Strolling by the empty triangle lot with my 3 year old, week after week. I’m at home raising a child while my friends and classmates are becoming architects in the city. When I meet them I wonder if I’m capable of adult or even relevant architectural conversation. I was one of them once, but something happened. After graduating in architecture from Waterloo University, I worked as a construction labourer, a carpenter, a lumber sales clerk and freelanced for various architects but could not settle in one place.
I remember two key anecdotes which coincided with this point in my life and architectural journey which helped me begin to understand where I might began to imagine which one of the millions of things I could do with this 1000 square foot triangle of land that nobody wanted in the heart of downtown Toronto.
The first anecdote was from aboriginal spirituality that said within a few ‘moments’ of where you live is the land’s capacity to nurture and sustain ones own health [physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health]. The other anecdote comes from the movie Cotton Club. Lawrence Fishburne plays a small successful Black Gangster in early 1900’s New York. His response to a question asking him to account for his success despite his race and history in the New York underworld was to turn the question around and ask of the inquisitor, “Where do you dance?”
The answer to my design discontent lay in a change of perspective as to where and what ‘successful’ architecture / design was. In other words, even as a stay-at-home dad, even though I did not come from privilege, nor was I a member or soon to be member of the design intelligencia, I did have opportunity and worthiness around me to produce good design, I just needed to adjust my way of ‘seeing’. That is to say, to adjust my place of ‘dance’; that is the ‘where’ of good architecture; and to adjust the way I ‘danced’; that is the process of making good architecture, in order to find my own expression in it.
1292 College Street is, arguably, the smallest triangular building lot in the city of Toronto. Over the next few weeks I’ll be ‘retro-journaling’ as I leaf through my many tiny sketch books of that period. It is a period spent designing from the margins of time, of knowledge and of circumstance (read no money). I Designed from children’s centres, from swimming pools, ‘activity gyms’, nap times, from late nights in order to discover and manifest a small house I referred to as “simple dignity”, which of course refers to my own search for dignity and worth in an architectural culture driven by the status quo.
The dog work begins. a.k.a. The fact-finding of 1292 College Street.
Designing for wealth: Powder Room - 10 Bellair, Toronto.
Spaces By Rohan Inc. and Chris Agombar Design
Designing for necessity: Bathroom 1292 College St., Toronto.
Spaces By Rohan Inc.
The bad: a vacant 1000 square foot triangular lot. I’ve lived in apartments bigger than this. In addition, if size and shape weren’t problematic enough, the listing price of the property was $86,000. That wasn’t good news for a man whose main profession was household engineer.
In order to stand any chance at acquiring this harsh little land I needed to convince the property owner the price was too high. I demonstrated my understanding of their perception; the property had been used for a road sign. As such the rents normally paid to building owners by sign companies range upwards of $2,000 per month. The mortgage payments on $86,000 with a 25-year amortization are approximately $800 per month depending on interest rates. Therefore with monthly income exceeding monthly payments the initial price for the site seemed like a deal. Unfortunately after 5 years no one was going to use it as a sign site. Something had to change. I then did a financial market analysis based on commercial and residential buildings at that location, assuming anyone was crazy or skilled enough to design a viable structure for the site. Anyway, by generating expected revenues and working backwards it was possible to estimate the amount of money necessary for construction and land acquisition. After studying my analysis the vendor realized the ‘real’ market value of the land was far less than they had first thought. The vendor lowered the price significantly whereby I could beg and borrow the money necessary to option the property.
Back then I surmised there were 4 basic expressions in architecture: 1) the architecture of survival, 2) the architecture of necessity, 3) the architecture of comfort, and 4) the architecture of wealth. 1292 College Street was to be architecture of necessity.
The site context: Working class, multi-ethnic, with a mix of stable and transitional families set against an industrial fringe, a confluence of heavy local and arterial vehicular traffic/3 streetcar lines/harsh atmospheric microclimate/no natural attenuation for sound or vibration against car traffic or street cars.
Now the dance of creation would begin. What would I design? Was I out of my mind? Was I creative enough? Was I skilled enough? Would I be reduced to simply problem solving the facts of the project in the hope that something creative might come of it or would I be able to craft a narrative using space and materials that would convey the fundamental and simple beauty of this little triangle in the city. That is to say, craft a building beyond the practical solutions, to maybe, just maybe, become a sublime expression of my love/devotion for ideas in architecture even though I could only afford the fundamental materials of a simple shelter of necessity.
Intangible desires are also important motivators in my work along with the knowledge that the process of achievement is as important as the goal to be achieved.
In the initial design sketches, the notion of making a building that would literally support a billboard and provide a source of income flashed across my consciousness. This was the tail wagging the dog, i.e., building was the foil for the ‘sign’, hence boring because it relied on the sign’s graphics and ‘designed’ support details of the billboard to manifest visual interest. (See sketch above)
I also dabbled a little with conventional building methodology and appearance; a counterpoint to the eclectic and outright scattered notions of architecture in the neighbourhood. (see sketch above) This sketch was merely a reaction to the dissonance I perceived in the local context. I thought I would create an anchoring point. I abandoned this notion very quickly. This was not the site to anchor but rather to ‘pivot’ and that is the point I realized the building although it had to conform the Ontario Building Code, that it of itself would also be transitional or a stage of something or a stage to something. The notion of the everlasting building embodying the everlasting idea was not this one but maybe in could point to an alternative vision.
Another ‘life’ factor that determined the facts of the design’s materiality and methodology was that it had to be completed before my wife came off maternity leave. With two kids I would have no time for this project. Speed and timing were critical.
Therefore an average carpentry crew was to handle eighty five percent of the work. When the budget is tight materials and methods must perform at least two to three functions. Other multiple characteristics included: heated floor combined with light weight concrete, cheaper on the utilities, no airborne molds or dust, no filters, no noisy motors, stiffens the building, attenuates sound and vibration; a water-heater/furnace combination unit; insulating batts which also attenuate sound and wick moisture away; resin impregnated plywood, paintable, water and alkaline resistant, stable at extreme temperatures, strong as hell and when interlaced across the facade becomes a diaphragmatic structure aiding in the distribution of stress and vibration, outside the vapor barrier will off-gas to the exterior; the baseboard as a conduit for electrical and plumbing runs; combining the air and vapor barriers in one material or one system hence the ‘reverse-roof’ and the ‘super 6 poly’ air/vapor barrier in a wood-frame wall; exposed spruce, pine or fir wherever possible; light fixture that relied on the design of the bulb for it’s intrinsic aesthetic – A19’s (aka half mirror bulbs) and ‘fat alberts’; the ‘false-brick’ (insulated brick panels) at grade to give insulation and increase the perception of ‘toughness’ at grade against the sidewalk and provide a future surface for ‘urban’ artistic expression. (see sketch below)
The demographics of the community were already here. Transitional with bohemian sensibilities. What I mean by transitional is; as people build their lives, develop in their jobs and basically desire more they will move on; three to five years is what I figured for the studio/home at 1292 College Street.
After the completion of my ‘little’ house I had a little party. I invited my friends, my family, the local community, the project’s tradesmen and suppliers to come and share their experience with the then unknown triangle.
My friends and associates first response was to, naturally, congratulate me for my courage soon to be followed by the question, why did you do this? As if to say; why this manifestation? Why here?
The trades had a different response. They would bring their buddies and give them private tours without me. I would overhear them recite the nuances. Like the combined heating and domestic hot water system, orchestrated electrical and plumbing designed with baseboard and pilasters, comparing the vibrations and sound of this frame home with that of a masonry home because of the concrete toping on top of the joists and limiting the building footprint with pier construction, the concrete positioned to act as a ‘thermo mass’ assisting in heating and cooling depending on season, and so on….
The public’s response was first in the form of questions. Is it finished yet? Is it a house? Why use this ‘black paint colour’? For the public, they were not accustomed to seeing plywood painted. A common reaction was also that they thought this building, at first, was ugly and wondered what that hell I was doing. Now that they’ve had a chance to see the inside and outside, they’ve changed there minds. The building was surprisingly simple and nice – “odd but cool”.
A few weeks prior to the official opening a fully staffed FIRE TRUCK stopped in front of the house. My thoughts – Oh shit! As they all descended from the truck to the front door I asked the firemen what the problem was? The smiling fireman stated they had watched this house being built and collectively could no longer resist the urge to stop by. I gave them a guided tour. It was my pleasure. As an aside, a similar situation occurred at 157 Coxwell Avenue. That time it was a posse of police. I again gave them a tour and dropped by the local precinct with a personal invitation to the opening in a few weeks.
It is still wonderful to have all sorts of people looking around it and sometimes wanting a tour. I give a tour if I can. Occasionally my tenant at 157 Coxwell Avenue (the other house) will let people into the ground floor living room. (see Coxwell video at – Spaces By Rohan).
I hoped, in the end, that 1292 College Street could be a testament to the necessity of imagination, design, economics and urban design even though personal circumstances allowed me only a ‘scrap’ of land as the canvas. The making of 1292 College Street was a teaching tool for myself: the possible from the improbable. To the public, a future client or a future employer I hoped it would mark a piece of my résumé. What this house conveys will naturally depend on the experience and perspectives of the viewer.
One morning standing with the lead carpenter a man shouts from the street, “I want what he’s on!” As if to say, he wants the same drugs that the guy, me, must be on to imagined this house. …. HOPE! Would have been my response if I weren’t in the presence of my frustrated tradesman who was unaccustomed to the attention he had received while working on this house. It had unbalanced his sensibilities and my schedule.
A realtor showed 157 Coxwell Avenue to me. He thought I could understand why this seemingly idyllic property in the middle of the city was not selling. I visited the site, reviewed the survey and such. I am exceedingly capable of doing ‘normal’ in my sleep with a fever and hemorrhoids. High end or low end it doesn’t matter. Even thought understanding ‘normal’ can be helpful, it is not essential in creating alternative design and building strategies. Nonetheless it became apparent that between tree by-laws, zoning by-laws, right-of-ways on title, water table, slope from the street and a few other things, there were enough potential problems that making a profit was unlikely for the average builder or designer.
I began to salivate inwardly. Was this ego or opportunity? A little of both. In architecture, ego in the wrong measure produces a stand-alone erection, completely self-gratifying. Ego in the right measure might possibly lead to constructive dialogue and contribution. This property at 157 Coxwell illuminated for me this delicate dance.
My life was already challenged? Newly separated from my wife, I now had to make my own way. It’s survival time. I’m an assistant art director in film. I’m not happy. I had just started a film starring Harrison Ford when Gino Cerneka, the owner of Amato’s Pizza called me. He knew I was in turmoil. Gino had scouted me to design the makeover of the Drake Hotel that he was ready to buy. Gino called me on the first day of the film and asked in his beautiful Italian accent, “Rohan … architecture or film? Choose. Choose now.” If I left the film I would piss off one of Toronto’s most influential art directors (now a production designer). I quit the film that night. A short while later, the very day Gino bought the Drake Hotel, he died. I still drop a tear – not at the loss of the hotel – but here was a guy who sought out alternative strategies in life, in people and in business. His employees truly liked him; A testament to the man
So here I was: separated, Gino was buried, I was broke, I could not return to film. It had become clear where I had to be. My heart was with my children and my architecture. Gino helped me see my truth, which meant life was going to get exceedingly bad before things would get better. On the bad side, part-time work at Home Depot. On the good side, hope was alive.
157 design strategies next week ……
As odd as this may sound the crisis moment for 157 Coxwell was the choosing of its colour palette. I’ve evolved this little house by expanding on the resin-impregnated plywood and frame methodology of 1292 College Street. However Coxwell would be, for all intents and purposes, four floors as opposed to two. The experimenter in me had something to do with that height. I needed to push the limits of this sustainable wood-based minimal ‘rain–screen’ beyond the two floor norm. The resulting form: a tall proportional mass atop 4 steel pillars. The composition was already strong in drawing and model. Setting the form back into the two existing trees provided a balance to the rectilinear movement of the building while echoing the adjacent low-rise apartment building form. However colour was killing me. If I missed the colour balance the whole thing would be disastrous. Redesign of the mass might have to happen.
‘Contextual dimension’ is very important. It is that dimension beyond the two or three dimensions we are accustomed to. Atmospherics, landscape, prevailing winds, time, smell, sound, season, client needs, micro and macro culture, technology, economics, etc. Therefore, at the naked site I sat on the grass, the sidewalk, the adjacent park beside and behind, in the neighbour’s yards to sketch, to contemplate and colour. No solution.
Constipated in thought I went to the art gallery to mope. Then it happened. No really it did. I’m sitting amongst ‘The Group of Seven’ paintings. Being amongst paintings, particularly these paintings are healing for me. With my face in my hands, I looked broken. I raised my eyes to the paintings and then it hit me: the colours of the sky, the flora and fauna. The various hues, depths, tones, intensities and responses over the day and seasons. That is what I had been missing. True colour is never alone; it is a tapestry of ever changing and yet knowable themes. (See the above painting segment) Time to play. If I could marry the distribution of colour within building’s intrinsic form, this composition just might begin to sing.
Designing for myself is more involved. I carry various personalities at any given moment: caregiver, cultural survivor, entrepreneur, lover, artist, geek and athlete. Bringing into reality my inner considerations can often lead to mental short-circuiting. At those times, in particular, I make special efforts to engage with the creative energy of others: cross-pollination. The AGO, other galleries, al&d library and gallery, OCAD, the ROM, Hart House reading room, sketching there (one of my favourite things to do), attend poetry readings, write poetry, design models and art with school children, coral concerts, lectures, specifications analysis, visiting spaces in the city and in other cities. My favorite ‘active-pause’ is to sit with paintings, drawings and sculpture. As it happens cities are living paintings for me. The process of 157 Coxwell, the house, is a reflection of this personal muse – even though it is simply constructed.
It’s the end of February of 2003 and the Coxwell house will be rented soon. The temperature hovers around minus 20 degrees Celsius. A news report indicates there has been power outage in the Coxwell area. Normally this is not a concern except at Coxwell the ‘geo-sewer’ heating is put to the test. You see I’ve married the water supply line with the sewer line from the street encased in an insulation jacket. Sewer gas is always warm and moist. It would keep the water line from freezing without electricity.
Building codes require a heating cable be attached to the water line for that portion that is not within an insulated interior or four feet below grade in order to prevent freezing. There is no power outage provision for single-family homes. The bridge to the house carries people, water, electrical and sewer stuff: It’s the umbilical cord. This device has several benefits; primarily it allows me to float a pure geometric form from the ground un-encumbered by unsightly tendrils. I had to construct the heat exchanger myself (see picture). It was beyond the scope of the average plumber or mechanical contractor.
It’s estimated that the power has been out for 18 hours. At minus 20 degrees pipes have been bursting in the area. I walk up to the bridge. There are no sounds of gushing water, no waterfall ice sheets. I walk into the house the temperature is 14 degrees above zero. I’ve set it at 17 degrees for when I’m not there. I touch the floor: it cool. I conclude that the heat pump must have come on recently. Anyway, no extraneous noises about. I wait 5 minutes for the floor to warm up. It did. I check under the bridge and house to see if there were any signs of leaking. Nothing. I breathe, relieved.
There is freshness in the air without that burnt/dry scent normally associated with forced air systems or radiators. Heated floors don’t burn the air; they warm it by not exceeding 30 degrees at floor level. Any natural humidity in the air is preserved.
This Coxwell house is, arguably, the first house built since the 1997 edition of the OBC not requiring a heat recovery ventilation system. I pitched the head mechanical engineer at the city. I showed him my calculations for the house’s natural air infiltration and ex-filtration in concordance with non-combusting appliances such as the ‘direct vent’ furnace, condensing dryer, warm floors and single air volume that did not combust any internal air. As such the air exchange rate met the facts and intent of the code. Additionally, anticipating the on-site inspector’s non-familiarity of these principles, that the chief engineer would support these building systems including that of the sewer and water line being in the same insulated conduit and it would pose no danger to freezing or cross contamination. True to his word, the city engineer backed me up when the time came to deal with the on-site inspector.
The wrap up article comes next week.
For the Coxwell opening I wanted the work of another artist/explorer: one whose work would be seen as independent in its genesis, attitudinally commensurate and bold enough to disengage the viewer from the architecture surrounding them. I asked one of my favourite artists, Vince Mancuso, to consider providing an installation of his work, not knowing if I could afford him or if he would think it possible because of the nature of my architectural space. He said he would be delighted. Furthermore, he had a recent body of work that would be appropriate to my vision and his. We did a deal. The art he placed was better than we both imagined. That is to say, it brought the interior to another level of life. This is potentially the power of good, well-situated art. Both the container and the contained provide the beginnings of good resonance. However, for this installation to really be complete, it needed people: interested people, curious people, even jaded people. Good design, good art and good architecture need engaged people.
There were three newspaper articles about Coxwell just before the opening — two English language papers and one Chinese newspaper. I am not media savvy and I wouldn’t have dreamed that more than 300 friends and public might stop by. To my absolute shock when I got to the house on the first day of the opening there was already a lineup. It was 8:00 a.m. and minus 16 degrees C with the wind chill. I sensed then that the opening was going to be a little CRAZY! The umbilical cord (the entry bridge) was fully loaded with people (a dynamic load) for nine hours a day for two straight days in the middle of winter. Inwardly I thanked my structural engineer Christian Bellini. No joke.
I quickly recruited more friends and family to attend each floor. Over the two days we gave out over 3000 information sheets. I trained my helpers in the basics of the house: the structural economy and ease of assembly of using 4, 8, 12 and 16 foot modules within a rectilinear governance, the economy and health of warm floors, the efficiency an instantaneous water heater/furnace combinations, the placement of the glass garage door, the southern Ontarian colour palette, exposed utilities and floor joists, ‘geo-sewer’ heating and so on.
It was a long haul getting to the opening day of the little house on Coxwell. Building Coxwell was the easy part. The incredible scrutiny / doubt / ridicule / pessimism of financial lenders, inspectors, and the head carpenter made the process exhausting. Nonetheless, the pain was mitigated by some wonderful voices such as Lisa Rochon (architectural critic), Ann Lazar Mirvish (artist), Connie Adair (writer), Vince Mancuso (artist), Ken Montague (curator) and Sel Owen (developer/real-estate). Their support reduced the self-doubt that comes with designing outside of the norm.
Thank you Robert Ouellette of Reading Toronto for asking me to convey some of the thoughts and situations that brought 1292 College Street and 157 Coxwell Avenue into existence.
Sincerely, Rohan Walters