Abacus Lofts, the dramatic mid-rise condo building that has risen on Dundas West near Ossington, was recently completed and occupied this year to much fanfare. The 8-storey, 39-unit DAZ development, designed by RAW Design and Quadrangle Architects, presents an interesting stepped facade to the street that has caught the attention of many urbanites across the city. UrbanToronto had the opportunity to sit down with Richard Witt, principal at Quadrangle and partner-in-charge of the project since its beginnings at RAW nearly four and a half years ago, to talk about Abacus Lofts, its design, and its implications for the future of mid-rise development in Toronto.
The unique design of the building was born as a rational response to the many constraints of the site and not, one might think, from simple form-making. "What sets up this building is exactly two tensions", Witt explains, "the establishment of a streetwall [and] continuity of the scale, and trying to make the public realm better. Most people think when they look at the building that it is a willful form, a form that is generated through carving or shaping, but it's not". Witt stated that the building evolved from an interpretation of the Mid-Rise Design Guidelines, the site constraints, and the local context. The Mid-Rise Guidelines stipulate that the streetwall height of the building must be a maximum of 80% of the width of the street, and that the upper storeys must then step back according to an angular plane. The fifth floor of Abacus - the level that protrudes outward the most along Dundas - corresponds with the maximum allowable streetwall height, while the floors above step back at equal intervals, following the angular plane, and allowing for the large outdoor terraces.
Furthermore, the Mid-Rise Design Guidelines place a heavy emphasis on the design of the streetscape to encourage a more walkable and pedestrian-friendly city. Witt explained that the unique shape of the site, with its angled northern edge following the line of Dundas, presented an opportunity for the designers to capitalize on the potential to expand the public realm of the building. Aiming to enlarge the narrow sidewalk and provide a place for people to rest, relax, and enjoy the street life, the ground floor of Abacus is pulled back from the sidewalk, following a path perpendicular to the property lines rather than the angled line of the streetwall. The result is a small landscaped triangular plaza feeding into the ground floor retail spaces that expands the public space of the street. Each subsequent floor level is angled slightly outward up until the fifth floor - where it finally aligns with the angle of the streetwall and reaches the maximum streetwall height - before stepping back at the upper storeys. The northeastern corner of the building acts as a 'hinge' that visually ties the angled floor plates together.
Finally, the south facade of Abacus is a direct translation of the Guidelines, which state that the mid-rise buildings must facilitate a transition between the built form of the avenues and that of the local neighbourhood. Given the low-rise residential fabric south of the building, Abacus rises three storeys above the property line, before stepping back at each subsequent level up to the eighth floor. The stepped volume of the building, which creates plenty of terrace space for the units, navigates the transition between the mid-rise building and its low-rise context.
While the fanning out and stepping back of both facades creates a visually engaging structure, the form of the building also has practical implications. The stepped facades prevent shadow casting on the streets, allowing sunlight to reach the surrounding low-rise buildings, while the extra roof space is utilized for large terraces serving the units.
The public played a key role in the planning of the project, and though there was some opposition to the building, given that it was one of the first mid-rises in the immediate area, the overall reception was positive from the local community. Abacus replaced a former run-down automotive centre, and its popularity was helped by the local citizen-turned-developer, DAZ. In fact, the building was so well received, Witt proclaimed, that one of the community meetings ended with standing applause.
The size and shape of the site also provided many challenges for the designers, one of the most difficult being the conundrum of the underground parking garage. Witt described that the site was too narrow to economically fit enough spaces to serve the 39 units. The solution? Just stack the cars on top of each other! Hydraulic lifts were installed that allowed two, and in some cases, three vehicles to be shelved above one another, an innovative idea that allowed nearly 30 vehicles to fit into a space that would have otherwise barely fit twelve. The hydraulic lifts also limited excavation to only one underground parking level, with some room below for the lifts to operate.
At the ground level, the size of the lobby was sacrificed in order to maximize the retail space. The main entrance to the residences is expressed simply as a nondescript door, while priority was given to the neighbouring storefronts. This ground level treatment breaks from the often extravagant lobby spaces seen in many condo towers, in order to put more of an emphasis on the streetscape and public realm. Abacus offers few amenities - a 50 square metre party room is located on the second floor - but with a location near Dundas and Ossington, the neighbourhood provides more than enough services for residents to enjoy.
The units in the building range from 480-square-foot single bedroom suites to 1300-square-foot two bedroom units. The narrow width and long depth of the site made it difficult to arrange the units in such a way that each received an appropriate amount of space and natural light. The resulting solution was to pull the bedroom away from the facade, allowing for a large, open living area with access to the terrace and breathtaking views across the city.
At the roof level, Witt pointed out a notable detail of the building, explaining that the mechanical equipment - typically located in a boxy penthouse structure sitting atop the roof - was sunk into the building and hidden within the eighth floor. The aim was to hide the unsightly appendage, which is too often visible from the street level, in order to create a more uniform aesthetic.
Abacus Lofts sets a new precedent for mid-rise condo development in Toronto. Richard Witt and his team have proven that exciting, unconventional, and progressive design is possible, and can even evolve from, the constraints and limitations imposed by planning guidelines, by-laws, and site constraints. "It's a long process", remarked Witt, "but I feel very encouraged by the evolution of the city, the aspirations of the city to do great things, and the potential to realize more interesting forms, more interesting buildings, better performing buildings...and I think the city is evolving in a really nice way. There's lots of really great stuff happening and I hope that this will be an enduring part of that".
Want to find out more? Additional information and renderings can be found in our dataBase file for the project, linked below. If you wish to get involved in the discussion, check out the associated Forum threads, or leave a comment using the space provided at the bottom of this page.