When Debbie Adams and Peter Fleming spotted their future home, it was a mess. An old industrial building on a street of solid family houses in Toronto, "it was a dripping, scary building," says Adams. "It hadn’t been used for a while, and I think all the kids in the neighborhood thought it was haunted." The yard was littered with scrap metal and building materials—–and, they soon discovered, dangerous chemicals had seeped into the soil.
But with some cleanup, the land had potential for residential reuse. It was a sound building on a big lot, and the resourceful couple—–Adams is a graphic designer, Fleming a furniture designer and maker—–imagined it as their dream house. "It took some serious determination," says the slight, intense Fleming. "And possibly a bit of insanity," says Adams, the more garrulous of the two. Now, after a two-phased, multiyear renovation, the 2,660-square-foot home is standing proof of their vision: It has the high ceilings of a warehouse loft, and the light and gardens of a modern country house.
Adams and Fleming both brought to the renovation a designer’s sensibility. They seem to have gained both a sense of humor and an air of calm through the process of renovation—–which is a good thing, because this wasn’t an easy journey. Before they closed the deal to buy the site, they began an environmental assessment, which revealed two kinds of contamination: rusting oil tanks in the ground and soil containing cinder, a toxic byproduct of coal furnaces that was once a paving material. The upshot was that it needed an $80,000 cleanup that was going to make the project too expensive. But the sellers volunteered to pay for the work themselves in order to complete the sale. "They said they would rather clean up the property and put the money there than put it into capital gains taxes," Adams recalls.
Once they arrived at an agreement, the real work began: The sellers replaced three feet of topsoil from the entire 60-by-110-foot property, and the couple hired award-winning local practice Levitt Goodman Architects to oversee a quick two-month gut, with sustainability in mind. Partner Janna Levitt and project architects Samantha Scroggie (phase one) and Amanda Reed (phase two) decided to retain most of the old concrete-block building. "We didn’t alter the exterior structure that much, which meant we didn’t have to take much to the landfill," Fleming says, sitting at the refinished Eames table in their dining room. "We were more or less adding to what was here, rather than tearing stuff down."
Soon those great bones Adams and Fleming had detected on first seeing the place became readily apparent. "The nice thing about sites like this is that you get anomalies," says Levitt. "You would never find a lot this wide—–that makes it possible to have a good yard and light on three sides."
Inside the building on the ground floor, a 13-foot-high, column-free interior meant the architects had plenty of space to play with. In fact, there was so much room that they decided to carve some of it away: In one corner, they built a three-foot-high platform, creating a raised zone of private rooms—–two bedrooms, a den, and two bathrooms—–with a less cavernous ceiling height. "The most important move was raising the floor," Levitt says. "You could have two levels comfortably, so you could move from private to public spaces with a couple of steps."
The rest of the main floor forms an L-shape made up of an open kitchen, dining room, and living room and large entry vestibule. To Adams, it feels like a suburban house from the ’60s—–like her childhood home on Canada’s west coast. "We’re both really happy with that," she says. "I’ve always felt uncomfortable in Victorian houses here, which don’t coincide with my experience of the house I grew up in, or living the way I envisioned."
But the soaring ceilings, polished concrete floors, and natural light give these rooms the cool grandeur of a loft. And they’re home to a gallery-worthy collection of photography (including work by fellow Torontonian Edward Burtynsky) and mid-century-modern furniture classics, from an heirloom Eames lounge and ottoman to chairs by Canadian modernists Stefan Siwinski and Russell Spanner.
Despite the lofty dimensions, the house stays comfortable thanks to radiant heat in the concrete floors. Visually, the space gains warmth through broad expanses of white oak—–custom millwork designed by the architects in collaboration with the homeowners and built by Fleming. From the kitchen cabinets, the millwork wraps around the corner into the dining room; additional millwork encases the two-sided fireplace and then forms drawers that lead to the closets in the bedroom. The white oak was beautifully detailed by Fleming, who heads the furniture program at a local college and also creates custom pieces. "It’s like being a tailor—–the haute couture of the furniture world," he explains with a hint of a smile.
He also built a showpiece: a bathtub in the master bedroom that’s a curvaceous monolith of concrete, warmed by the radiant heating system. "It’s one of Peter’s masterpieces," Levitt says, "and it was a total act of love. It weighs 2,000 pounds and it’s scaled exactly
to Debbie’s body."
The couple approached much of the project with a DIY attitude. Last year Fleming also did finishing work on a second-floor addition that adds an open-plan office, small jewelry studio, and enclosed patio. For the new staircase, he took several beams of Douglas fir salvaged from the building and milled it into broad stair treads. And then there’s the large garden with a reflecting pool and patio, paved and landscaped by Adams and Fleming. "We’re people who like to make things," Adams says. "And now we feel very safe digging around out there."
Alex Bozikovic is a Toronto based writer and editor for the Globe and Mail and frequent Dwell contributor. While interviewing Studio Junction's Christine Ho Ping Kong and Peter Tan, the architect-residents of the Courtyard House, he was impressed by the couple's remarkable DIY chutzpah and became inspired to try a major project himself. Someday. Maybe.