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: 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.
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.
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.
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.