When you live in a 126-year-old house that has only been moderately renovated over the years, you learn to live with certain discomforts.
For Shelley and Paul Williams, that meant warning guests to wear extra layers in the winter because their Toronto beach house wasn’t insulated at all. Navigate the spaces between creaky hardwood floors. Dressing by flashlight in the upstairs hallway because the closet in the bedroom was tiny and the dim ceiling lights didn’t make a dent in the dark, windowless hallway. Then there was the ominous wiring of knobs and tubes and old plumbing that lurked behind the plaster walls.
For years, the couple debated whether to make small changes or gut the place to modernize it. Then they came to a fork in the road.
“The kicker for me was the day I opened a kitchen cupboard and the whole door came off in my hand. I have a long fuse, but that’s what did it said Shelley.
“We knew we could never sell the house as it was. And we were tired of freezing and dealing with all the inconvenience. It was time to invest in a change.
Contractor Sean Morris and his team began dismantling the house down to the studs in the summer of 2020. The family moved into a family cottage for the summer and rented a nearby condo until the project be completed in March 2021.
The 800-square-foot semi-detached house was a bit cozy for Paul, an IT consultant, and Shelley, an energy consultant, their 15-year-old son Russell, and the energetic Bordoodle Arlo, so they opted to put a 400 sq. -ft. addition at the back of the house. This would allow for a cozy family room downstairs and a larger master bedroom upstairs, with storage space.
When making decisions about room layouts and choice of finishes, Shelley admits they were lost. “Paul wanted a relaxed, barefoot beach feel. I wanted a kitchen island, a gas fireplace, and updated windows and utilities. Beyond that, we didn’t know what to do,” said she declared.
They called on the skilled eye of designer Tracey Fisher and a distinctive style began to take shape. Fisher suggested moving the kitchen to the front of the house to maximize space and flow in the narrow house.
When it comes to design, Fisher took inspiration from nearby Kew-Balmy Beach. “We talked about creating an elevated modern beach vibe. Not dolphins and shells, more of a Montauk feeling.”
Engineered white oak flooring and coordinated open shelving throughout the main floor provide a light, sandy tone. And the strategic use of shiplap boards on feature walls throughout the house adds economical character and durability, especially on the staircase that sits on the wall they share with their neighbours. “Shiplap is isolating and very forgiving, especially when you have a teenager who’s going up and down all the time,” Fisher said.
Oversized rattan pendant lights from Pottery Barn anchor the kitchen island and add the coastal sophistication they were looking for. Shaker-style warm white cabinetry on the work wall contrasts with the gray cabinetry under the quartz-covered island. Paul got the kitchen amenities that any home chef appreciates, including a Wolf gas stove, farmhouse sink, and oversized built-in fridge and freezer.
The dining room features a long farmhouse table and coordinating bench salvaged from Pottery Barn after a long search. “It was difficult because we wanted a narrow table to fit the space. We knew this was where family dinners, homework and entertainment would take place. It had to be right , and the darker wood contrasts well with the white oak,” Fisher said.
The adjacent built-in bench, with storage, has been painted the same white as the kitchen cabinets and can comfortably accommodate 10 people. A server in the same gray as the kitchen island sits across from the table to make food and drink arrangement simple and accessible.
The living room at the back of the house is where the family gathers to relax. Fisher suggested subtle lighting above the floating shelves and strapping behind the gas fireplace to maintain the design theme and keep the small space from feeling overwhelmed. She also suggested venting the fireplace behind the rabbet at ceiling level.
“Gas fireplaces can heat up quickly in a small space. I wanted Shelley and Paul to be able to enjoy the vibe without overheating, so we ventilated it upstairs,” she said.
The ceiling is engineered hardwood in a darker tone than the floors. “We didn’t want to sandwich the room with the same tones, but it’s similar enough that it picks up on the white oak in the kitchen and living room cabinets and maintains that surf shack feel. elevated,” Fisher said.
Shelley says the ceiling is what impacted her the most. “When it went up, it made the house. It’s cozy and seaside just right,” she said.
While the entire second floor has had a facelift, the most impactful changes include a sleek bathroom that’s a study in contrast. “It would mainly be Russell’s bathroom and we wanted it to be fun for him. We used hexagonal white tiles and Paul painted the existing vanity black. It’s a dramatic look that will never go out of style,” Fisher said.
Without a window in the bathroom, lighting was essential. And since the old hallway was so dark, Paul considered installing a skylight.
“Unfortunately, the cost to install two skylights was going to be $6,000 because there was a framing issue with the existing joists,” he said.
They achieved a similar effect by installing five Velux solar tubes, one in the bathroom and four in the hallway. The solar tubes bring in natural light from outside and cost $700 each.
The couple say the dramatic renovation has dramatically improved their quality of life. “It’s like day and night. It’s liberating to feel comfortable, easily entertained, and just enjoy the openness of the home. We have more space and less stress,” said Paul.
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