Category Archives: Habitats

difficult exteriors

Toronto green architect Carolyn Moss, of Moss Sund, recently renovated a High Park home, and i had the pleasure of visiting it last week. i wrote about the project for blogTO and i’m fascinated by people’s comments about the home’s new exterior.

it’s difficult to know how the finished project is going to look–i photographed the home during a snowstorm (welcome to home visits in Toronto in January) & the green roof will only be installed in the spring.

i think the planted roof of the entrance area is going to really soften the feel of the home. (below, a photo of the original house, then Moss’ computer sketch, then my photo of the current house)

High park original exterior

Moss drawing green roof

High Park exterior in snowstorm

renovating the outside of a building is a tricky proposition. on the one hand, there’s the community to consider–will the new look fit in, will it upset the neighbours, will it endure? and on the other hand, there’s the purpose of the renovation–more space, more environmental responsibility, more value for the owners.

what’s exciting about the High Park renovation is how Moss has balanced all of these considerations. the neighbours have been enthusiastic about the reno; the house roofline and basic window positions remain the same as neighbouring houses; and the green improvements in the house are extensive. (below, the back of the house during construction)

High Park back extension

the most obvious exterior change is the stucco exterior–and it’s a heck of a change. i’m not crazy about the colour–very bland, especially in grey Toronto winter. but the stucco does insulate the house, a major green improvement. the original brick walls were notorious for their lack of insulation…the only way to change the original masonry is to add insulation on the inside (diminishing the square footage of the home–and the rooms are already small by contemporary standards) or add the insulation to the outside–which is what the home-owners and Moss decided to do.

to create a more functional entranceway for the house, Moss created a small rectangular addition for the front of the home, using stone interspersed with windows and a translucent glass panel. i immediately fell in love with the personable grey Eramosa marble, quarried here in Ontario. Moss also used it for the interior floors.

High Park interior

“I wanted the sun to penetrate as far as possible into the house,” says the homeowner. And even during a snowstorm, the house was light and refreshing…with gloriously warm floors, heated by the geothermal loops that Moss has buried in the front yard.


Habitats: Toronto’s Kensington Market

How do people create homes? And what defines a home–not just a shelter from the fabulous weather, but a real home? After all the hunting, the internet searches, the relentless house visits, apartment referrals, sleazy landlords, and real estate developers with questionable morals, often the hunt for a home just comes down to serendipity: the right place, the right time, the right kind of luck.

For the next few months, I’ll be looking at different urban homes. This is the first house I chose…it’s a classic Toronto style of building, in one of my favourite parts of town.


Finding Nadine’s dead-end street is an adventure in google-mapping: the house is in Kensington Market, and like everything else in the market, Toronto’s urban grid has been morphed by organic forces.

What: a Victorian row house in Kensington Market
Who: Nadine (arts administrator), Colin (theatre director), Megan (chef), and two cats
How much: $1650/month rent, plus utilities
Layout: two floors, three bedrooms, unfinished basement, small backyard.

Dwarfed by a nearby tree, the battered street signpost is obscured by a red arrow and a green [[[murmur]]] ear. But tucked behind the vintage clothing shops and the graffiti murals, there’s a brief block of dignified rowhouses from the 1880s, sedately watching the madness; bicycles and recycling bins jostle for position outside their narrow front doors and travellers looking for the youth hostel frequently stop, confused, trying to make sense of the irrational house numbers.

Nadine laughs telling the story of how she and her partner Colin first moved into this hidden street. “Friends invited us to brunch in the summer of 1999. We immediately loved the alleyway and the house, and we mentioned this to our friends, who told us that they were moving out in two months’ time.”

Talk about timing: “We took the lease and promptly got jobs outside Toronto, so we spent the first two years going back and forth.” Fortunately, in 2001, they found themselves living in Toronto again.

The rooms have gradually taken on different jewel tones–green in the kitchen, plum in the dining room, golden orange in one bedroom, burgundy in another. The house has three bedrooms, so they share the space with Megan, a chef; no surprise, with three people who love to cook living in the building, the kitchen has become the heart of the house.

There’s something about the place that seems to invite guests: summer backyard drinks tend to develop into block parties, and creative projects spill up and down the stairs. Maybe it’s the homey 1950s fridge and stove in the kitchen that encourages connection and creativity, and the plethora of cooks, but somehow this house reminds me of a community hearth. Centuries ago, a village had a shared hearth for baking bread; people could prepare the dough and take it to the community oven to bake it; these days it’s more metaphoric, but some homes do inspire entire groups of people.


the habitat questions:

What do you love most about the house? Location, location, location! And the cozy, homey, unfussy feeling of the house. It’s a very warm place.

What drives you crazy? Terrible insulation (the pipes freeze at least once every winter), too much dust, the sound of energetic spitting outside.

What’s your favourite place in the house? The kitchen and in summer, the little garden – it’s a godsend in a neighbourhood without much greenery.

What do you like best about the neighbourhood? The food, the convenience, and the fact that friends enjoy coming to the Market and spending time here, so that our home is a frequent destination for people we love.

What’s most surprising about the house? The fact that we’ve lived here so many years, not because we expected to dislike it, but because we don’t usually stay put for so long. But whenever we think about moving, we can’t think of anywhere else we’d rather live in Toronto. If we leave this house, it will probably be because we’re leaving the city (or because the owners want to move back here!)

If your home were a kind of fruit, what fruit would it be? Because the house is so colourful, I think it would be a bowl of fruit with deep rich tones and flavours: plums, mangoes, cherries, maybe a pomegranate…

for more photos, see this link to the series i’m doing for BlogTO