The history of vertical residential development in Toronto, while intense, is minuscule when compared to the horizontal sprawl that has defined our urban landscape for over a century. What were once quiet residential suburban neighbourhoods are now in the thick of downtown, highly desirable for their architectural variety, established tree canopy and proximity to the core. One such neighbourhood is Summerhill. Located south of Yonge and St. Clair, the area was developed around the former North Toronto Train Station and contains a variety of domestic architectural styles, ranging from two-storey Georgians to three-storey Bay and Gables. The contrast is distinctly Torontonian, a feature we should be proud of and look to for inspiration.

An increased awareness and desire to preserve historic architectural features has led to new and innovative ways of updating heritage residences. Bortolotto Design Architects Inc. recently completed the Urban Ravine House, a single-family home in the Summerhill neighbourhood. The project is notable for having maintained its street façade while constructing an entirely new and wholly contemporary rear addition.  The house takes advantage of the benefits of both contemporary and heritage architecture, showing that the two are not at odds and can work together to create unique and livable spaces.

Urban Ravine House in Toronto by Bortolotto Design Architects IncFront facade, image courtesy of Bortolotto Design Architects Inc

Located on a street that's seen its fair share of faux-historic catastrophes, client and architect decided to leave the front of the house relatively understated, the simple whitewashed brick façade a welcome break from the surrounding Georgian architectural pastiche. The 15-foot-wide lot is devoid of clutter, dominated at front and back by simple volumes that trick the eye into thinking the space is larger than it truly is.

Urban Ravine House in Toronto by Bortolotto Design Architects Inc2-storey family room, images courtesy of Bortolotto Design Architects Inc

While the interior is entirely non-heritage, it maintains the exterior's simplicity, defined by clean lines, white walls and a limited range of materials. Bortolotto's emphasis and the driving force of the design was to open the exterior of the house towards the ravine to the south, a motivation that culminates in a two-storey living room with floor to ceiling windows that frame the downtown skyline during the winter, and tree canopy come summer.

Urban Ravine House in Toronto by Bortolotto Design Architects IncBefore/after of rear addtion, images courtesy of Bortolotto Design Architects Inc

Placing front and back side-to-side, you'd be hard pressed to think they're the same structure; a sloped ravine-lot allowed for a 2-storey addition and the opening of the lower floors, taking advantage of the uninhabited ravine to the south. The wood, glass and metal addition is unperceivable from the front, a seperate architectural element that does not interupt the heritage streetscape. The renovation addressed the lack of natural light in many heritage homes – often having emphasized structure over view in the past – without entirely demolishing and discrediting the original house.

The project evidences how old and new can work together and be mutually beneficial; while many homeowners see heritage designation (inherited from past owners or otherwise) as more of a burden than blessing, there are numerous ways in which the perceived restrictions can be worked into benefits for both the residents as well as the larger community. Contemporary architects have the innovation, ingenuity and tools to design unique spaces that blend old and new, but are often hampered by client's demands and popular misconceptions. Urban Ravine House is an example of a project where client and architect found common ground, the final result speaking for itself.