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John Bentley Mays

Good suburban bones in need of a jolt

From Friday's Globe and Mail


It's a good time to think about renovating in suburbia. A half-century has passed since former farmland around Toronto was carpeted with myriad houses, including many with good bones that merit recycling. Staying put and redoing an existing home is also wise from the standpoint of sustainability. And an overhaul can be considerably less expensive than putting up a new house, making it possible to fit an architect into the budget.

I recently saw a residential renovation in the comfortable suburb of York Mills that had it all: a solid house to start with, clients who knew what they wanted, and an architect — Jillian Aimis — with the skill and aesthetic sense needed to transform a dowdy old box into a sensible work of art.

As we see it in old photographs, the original house of the 1960s was conventional to the point of boredom. It was a grey affair that showed an architecturally dull face to the street. The interior arrangements were sunny, in the way of mid-century modernist homes, but non-descript. Despite its aesthetic drawbacks, the house was comfortable enough back in 1992, when Jackie Maze and Ernie Heinemann, executives in their respective companies, bought the house and moved their growing family into it. Being natives of the wide-open spaces of Western Canada, Ms. Maze told me, the couple liked plenty of light, and that's one thing the old house had.

But as the years went by, the shortcomings of the house became more bothersome. In the baleful tradition of up-market Toronto residences of a certain age, the interior space had been chopped up into compartments that resisted easy flow from area to area. And the house's rear wall forcefully separated the interior from the patch of nature in the backyard.

"Being an environmentalist, I wanted the house to be modern but warm," Ms. Maze said. "I wanted to keep the light, but also to live in the total square footage of the house. I wanted a connection with the backyard, and to be connected on the main living area to the earth. We wanted the house to live and breathe."

In the redesign, Ms. Aimis has preserved everything that was structurally and artistically good about the old house. It had clean geometry, and the architect has reinforced and enriched its long horizontal exterior lines with facings of slate and the luminous Brazilian wood known as jatoba. The old front entry, an unremarkable opening in a flat wall, has been given fresh emphasis and charm by a custom-made jatoba door and entrance canopy, and strongly outlined by stone and wood. The result is a fašade with a heightened sense of welcome, and a light touch of ceremony, and one that enhances the streetscape lined with lawns instead of crowding it in the manner of monster homes. Around back, Ms. Aimis has changed the yard-ignoring wall into a more porous membrane between the interior and nature.

There was less worth saving on the inside, so the architect's interior renovation has been more dramatic. Entering through the front door, visitors find themselves in a small, stone-lined vestibule from which the areas of the house radiate. In one direction lies the spacious new kitchen — the true heart of the building — with its wide window for the family's collection of orchids. In another direction is the sunny, south-facing living room and a cooler, north-facing study, lightly separated by a fireplace.

The visitor's eye is led from the vestibule to the new open-riser steel staircase, where a gleaming, hand-woven wire hanging by Ontario artist Charles O'Neil defines the stairwell.

To unify the spaces of the house, and bring together her exterior and interior treatments, Ms. Aimis has relied heavily on the natural beauty of woods and stone both inside and out. In the enlarged kitchen, for instance, walnut cabinetry conceals the refrigerator and dishwasher. To avoid the glossy sheen of stainless steel and lend visual harmony to metal and the warm wood finishes, all kitchen hardware has been given an oil-rubbed bronze finish. The countertops of composite quartz and resin complement the slate elements in the kitchen.

To complete their redone modern house, Ms. Aimis's clients have decorated its walls with works by contemporary Canadian painters, photographers and sculptors, and its jatoba floors with sturdy, businesslike furniture by Keilhauer (for whom Ms. Maze has worked for many years) and Herman Miller. The clean, contemporary lines of the furniture underscore the refreshed clarity and simplicity of this York Mills house, to which sensitive architectural renovation has given new life.

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