Smaller condos making a mark
Boutique builders offer unique features and detailing
Ask most people what they see when they think of a condominium and they'll describe a soaring steel and glass tower rising into the sky above a vibrant city. But Roland Rom Colthoff and Richard Witt of Toronto's Raw Design have a different vision. Theirs is of smaller structures, perhaps with similar glass and steel features and plenty of luxury touches. But instead of overlooking neighbourhoods, their buildings fit in as the next logical step in a city's growth.
Not that they've eschewed the classic tower – both agree there will always be a place for it. Indeed, they've put forward several proposals in that form, most notably being shortlisted in an international competition for the Absolute in Mississauga, which featured a 60-storey "tube" with sky-gardens.
However, as Colthoff says, Toronto is on the first stuttering steps of a remake that will doubtlessly echo what has happened in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris and many other cities around the world – and there's enough room for more than one style of design. Despite the apparent glut of condos on the market or being built, the demand is still strong and Toronto is far from "over built," says Witt, with many buyers looking for something unique.
The Toronto architects' vision for their condo projects are part of a burgeoning school of thought in which buildings are connected to their environments and not insulated from them as those large towers often are, though clearly for many buyers, that's a selling feature.
The Main Street concept of design has been strongly rooted in other great cities around the world and is starting to take hold in Toronto. Cube, a project on the edge of Little Italy on College St. designed while they were at their previous firm, Quadrangle, sold out in two hours as buyers lined up solely on word of mouth for the 21 units ranging from 1,200 to 2,000 square feet.
Their next project is Stage East at Queen Street East and Leslie Street in another neighbourhood seeing rapid change. It's not for sale yet but the buzz is building.
"I think the Toronto market has matured to a point where it's able to accept projects of this nature," says Colthoff. "It's a natural evolution instead of taking a green field and building a huge tower."
As Witt notes, it's always going to be a question of economics. Developing projects is costly and those putting up the money want to maximize returns and a multi-storey project often entails less risk because the costs are spread over more units.
However, as land values increase in Toronto, developers are able to sell fewer units for higher prices and still recoup their costs.
For that kind of money – in the $700,000 to $1 million range – buyers want more than a box with windows.
And that's where attention to detail beyond granite counters, oak floors and Jacuzzi tubs starts to pay off. At Stage East, for example, the lofts in the six-storey building will rise upas two structures with a central bridge between them acting as a courtyard which will look west over the city. It, too, will have green roofs and terraces galore but perhaps the key feature will be the entrance way.
At the heart of the courtyard there will be a glass elevator shaft which homeowners will ride up to their units.
"We wanted to make sure they didn't enter as if they were going into a subway," says Colthoff. "The glazed elevator makes arriving more of an event than coming into a windowless corridor. You have multiple level terraces and a courtyard."
Indeed, their enthusiasm for smaller and more intimate designs and willingness to tackle challenging sites where traditional designs won't work is attracting interest near and far.
They've been retained to work on five blocks of a 14-block lowrise development in Dubai – the home of soaring towers – with New York architects FxFowle.
Both Witt and Colthoff are convinced there are many smaller lots suitable for such "incremental" development but say because profit margins are thinner, the city should consider cutting developers a break in the approvals process.
"They can't afford delays on these types of projects," says Witt.
The problem, he says, is that the applications for smaller projects wait in the queue behind the large towers, which take longer to be reviewed because, naturally, they are bigger and more complex.
Also, he says, the building code and standards for multiple housing units are set up for large buildings when a more flexible set of rules could be put in place, as happens in Europe.
The city, meanwhile, is pushing for intensification of land use to bolster its tax base and make up revenues lost by the erosion of light and heavy industrial lands. At the same time it wants to attract world class architecture and sustainable design.