New tour is an open door to Toronto’s modern homes

I have the sneaking suspicion that the nice folks at Austin-based Modern Home Tours have been spying on my little corner of Globe Real Estate.

Now in its second year organizing tours in Toronto, three of the six homes featured by the group – formed in 2010 by James Leasure and Matt Swinney – have been covered by your humble Architourist: a handsome pair by Andrew Reeves of LineBox Studio, and the clever “Driveway House” by Rohan Walters.

So, if you’ve ever been even slightly green with envy while flipping through these pages, now’s your chance to paint the town red. The self-directed, self-paced tour takes place on June 7, and tickets ($30 U.S.) are available through the organization’s website,

To whet your appetite further, I visited one of the homes I hadn’t yet seen, an elegantly proportioned, three-storey gem in the Bloor-Dufferin area by Weiss Architecture and Urbanism Ltd. for Jean-Philippe Arcand and Nadine Pequeneza.

What caught my eye was the façade’s old-school red brick – complete with an area done in stack bond – and the sloped, shingled roof that echoes the original, early-twentieth century homes on the street. So many contemporary architects eschew traditional shapes and materials in favour of fibre cement wall panels, black brick (we’ve seen a lot of those since Diamond Schmitt’s opera house) and flat roofs, the simple move back to basics can really turn heads, and perhaps soften Modernism’s perceived coldness.

“It’s a Victorian house,” says architect Kevin Weiss without a hint of irony. “It’s got a cool front and back and stuff like that [but] this was really about trying to genetically modify the Victorian Toronto house-type.”

Hmm, Victorian you say? While this home is fully rooted in the 21st century, perhaps we could more accurately say that Mr. Weiss, who started this design while at Larkin Architect Ltd., has performed architectural gene-splicing to create a hybrid of the two eras. Certainly, the long, narrow lot left over when the original house was demolished a few years ago was a decidedly Victorian feature, and it meant Mr. Weiss had to be creative as to how to bring light into the new home.

The solution, despite robbing each floor of almost 100 square feet, is a light-well that’s fully glazed and positioned to flood photons into the centre of each floor, including the basement.

“It’s kind of counterintuitive,” chuckles Mr. Weiss, “to put a big courtyard in the middle of a downtown house. But I don’t think these guys have ever yet turned on a light,” he laughs.

Something tour-goers will notice on the second floor is a feature I’m seeing more often: a rather small master bedroom that allows for a larger bathroom with a generous shower. Interestingly, from the hallway there’s access to a small, private balcony looking down into the light-well/courtyard; and even though you can almost reach out and touch the neighbour’s brick wall, it’s “completely private,” offers Mr. Arcand, the homeowner. It’s also cool: “It was 35-degrees last summer and, literally, you come and sit here and it’s super-nice because you’re really tucked in and you don’t have the sun and there’s an up-draft.”

On the third floor, a massive amount of square footage has been dedicated to an even larger outdoor space. From here, one can see the towers downtown or the wind turbine at Exhibition Place or, again, look down into the courtyard (even as far as to see someone entering through the front door). To further enable photon-penetration, Mr. Weiss has “stepped” these two outdoor spaces so that the “hole” down into the courtyard/light-well is largest up here (perhaps we should call it a “light-funnel”).

Because both homeowners prefer pedal-powered transport in warmer months, the architect has made the usual move of including a bike locker right beside the home’s front door. “So the other thing in a Victorian house is you walk in and it’s already narrow because you’ve got the stair right there, then there’s three bicycles,” laughs Mr. Weiss.

It’s little moves like this bike locker, the choice of red brick, and the light-well that elevate this home from average to sublime; Mr. Weiss, who only recently hung out his own shingle after working for some big-name Toronto firms for decades, will certainly be a residential force in coming years.

As mentioned earlier, another force featured on this year’s tour is Rohan Walters. His Driveway House, shoehorned into a 10-by-37-foot lot at College and Lansdowne, is a must-see, and another, even smaller home on Craven Road., by LineBox Studio, is a study in how to live without clutter in 566 square feet. Also by Linebox is a home on the South Kingsway.

For Moose fans, artist Charles Pachter’s Pachter Hall and Moose Factory (an award-winning design by Teeple Architects) will be open from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m., and a stunner by Nano Design Build on East York’s Cedarvale Avenue rounds out the tour.

From one city in 2010 to 20 U.S. cities in 2012, Modern Home Tours successfully expanded into Toronto and Vancouver in 2013. “People that go on these tours are really into it,” finishes marketing director Ken Shallcross, “people don’t usually pay to begrudgingly go.”

Which means, on June 7 at least, we can all play at being The Architourist.