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Modern living: People in glass houses

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It’s a common trope that modern houses lack warmth, that the lack of extraneous detail and the preponderance of big, open spaces eliminates coziness and character. Frank and Sandra Mongillo’s house in Don Mills, designed in a creative collaboration between the couple and Altius Architecture Inc., offers an attractive argument to the contrary.

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 Perched on the edge of a leafy ravine, the house was conceived in exacting detail long before the Mongillos approached the Altius team, which included co-principal Cathy Garrido and design team member Danya Sturgess. “My wife and I have renovated or built several houses over the years, and we wanted this one to be our last,” recalls Frank. “We imagined everything down to the smallest detail, morning and night. It’s designed basically around our lifestyles, with the amenities and systems that were important to us.”

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 Their vision was to create a home that was both transparent and private, with welcoming light and views — especially of the ravine that slopes away from the back of the property, giving it the feel of a home in Caledon or Collingwood more than suburban Toronto. Frequent and dedicated entertainers, they wanted the house to be equally accommodating for large gatherings, casual get-togethers and dinners with family and friends. Above all, they wanted it to be equipped with a wealth of cozy corners and perches for retreating and relaxing when they are on their own.

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 State-of-the-art energy technology was also high on the list. Among other sophisticated features, an array of solar roof panels supplies most of the home’s electrical needs; rainwater collection systems irrigate the landscaping, and its insulation and windows are well above code.

Several smaller, scaled-down sitting areas are the architectural equivalent of woolly slippers.
Several smaller, scaled-down sitting areas are the architectural equivalent of woolly slippers. Photo by ARNAUD MARTHOURET / REVELATEUR photograph

But the home’s greatest appeal ultimately has little to do with technical sophistication or a smartly ordered layout. It’s the sense you get, from your first view of the front facade to the gracious views through the expansive glass curtain walls facing the ravine, that human beings live here, and enjoy the living.

 The front elevation is wide but not imposing. At about 5,000 square feet, this is not a small house, but it’s not a mansion either. Set at the edge of a circular driveway — the better to accommodate the parking needs of guests, or to drop off a passenger under sheltering eaves — it organizes itself into three main volumes. At each side is a balanced composition of steel cladding over a main level faced in cut sandstone; in the centre, rising all the way to the top, an expanse of timber and glass offers a view clear through to the treetops behind the house.

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 Trellis-like slats cut in the right side of the front entrance portico let sunlight into the front hall (and rainwater onto a small garden next to the front steps), banishing the gloom that sometimes comes from deep eaves. Open the door, and the house opens like a book: past a roomy vestibule, a soaring two-storey bank of Douglas fir-framed curtain walls reveals the first bright view of the garden.

This main living area is really the only truly grand space in the house, with its 20-foot ceilings (a glass-railed mezzanine along one side leads to the upper rooms), a central two-sided fireplace clad in honed and polished basalt tiles with a three-dimensional effect, and sleek white oak floors. All those big architectural gestures contrast with finishing details that impart a more abstract, natural feeling, even a certain light-heartedness. It’s most noticeable in the lighting: a quintet of multi-branched circular pendants that resemble stylized dandelion clocks, or perhaps hydrangea blossoms. Their organic shapes are enhanced by a kidney-bean-shaped sofa from Elte and a breakfast table perched at the edge of the kitchen in the shape of a planchette.

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The main living area is the grandest space in the house, with 20-foot ceilings and a glass-railed mezzanine that leads upstairs.
The main living area is the grandest space in the house, with 20-foot ceilings and a glass-railed mezzanine that leads upstairs. Photo by ARNAUD MARTHOURET / REVELATEUR photograph

On the other side of the giant fireplace is one of several smaller, human-scaled sitting areas in the house that form a counterpoint to the grander spaces. The ceiling stops down to a more human-scaled eight feet, with its own framed garden view; stylized birds fly over the hearth. Decorated with pictures of family and pets, designed for stretching out and reading, chatting or catching up on Netflix, these rooms are the architectural equivalent of woolly slippers.

 At the other side of the house, with its calm palette of walnut, white lacquer and Brazilian granite, the kitchen performs a careful balancing act: it works equally well for catering a large party and weeknight dinner prep for one or two. “Designing a kitchen that works for both one person or for multiple cooks can be tricky,” says Altius’s Graham Smith, “since you have to fit everything within reach of a single cook, but at the same time expand out so that caterers can bring in trays and have room to spread out.”

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Design-wise, the kitchen has a few tweaks of its own: the island ends in an inward-curving wall faced in book-matched walnut that seems to undulate, and there’s an ell at the far side of the kitchen that features a walkout and passthrough for sending food (or cocktails) out to people outside.

An indoor-outdoor rooftop lounge offers views from another perspective.
An indoor-outdoor rooftop lounge offers views from another perspective. Photo by ARNAUD MARTHOURET / REVELATEUR photograph

In warm weather, the back garden effectively doubles the footprint of the home; it’s designed to allow the couple and their friends to spend as much time here as they do inside. A well-equipped outdoor kitchen — snazzy enough that in warmer months, you could do pretty much all of your cooking there — includes a wood-burning pizza oven, a big favourite with the kids. Closer to the house, a sheltered dining area and lounge are directly accessible from the living room.

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 In the central section is a second, larger seating area, set on a raised porcelain-tile patio next to a pool with a tinkling waterfall. Beyond here, the foot of the garden ends with a final, cooling stretch of lawn, which blurs the dividing line between the property’s end and the beginning of the ravine. And overlooking it all, through expanded glass walls that rise from the main floor rooms to the indoor-outdoor rooftop lounge high above, the house offers endlessly changing views of the woods and hills in the distance, from a variety of angles and heights, through the day and the seasons.

 “What I love about this house is how it’s designed to do so many things, and it does them all really well,” says Altius’s Garrido. “It’s designed to be a grand house for entertaining, and it does that really well. But it’s also a cozy, intimate home for two people. There are absolutely no spaces in the house that don’t get used.”

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