold the power to elicit an emotional call-and-response.
February 06, 2016
Italian Apline home with double-height walls on one facade.
Every week, we highlight one amazing Dwell home that went viral on Pinterest. Follow Dwell's Pinterest account for more daily design inspiration.
February 05, 2016
A built-in sofa with Design Tex upholstery marks the boundary between the two-level addition and the bungalow. Leading up to the master bedroom, a perforated metal staircase, lit from above, casts a Sigmar Polke–like shadow grid on the concrete floor.
From a minimalist Walter Gropius design to a curving sculptural stair, these six stairways run the gamut.
February 05, 2016
distant structure lakeside prefab norway facade stones green roof
Dwell has traveled all over the world, from Tasmania to Indonesia, to report on modern houses.
February 05, 2016
modern lycabettus penthouse apartment master bedroom atrium
Get ready for a weekend of rest with these sleepy, little cocoons.
February 05, 2016
lamp show 99 cent plus gallery 0
At Brooklyn's 99¢ Plus gallery, 30 artists and designers re-imagine the lamp in an illuminating light show.
February 04, 2016
Hidden storage stairwell with raw brass hardware
Having ample space to stow items is a daily struggle—peep these modern homes for some ideas on maximizing your square footage.
February 04, 2016
modern fairhaven beach house blackbutt eucalyptus living room Patricia Urquiola sofa
Whether it's along a coast in Australia or the French Alps, wood provides a natural touch in these interiors.
February 04, 2016
Glass and steel sculpture in Printemps store of Paris.
In the Paris' venerable Printemps department store, two Toronto-based firms were tasked with enlivening a new atrium and creating a unique experience for visitors. YabuPushelberg, partnering with UUfie, designed this stunning steel "sail" embedded with vibrant dichroic glass.
February 04, 2016
Monochromatic Master Bedroom in Copenhagen Townhouse
Whether it's to maximize limited light or create a soothing interior, these five projects go white in a big way.
February 04, 2016
EQ3 Assembly quilt by Kenneth LaVallee
The new Assembly collection from EQ3 celebrates up-and-coming figures in Canadian design. Discover this newly appointed class, which debuted at Toronto's Interior Design Show, here.
February 03, 2016