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.
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.
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.
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."
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.