Altius Architecture

Toronto’s Altius Architecture doesn’t think like other firms. While some firms seek out attention for the showiness of their exterior designs, Altius believes in designs with a purpose. “We don’t do design for design’s sake,” Principal Graham Smith explains. “We’re not doing these buildings that are more sculptures than buildings.”

Altius has built a strong reputation in Toronto as a firm that believes in creating sustainable single-family homes, and Principal Cathy Garrido says that comes from the firm’s adherence to the tradition of the master builder. Along with Principal Trevor McIvor, Garrido and Smith were students at the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture in the early 1990s. During their time there, they started what would become Altius as a design/build firm that also performed general contracting work. As Smith explains, this experience gave Altius a solid understanding of the building process. “It was a very hands-on approach,” he says. “Our catchphrase at the time was that we were ‘designers who build.’”

Today, Altius concentrates on architecture, but the experience its principals have on the construction side has gone a long way to distinguish the firm from its competitors. “Architects have become removed from the building process, and that’s something that we wanted to counter,” Smith says. 

Garrido describes the firm’s philosophy as one centered on the idea of sustainable design, firmly rooted in a contemporary aesthetic. She says the firm designs homes in which the design serves practical functions as well as aesthetic ones, such as roof overhangs that help control a home’s solar geometry and reduce energy consumption. The firm believes mechanical systems are used as a crutch by many architects to overcome points in a design where aesthetic principles were given precedence over sustainability principles, and Altius strives to avoid that. 

Smith says the firm also insists on always following the natural contours of the site. “We’re always trying to create buildings that sit harmoniously in their surroundings,” Smith says. 

Prime Examples

Examples of the Altius philosophy put into practice include the Thorncrest House in Etobicoke, Ontario. The 6,500-square-foot residence was designed around an open concept that is centered on a double-height living room surrounded by a catwalk. Roof overhangs and cantilevered spaces provide natural shading, and the exterior of the home features blue zinc cladding with Spanish cedar accents. Use of natural daylight can be seen in the home’s basement walk-out, which opens onto a sunken pool and deck. 

For the Grenadier House project in Toronto, Altius has designed a home that fits the existing lot with ample green space in the backyard, and a double carport and garage underneath the main living quarters. The main living area relies on sun from its south-facing façade, but is slightly elevated above street level to maintain privacy. The top-floor master suite opens out onto a rooftop patio. 

Making Headway

The contemporary designs of Altius’ homes used to be a tough sell to clients, Garrido says, because many people wanted their homes to reflect more traditional designs. Today, however, property values in Toronto have reached the point at which many renovation projects have changed to tear-downs, and clients now are asking for contemporary designs that include energy-efficient features. 

Nevertheless, Altius Architecture has been able to flow with the changes because of the well of experience its principals draw from. As long as the firm remains true to its principles, Garrido and Smith say, Altius Architecture should remain one of the guiding lights in the Toronto area.

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