Take a drive through Hamilton’s east Mountain and you’ll find most homes share a similar look: one to two storeys, brick exteriors, gravel driveways, well-kept yards.
Then there’s Joel Tanner’s house.
His three-bedroom, two-and-a-half bath bungalow on Sunning Hill Avenue deviates from the ordinary to mimic an architectural fantasy.
With a nuanced, mid-century design, the home’s list of features knows no end. Consider its shape, lean and low-slung like something out of a “Mad Men” set; its vegetated green roof that doubles as a habitat for birds and insects; its driveway made out of crushed white dolomite gravel; its solar-electric panels, elm veneer walls, tangy yellow front doors, tubular light fixtures, floor-to-ceiling glass doors.
To top it off, it was all built from scratch in just five months.
“It’s completely ridiculous,” Tanner said.
The home was reduced to rubble in March 2019 after an overnight fire tore though its exterior and caused $1.2 million in damages.
A year later, it went on the market as a vacant lot.
While a prospective buyer looking for a family home might’ve seen the property as a money pit ready to burn cash, Tanner saw it as a blank canvas brimming with potential.
But he’s quick to tell you his longtime realtor thought otherwise.
“The first thing he said to me when I showed him the land was, ‘You’re a moron,’” said chuckling Tanner, owner of SMPL Design Studio, a local architectural design firm. “He said, ‘Joel, you want to spend $650,000 on a parcel of land on the east Mountain. You need to maximize your dollar return, you need a basement, more square footage.’”
Tanner plunged anyway and bought the lot in January 2021.
Tanner said the goal for the picturesque bungalow — he and his wife’s fourth Mountain home reno in the past decade, and their first from scratch — was never to make money.
“This project was about building a high-caliber, architectural piece that was going to stand the test of time and meet our family’s needs,” said Tanner, who has two kids with his wife, Jackie. “We had zero focus on return of investment.”
Buying a vacant lot is one thing. Building a home on it is another.
At SMPL, Tanner heads a team of 20 architectural designers who complete roughly 100 projects a year. Typically, homes take eight or nine months to build, “and that’s on the quick end of things,” he said. Mix in a pandemic and depleted supply chains, and you’re looking at well over double that.
So how did Tanner build a home in just five months, not to mention design and source contractors for one?
He said it begins with a clear vision and structured building timeline.
Tanner set the schedule in early March of last year with construction starting that April. Like his realtor, the various specialty contractors he found across Ontario also had doubts about his lofty plan and tight schedule.
“All our subtrades came back and said, ‘Listen, the timeline for my portion of work is fine, but we have no idea how you’re going to finish the project in six months,’” said Tanner.
“There’s no doubt about it: it was a hectic construction site. There were 15 trucks lining the street almost every day throughout the last four months of construction.”
Daily one-hour site visits to the property kept contractors in check and focused on their tasks, and a charming door-knocking tour of the block kept neighbors without noise and debris complaints.
“I think the neighbors were appreciative that we got it done so quickly,” Tanner said. “When you’re able to have that level of control over a project, I think that’s what created this successful platform to deliver what we did in the time slot allotted.”
As for the design, Tanner credits his wife, who created a plan that prioritized maximizing spaces and accentuating details. Think kitchen cabinets made to look like full-panel doors, slat-feature walls, light indoor colors, splashy artwork, a Mediterranean-inspired stove, and a bathroom mural of a dog whose eyes are replaced with mirrors.
“In a smaller home, you try to be very consistent with your material palate to play games with your mind and make the home feel bigger than it actually is,” Tanner said.
In all, the project made for a grand home in a decades-old suburban neighborhood. does it stand out too much?
“It does and it doesn’t,” Tanner said, laughing. “Because it’s set back and aligns with neighboring homes, it doesn’t stand out as an ostentatious piece of architecture. I think it stands out for being unique but in a very mutated way.”