Category Archives: Home

Cited:Joan Didion

You have to pick the places you don’t walk away from.

Joan Didion

Place Dalida in Paris


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.

The White House

1962 White House Christmas card

in honour of the inauguration of Barack Obama today, a few facts about his new Georgian  Neoclassical address.

first off, he might want a map: the place has 132 rooms.

the original building was designed by James Hoban, an Irishman who may have based his contest-winning plan on Leinster House in Ireland (now home to the Irish Parliament). the painting by N.C.Wyeth shows Washington and Hoban discussing the construction.

NCWyeth painting

the building was begun in 1792 and built of  Virginia sandstone, quarried by slaves & free workers. Scottish stone workers, alongside Irish and Italian brick workers, did much of the detail work on the building.

in 1800, John Adams moved in, though the interior wasn’t yet finished. during the war of 1812, the building was burned down by British/Canadian soldiers. the damage led to a white-washing of the stonework…which is why the building came to be known as “the White House”. the name only became official in 1901 under Teddy Roosevelt.

Michael S Smith interior

to bring all this up-to-date, the Obamas have already chosen their decorator–Michael S. Smith from Santa Monica will redo the private rooms for the First Family. this living room is from Smith’s book of interiors…he’s known for child-friendly combinations of formal antiques & more contemporary fabrics, which sounds like a sensible combo for the White House.

for their decor, the Obamas will be able to wade through the 40,000 sqft warehouse of White House furnishings; since the Kennedy administration, nothing has been thrown out. that must be quite the warehouse!

home & tiny memoir

Robert Creeley in 1972“The local is not a place but a place in a given man — what part of it he has been compelled or else brought by love to give witness to his own mind. And that is THE form, that is, the whole thing, as whole as it can get.”  (Robert Creeley, “a Note on the Local” in A Quick Graph)

i found this quote on rob mclennan’s blog, where it’s part of the kick-off for his memory project “house: a (tiny) memoir” (he’s been working on these short pieces for a while, but i only just discovered them.)

in his intro to the project, rob writes: “What makes up home? Home is a series of recollections, of distances, as easily remembered as mis-remembered, and a blending of events that can sometimes never be confirmed.”

renovating Toronto one house at a time

visited two houses by Carolyn Moss of Moss Sund yesterday…one in High Park & one in the Beach. Moss is a trail-blazer in green building & reno techniques, and the houses are gorgeous! more coming soon…here’s a sneak peak…

Moss Sund Beach Home

exterior of the Beach Home

(a complete rebuild of a one-storey brick bungalow)

Moss Sund High Park home

interior of the extension build for High Park Home

(i’m in love with the stone floor, heated with geothermal power)

Radiant stone floor

close-up of the floor…Eramosa stone quarried in Ontario

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

veranda livin’

veranda…verandah…porch…front stoop: no matter what you want to call it, the veranda is a public face on a house. must be the weather that’s making me notice them this week—verandas, by definition, have a roof against the rain.

I like walking past verandas in action—people sitting & watching the world go by, catching up with neighbours, spying on passers-by. on Palmerston, there are people sitting on their front stoop, waving to people they know, fidgeting with their laptops, talking loudly on their cellphones (probably complaining about new text charges), keeping an eye on their kids, playing with their dogs, fighting with their new giant recycling bins, going through their mail, and having friends over for a drink…

it’s all so much more public & sociable than the back deck, whether it’s the serious high-end High South veranda of Savannah Georgia or the generally more casual Palmerston veranda, like this one just up the street.

Miami’s Habitat for Humanity has simple but fabulous verandas on their public housing designs. and I wish there were a way to incorporate the concept into condo buildings & apartment towers. kind of the way some Art Deco Miami hotel/apartments have a veranda where you can eat breakfast or read the papers, and actually talk to our neighbours instead of staring straight ahead in the elevator as we come up from the garage.

seems like our condo balconies are more like pods, a module take on the backyard deck—here I am in my own private universe & I cannot see you.

verandas don’t stand for that kind of nonsense. they say “we’re all in this together.”

a friend is moving to Toronto this month & she’s asked people to make tiles to put around her front door, to bring blessings to her veranda—copying the Portuguese neighbours’ shrines & religious tiles. she’s not exactly a Virgin Mary type, so I’m looking forward to dropping by & hanging out on the veranda…