Into the Woods

This landscape shows that beauty and bylaws can work together

By Martha Uniacke Breen
Photos By Byron J. Yu

Many urban dwellers would relish the opportunity to live beside a beautiful ravine like this one, on the edge of the Don River that runs through the Hogg’s Hollow neighbourhood in Toronto. But for Kent Ford, principal of Kent Ford Design Group, upgrading the landscaping and pool, in concert with a new build by architect Peter Higgins, meant navigating through a series of bureaucratic puzzles that belie its simple, harmonious design. However, necessity really is the mother of invention, and the result is a backyard landscape that works for the needs of the homeowners and blends comfortably into the sweeping ravine at the back of the property, while meeting the requirements of a range of city planning departments.

“We had a number of restrictions every step along the way that had to be accommodated,” Ford recalls. “First, there was the City of Toronto Urban Forestry and Ravine department, which oversaw the ravine-edge location. Then, because it is built on a floodplain, we needed permits from the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority as well. And this was on top of new restrictive bylaws about fencing around pools, which require that the pool be fully enclosed by a fence, even at the back of the house.”

The Toronto and Region Conservation Authority was formed in 1954 after Hurricane Hazel devastated the city, and floodplain areas like the one that runs through this property were designated to accommodate the runoff from a “350-year storm,” that is, a storm of the type that the city might only see once in 350 years. Needless to say, there hasn’t been anything like that since the 1954 hurricane – though interestingly, after heavy rains last summer that in some neighbourhoods actually approached Hazel’s levels, these areas served the purpose for which they were designed remarkably well: while thousands of Torontonians suffered flooded basements, not a single person was killed or left permanently homeless.

However, the TRCA’s rules dictated the first of several major modifications to the plan. The original design called for a pair of stone-clad cabanas, one to house the pool equipment and the other to serve as a change and storage area; since you can’t have any built structures within a floodplain, the TRCA nixed them. This forced a rethinking of the entire arrangement of poolside elements. “We actually considered and drew up a series of ideas, moving around elements like the outdoor kitchen, the dining areas, and the pool mechanicals – juggling utility and sightlines to meet both the ravine restrictions and design logic,” he says.

For example, where once a cabana behind the outdoor kitchen would have enclosed mechanicals and provided a changing area, an open L-shaped cedar wall now shelters an outdoor shower and hooks for towels; the mechanicals now discreetly reside within an enclosure behind the dining area on the opposite side.

“But there were certain things I was adamant about,” Ford continues. “I wanted the pool to be oriented exactly on the centre axis of the rear doors of the family room. It also had to relate to the overall design of the back of the house.” These included a wide bow window on one side, the main bank of doors leading from the family room in the centre, and a double kitchen door on the other side. To harmonize with the bow window, the far edge of the pool is rounded rather than foursquare; the shape gives a sense of visual direction towards the woods, almost like gazing over the prow of a ship.

The original house design called for a wider rear terrace, but this would have made the actual pool deck only about four feet wide. Given that they had to run a fence between house and pool to meet pool bylaws, it would have been not only awkward aesthetically, but uncomfortable physically. After some discussion, Ford and Higgins decided on a much shallower terrace/staircase which steps down five courses (separated by a short wall, a lower stoop at the kitchen door comes down two courses), to a lower deck that’s wide enough for a fence and for a bank of teak lounge chairs directly facing the view.

To the side, the outdoor kitchen is well enough equipped to allow al fresco dining all summer long, with built-in barbecue, bar fridge, a small sink and a peninsula with stools. The granite counter matches the kitchen counter inside the house, while the walls are clad in Wiarton Dry Wall, a narrow man-made facing stone that has a vaguely Frank Lloyd Wright feel to it.

In fact, the various kinds of stone were very carefully chosen for the project, Ford explains. Along with the Wiarton Dry Wall stone on all the vertical surfaces, the upper landing and exterior dining areas are paved with natural India stone, and each step is a Wiarton monolith riser, a small design event that adds a sense of solidity and grace to the composition. As for the patio pavers themselves, “Another one of the Urban Forestry rules was that any flooring stone we used had to be water-permeable, so that meant we couldn’t do the standard concrete underlayment. We did eventually find a stone that was water-permeable and actually quite attractive, but that was another added challenge.”

For all the difficulties inherent in creating a design that satisfied the homeowners’ wish list, the aesthetic vision of both Ford and Higgins, and met the convoluted requirements of the various urban authorities, the result is a rear patio and pool that is a pleasure to be in and harmonizes beautifully with the sylvan landscape beyond. (The project won a Landscape Ontario Award of Excellence soon after its completion.) Says Ford: “I like the way the various types of stone are incorporated into the design, and I’m happy that we were able to come up with something aesthetically pleasing within these quite strict approval guidelines. There’s a simplicity to it that I really like.”