By Peter Giffen
The obvious—and not so obvious—elements that define luxury home building
“It’s about using stone and brick, not stucco; and natural stone, not veneer. It’s the extra things that go into the house.”
Nikki Stefaniuk, the director of business development and marketing for RS Homes, is talking about some of the details that separate good from great. And RS Homes, a luxury custom home builder and renovator in Toronto, has no shortage of experience in that department. “It’s the feel of the home when you enter. It’s the craftsmanship that comes from quality trades,” Stefaniuk notes. “You can walk into an empty home and you don’t get that echoey sound because it’s built to dampen sound with extra insulation and thicker subfloors. You open an internal door and it’s heavy and solid. It’s using solid wood trim even when it’s painted. And when you feel the trim, it feels wonderful to the touch because it’s painted to furniture grade. I once had a client that came in after it was painted and actually embraced her panelled wall, saying, ‘I love my wall.’
“It’s not the fixtures or even the look of the home—that comes later, and that’s subjective, as it’s about what the client wants,” Stefaniuk continues. “It’s easier to think ‘luxurious’ when the fixtures and furniture are in. But even a poorly built home can look luxurious. And looks are subjective for each person. For a builder, though, it’s knowing about what went into the home that the client does not see. That’s when we can take pride that we have delivered something special. A luxury home is an experience that needs all five senses to really appreciate.”
What follows are three projects that define luxury home building inside and out in their own way.
Modern English Manor
Known for its finicky attention to detail, RS Homes walks the client from a get-to-know-you phase right through to the finishing touches. To keep the lines of communication open, it builds each client a website, which it constantly updates with images and progress reports.
That detailed exchange was in effect with Ridgewood, a 7,500-square-foot estate just completed last month for a young family in Richmond Hill. RS Homes was tasked with building a simple but functional abode—a transitional, two-wing home that would combine the elegance of an English manor and peaked-roof architecture with a myriad of contemporary flourishes and comforts, including a five-car garage for the owner’s auto collection.
For Stefaniuk, one of the signs of a superior luxury residential builder are the behind-the-scenes touches that add to the quality of a home. For example, the $2.8-million-plus Ridgewood is completely clad in natural stone and brick. “For the best kind of luxury home, you’re not going to use stucco on the sides or back, where it can’t be seen,” says Stefaniuk. “This house is brick throughout, with stone accents to highlight areas of interest.”
Plywood Wrap Only
When wrapping a home, the builder always uses plywood rather than code chipboard, since it is stronger. Great attention is also paid to insulation—not simply for comfort and energy-cost reasons, but to reduce noise pollution from the outside, dimming any “echoey feeling” inside. Amvic SilveRboard Graphite exterior wall sheathing insulation is also employed to provide superior temperature stability throughout the building, while increasing thermal comfort.
As you enter the front foyer of Ridgewood, you are treated to the dramatic sight of the great room, with its 24-foot-high peaked ceiling and natural white quartzite bricked fireplace, the chimney of which rises the height of the room. The fireplace is double-sided, dividing the great room and an office.
A practical touch of luxury in the foyer is a chandelier on a motorized system that allows it to be easily lowered to change the light bulbs.
One of Stefaniuk’s favourite details is the beautifully crafted staircase that curves from the basement to the third floor of the house. Soaring above is a bridge that connects the two wings of the home, divided by the great room.
Or if you are too tired to take the hike from bottom to top, you can opt for the home’s elevator, stained a butterscotch hue to bring out the grain of the wood veneer.
Climate control is optimized by a pair of furnaces that help split the home into two zones with separate temperature controls. “Adding a furnace on the second floor gives the builder the chance to eliminate ductwork in the ceiling of the first, so you don’t have unnecessary bulkheads in the first-floor ceilings,” explains Stefaniuk. “It’s not something you think about, but it makes the home more esthetically pleasing.”
A small but important flourish is found in the dining room, where RS Homes moulded the plaster in the dropped ceiling to the shape of the round light chosen by the client. The huge bathroom on the main floor, meanwhile, includes a uniquely shaped sink and countertop, each fashioned from the same piece of stone, set on an ornately carved wood cabinet, making it look more like a piece of fine furniture than a vanity.
The master bedroom sprawls some 922 square feet. It has huge windows facing south and north, filling the spacious room with light. On the south side, the bedroom opens up to a deck that provides views to downtown Toronto—especially stunning at sunset.
The ensuite bathroom runs the length of the bedroom and features two entrances, with his-and-hers sections divided by a bathtub under a vast window, shaded by trees for privacy. The wood panels in the bedroom, as with the wood throughout the house, is painted with furniture-grade oil spray paint, enhancing its wonderful texture.
Hampton’s Chic in Oakville
Since Ali and Roman Rockcliffe launched their luxury home building business 12 years ago, Oakville-based Rock Cliff Custom Homes has grown into one of the go-to luxury designers and builders in the region, even extending to upscale cottages in Muskoka. Coming from a family that has been in the real estate development business for 50 years, Roman serves as head builder, while Ali wears many hats, including that of designer, project manager and business manager.
The company’s knack for fashioning custom upscale homes that harmonize with the neighbourhood include the 4,800-square-foot, $5 million Hampton’s Chic they built last year in southeast Oakville, which features a Hampton/New England look with white wood siding and a grey cedar roof.
Inside, MDF (medium density fibreboard) panelling typically reserved for dining and living rooms in luxury home builds extends throughout the home. Ali notes that this required detailed planning and the services of experienced trim carpenters—“true craftsmen”—to install on this sometimes random, funky design.
“What we did here with the panelling demonstrates the movement we’re seeing away from the traditional wainscotting and square panels to more contemporary looks, adding texture, warmth and unique looks to luxury homes,” Ali notes.
The dining room is highlighted by a unique, custom-built oak wine display cabinet that will showcase favoured bottles like works of art—a testimony to the owners’ exquisite taste. This climate-controlled cabinet is double-sided so that it can be admired both from the dining room and hall.
The kitchen island features a jackknife waterfall design, Ali explains, meaning “the Super White Quartzite comes three-quarters of the way down and is actually cut on an angle. It’s a different, beautiful way to finish the island.”
That same stone, part of a warm palette of greys and whites throughout the kitchen, is carried through to the backsplash and also wraps around the range hood—the latter requiring extra back-framing reinforcement to support the weight.
The custom-made kitchen cabinetry is given a twist, with strips of LED lighting glowing both on top and below the cabinets. But most eye-catching of all is a back-painted grey glass wall with built-in Sub Zero appliances, cabinet doors and even a door leading to a hidden walk-in pantry.
The sitting room is dominated by a fireplace surrounded by a striking marble slab created through “book-matching”—that is, setting mirror-image marble slabs side by side to reveal their intricate pattern and to showcase the natural beauty of the stone.
Upstairs, the 10-foot coffered ceiling of the master suite adds to the feeling of spaciousness. In the ensuite, floor-to-ceiling Pella Architectural Series windows surround the freestanding Aria Voce Grande bathtub and its elegant Riobel Salome tub filler. The floors are heated, and the water closet includes both a toilet and a bidet. Oakville’s Top Notch Cabinets supplied the custom vanity work, including a mirror designed to house a built-in TV. The slab marble in the shower is also book-matched and features an extra-large bench.
Boasting a 10-foot ceiling, the basement is open and expansive—a trademark of Rock Cliff—thanks to the use of a 30-foot-long, $6,000 steel support beam. “It’s important for us to build so that there are no support columns down there,” says Ali. “Nobody likes to look at those.”
Small Thinks Big in Modernist Design
Since launching a one-man shop in 1996, David Small has grown his Mississauga-based operation into an award-winning architectural design firm with a collaborative team of 25, responsible for more than 1,700 custom home and renovation designs, including a growing client base in the United States for luxury home building.
Whether designing a house in Toronto or another part of the continent, Small always starts the process by visiting the property where the construction will take place to help inspire his work. “One of our philosophical beliefs is that the property should [inform] the design,” he says. “If I can’t (physically get to) the property, I won’t design the house.”
Small’s innate connection to the land became an important element in his BILD-award-winning renovation design of Pheasant Lane in the Thorncrest Village area of Toronto. The owners of the home wanted his firm to take the modernist bones of the existing structure and turn it into a fully realized luxury home, with an open-plan design that would make it seem much larger than it actually is.
During his first visit to the property, Small was struck by “one of the biggest trees” he’s ever seen—a sprawling white oak. “It’s a monster, but in a good way. For the house to become a worthy observer of that tree became a big talking point for the design. We wanted to make sure we got all the primary rooms looking back at that amazing tree.”
Small accomplished this by using lots of glass throughout the house, opening up the sightlines—not only within the house but to the treeline beyond.
With all of Pheasant Lane’s openness, the danger that Small had to guard against was that the various spaces would lose their individual identity. “It’s really important to do everything you can to make sure each of the spaces is adequately articulated,” he explains, “so when you’re in the living room, you don’t feel like you’re in the dining room, because of the architecture. So the living room steps up a bit and the ceiling comes down. And it protrudes from the envelope. We’ve got a very open plan, but the highly articulated spaces revolve around the specific function of each space.”
To make the home seem firmly connected to property, Small’s design emphasized its “horizontality.” Those horizontal lines show up, for example, in windows hinging from the top and opening up from the bottom. Builder Joel Atkinson, a principal of Profile Custom Homes in Burlington and a frequent Small collaborator, points out that the high-end Kolbe VistaLuxe windows are designed for modern structures such as Pheasant Lane.
“For a lot of years, there was not a nice, clean modern window on the market, so a lot of people were forced to make a more traditional window work or go to a commercial model, which has its drawbacks in a residential atmosphere,” Atkinson explains. “So Kolbe put a panel of designers and architects together and said, ‘OK, let’s design a window that meets the needs of a modern home but checks of all the efficiency boxes for residential applications.’”
The minimalist, slim-framed VistaLuxe is designed for applications demanding large expanses of glass, such as Pheasant Lane, with clean lines, using durable steel on the outside and having the warmth of wood inside.
To add to the effect of bringing the outside in, “one of the call-outs to modernist houses is to have the same range of materials both inside and out,” says Small. Any wood used inside is similar to the colour of the exterior wood. Stone used on the exterior of the house can also be brought inside, as can its colour, used as a monochromatic element.
“To get that long linear look, to hit the mark on David’s vision, we did a special order of Cascade Tiger Stones,” recalls Atkinson. “Usually those stones come in a blend, so it was a premium to get 80% or more at two-inch lengths, with some longer lengths thrown in to break things up [visually].”
The home’s interior design was handled Goran Tijannic of Gogo Design, who, for example, sourced the magnificent marble slab for the fireplace, giving specific instructions on how it should be cut to best reveal its pattern. Tijannic also handled all the home’s intricate millwork through his Line to Line luxury home building company.
Atkinson particularly admires how Tijannic handled the bathroom, with its sculpted bathtub and curbless shower. “There is this really cool wall that is clad in Corian, creating a floating bench and niche for shampoo,” he says. “This separates the toilet room and the shower, with two full-height sidelights of frosted glass.” The builder likes the effect so much that he is creating the same detail in his own house.
The entire 5,500-square-foot residence employs radiant heating with individual temperature controls in every room. As an added benefit, the concrete slabs used for the radiant heating make the house “feel more solid,” says Atkinson, with fewer floor vibrations and “great sound properties.”
The house also features a ductless air conditioning system and a furnace that supplies supplemental heat when needed. “Where radiant heat is not good is when it’s 10C during the day and drops to minus-10 at night, because it it can take a full day for in-floor heating to react to temperature [change],” explains Atkinson. “So the furnace is there to help in spring and fall, when temperatures are fluctuating all over the map.”
“Radiant heat has a nice inherent storage capacity, so even when the heat goes off, it still emits some warmth,” adds Small. “Besides, you feel more connected to the land when you don’t have hot air blowing at you.
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