How do you like the title? There’s No Place Like Home. It’s true, isn’t it? And not just for Judy Garland, but for all of us. Our home is a safe zone. A place where after a long day of work, we go to throw our shoes off, eat our meals, hug our families and hide from the reality of our stresses. I say this in jest. I have 7-year-old twins. You get it. A renovation feels like it might just threaten that safe zone.
Over the last 15 years, I have been invited into countless homes. Some just want an opinion on colour, others want a total renovation. And many, want to build new houses. What they all have in common, is the desire to improve their home, and the bone-chilling fear that they will pick a shady contractor, a snobby designer or some other unpalatable trade. Scope of work has little to do with it. As does budget. It’s their home. So, here’s a behind the scenes look at all the stuff your designers, contractors and other trades do, so you don’t have to. And the best part is, that while you may experience some of the hard parts, you will never experience a sleepless night because of a permit or some smarmy urban planner, a backordered faucet or a broken tile. That’s my job.
I hope that in the coming weeks and months, as I update you all on how a designer survives her own renovation, that you will see how a little (a whole lot), of sweat, can pay off in the end. And maybe, by living through this with me, you will be better prepared when your time comes around. At the very least, you will laugh a lot. Because if you don’t laugh you will most definitely cry.
Warning/Disclaimer: This is a very honest account of my experiences. There are bad words.
There’s No Place Like Home
A Designer’s Renovation Journey
In May 2012, I walked into an open house. I stood in the tiny, very farmy (see pics from the listing – not our stuff) kitchen and looked through the fabulous great room into the back yard. 200 feet deep, and a beautiful perennial garden, and I was sold. I hadn’t even seen the tiny upper level when I turned to the agent and asked for the magic number. Twenty-four hours later, the deal was sealed.
I had already imagined the house of my dreams. The existing footprint worked. There is a 400 sf main floor addition on the back of the house, built in 1971. The tiny kitchen sits in the center sharing one wall with one of the two main floor bedrooms that take up the front of the house. The upper level, basically one bedroom with a sitting room, and a second mini-room, would never suffice as bedrooms for the four of us. But, being a designer, and with my experience renovating and building homes, I could see the future. And it was brilliant.
It took three and a half years until we had saved enough to finally hire an architect to draw up our plans. By then, we had been living on the second level, basically in a shared room with our toddler twins. We were desperate to get our own space but not desperate enough to sleep on separate floors. It was time to take the plunge. I was so excited. I had done this for countless people. It was time for the shoemaker to finally get some kick-ass designer heels!
But the journey to permit was long and tough. And it was during this next year that I figured I should share the experience with my readers. The good the bad and the soon to be stunning. So many of us dream of creating homes we love, homes that speak of our families, our values, our lifestyles. But there are budgets, and permits, and contractors and stuff that goes wrong. And taking the plunge is hard. But not impossible.
I usually get called into a project of this size early on. I help architects plan, I do up drawings and designs and then I go away until construction starts. The contractors, owner, architects and engineers deal with all the permit stuff. It’s not fun, so I let them handle it. And usually, the process is quick and simple.
I live in Richmond Hill. In an area that is protected by Heritage Designations. And although my own home is not a heritage home, many hoops still exist.
We tortured our architect. John. By all rights, the guy is an angel. I changed our plans at least four times in the six months we worked on it. Then, in late October, we went to the town, to enter our Pre-Submission drawings. That basically means, you submit your drawings, pay about $1500, and wait until they have looked them over to provide feedback. Took 2 months. With the submission, we had to provide an arborists report ($600), a grading plan and survey ($1200), architectural drawings ($4000) and a design plan showing exterior finishings (free because I am a designer and I did it!).
A couple of weeks after submission, I get a call from the town.
“You need to provide a better design plan, with samples.” The lady says.
“Why? We are adding a second story rear addition. We are using the same shingles, the same siding. What do you need?” I am not sure I was very polite at that time.
“We need samples.”
“So you want me to tear off a piece of my roof and siding? What on earth do you need that for? You have photos, specifications, colours, style numbers, brand names and a four page colour copied design. Go tell your people that they don’t need anything further.” Again, not too polite.
“Okay.” She conceded.
Case closed. They accepted the design.
Then we get another call. It’s now December.
“The design planning team would like to meet with you to discuss your design.”
I have a small heart attack in my car as I pull over and remind myself that being rude to this woman right now may just cost me my entire renovation.
“Ok. When can we meet?”
A week later, my architect and I sat in a room with three women. They pulled out our plan. As you can see by the before and after photos, we had planned to create a very large kitchen on the main floor, with a den attached. The second floor changes were significant. A 400 sf second story addition which would be our master bedroom, closet and bathroom. And the creation of two proper bedrooms for the kids. I had no idea what these women wanted from me.
“We would like for you to put a door at the front of your house, here.” One of the women, not the friendliest, takes out the main floor drawing, and has drawn a door in the middle of our proposed den. The space designated for homework and family time, where I could watch the kids from the kitchen and we could hang out while mommy rushes to get dinner ready every night.
“But that is our family room. We can’t put a door there.” I start to sweat.
“We would also like you to create a front raised porch with a roof that ties into the existing home.” She points at the drawing again.
How is any of this her business? My brain hits overdrive as I realize I was brought in at 10am on a Monday morning for this horse….!
“I understand your vision. But we have not budgeted for a porch at this time.” Good one Revi. Make her believe you will do it one day. Make her believe it’s a fabulous idea.
“Well, we don’t think you need this room.” She once again points at my future family room. “You have a great room which you can use, and here you could build a closet….” She is drawing closets over my built-in wall unit and homework desk. I am going to freak out.
“I can’t do that.” The words barely come out through my clenched teeth. My architect shifts in his seat.
“Well, we just thought it was a good idea.” She smiles at me, and I want to rip her face off. (I know I sound violent, but the moxy!!!)
“It doesn’t work for my family. That’s an important place for us. And as I have been a designer for seventeen years now, I think I have a clue as to what the interior of my own home should look like.” Shit. Was that rude? Shit.
“Well, you can put a door there and just never use it.” She looks me in the eye, like she thinks she’s a design genius.
“No.” I breathe. “Is there anything else?”
“No. Your design is approved.”
Now, let’s be clear. I am a self-employed mother of six-year-old twins. A wife. A boss. And I have about twenty clients on the go at this very moment. I have not one minute to waste in a day. Not one minute. It’s 10am. I have only had 1 coffee. I dropped my kids off at the bus at 7:23am, which means we get up at 6am. I am tired, I am busy, and I have zero tolerance for people who want to waste my time for their personal opinions and desire to bully me into spending $60,000.00 above my current budget. I am very, very angry.
I stand up, smile and leave. I deserve a medal for not punching her in the face.
Next Friday in There’s No Place Like Home: An addition turns great friends into mortal enemies!