Downtown Toronto is bustling with construction. Cranes dot the already dense skyline, signifying new developments that will bring residences, offices, hotel rooms and retail to our growing city. But developments are now sprouting up in neighbourhoods beyond Toronto's core, and that includes Birch Cliff in southwest Scarborough, where The Tree House is set to be built.

Block A fronting Gerrard Street, image courtesy of Symmetry DevelopmentsBlock A fronting Gerrard Street, image courtesy of Symmetry Developments

Symmetry Developments in partnership with Fortress Real Developments and Engine Developments are gearing up to bring a trio of townhouse blocks to a plot of land located a short walk east of Victoria Park Avenue and Gerrard Street. The team has acquired the services of Winnipeg-based 5468796 Architecture—a firm known for its bold and contemporary schemes—to create a unique vision for the site, and Toronto's dkstudio to design the modern interiors. UrbanToronto recently spoke with Sasa Radulovic, Co-Founder of 5468796 Architecture, and Dmytriy Pereklita, Principal of dkstudio, who provided us with some additional details and insight into the development's interior and exterior spaces. 

5468796 Architecture has already made a huge impact in Winnipeg with its ultramodern designs that have been turning heads since the firm's birth only eight years ago. Now, they are bringing their talents to Toronto for the first time. To that end, Radulovic spoke to the differences between working in Winnipeg and Toronto. 

"When working in Winnipeg, with only a few notable exceptions, our clients are not approaching us for who we are, but simply because they need an architect. This process requires a lot of work to bridge the gap between who 5468796 is and the client’s expectations. Our initial contact with Symmetry Developments arose because each side was attracted to the other’s work, so that connection was there from the start. On a certain level, in particular as one moves away from the downtown, Canadian cities are all very similar. We studied the stack and townhouse typologies and what has been done in the GTA as a starting point. However, the design has organically grown to what you see now from an understanding of the constraints and economics behind the project."

The plot's triangular shape lead to staggered blocks, image from Apple MapsThe triangular shape of the plot lead to staggered block designs, image from Apple Maps

The three blocks of The Tree House, each with its own distinct geometry, are set to rise three storeys on a triangular plot of land adjacent to mature single-detached houses. Radulovic acknowledged the relationship between the well-established neighbourhood and a flashy new way of living. "What always surprises me when we talk about mature neighbourhoods is that we are primarily considering aesthetics, and the aesthetic of the houses in the area is generally plain and nondescript," said Radulovic. "On the other hand, we believe that there are many interesting things happening in the neighbouring community. Although Gerrard Street is a major artery, having cars back on to it from individual garages help slow traffic, and the city grid begins to tighten where Gerrard merges with Clonmore Drive, reducing its scale and making it feel more pedestrian friendly. A number of independent coffee shops and quirky little stores have begun to emerge, and we are striving to play off of the area’s newfound vibrancy."

The Tree House site, occupied by light-industrial uses, image from Apple MapsThe Tree House site, formerly occupied by light-industrial uses, image from Apple Maps

"The Tree House is a very responsive design, in both scale and urban approach. We are following the geometry of the existing housing stock lining Gerrard Street and especially Coalport Drive, staggering and breaking up the façade and creating an interplay of void and solid, shadow and light that is going to be ever-changing due to the site’s orientation. The questions we’ve had from the administration have only been in regards to the mechanics of the loading, garbage and how to deal with the termination of Coalport Drive, which dead-ends at our site. We believe that we have addressed all of these issues, and have created an amenity not only for the residents of the Tree House, but for the entire neighbourhood by developing a lush courtyard that creates a natural extension of Coalport, and provides a play structure and a small neighbourhood park to be used and enjoyed by all."

Greenery is one of the main visible exterior elements of the plan, which calls for dedicated spaces for two courtyards. Between Blocks A and B, a space for residents will be created, compared to a more public strip between Blocks B and C, which "allows the project to weave into the existing city fabric, and enables our new residents to connect with their neighbours." Radulovic continued, "Families moving into this project will be new residents to the area, but they are coming here with the same ambition as those that have been living in the area for a long time – to make it their home." Parking will be hidden underground, allowing the architecture and greenery of the complex to come into full view.

Blocks A and B at The Tree House, image courtesy of Symmetry DevelopmentsBlocks A and B at The Tree House, image courtesy of Symmetry Developments

"Green space is critical in order to create places where families can grow. We are too often concerned with targeting one demographic and psychographic population in a project. We approach each project with the idea that people will live there for the rest of their lives, and then ask ourselves how we can achieve this goal. Open spaces allow people to take advantage of the entire site that they own, not just the interiors that are most commonly associated with condo living. An emphasis on exterior spaces is necessary for a connection between new neighbours to occur, and then be fostered through both chance encounters and group gatherings."

The sharp exterior of The Tree House is clad in glass and anodized aluminum, a material not often used on Toronto building facades. Radulovic praised the recyclable material for its "durability, modularity and beauty", also pointing out its robustness. "The material’s almost iridescent quality provides a unique surface that will receive and reflect light and shadow in interesting ways. Based on the length of the anodizing process, we are also able to apply different shades to each of the blocks so that the overall aesthetic remains consistent while still allowing for variety across the site."

On the interiors, Radulovic noted that "All of the units are multi-level, and correspond to the façade’s cellular composition. Each unit features a large expanse of windows – since the floor plates are relatively shallow, the interiors are filled with natural light."

Interior of a unit in The Tree House, image courtesy of Symmetry Developments Interior of a unit in The Tree House, image courtesy of Symmetry Developments

dkstudio also expanded on the project's living spaces and the company's previous work as an interior designer of residential, retail and commercial spaces. The firm has returned to work with Symmetry Developments, a partnership which has flourished on past projects Orgami Lofts Condos and The Hive. "Origami was focused on creating a series of refined interior objects and spaces that spoke to the ancient art of Origami in a modern urban dwelling context, while the Hive focused on bringing a hip, downtown design aesthetic to the interiors of a very edgy building in Etobicoke," said Dmytriy Pereklita. "The element of play is key in the treehouse design, along with elements of juxtaposition of formal architecture with fun design elenents."

On whether certain elements have been adopted from dkstudio's previous retail designs for use in new residential spaces, Dmytriy Pereklita replied, "The main distinction is that retail design is focused on creating an environment to sell products, whereas in residential development projects it is the units themselves that are being sold. Having said that, residential architecture today tends to be treated as a commodity, and as architects and designers we work very hard to transcend this popular reading."

"The main challenges include budgets that can be very generous in retail, but less so in developer residential. The key is to approach every design afresh, really trying to understand the brief, and treating it as a unique design entity with its own life and expression. So really it is in our approach and process that our work translates between the two fields of design. Also, in retail design, we are acutely aware of the choice of materials and attention to detail that are crucial, and it is oftentimes this attention to materials and details that get translated into making a successful residential project although on a very different scale."

Floor plan for 'Sycamore', located in Block B, image by Symmetry DevelopmentsFloor plan for 'Sycamore', located in Block B, image courtesy of Symmetry Developments

Each of the 39 units in the complex includes a balcony, terrace, patio or backyard. Units inside The Tree House range in size from 935 square feet (plus a 140-square foot balcony) to the three bedroom plus office upper townhouse, a 1,325 square-foot space with an two additional terraces. The 1,055-square foot Sycamore suite contains two bathrooms and a 140-square foot patio spanning two floors. A bedroom above acts as the loft, hovering over the open concept living arrangement below. These suites are placed in the northwest and southeast corners of Block B, the central building of the townhouse complex. 

Pereklita expanded on dkstudio's interior layouts, which complement the exterior of the project. "It's got to be a serious building, but what can we do to make it true to the name Tree House?", he asked. "The key to the interior design was to create a series of interior spaces that supported and engaged in this dynamic. It was also important to keep the focus on the project theme of a tree house. The vision of the interior was to engage in the play between serious, fun and industrial. Elements in certain units such as bridges and lofts give the feeling of elevation. The kitchen design engages in a seemingly random play where white matte cabinets are juxtaposed against grained walnut cabinets and shelves. There are serious materials like durable floor stone tiles, and elegant walnut juxtaposed against materials such as plywood sheets that may actually be found in a real treehouse." 

Containing three bedrooms, Cypress also occupies the northwest and southeast corners, this time located in Block A fronting Gerrard Street. The upper town stretches three storeys and includes a spacious rooftop terrace sizing in at 310 square feet. 

Floor plan for 'Cypress', located in Block A, image by Symmetry DevelopmentsFloor plan for 'Cypress', located in Block A, image courtesy of Symmetry Developments

The bold exterior cladding materials utilized on The Tree House are echoed on the interior as well with a range of natural finishes. "Our choice of finishes reflects the balance between fun and serious. Materials such as the walnut for the kitchen cabinets and island play randomly against the adjacent white matte lacquered cabinets. Even the grain is playful and expressive, not hidden or reserved as one might find in a more conservative development," said Pereklita. "Birch veneer plywood accents that would be typically shunned in a developer project come to life in railings for bridges, stairs and accents in washrooms act as reminders of the tree house theme of the design, and give the project a playful edge. The selection of material such as tiles also brings to life the play and movement of the building. We selected long, skinny floor tiles in the bathrooms for floors and walls, which extend the shifting and slipping dynamic into the tactile surfaces of the interiors."

"There are so many condos on the market in Toronto now, all fighting for the attention of potential buyers. It is fair to say that the design of the building is mostly out of the buyer’s control. The architecture, structure, the layouts are all designed by the architect and consultants. One choice the buyer does have is the unit type, and the other is the choice of interior finishes. So the finishes are an extremely important part of the project, primarily because these are the immediate surfaces that surround and enclose the occupant and form the essential part of the experience of home."

"The interiors naturally have to take cues from the building both in terms of design and shape as we have to inhabit the enclosures created. In this case, the building is very modern, and cubist. We picked up on that in the interior design, as well as the main theme of the tree house that was developed in a way that was not too kitschy. Though each building has its own identity, the overall theme on the outside and inside is consistent."

Floor plan for 'Redwood', located in Block C, image by Symmetry DevelopmentsFloor plan for 'Redwood', located in Block C, image courtesy of Symmetry Developments

One of the most atypically-shaped units is located in Block C, the most elongated building which mimics the sharp angles of the site's southern end. At 1,300 square feet, the three-bedroom plus study space includes no shortage of indoor and outdoor areas. It comes with a balcony, patio and a huge backyard, which encompasses about half of the total ground floor area. 

With each suite spanning two or three storeys, units are planned with families in mind. "The name of the project, The Tree House, suggests a building that is focused on families," said Pereklita. "The planning for instance offers a wide range of units for families, with all units boasting either two or three bedrooms, versus a more urban bachelor or young professional unit mix you may find in the city core. The interiors are quite open with spaces generally flowing from one to another. This tends to lend itself well to being family and child friendly. We all agreed that to make this  successful it had to have a clear family focus on many levels."

An aerial view of a work in progress unit concept, image courtesy of dkstudioAn aerial view of a work in progress unit concept, image courtesy of dkstudio

Starting in the $400,000s, The Tree House represents a fresh new style of townhouse living: one which emphasizes greenery and the outdoors while bringing aspects of the natural environment inside to create an airy space filled with light and attractive materials. The unique design of The Tree House may begin to change people's perceptions of older suburbs as a place where innovative and modern architecture has typically been rare. 

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