Old Soul

A modern home with enough character – from polished concrete on the main floor to a unique top-floor patio – to rival its historic neighbours.

Photography by Curtis Comeau

Garneau is known for its 1920s Craftsman bungalows with gabled roofs, arching front porches and tapered columns. Architects of the day prided themselves on building with character in mind. Form was deemed as important as function. But the area is also known for modern buildings, which blend in among the older structures, all seamlessly connected by a massive elm canopy.

Doug and Trish Mills’s 2,930-square-foot home is one of the newer additions, and it stands tall – nearly twice as tall, in fact, as the small historic homes that flank it on either side. It’s a modern infill property built by Effect Home Builders and, while it’s only two years old, what it lacks in history it makes up for in character.

The curb appeal is immediate as your eye is drawn from the bright red door up to the peaked roof. But, upon further inspection, the peak is actually partially cut out from the roof, providing shade for a top-floor patio. It creates a look that isn’t found on any other house on the block – or maybe even in the city.

When the Millses first decided to build in the area, they were eager to ensure their new home would be met with approval from neighbours. They didn’t want to simply build a modern home and have it clash with the historic properties that preceded it. “We love the modern look. But we didn’t want our home to look like building blocks with a flat roof,” Trish says. So, they set a date and met at a local caf with the neighbourhood’s community league planning committee to receive feedback. They explained the peaked roof and other unique features, and expressed their desire to preserve the community’s historic vibe. “People from the community showed relief, which made us feel good,” Doug says.

After 12 years living in the Lansdowne area, the Millses realized they were travelling to the downtown and Whyte Avenue areas for everything from school to dance lessons for their daughter, who is now in high school. They wanted to live in a vibrant area right in the centre of the action, where they could more easily walk to their appointments, and Garneau seemed ideal. 

But they wanted to make sure. “We kind of watched to see what life would be like. We even came here at 11 o’clock at night. There was rustling from the big canopy of trees and pedestrian noise. It might bother some people, but we really like it,” says Doug. They leave reusable grocery bags at the front and back door so they can easily walk to nearby markets and shop. And they go for long walks in the river valley with their 11-year-old poodle, Lulu.

While the lot size is modest compared to their previous home, the Millses knew that they could maximize their space by building up – two   and a half storeys up – and by incorporating outdoor spaces right into the house. Rather than worrying about a front or back yard, the Millses wanted the top floor patio and two courtyards to act as extensions of the house itself. “With our former house, we had a large yard on a corner lot, but we didn’t use all the land. Here, we use the sidewalks, the parks. So, rather than having lots of outdoor space, we stretched the house to create it,” Doug says.

And it’s impressive just how much is done with the space – in fact, the Millses even have a separate apartment that they rent out to university graduate students that takes up a section of the front of the house; it features its own small courtyard. 

The main floor of the Millses’ home is divided by their own private courtyard, separating the great room on the street side from an open area with high ceilings that contains the dining room and the kitchen. Between them are floor-to-ceiling windows, giving way to the interior courtyard that provides natural light in all seasons. It’s a space where the couple can cook outdoors and then sit and enjoy the meal.

The home has a cheerful feel due to the neutral palette with grey and white, diamond-polished concrete floors and light grey walls, the result of a lesson the couple learned in a previous home. “We had a red wall and it was just so intense. It started to overstimulate us, I think,” Trish says. 

They wanted to start fresh with a blank canvas punctuated by splashes of colour – like the paintings of New York streetscapes in the great room or pots full of red tomatoes in the courtyard – to be added when the need for vibrancy strikes.

In the kitchen, a chandelier called the Hope, after the diamond, refracts waves of dancing light onto one of the walls where an antique Coca-Cola clock hangs, adding a touch of history to the modern space. The clock has neon orange and yellow lights that can be turned on and off remotely through the Millses’ devices. “Instant mood lighting,” Doug remarks.

Meanwhile, the walls along the warm walnut staircase are decorated with photos of Paris taken by Doug’s dad in 1949. It’s another way the Millses brought a sense of history into the modern space, with images of men in suits standing on Parisian streets and ladies in hats by the Pont Alexandre III.

The home is a modern take on a split level – the main floor is the largest space, with the next one and a half floors more compact without sacrificing comfort. The stairs lead to a second floor with a bonus room. The third floor has the master bedroom and, finally, the top floor is split between a sitting area and the pice de rsistance, the large outdoor patio, where Trish says the growing season for tomatoes is “ridiculously long” due to all that direct sunlight. Doug and Trish often start their day with breakfast on the patio while listening to music that travels through outdoor speakers. Along with the tomatoes, they’ve grown herbs and green beans. They’ve done everything from sunbathing to stargazing in the space, and have plans to possibly heat it in the winter. 

As he descends the stairs, Doug points downwards, drawing attention to wall space that travels from the top floor down to the main floor. “We’re still toying with ideas of what to do with the space,” he says. “We’ve come up with all kinds of ideas,” Trish adds. “A totem pole, a canoe, or a light fixture with elements you’d see from different levels. A climbing wall. Or a piece of artwork with glass bulbs.” For now, the space remains clean, but rest assured the couple’s creativity will shine through no matter what they choose. 

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