Ask the expert: architect Drew Mandel on brilliant homes and renos

Ask the expert: architect Drew Mandel on brilliant homes and renos

Architect Drew Mandel made his name with his own brave little home: a 13-foot-wide light box of glass, concrete and mahogany squeezed between two Victorians in Summerhill. This year, his Ravine House—with towering blocks of windows—had a silver screen debut in Atom Egoyan’s Chloe.

(Image: Vanessa Heins)

What skills should every architect have?
Good architects listen to the client. They understand the problems they’re dealing with, they prioritize, and they know the site. A great architect figures out a way to distill the project’s essence, and what’s important to the client, through all the noise and distraction of construction.

Is Toronto architecture too reserved?
I think Toronto residences could benefit from more self-expression. If people didn’t value resale so much, we might have more interesting architecture. But I caution against wild self-indulgence. Pick just one element in a project and reinvent it. You could put a large piece
of veined marble vertically on a wall as cladding, which turns it into a high-impact piece of art.

What’s the biggest mistake homeowners make when undertaking a major project?
Spreading yourself too thin on budget and being too ambitious about a project’s overall personality. Some clients will come to me with arm­loads of images. They want to jam in every wonderful detail in every friend’s house and hotel they’ve ever stayed at, and the house loses its identity.

You’ve talked about getting rid of
“needless cues “ on houses, things that are designed to signal “Hey, look at me, I’m a house!” What cues really bug you? Glue-on brick and glue-on stone—certain faux finishes drive me crazy. And fake fireplace logs. I hate those.

How do you win the hearts and minds of grouchy construction guys?
Contractors are pivotal. Site supervisors are often there until midnight, getting everything right for the client before move-in day. I wear well-worn-in boots, so that I fit in.

What’s the craziest client request you’ve had to deal with?
Someone wanted a cat pole running from floor-to-floor, like a playful cat staircase meets fireman’s pole. That didn’t happen.

Do you have a hate-on for pet owners?
No, I love cats and dogs. I think it was a budget cut.

What should a first-time buyer, who can only afford, say, 640 square feet, look for in a space?
You seem to enjoy the challenge of small spaces. Create multi-use areas, where everything performs dual functions. A staircase in the entryway can act as a bench, a fireplace hearth becomes extra seating, or use doors that slide together to create an office or subdivide a room—little tricks to make it feel special.

So is small the new normal?
Oh, absolutely.

Is there an upside to a space crunch?
One of my clients said she liked having a smaller space because her family cozied up together on the sofa. That was really refreshing to hear.