How an Architect Couple Built Their Dream Home in Toronto’s Tight Housing Market

As housing prices skyrocket, two Toronto architects come up with a clever solution to help finance their first home.

Married architects Clarissa Nam and Peter McNeil of Toronto-based COMN Architects wanted to put down roots in their city—and they had a plan to make their dream a reality. "We were looking for a teardown or vacant lot right from the start," explains Peter. "Our goal was to find a property with development potential, allowing us to design and build from the ground up."

Eventually, they came across a dilapidated single-family dwelling on a busy corner in Toronto’s east end. "It took about six months before we decided to put in an offer on this particular site," says Peter. "After analyzing many different options for this property, it became clear that a two-unit semi-detached scheme would not only work well from a development standpoint, it would be perfect for our own home as well." 

Clarissa Nam and Peter McNeil of COMN Architects were able to attain homeownership and offset the majority of their expenses through sweat equity by subdividing their lot and building an additional house on the land.

Clarissa and Peter live in one of the units and plan to rent the second unit, which is almost a mirror image of the first.

Their resulting project, called SemiSemi, consists of two 1,000-square-foot semidetached homes—one for the architect couple, and one to be used as a rental property. Both homes are organized vertically with a split-level configuration that optimizes space on the tight 16' x 78' lot.

The two homes are mirror image of each other—except for a few minor details. "The main difference is the entrances," explain the architects. "The north unit’s entrance is off of the sidewalk at a mid-floor level and also has a powder room, while the south unit’s entrance is at the main floor level."

The homes feature split-level floor plans. Inside, the open interiors evoke the flow of much larger homes. 

The open-riser stairs reduce visual mass and allow light to filter down to the lower levels.

Shop the Look
Gubi Pedrera PD2 Floor Lamp
In 1955 Barba Corsini renovated the loft space within Antonia Gaudi's famous building "La Pedrera" in Barcelona, transforming it from a simple laundry room and storage area into 13 modern duplex apartments.
Herman Miller Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman
Charles and Ray Eames had ideas about making a better world, one in which things were designed to bring greater pleasure to our lives.
Knoll Nakashima Straight-Back Chair
Geroge Nakashima was an MIT-trained architect who described himself as a “Japanese Shaker” – an expression of his interest in creating unadorned, functional objects.

The south unit (which the couple currently rent out) is slightly larger, with two bedrooms and two full bathrooms. The north unit, where Clarissa and Peter live, has one bedroom, one full bathroom, and one-half bath. "We use our lower level as a home office and guest bedroom with a Murphy bed."

The couple's favorite part of their new home? The courtyard off their bedroom. "In busy locations like this, it can be difficult to introduce a lot of natural light without sacrificing privacy. The courtyard was a great solution for this, while also serving as an intimate outdoor space."

To ensure acoustic separation between the homes, the living spaces are located at either end, while service spaces are stacked adjacent to the central wall.

 Perforated anodized aluminum screens allow daylight to filter inside.

Perforated aluminum screens provide shade and privacy for the top-level courtyards.

The couple took on some general contractor tasks for the project—including the installation of fiber cement and wood cladding.

SemiSemi as it fits into its Toronto neighborhood. 

SemiSemi cross-section 

SemiSemi lower-level floor plan

SemiSemi main-level floor plan

SemiSemi upper-level floor plan

Related Reading:

An Architect Couple Play With Texture in Their Handcrafted London Home

An Architect Couple Open Up a Hilltop Home to Commanding Views 

Project Credits: 

Architect of Record: COMN Architects

Builder/General Contractor: Peter McNeil and Clarrisa Nam

Structural Engineer: LMS Engineer

Landscape Design: COMN Architects

Lighting Design: COMN Architects

Interior Design: COMN Architects

Cabinetry Design/Installation: AyA Kitchens


Last Updated


Get the Pro Newsletter

What’s new in the design world? Stay up to date with our essential dispatches for design professionals.