A Stairway
to Heaven

Despite its growing cultural diversity, much of Toronto’s residential architecture seems caught between two extremes. On one end, there are the cookie cutter modern residences; on the other, the cautiously renovated Victorian homes. Unlike the city’s historic Cabbagetown, a slice of Toronto admired for its well-preserved Victorian homes and tree-lined sidewalks, much of the architecture in Toronto’s diverse neighbourhoods lacks creativity.

The staircase fabrication at the Punchclock Metal Shop in Toronto.

With a little determination, and perhaps, inspiration, Torontonians could start going beyond the predictable, entry-level makeovers and get curious about the ins-and-outs of good residential design. Ultimately, no matter the size of the project—be it a new door, a new deck, a garage replacement or an entirely new addition—exceptional results need not be costly, only thoughtful. It is much like planning a memorable dinner; often it’s the simple but unexpected contrasts that dazzle, not the pricey pairings. Design is no different.

Creating contrasts is one of design’s foundations—contrast of colour, direction, form, size, structure, texture and weight. Developing contrasts seems like a straightforward process, but its success or failure hinges on small, yet crucial details. By incorporating unexpected materials, the designer offsets the proximity of two components until the tipping point of a dynamic tension begins to unfold. Ultimately the process can result in subtle, yet spectacular solutions that otherwise would not happen.

Three years ago, architect Kevin Downey of Downey Design, got together with Arts & Labour to brainstorm the second phase of a project aimed at rehabilitating a building located in Toronto’s Little Portugal area known as The Spice Factory. While we’d completed the interiors during phase 1 together in 2011, phase 2 would involve an exterior second level deck with a set of rooftop stairs for the limestone brick warehouse located in one of the unpretentious alleyways of the city’s newly cool part of town.

The neighboring St. Anne’s Anglican Church (centre) with a cluster of residential backyards (left) and St. Anne’s Place (right).

The Spice Factory was built in 1907 and established as a family business specializing in importing and exporting a much-needed ingredient the local hog industry required—spice. By 2009, no longer used for its original purpose, the factory was in a desperate need of a complete rehabilitation. After restoring the interior of the warehouse to its original grace, we decided to leave it caked in layers of old peeling paint that had accumulated over the preceding decades. More than just a visual and textural contrast, we liked the nod it gave to the building’s history and a bygone era.

While planning the next phase, we knew no matter what material we decided to use for the stairs and deck, it shouldn’t compete with the vibrant exterior peel. Instead, we opted to use material that would contrast with the building’s character—a material that would project newness as well as tradition. We chose galvanized steel with no powder-coating and no colouring – just bare steel.

Gladstone on the left and Macklem Avenue view on the right.

With that decision, Downey, a former Montréaler and an enthusiast of his former home city’s iconic curved metal stairs, saw an opportunity. His proposal: sweeping curved stairs that would not only contrast with the building’s geometrical structure, but also provide a dynamic access to the rooftop. In addition, they would help maximize the space available for the second-level deck. One of the project’s challenges was that the deck needed to match the size of the parking lot below, so that the deck’s two supporting posts would not obstruct a parked car. This was to be no small feat, considering the narrow space constraints and the regimented City of Toronto’s property line regulations we were required to work within. But we knew we didn’t want a confined yard like those Angie Schmitt, the editor of Streetsblog USA, describes in her tweet: “Most yards are very poorly used, and they separate us from the things we need—other people, retail, etc.” And so, we persevered.

A southern elevation view with Macklem Avenue on the left and Parr Avenue on the south.

Because the Spice Factory site is located in a colourful urban milieu, connection rather than separation was vital. It was important to express resilient, yet subtle characteristics to neither overwhelm the warehouse’s no-frills appearance, nor the community’s architectural lack of pretention—the Cadbury Chocolate Factory to the east, the St. Anne’s Anglican Church with a cluster of residential backyards to the south, the stark St. Anne’s Place, a retirement tower to the west and a row of semi-detached houses face-to-face with a row of dilapidated garages to the north. We were loath to have our project elicit the dreaded words, “there goes the neighbourhood.”

In the end, despite our project’s unconventional approach, it was hailed a success by all, including the City of Toronto’s Building and Planning Department who called it a “Stairway to Heaven”. We welcomed the reference.