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In the rush to renovate, landscape and generally make homes more conducive to, well, being at home, owners and contractors have watched demand and prices spike for all sorts of commonly used building materials and plants. Some, in fact, are now in short supply.
The question is whether it’s possible to find alternatives that are, if not necessarily less expensive, then at least available as well as distinctive.
Some homeowners and designers are looking to a rugged material that certainly predates the pandemic, and will provide a gritty sensibility: weathering steel.
Long used in heavy infrastructure or industrial applications, including bridges, railway cars and shipping containers, this type of steel, known by the brand name Corten, is fabricated using special alloys that produce, over time, a kind of rusty-looking armour that prevents corrosion and eliminates the need for painting.
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In the late 1980s, Corten began to gain recognition for its aesthetic properties thanks to the work of artist Richard Serra, whose monumental sculptures frequently used Corten, and local architects Brigitte Shim and Howard Sutcliffe, whose ground-breaking 22-year-old Don Mills project, Weathering Steel House, won a Governor General’s Award. It’s become somewhat more commonly used in both residential and landscaping projects as designers gain a greater appreciation of how this material ages. “It has this [aubergine] patina that develops over time,” Shim says. “We now know what 35-year-old weathering steel looks like.”
Jason Halter, owner of Wonder Inc., has worked extensively with shipping containers in residential contexts, and is now employing weathering steel for the exteriors of a handful of current projects, including a West Queen West semi-detached house at Beaconfield and Afton avenues. That renovation involved adding a third-floor onto the end unit of an Edwardian row house. The exterior walls, and a mansard roof required by the planning department, are clad in vertical seam quarter-inch Corten.
Mr. Halter points out the reddish-orange of the weathering steel complements the traditional red brick prevalent in older Toronto neighbourhoods, and notes that its corrosion resistant quality creates a kind of sustainability not found in more typical or older cladding materials. “No matter how beautiful a piece of architecture is, from the day it’s completed it begins to weather and deteriorate so picking resilient materials is obviously critical.”
In residential projects, Ms. Shim adds, designers have to think carefully about how to use Corten because of its chemical properties. It can react when placed next to some other types of metal, and also tends to bleed, at least initially, which means allowing water to drain off a Corten surface into a planting bed or a gravel surface. “You have to think about drainage,” she says. “It requires a level of knowledge in terms of how you put things together.”
Mr. Halter has used Corten in landscaping as well, for example a long and narrow planter/water feature that traversed the back of a garden. While some designers are installing low weathering steel retaining walls to define front yard gardens, landscape architect Janet Rosenberg prefers to use Corten in more vertical contexts, as such as a privacy screen/fence around an outdoor seating area in Rêve, a Tridel project. Set against yellow and orange foliage, she says this material can be stunning, but should be used sparingly. “That’s why it’s so beautiful: you don’t see very much of it.”
But metal fabricator James Maxwell, who owns Maxwell Design, points out that some of the steel plates showing up in gardens may just be ordinary steel that’s been allowed to corrode naturally.
He built a pair of front-yard steel planters last year, and is watching them age with interest. “I like the patinas and oxides because it shows the passage of time,” he observes. Rust, as a famous Canadian balladeer once sang, never sleeps. The steel, adds Mr. Maxwell, “is going to do what it wants to do.”
When Ryerson University landscape planner Nina-Marie Lister found herself on the receiving end of a bylaw infraction citation last year over complaints about the naturalized plantings in her front yard, she invited city officials and Mayor John Tory to see for themselves the absurdity of regulating native species on what was once a small ravine slope.
The ensuing publicity prompted the City to back off, but Ms. Lister and nature writer Lorraine Johnson saw an opening to push council to rewrite its grass and weeds bylaw, which was the subject of a 2018 ombudsman’s report calling on council to clear up confusion around the use of exemptions for natural gardens. The planning department since conducted a public consultation and met with experts, and a revised Grass and Weeds bylaw is due to be presented at council’s planning and housing committee next month.
This fight could be described as a perennial. Ms. Lister points out that a 1996 Ontario Court of Justice ruling came down in favour of a Toronto woman, Sandy Bell, who’d been fined $50 for allowing her east end garden to grow naturally. “Constitutionally,” she says, “it’s now a right to grow a natural garden.”
But the City’s by-law puts the onus on the homeowner to limit growth of “grass and weeds” to 20 centimetres or seek a natural garden exemption; the city, in a curious twist, actually publishes the addresses of homeowners with such permissions for both back and front yards.
Ms. Lister and Ms. Johnson have told the City that natural species should be permitted as of right, with restrictions only applying to invasive species or those with negative health impacts. “We said, ‘Don’t put in anything about landscaping because it opens the door to the regulation of appearance.’” Lister says she’s optimistic municipal officials will present a reformed bylaw that’s more attuned to bio-diversity and less fixated on the care and feeding of Kentucky blue grass, which she characterizes as the true invasive species afflicting the city’s gardens.
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