Designers take on the challenge of a clean slate

While the building is one in a row of similar properties that line the street, it’s actually semi-detached and not a rowhouse.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

115 Harrison St., Toronto

Asking Price: $3,439,000

Taxes: N/A

Lot Size: 16.6- by 137-feet

Agent: Alex Brott (Sage Real Estate Ltd.)

The backstory

When Evan Saskin and Cameron Bird were looking for a new design project, they chose the small, three-bedroom house at 115 Harrison St. for its setting, in a coveted downtown neighbourhood, and utter lack of character.

Nothing in the house dated back farther than the 1970s, says Mr. Saskin, so there were no original details to preserve.

That gave Mr. Saskin, an architect, and Ms. Bird, a designer, free rein to transform the traditional single-family dwelling into a larger, contemporary home in the Ossington Avenue and Dundas Street West area.

The popular Trinity-Bellwoods Park is a short walk away.

While the building is one in a row of similar properties that line the street, it’s actually semi-detached and not a rowhouse, explains Mr. Saskin.

Nevertheless, the project required careful rebuilding that would not harm the walls of the neighbouring houses.

In addition, the former Garrison Creek runs underground in the area and the sandy soil makes excavation difficult.

Despite the challenges, the couple set out to rebuild the early-20th-century house.

The house today

  • Home of the Week, 115 Harrison St., TorontoScott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

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To start, Mr. Saskin used the existing footings and slabs under a portion of the home’s unfinished basement as a base. Helical piles and steel beams and posts strengthen the structure up to the second storey.

The well-fortified new walls enveloped the existing walls and allowed for more burly insulation, fire protection and sound proofing qualities.

“Only at that point do we demolish the old house,” Mr. Saskin says. “The logistics are a little intricate but the end result is that it’s like a detached house.”

His design also extended the rear of the building into the deep backyard and added a storey on top to create 2,324 square feet of above-grade living space.

The neighbourhood has been evolving over the years, and the streetscape includes another contemporary house nearby.

“It doesn’t make it like a single sore thumb sticking out. There’s context,” he says of the modern exterior.

Guests and residents arrive to a front entryway of curved cedar millwork. A limestone tile floor adds interest to the entryway and the underfloor heating adds comfort. There’s also a powder room nearby.

Because of the area’s undulating landscape, there are gradual changes in level from front to back. From the foyer, a few stairs lead up to the living area. Wood floors laid in a herringbone pattern extend the length of the main floor.

The popular Trinity-Bellwoods Park is a short walk away.Scott Norsworthy/Scott Norsworthy

The kitchen stands at the centre, with cabinets crafted from teak wood by millworkers based in Guelph, Ont. There’s a large island and built-in appliances.

At the rear, the dining area overlooks the backyard. There’s also a mudroom with built-in cupboards so that residents arriving via the garage at the rear can quickly jettison outdoor clothing and paraphanelia.

“It’s family-friendly with a lot of storage,” Mr. Saskin says.

One challenge in building a house that’s 16 feet wide and 55 feet deep – with no windows along the sides – is in bringing light to the interior.

On the second floor, Mr. Saskin tore out three small bedrooms and reconfigured the space with one bedroom and ensuite bath at the front, another at the rear, and a long bridge connecting the two.

The removal of a large portion of the second floor allows for light to flood into the lower level, he explains.

The newly built third floor is given over to the primary suite. There’s a bedroom with a small sitting area at the front, double built-in closets with skylights above in the centre and a bathroom at the rear with a stand-alone tub, vanity with double sinks and a walk-in shower.

Throughout the house, the couple aims to create fresh spaces with materials and finishes that are not too bland and neutral, but also not driven by trends.

“It’s very, very, very, very difficult to do it well if you do a whole bunch of things in a row,” Mr. Saskin says of the need for innovation. “We found it really important from day one that we never design the same thing twice.”

For example, each bathroom is unique and reflects the couple’s love of natural stone and painted ceramic tile, Mr. Saskin says.

On the main floor, the marble sink in the powder room was custom made in Turkey, Mr. Saskin says, and the wallpaper is a vibrant green.

The idea was to create a small space that provides a moment of pause upon entering and leaving the front door, he explains.

In the shower area of one bathroom, the couple put together an assortment of tiles in watery shades of blue and green with varying levels of shimmer. It’s an array that can’t be purchased in any store, Mr. Saskin points out.

The couple also favours small-scale suppliers, such as the family business in British Columbia that manufactured the wood windows and exterior doors.

During the pandemic, Mr. Saskin and Ms. Bird furthered their education in building a passive house by taking an online course. While the Harrison Street house is not certified, the materials and construction are aligned with passive house standards in order to conserve energy and reduce the carbon footprint, Mr. Saskin explains.

“It’s built to last 100 years,” he says.

The best feature

After delving into passive house design, Mr. Saskin chose slate for the exterior cladding. He found an Ontario-based purveyor of the material and learned that the company that does much of his metal work has lots of experience in installing the cladding.

It’s lighter than brick and a low carbon footprint material, Mr. Saskin says. It also works well with very thickly insulated exterior walls.

“It captures the light so beautifully and it’s got this changing texture that responds to the seasons,” he adds.