High Rise Design Goes Low

With Trinity Bellwoods Town+Homes, Urban Capital along with partners Shram Homes introduced a new typology to downtown Toronto’s residential real estate market. This 45-unit housing development, designed by Richard Wengle Architects and Cecconi Simone Interior Design and made up of two rows of three-story townhouses, could equally be viewed as a pair of horizontal skyscrapers. 

Just north of Dundas Street, lying back-to-back with 110 meters of frontage along Manning Avenue and Claremont Street, each row of townhouses is a statuesque composition, a massing of four residential volumes, each containing six dwellings and several different facades. A single palette of exterior colours and finishes provides a visual cohesion along the full length of the two street lines. 

Urban Capital Annual, 2012

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The variety and sequencing of the facades make the exterior envelope of the volumes patterned and multifaceted. Architect Richard Wengle borrowed this solution from good high-rise design. “Whereas simple towers use one repetitive element, the better projects tend to be more of a composition, more sculpted,” he explains, revealing his inspiration for the grouped townhouses’ facades of large glass window panes, grey-brick masonry, wood-veneer paneling and metal trim.

Buoyed by Urban Capital’s high-rise experience and the custom in-fill housing know-how of Shram Homes, the Trinity Bellwoods design team reinterpreted and reinvented urban living for the low-rise townhouse context. It was a fruitful process. They discovered much transferable knowledge, resulting in a complete rethink, Townhouse 2.0, of this medium-density housing type.

These two rows of clustered, highrise- inspired townhouses were a welcomed departure from the everyday vocabulary of traditional townhouse developments.

 “Up until recently the most typical planning scenario for townhouses was a very simple elevation repeated, maybe with an alternating brick colour,” says Wengle. “But this wasn’t the typical townhouse scenario and Urban Capital’s high-rise background made for a good mix. They had an appreciation for the design of smaller units and work that was a little more linear, if you will. It was a perfect opportunity to try something different.”

Launched in late 2010, Trinity Bellwoods was at the time a new concept. “It was really groundbreaking. It was one of the first consequential, contemporary, low-rise developments, bringing sophistication and modern design to a large townhouse project in a neighborhood with great proximity to so much of downtown west.”

Back then, the project’s 45-dwelling scale was a distinguishing feature. Therehad been plenty of precedents of contemporary, new construction townhouse developments of two, four or eight dwellings, but nothing much larger. “We felt that the market had accepted contemporary design in high-rise residential buildings but no one had ventured into doing contemporary townhouses at a medium scale,” says Elaine Cecconi, the project’s interior designer.

On the opening weekend, Paul Johnston, the project’s realtor, soldnearly 50 percent of the townhouses. “The brisk sales confirmed the considerable demand for newly-built, centrally-located, unequivocally contemporary single-family residences,” he remarks. Since then other properties have been brought to market that are emulations or interpretations of the same concept.

Sold between $800,000 and $1.6 million, the value proposition of Urban Capital’s townhouses was twofold. First, the townhouses were less expensive per square foot than new downtown high-rise condominiums. And second, they didn’t require any further renovations, unlike the majority of downtown Toronto’s aging housing stock, a sea of 80- to 120-year-old fixer-uppers with English gardens.

“By comparison to new high-rise or mid-rise condominiums they were less expensive. Also if you compare them to existing homes in the neighborhood and add to the purchase price of that home the kind of renovation that would be required to get it to the level of finish both mechanically and aesthetically, these were a really affordable option and that’s something a lot of people grasped,” Johnston explains.

The townhouses’ state-of-the-art kitchens and bathrooms, both with custom millwork, were indeed ready for a modern family to move in to and begin to use. No protracted renovations, spiraling costs, nor arguments with contractors or live-in partners.

“Two of our buyers were actually in the midst of doing a fixer-upper and were so frustrated by the experience that they abandoned ship, saying, ‘Let’s just buy something that’s already done,’” Johnston says.

“Clearly these were homes for people who had really decided on the downtown lifestyle but were seeking a home that had sufficient space and was divided in a more traditional home way,” Johnston adds.

Elaine Cecconi, who has collaborated with Urban Capital for the better part of two decades, was able to identify a broader trend and another source of strong interest for this high-rise-influenced townhouse project.

“What’s happened is that a lot of first time buyers who bought ten or fifteen years ago are looking to either get married or have families. They now have better jobs and higher incomes,” she says, “So they are looking for the same design sensibility that they’ve become accustomed to in their high-rise units. These townhouses are a nice transition from a condo to a private residence because they contain some of the more contemporary design elements that we introduced to our purchasers in our highrise buildings.”

“It’s extremely challenging and demanding to ask someone who has come of age in a new building that’s from a design perspective of our generation to then transition into a century-old home that’s in disrepair,” says Johnston, referring to the often first-time, onebedroomcondo purchaser from a decade ago who has grown up accustomed to the benefits and comforts of high-rise living, including contemporary interior design, new construction and sensibly contemplated floor plans.

Designing these sextets of narrow but tall townhouses didn’t come without its own set of inherent challenges and peculiarities. “We applied the principles we first developed in high-rise to these larger living environments but they posed different challenges because their footprint tended to be narrower and longer so you’re dealing with deep spaces,” says Cecconi, “It’s a different planning challenge.”

Yet, some of these challenges also became unique opportunities that yielded positive outcomes in these relatively compact, single-family living spaces. “Since the townhouses are fairly small we were able to put a lot of custom elements into them. It’s almost like a custom home has been designed for you though you haven’t worked directly with the designer or architect,” she explains. “A lot of what we’ve done is just based on what we know people need to live and work and have in a house. So there’s a high degree of custom work though it’s basically a production product.”

“I consider this project a hybrid between custom, private residences and condominium living,” she adds. Rather than the interior designer and architect working in isolation, for Trinity Bellwoods Cecconi and Wengle collaborated from the earliest stages of the design process. They worked both from the outside in and the inside out.

“Like on our high-rise projects we worked really closely with the developer right from the beginning. We were literally brought on almost as soon as the architectural team was. At that point the project is still malleable like a piece of clay, and there was flexibility in terms of the windows and even structure. We could still manipulate those things before the building was solidified,” Cecconi explains.

This collaborative process gave the master bathrooms more natural light. “We have a clerestory window over the vanity to give daylight and a vertical window to the left for views outside. When there’s an opposite townhouse just 30 feet away, the windows’ locations become very important,” Cecconi says, “So we worked together on the bathroom layout and the placement of the windows, it was a back-and-forth dialogue, an ongoing dance between interior design and architecture.”

A successful upgrade was the staircase with a central riser encased behind a glass wall, which turned the stairs into a showpiece. Ceconni felt that it was important to have floor-to-ceiling glass. “The stair became an architectural sculpture and it also gave the sense of expanded space to the outside wall.” The self-contained back decks are the townhouses’ principal outdoor areas, off of the family rooms. An extension of the interior, the designers intended them for al fresco entertaining, weather permitting.

“We consider the terrace a part or an extension of the home. It’s really an outdoor room. We really feel the interior and exterior should work in harmony in terms of finishes, lighting and furniture, and really speak to one another,” Cecconi offers.

At first glance, the new rows of highrise-inspired Trinity Bellwoods Town+Homes may seem outlandish compared to the rest of the neighbourhood. Despite this, Wengle did borrow from the local architectural vocabulary of the surrounding streets. “The neighborhood has a lot of third stories but they’re hidden in dormers. What we did for the streetscape, so that we wouldn’t tower over everybody, we stepped back the third floor, which created balconies,” the architect explains. Coincidentally, “Seen from above the townhouses actually almost replicate much of the block, the house and lot depths are very similar all the way down the street.”

Wasn’t it about time someone overhauled and rehabilitated the antiquated Victorian row house with contemporary design suited for modern city life?

Indeed it was. In 2008, according to the United Nations Population Fund, for the first time more people lived in urban settings than rural ones. This silent tipping point has ushered in the “Urban Millennium”. As urbanization continues unabated, it will undoubtedly be an era where high-rise condo design influence will continue to spread.


About mmcontentatlarge

austinmacdonald.net journalist | copywriter | producer/editor

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