A modern family-home renovation that puts play first

The Toronto home of Greg Hall and Meghan Walker.

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Eight years ago, Greg Hall and Meghan Walker, two entrepreneurs, bought their Toronto home because it had four separate apartments. Their plan was to live on the ground level, with Mr. Hall’s mom, who was in the process of downsizing, upstairs in a separate suite. Two basement units were to be rented out to offset the cost of the house.

At the time, the couple had a young daughter, and their 1,750-square-foot Summerhill flat felt comfortable. Things started getting tighter after their second daughter was born, more so with the birth of their third little girl. Two years ago, to alleviate their cramped quarters, Mr. Hall and Ms. Walker decided to take back their basement, doubling their living space. (Expanding to the second level was never an option – who would ever dare to evict their own mother?)

The renovation involved reclaiming the basement rental suites and making them part of the primary residence.

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Though the ensuing renovation meant forgoing rental income, it doesn’t always make financial sense to move into a bigger pile. In addition to legal fees, real estate commissions and land-transfer taxes, the cost of single-family homes has risen from $600,000 in 2012, when the couple bought their duplex, to about $1.1-million in 2020, according to listing.ca.

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Plus, Mr. Hall and Ms. Walker had a very specific vision for their renovation – something they couldn’t just buy. “We wanted a home that embodied our values,” says Ms. Walker, a naturopath and podcast host. “Both of our backgrounds are in health. We wanted a healthy, environmentally friendly design. We also wanted something modern, yet something fun.”

“Play is an important part of life,” says Mr. Hall, a trained MD turned strategy consultant for health companies. “It reduces stress, it helps children develop. So fun is definitely something we wanted as an integral feature of the house.”

The large kitchen island allows space for the family to congregate.

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To undertake the renovation, the couple worked with architect Trevor Wallace, principal of Reflect Architecture, a long-time friend of Meghan. Beyond the focus on wellness, Mr. Wallace had other constraints to consider. Neither Mr. Hall or Ms. Walker wanted a big addition, and there was just enough space on the ground floor for a master bedroom, a home-office, and the combined kitchen, living and dining rooms. That put the girls rooms in the basement. Basement bedrooms are often described as dark, dank and musty – but healthy and fun, not so much.

“The thing is, I don’t mind constraints,” Mr. Wallace says. “Constraints push creativity.”

For Mr. Wallace, achieving the desired, modern aesthetic was probably the easiest part. Prior to starting Reflect Architecture in 2013, he worked with Quadrangle Architects for six years, Among his projects, he helped design the condominiums of 130 Bloor St. W., a hallmark on one of Toronto’s most prominent streets, composed of stacked, clean-lined boxes sitting above an elegant, 1960s office tower. For Mr. Hall and Ms. Walker, he showed a similar deftness with fusing old and new, recladding part of the exterior with matte black aluminum and warm Douglas fir to complement the existing, dark brick.

Black aluminum and Douglas fir add visual interest to the brick exterior.

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To make the lower level brighter and less cave-like. Mr. Wallace dug the floors down deeper to allow for taller, loftier rooms, and incised the ceilings with glowing LEDs that shoot from one area to the next like a laser beam. He also installed big clerestory windows along the periphery, and cut a two-storey atrium around the basement stairs, drawing sun from the main floor. The light and natural finishes, such as the knot-less, pale white European oak that wraps the stairs and sprawls across the floors, helps reflect more shine.

“Beyond just using low-[volatile organic compounds] paints and other non-toxic finishes, natural light was a big part of our idea for a healthy home,” Mr. Hall says. “Natural light improves the circadian rhythm and enhances sleep quality, which really helps with overall well-being.”

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The two-storey atrium around the basement stairs brings in light from the main floor.

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The Hall-Walker family is big on spending time together. The main floor has plenty of space for congregation, including the large, porcelain-tiled island where each of the girls can sit and perhaps help make dinner. But the basement is where Mr. Wallace put many of the home’s most playful elements, for both parents and kids, and consequently, it’s where they spend a lot of their time. There’s a recording studio for Ms. Walker’s podcast, The Entropology Podcast, as well as a home gym with a Peloton bike (the kind with a built-in screen that connects the rider to training videos and live coaches). “I’ll never join another gym again,” Ms. Walker says. “I love the bike, and my kids love it, too. My four-year old sits on it, tries to pedal.”

A slide allows the kids to zip down from the main floor in seconds, while adding a crucial element of play to the home’s design.

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And then there’s the slide – the twisting tube right beside the stairs. It has a practical purpose. It whizzes the little ones down into the basement in a matter of seconds. And it’s held up by a structure that doubles as a jungle gym, where the girls sometimes literally hang out. It’s also the home’s most potent, direct symbol of the family’s commitment to fun. “Meghan insisted there be a slide,” Mr. Wallace says. “She was adamant.”

“We want our kids to know it’s not only okay to have fun; it’s essential,” Ms. Walker says. “If, as parents, we spent all our time working and stressing – that’s what we’d be modelling for our children. We want our kids to know what balance is.”

“That said, Meghan works harder than anyone I know,” Mr. Hall says. “But no one uses the slide more than Meghan. And I think that’s great. Maybe there would fewer problems in the world if everyone, including adults, took a little more time to play.”

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