Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Why renovating is like childbirth

I'm new to this but I get the distinct impression that renovating is like childbirth. So far, my limited experience of the process is the design phase - we've bought the house, got the architects and for the last year we've been tied up with plans, surveys, drawings and sketch up. Incidentally, it has been looking at sketch up (the software that architects use to show clients a mock up vision of their design dream come true) that made me think of the nervous visits to the hospital for ultrasound scans of my children when they were in utero. A sneak peek into our future.

Yes, we're pregnant with the possibility of a new design for our house. Unlike the process of human procreation (at least for the time being), there has been a lot of picking and choosing - our home, once renovated, will be a genetically modified version of the building that luck and fortune threw our way.

It's the missing link about how we will go about transforming the pictures on the screen into our new home reality that reminds me most about the aura of mysticism that surrounded childbirth. It turns out that just like with the physical delivery of a child from the womb, the world is made up of two kinds of people, those who have been through it and those who haven't. Wise older women look upon young mothers-to-be with a scarcely disguised air of self-satisfied smugness - the knowing look that the entry to motherhood is a leveller. It brings us all to our knees.

And so, with renovation too. Ask anyone who has done it and the hint of a passing cloud of darkness passes over their face (don't blink, you'll miss it) and they are reminded again of how pleased they are to have arrived (alive, with relationships intact) on the other side - living in the space they have created. They radiate smiles (of relief?) and self-satisfaction at their achievement. We expectant renovators look on in wonder, seeing only joy and mistaking the smiles as a sign that it was a positive experience and one they would do again because they loved it, stayed within budget and everything went exactly as planned - maybe they even finished early....maybe... though they're being coy about it.

I'm doing what any self respecting renovator-to-be does - I'm finding solace in the world of interior design porn that is published with exactly my fears and dreams in mind. (Like the mother-to-be and the bride-to-be, the renovator-to-be is the perfect marketing target.) I could make some serious savings on construction costs if I recycled the piles of Grand Designs, Dwell, House & Home, Elle Decoration, Living Etc, Bo Bedre, Mad & Bolig (because the Scandinavians do it best), Toronto Designlines (because I need to know the local suppliers) etc etc But it doesn't stop there - I'm buying books on the subject, as if by osmosis I can absorb the style advice of the design gods and store up anti-dotes to the pitfalls. Its basically a drip feed equivalent to 'What to Expect When You're Expecting'. A holy grail towards design and building enlightenment.

But I'm wondering if, much like childbirth, every renovation experience is unique. There is only so much one can learn from other builds. Grand Designs is compulsive viewing not least because we see behind the scenes how personalities can work together (or not), how problems can be solved (or not) and how dreams can be realised, which they thankfully are for the most part. However, I suspect that just as 'One born every minute' can never convey the truth about labour pains, TV renovations are of limited assistance in reality. 

I guess our story will be just that. A story. One of many. A story that belongs to this house. It'll be our renovation tale from which we will edit out the time(s) when I am brought to my knees but we will hopefully end with a triumphant delivery of a re-modelled home and a sense of achievement (and relief) at having survived.

Please forgive, in advance, any smugness.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Born to renovate

Some are born to renovate, some become renovators and some have renovation thrust upon them... That's us. We are the people who are taking on a big renovation project without ever having put up shelves before. It was a funny anecdote for the last year, now it is becoming a reality. And in this little corner of the blogosphere, I want to tell the story of how it unfolds. I sincerely hope it won't be like watching car crash TV but I have my doubts.... And my fears. Yes, I'm nervous and I'm wising up to why people prefer not to buy houses that 'have potential'. But I would be lying if I didn't also admit to an intense degree of excitement; excited to learn about the building process and how the houses we live in work, excited to be a part of a creative process that will (hopefully) transform ideas and design concepts (debated and discussed ad nauseum) into a reality. And, of course, I'm excited to try and build something that will be ours and a reflection of our lives.

So, how did we get here?  Just over a year ago in the time of the Polar Vortex, we moved from a utopian expat life in Copenhagen, Denmark to Toronto, Canada. Incidentally, the expat episode was an equally exciting chapter in our lives which I wrote about in my other blog These Sublime Days  (if you're at all interested). When those days ended, we landed here, in Toronto and chose a neighbourhood to call home for the next chapter.

We sold our little flat in London, England, and bought this house. Built around 1915, it is typical of the houses in our neighbourhood on the fringes of High Park, in the west end of the city. A solid house, with 'good bones' and having myself now lived through 14 months of the Toronto climate, any house that can survive 100 years of these hostile extremes (there's a reason Sorel, Nobis and Canadian Goose hail from this side of the ocean) is worthy of our respect. Besides the weather, this house has also survived a number of renovations so far: previous owners divided it up into a multiple unit boarding house, the basement has separate entry and each floor has its own bathroom and then it was re-renovated back into a single family dwelling where our predecessors raised a family of six children.

No doubt if they could speak, the walls would tell stories. It's already a home with a history. But it's not a tale I want to hear. I want to make our own story in this space. Maybe the rooms worked for others, they don't work for us. And here is the point: this house is not a 'fixer-upper' - it is not a preserved relic from a bygone era in desperate need of an upgrade (although the kitchen appliances are from a different age). It is simply an arrangement of walls that create rooms that do not make sense to us, with an ecclectic mix of fittings and trims that we dislike.

Maybe 3 years of living with Scandinavian design left their mark on us and we no longer have a tolerance for dark spaces, dark carpets and small windows. The picture above shows the back of the house - the south facing side of the house - yes, the side that faces the SUN and yet none of the light can enter the living spaces because there are too few windows and too many decks and stairs. Earlier additions have created tunnels and darkened the already gloomy living quarters. The Z-shaped kitchen is clumsy and makes cooking a workout of sprints from stove to fridge.

The land at the back of the house drops away from the front so that when one looks back up to the house, as in the photo above, the three storeys loom. This in turn makes the inside detached from the outside and there is no connection with the trees and the space that could be a garden for us to enjoy. 

And herein lies another problem with this house  - even if there was an indoor/outdoor connection - it is not an outdoor space anyone would want to look at or venture out to. This house has too many garages. Besides the single garage integrated into the basement, a two and a half car garage monstrosity consumes all the land that could be a play area for the children, a vegetable garden, a patio for outdoor dining or a combination of all three.

And so, our mission with this renovation is to create light, spaces that are intentional, in that they work for us and the way we live, to connect the indoor with the outdoor and, above all, to make it sublime. 

Surely that isn't too much to ask of one's home...