Shelley Kirsch and her husband Howard Spring have lived in their cottage-style home in Toronto’s Humewood neighbourhood for 29 years. It’s where they’ve raised two sons — percussionists, both — and hosted countless band practices and family celebrations with an ever-growing number of guests.
As an empty nest, the house got quieter for a few years. But the recent addition of a new room designed to welcome music, family and nature, has infused it with fresh purpose.
Kirsch had been dreaming of adding a room to the back of the kitchen for some time. As the designated hosts of semi-regular family gatherings, she and Spring noted that space had become tight.
“The last time we had 30 people over for dinner, we ran tables from the dining room into the living room, extending almost out the front of the house. People were waving to us as they walked by,” said Kirsch.
The couple also had a vision to create a lounge space where they could host small concerts. Spring is an ethnomusicologist, an academic discipline that studies how music manifests in culture, and is also an active jazz musician who plays guitar in several bands. Their two adult sons are musicians, as well.
“The idea was to give an opportunity to musicians in Toronto who we know and who we would recruit to play in small ensembles,” said Kirsch.
When they decided to get started, Kirsch — owner of Shelley Kirsch Interior Design and Decoration — had every last design detail planned for the sunken 16-by-20-foot addition with a 10-foot ceiling.
“The room opens onto a garden that contains an enormous oak tree with a gigantic umbrella. I wanted to be able to see the tree from all points, so we brought the outside in with a wall of windows and doors, a clerestory window and a 60-inch diameter dome window in the ceiling,” she said.
“It’s a constant show of the seasons through every vantage point.”
With a taste for modern contemporary design, Kirsch contrasted modern elements like large-scale porcelain tile floors that look like polished cement and earthy walnut strips across the ceiling. “It’s a yin and yang mix, which translates to most people as cosy and warm.”
To further accentuate the natural elements, Kirsch commissioned a flock of glass birds from Art Zone Glass to hang over the sofa. “I wanted to have an installation piece that would speak to a natural theme. I had the idea of 3D glass birds fashioned into a piece called ‘Migration,’” she said.
“When you turn on the lights in the room, there are shadows which create a whole other motif and the birds are blue so you’ve got all these geometric blue shadows on the wall. It’s stunning.”
Kirsch customized the linear fireplace on the opposite wall with river rocks and says the hypnotic nature of its non-repetitive flame adds to the warm ambience of the room.
Although concerns about the pandemic have prevented the couple from hosting anything beyond a few intimate rehearsals so far, they are ready for performances when the time is right.
Kirsch designed a long shelving unit to separate the sunken room from the dining room. Although the sofa is stationed in front for day-to-day living, it can be pulled out and a long cushion placed on top of the shelving unit to create stadium seating. Two lounge chairs with castors on the front legs make it easy to reconfigure the room. And outlets on the floor are ready and waiting for musicians to plug in.
An added convenience of the new space is the addition of an incognito powder room. Kirsch repeated the materials from the kitchen down the three stairs into the sunken living room and sourced an Italian pocket door without jambs or trim. “It lies flat against the face of the powder room which doesn’t telegraph its purpose. It looks like a pantry door,” she said.
The renovation — 320 sq. ft. above ground and an additional 320 sq. ft. basement crawl space costing approximately $460 a sq. ft. — began in November 2019 and was complete in October 2020, a time frame that included a seven-week hiatus due to the pandemic. Eurodale Design + Build managed the construction from start to finish with a helpful workaround that allowed the couple to live in the home throughout the renovation.
“They erected an insulated false wall across the back of the house with a steel door. This was a dream come true: Being able to get a room built without having to leave the house,” said Kirsch.
Eurodale development manager Brendan Charters typically advises homeowners to move out when a renovation of this scale is under way, but it was possible to seal off the work of this standalone addition.
“We were able to frame up the space and get it watertight while still connecting services like electrical, plumbing and mechanical into the existing space. They already had a beautiful home so building the wall was a critical first step from a protection perspective. Whether they lived there or not we would have done it so as not to expose the home to damages,” he said.
Kirsch says she’ll never forget the day the wall came down. “I came home from work, tired and looking for solace, and I opened the front door — and saw the backyard. It looked like the oak tree was in the room. To say I was shocked is an understatement.”
Since then, Kirsch and Spring have enjoyed the light and unique views the room affords. “The house, which never would have been described as one that had girth, feels like it has doubled in size, even though we’ve only added 320 square feet,” she said of the main floor addition.
While they wait for the day that they can safely host concerts, the couple is content to watch the seasons change and host smaller gatherings that make it all feel worthwhile.
“It’s a yin and yang mix, which translates to most people as cosy and warm.”
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