Fifteen years ago, before laneway and infill housing were common in the urban vernacular, Julie Dyck, 48, and Michael Humphries, 49, saw the potential in a tiny overlooked lot that was sitting on the market around the corner from their former Queen Street East home.
Even though it wasn’t entirely clear what they could build on the site, the couple bought the 25-square-foot lot with a ramshackle garage for $50,000. It was a risk likely fuelled by reading a lot of Dwell Magazine, says a joking Humphries.
But with the help of an architect friend, Drew Hauser, they transformed the site into a local landmark — a five-storey live-work tower on tiny Trefann Street near Parliament Street that has been their home and the headquarters of their jewelry design business for the last decade.
On Monday, the 2,200-square-foot house went on the market, listed for $2.25 million.
Its owners have succumbed to what Humphries calls “land fever,” making the difficult decision to move to the country.
Because the property is zoned residential-commercial, it has been built to the lot line with no setback. Its steel framing is visible through a tall glass atrium that wraps around the northeast corner and spans most of the north wall of the tower. The stairs follow the atrium up each separate floor of living space, flooding the home with light. Each level has a balcony or opening to the outdoors — “The fire department insisted,” Dyck said.
“Even on the greyest day you still feel that winter is just a little bit further away,” Humphries said.
Dyck said the couple worked to build a useful house, with nothing “too precious” to enjoy.
The ground floor serves as a studio and garage. But they haven’t had a car for five years. They get around by bike and car sharing.
There is a small basement too for storage.
Upstairs there is a warm, modern kitchen diner with an entire wall of built-in storage and a built-in banquette surrounding the kitchen table from Dyck’s childhood home.
It’s not the only piece of history. The counters and wall tiles were fashioned from Carrara marble that was being removed from First Canadian Place at about the same time the couple were building. The bank tower’s marble facade had begun falling off the side of the building creating a danger below and the pieces were being piled in a field in Markham, said Dyck, who had them cleaned and honed.
“They really were a mess. A lot of the pieces had a bow in them because it didn’t matter when they were mounting them on the building if they were flat,” she said.
Dyck worked hard to get to know the contractors and source materials. The stair treads, for example, are made of hardwood logs salvaged from the floor of Georgian Bay, she said.
The couple started building the tower house in 2005 but difficulty with trades early on prompted them to hit pause.
Eventually Dyck took over herself as contractor on site and they moved in around 2010.
They budgeted about $400,000 for the shell of the house. By the time they installed the fixtures and fittings, the pair say it cost between $800,000 and $900,000 to build.
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The floors throughout are heated concrete. They have not done any renovations since the initial build.
“We chose materials we knew would last. If you do it once you don’t want to do it again,” she said.
Upstairs from the kitchen is a living area, laundry and another washroom. A Murphy bed easily drops down for guest accommodation.
The master bedroom, another floor up, has an ensuite also lined in Carrara marble with a walk-in shower and stand-alone tub.
The couple’s favourite space is at the tower’s summit — a showstopper rooftop terrace with hot tub and a gas line for the barbecue. It offers a European view of a church, Queen Street rooftops and towers rising to the southeast. The deck opens off a small seating area behind glass doors. Sitting there in the winter is like sitting in a snow globe, say the couple.
Despite its height, the house lives like a traditional townhome. Stairs are not an issue, Dyck said.
“You rarely do zero to five (floors) in one go. You really live on two and three and four like a normal townhouse,” she said.
Because the house is built to commercial standards, there’s a two-inch intake for the water so the water pressure is “unbelievable,” Dyck said.
“You could flush all the toilets and have a shower at the same time,” she said. “I’m going to miss that a lot.”
Erica Reddy-Choquette, broker of record at Royal LePage Signature Realty Erica Reddy Brokerage, specializes in selling lofts. She says the tower house is special because “it’s like loft living in a freehold.”
“It’s one of those properties that can appeal to various lifestyles and family configurations. It could be a couple with children or a child, a downsizer,” she said.
“It was a dream to build it and we’re going to hopefully do it again soon,” said Humphries about their country home.
“We would repeat a lot of things we did but just in a different shape,” he said.
Next time, Humphries said, they will probably look at a low, modern design.