Made to Last

A family transforms a leaky 1970s bungalow into a highly efficient space designed for wear and tear.

Photography by Curtis Comeau

The wide-plank, white oak hardwood is the colour – and seeming breadth – of a prairie wheat field. On it, a three-year-old boy does what appears to be a tap dance. Mid-stride, Jake realizes he needs to free up his hands. He passes a container of bedtime snacks to his mother. Then one hand moves to hold a mock riding saddle horn while the other launches an imaginary lasso.  He sings,

Heeyyyy. Waxy lady.

Whoop whoop whoop. 

Weeey- waxy lady. 

Oop oop oop. 

Thanks to Jake, “Gangnam Style” is alive and well in the suburban community of Westridge. He lives in this 3,300 square-foot home with his parents and two siblings. The home, recently renovated by Habitat Studio, was transformed from a leaky 1970s bungalow to an energy-efficient, contemporarily designed space in just six months.

It is the second home Kate McFetridge and her husband, Chris Nicholas, have owned in the neighbourhood. Their first had only three bedrooms, so, when Jake – their first of three kids – was born, the family began looking for a house where every kid could have a room of their own.

After looking all over the city, they found this place just a few blocks away. On a quiet cul de sac, it is backed by green space that the City once planned to transform into a walking trail. In 40 years, almost no renovations had been done to the home. The draughty windows, the heavy, dark wood banisters, the carpets and wallpaper – everything – harkened back to episodes of Knots Landing.

“It was pretty hard to imagine what this could be when we first saw it,” says McFetridge. But the home had “good bones” (meaning it was structurally sound) and they felt pretty sure it could be configured like they wanted: Four bedrooms on one level and an open plan on the main floor. With some major renovations, it could be a home in which their family could grow.

“Before we actually signed the deal, we had Habitat Studio’s designer, Trevor Hoover, look at it with us,” says McFetridge. “We told him what we hoped to do. He felt it was do-able, so we went ahead.”

While they were eager to get the renovation done, they decided to live there for six months. “I’m so glad we did, otherwise we would have entered into the re-design process pretty blindly,” says McFetridge. “We wouldn’t have understood where the views were, where the light comes in, what spaces we use the most.”

For instance, they changed the garage entry into the house so that it leads to a laundry room/back entry which was itself converted from a former office room. They added windows to the southwest wall, where there had been none. They changed the front entrance overhang after realizing that there was no cover at the front door.

One of the biggest changes was to the back screened-in porch. “I loved it, but we realized we could not look through two sets of windows to see the back yard,” says McFetridge. They removed the porch and now, from the front entrance, guests can see straight through the stairs’ open risers, through a window into the yard bordered by aspen and birch growth.

When it came time to plan the project, Habitat Studio sat down with McFetridge and Nicholas at the kitchen table and they together drew up the plans. Then the family of five, plus their cat and soon their adopted dog, would move in with McFetridge’s parents in Laurier Heights.

Every second day, McFetridge would drop in on construction. “There are so many more decisions to be made with a reno like this.” They had their plans, but once walls were opened or windows removed, new information was discovered that forced a slight or major change to the plan. The biggest setback would come early on, when they discovered their garage needed to be underpinned so it could handle the weight of the master bedroom above it.

When that was done, the exterior was completely overhauled. The former brown stucco was wrapped in four-inch thick Styrofoam insulation and covered with acrylic stucco and cedar siding. The R-value of nine was increased to 28, in some parts. The 40-year old windows were replaced with the most efficient available. Habitat Studio staff were meticulous. They filled every possible crack that leaked heat.
They taped, foamed and caulked the joints at all the wall intersections, around the light fixtures and wire. They filled the attic with cellulose insulation.

Then, to ensure air quality and energy efficiency in the air exchange for the home, they installed a new, high-efficient HRV. “It provides a continuous supply of fresh air that needs very little energy to warm it up,” explains Peter Amerongen, project manager and co-founder of this employee-owned company committed to sustainable building practices. “Before the renovation, fresh air came in through hundreds of cracks and leaks. That air needed to be heated up to room temperature from whatever it was outside.”

Thanks to the HRV, the home’s fresh air is now heated by outgoing stale air.

Only after this major energy retrofit (that, besides the difference on the heating bills, remains mostly unseen), did they move on to the interior design changes. The transformation is dramatic. White oak, “blizzard” granite, and grey tiles have been used consistently throughout the Scandinavian-style space.

The couple knew what kind of design concept they wanted. For help executing their vision, they turned to interior designer, Melissa Hansen. McFetridge wanted lots of light in the home, with a sleek, Scandinavian feel, says Hansen.
It was important to keep the couple’s three children in mind when planning, so Hansen made sure to keep items like cabinets and sofas kid-friendly. She eschewed leather in favour of easy-to-clean microfibre fabric in a charcoal grey shade for the living room sofas. “We were trying to keep everything as white as possible but I tried to tie in greys everywhere I could,” says Hansen. The walls throughout the house are very bright white but Hansen wanted to ensure that the home would not be too stark. “I wanted to bring some warmth into the room,” she says.

There are pot lights throughout the main floor, with plenty of additional light streaming through sizeable windows. “They wanted as much light as possible,” says Hansen. The goal was to keep the room clean-looking, with neat lines and minimal clutter.

Colour accents were kept to a minimum. “I wanted Kate to be able to tie in colour with pillows, so she can change them out if she needs to for the holidays,” says Hansen. “Everything else is quite neutral.” Pops of colour can be found throughout the house in the artwork from the Peter Robertson Gallery. Guests will also appreciate the spa blue-green backsplash tile in the powder room.

“I wanted all the lines to be horizontal,” says McFetridge. The effect is that the long, rectangular shape of the house is repeated in beautiful symmetry by the rectangular windows and reinforced by all the horizontal lines. The floor boards, the one-inch thick stair treads, the kitchen’s glass subway tile, the rift cut white oak cabinets, all are positioned to expand the width of the house. The clean, simple lines repeat, repeat, repeat; they undulate like a prairie field in a heat wave.

The horizontal lines are lost, however, on the family’s black Lab-retriever, Tim. He only has eyes for the fluorescent tennis ball in Jake’s hand. Tim’s muscles are taut until Jake’s toss of the ball acts like a starting line gunshot. The dog slingshots across the room. His nails clatter on the hardwood and he nearly collides with the wall to catch the ball mid-bounce. His exuberance is an exclamation mark on the point that, while the house is beautiful and energy efficient, it’s designed for the wear and tear of a family who plans to live in it for the long haul.

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