By Tom Hogue

Four Renovators Deconstruct Their Most Memorable Projects

A dream. That’s where a renovation journey often begins. The conversation over warm lighting in comfortable surroundings might have started with pages torn from a design magazine, or a TV episode that transfixed a client with an idea for a kitchen well overdue for an updo. 

In almost every case, inspiration hatched over a glass of wine swiftly takes shape with a somewhat unrealistic set of expectations on a budget and deadline imagined in a bubble. 

In the pursuit of clients’ dream projects, illusions can often be shattered, but Ontario’s experts in the renovation sector are continually advancing methods to guide their customers through the many stages of home re-invention. 

Gene Maida from Georgian Renovations in Mississauga refers to helping clients get through the “terror barrier” as they awaken to the dust and acclimatize to the thought of doing dishes in the laundry sink for months. “We’re not afraid to have that sometimes tough conversation,” Maida says of the company’s approach to those inevitable surprises that spring up during a tear-down. 

An educated view about setbacks separates true experts from the pack, because experience has provided seasoned renovators with a perspective on how the “dream” runs parallel to the potential of an opposite reality—the nightmare lurking just beneath the plaster of older homes that manifests in short-sighted circuitry, shaved joists or under-engineered spans. 

“There is a saying that bad news doesn’t get better with age,” Maida says. 

But the dream doesn’t have to die. What the following examples reveal is how collaboration between the homeowner, design teams and on-site trades all contribute to keeping the spirit of the endeavour a positive force—from initial concept to completion. 

Like all dreams, they take shape in a variety of shapes and forms. 

WINDRUSH HILL CONSTRUCTION

Engineering no small feat 

As with many other established renovators, Tony Alfieri of Windrush Hill Construction came up through house building. Dig the hole, pour the foundation, frame it up, roof and all the rest. Repeat. 

But it is the challenge of often-complex renovations that most satisfies him. “Building is a black and white process—there’s a lot more grey matter in renos,” notes Alfieri. And no riddle was quite as complex as the Norris Place.

Windrush Hill Reno project in St. Catharines

The St. Catharines home is in the oldest section of one of the oldest cities in the country. So the task of removing walls to create more room with a contemporary edge and not disturb the original grandeur of the 1874-era home was “a serious challenge.” 

Especially difficult was the request to remove a double-brick wall downstairs but keep the double-brick wall upstairs. To reinforce the main floor structure to carry the weight of the wall above—and support the portion of the roof above that—was a feat Alfieri credits to the unsung renovation heroes: the engineers.

“Everyone sees the before and after pictures of a job, but no one talks about the dynamics of engineering that went into the in-between,” he notes.

Old radiator systems were removed and concrete poured before design elements came together to create what Alfieri describes as a “funky dichotomy” of crisp white trim set against clean new lines in an opened-up space.

The job cost $400,000 and took the 13-member crew almost seven months. And though there were sleepless nights, it is clear Alfieri is enlivened by what he calls “the reinvention of homes.”

PIONEER CRAFTSMEN

Pioneer Craftsmen Reno in Kitchener.

 

Restoring heritage, brick by brick

It’s hard to think of century-old homes on the historic streets of Kitchener’s Victoria Park as being part of a subdivision. But these homes were laid out along a planned set of streets and are united by a shared model of construction—mostly double-brick, true two-by-four dimension pine with generously adorned trim details on windows. 

Postwar families left behind these 19th-century downtown dwellings, preferring new ‘modern’ homes in sprawling developments with cul-de-sacs at the expanding outer edge of the city. With the convenience of city core restaurants, amenities and transit in mind, subsequent generations led a reverse migration from the suburbs back to these neighbourhoods, attracted by the other-era charm and the very anachronistic details their grandparents chose to leave behind.

The trouble is that those stately abodes were originally built as a series of small rooms, each with its own purpose—parlour, kitchen, pantry, dining room, etc.—with hallways and plenty of doors. Pioneer Craftsmen in Waterloo Region was chosen by a young couple to rethink their century-old Kitchener home. They wanted new space created for their growing family, but worried about losing the home’s older touches. 

“They came to us saying, ‘We absolutely love our home, but we need a big open kitchen space, and a new bedroom space,’” says Pioneer’s Jamie Adam. 

The design team got to work and crunched numbers and design options on a year-long project. 

“We quickly determined that they really needed to be moving out during the renovation, because we were going to be involved in every aspect of the home,” Adam says of a plan to open up the back portion of the house for a 24’x16’ two-floor addition that included excavating a basement. 

Very quickly cost became a factor. “I think the budget always comes into play,” Adam says. “And in their case, it was a healthy budget, but it was still something that we needed to work around.” 

The couple’s initial budget of about $300,000 would have to climb by 20%, but some accommodations were made to repurpose materials in imaginative ways. Trim and brick, for example, were refurbished and reused as adornments inside to maintain the character the couple feared losing. 

Throughout, Adam says the couple were “fully on board and driving the idea of showcasing the home’s original character. They knew this wasn’t going to be an easy process, but they were investing in this home because this is where they were going to continue to raise their family and live for many many years.” 

To Adam and his 24-member Pioneer team, the patience and persistence displayed by a young couple through a long process was the secret to fulfilling their wishes. “For me, it was the level with which the client wanted to preserve the feel of the home,” Adam says. “Too often people are fine to drywall over every square inch of brick or old materials they can to create what looks like a brand new home. This client was absolutely not there”.

CCR CALLAHAN

Begin with the end in sight

Seldom do established renovation firms encounter enthusiasm of this order. 

“They loved it from day one. When I was there handing over the final basket to thank them, they came up and gave me a big hug and said thank you,” CCR Build + Remodel founder Arne Madsen notes of the family who hired the London firm to transform a crammed living area. “They were more appreciative than most customers in this day and age and were so excited during the whole process. It was a lovely project.”

So how exactly did CCR engineer this dream project? The problem was easy enough to identify. For 20 years, the family had been living in a crowded section of the 1960s-era home where living room, kitchen, family room and mud room were packed into a matrix of separate spaces. 

“We knocked out that whole area and installed two beams from the front of the house to the rear,” Madsen says. “When we opened it up, we had a square opening of basically 35 feet by 30 feet.” Six months later, a focal-point fireplace and open-concept kitchen now frame the skylight-lit space—all united by hardwood flooring throughout. 

“What can you do for us?” That was the open invitation to CCR from the couple in their late 50s. But they had a specific number in mind. 

On the topic of cost, Madsen says he “was fairly scared when I sat down with them and presented them with the design” that was about $30,000 more than the $150,000 the couple had budgeted. 

“But when I laid it out for them, they said ‘When can we have it? When can we move in?’” Madsen shares. 

The resolution resided in the 30-year-old firm’s reputation for identifying extra items, such as improvements to this home’s attic insulation and other repairs recommended as preventative measures to head off potential problems later on. Too often a contractor doesn’t want to raise other issues for fear it might delay the project.

“We are quite different in that respect,” Madsen says. “If we see something we can improve and have a better overall result at the end, we like to bring it up. I’ve talked to different homeowners who learned later that they could have done this and that, but nobody spoke up, and they become annoyed, knowing that the issues they’re dealing with now could have been addressed during the renovation.

“That’s always been my hallmark,” Madsen continues. “It’s not always a matter of the dollar or the time from start to finish; it’s a matter of when we get into the project, if something comes up, let’s talk about it.”

What helped make this a dream project for CCR was successfully matching their design-build philosophy with the right client—those who regard their dwelling as a home, not a house. 

Those buying a property with the intention of flipping it into the red-hot real estate market, on the other hand, are not an ideal match for CCR. “One of our first questions is, ‘How long do you want to be in the home?’ Because you’ve got to spend at least five to 10 years to get some of the value out for yourself,” Madsen says. “We don’t renovate for resale; we tell them that right up front.”

GEORGIAN RENOVATIONS

A Sunday tradition transformed

After the death of his mother, a son sought to maintain a Sunday tradition by gathering family members in his home for the big meal. That was the inspiration behind a project that Gene Maida of Georgian Renovations recalls as being particularly satisfying for everyone involved. 

With a deep interest in cooking, the Thornhill homeowner was looking for a way to transform the kitchen of his 2,400-square-foot, 1980s-era house. This was the natural space for grown family members and their children to gather every week as they had with Grandma.

The vision was a modern hearth, double the size of the previous kitchen but done in less time than previous projects. 

In the past, the homeowner had work done with what Maida refers to as “one-man renos” and had grown frustrated with the delays from a lean approach “that ended up taking double the length of time.” 

The client “was a well-established accountant but acknowledged that he had little experience with renovation,” Maida relates. 

What sold this owner was a professional, “photo-realistic” 3D computer model design from Georgian that allows their customers to see the concept from different perspectives and vantage points with all of the paint finishes, flooring applications and lighting placements.  Including structural changes, appliances and design elements, the presentation of the $600,000 plan involved 60 days of preparation, according to Maida.

“He was quite comfortable with the design results and we got started a couple of days after that point,” Maida says, adding that the homeowner was shocked by how quickly the two dozen on-site trades moved things along. 

“He went out for lunch, and was surprised that a beam had been installed by the time he got back,” Maida recalls of a first big event in the home last summer. 

Outside of some deficient electrical work from a previous job, Maida says there were few delays and the project was completed in November—120 days after launch—and ready just in time for the holidays.

It’s a rare experience for the company that does $30 million in projects every year to see a job go so remarkably smoothly from concept forward, says Maida, who is all too familiar with the problems related to “production houses of the last few decades that are not meant to last 40 years.” 

That he didn’t have to administer “terror barrier” therapy here was a dream unto itself. 

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