The transformation of a lost vernacular in the middle of a big city
Craven Road Cottage designed by AMA the inventive reconstruction of a tiny home into an ethereal urban refuge was built sustainably and economically to allow a longtime resident to remain in her tight-knit community. The complete transformation of this unassuming single-storey worker’s cottage in Toronto’s historic "Tiny Town" turned a run-down house into a luminous and ethereal pandemic refuge.
The client, Laurel Hutchison, is a retired schoolteacher living on a fixed income, with a budget earmarked for basic renovations that would rescue her 112-year-old home from disrepair. The result is a 720 sf, delicately proportioned, light-filled home, built on its original foundations, while re-envisioning every other aspect of the worker’s cottage vernacular – a turn-of-the-century housing typology that has almost completely disappeared from the city.
Craven Road represents an unusual urban condition. Previously known as Erie Terrace, the street was originally developed to house lower-income labourers and immigrants in the early 20th century. With small dwellings lining only the street’s east side, and a municipal fence running along the west, this atypical thoroughfare was the site of Toronto’s highest concentration of detached homes under 500 sf. Today, Craven Road remains a close-knit community and unique architectural outpost in an increasingly unaffordable city.
Reinvention of the Typology and the Client Brief
With the original footprint intact, and heights of walls, roof angles, and window-to-wall percentages strictly pre-determined by the City's renovation guidelines, the design process entailed a careful study of the existing worker's cottage typology in order to be able to de-construct, transform, re-interpret, and re-construct the home in a completely modern way. These design decisions were a direct response to the client's mandate: a desire for abundant light, peacefulness, and a relative sense of seclusion from her busy urban surroundings. In response to this desire for inspired solitude – where one can be alone, but not lonely – the home has been transformed into a vessel of light and shadow, where the two almost seem to inhabit the space, alongside Laurel. Despite its relatively minimalist aesthetic, the home always feels full. To further emphasize this, the 16-foot-tall interior facade of the home's north wall, which forms a backdrop to the home’s main living spaces, acts as a projection screen for the ever-changing colour, glow, and shadow of the passing day and seasons, including the dappled light and arboreal silhouettes of the mature urban forest on the west side of Craven Road.
The design for this 720 sf home made use of every element of the space and budget to minimize energy consumption through the implementation of a high-performance envelope, high-efficiency equipment, and energy-efficient fixtures; redeploying the original foundation and shoring system to avoid sending carbon-intensive concrete to landfill; and leveraging passive heating, cooling, ventilation, and natural lighting through the strategic orientations, apertures, and exterior planting.
How can you respect the street’s vernacular fabric and cultural history, while reimagining the worker’s cottage typology to create a restorative and hyper-functional home? How do you build “small”, affordably, and sustainably, while also prioritizing uplifting design that supports psychological health and aging-in-place? How do you work within rigid municipal renovation requirements, while effectively rebuilding the home from the foundation up? This light-filled home, with its small but expansive spaces, was described by renowned national architecture critic Alex Bozikovic as “A simple idea, constructed with ordinary building materials — but a beautiful idea that’s executed beautifully.”
Anya Moryoussef Architect (AMA) is an award-winning, woman-led architecture and interior design practice based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Founded in 2016 to pursue the deliberate and imaginative application of design to daily life, AMA make spaces that are deeply personal expressions of their inhabitants. AMA's approach combines archeology, anthropology, and empathy to re-imagine the realm of inhabitation, and to critically explore the nature, culture, and power of domestic space. The practice's empathetic process is centered on the idea that careful observation is the basis for great design, and it views each one of its projects – from renovations to new builds and everything in between – as equal parts renewal, recognition, and re-creation. In addition to addressing the most obvious and pressing concerns of its clients, their families, and communities – physical comfort, community connection, aging-in-place, changing definitions of family, work-life dialogue, waste-reduction, and energy consumption – AMA's work seeks to prioritize the importance of emotional wellbeing, daily inspiration, intellectual provocation, and simple delight as a necessary part of every space.