When you live in a 126-year-old house that’s been only moderately updated over the years, you learn to live with some discomforts.
For Shelley and Paul Williams, that meant warning guests to wear extra layers in the winter because their Toronto house in the Beach was completely uninsulated. Navigating the gaps between the creaky hardwood floors. Getting dressed by the glow of a flashlight in the upstairs hallway because the bedroom closet was tiny and the feeble ceiling lights didn’t make a dent in the dark, windowless passageway. Then there was the worrisome knob-and-tube wiring and ancient plumbing that lurked behind the plaster walls.
For years, the couple debated making small changes or gutting the place to modernize it. Then they reached 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 was the thing that did it,” said Shelley.
“We knew we would never be able to sell the house the way it was. And we were sick of freezing and dealing with all the inconveniences. It was time to invest in a change.”
Contractor Sean Morris and his team started stripping the house down to the studs in the summer of 2020. The family relocated to a family cottage for the summer and rented a condo nearby until the project was complete in March 2021.
The 800 square-foot, semi-detached home was a little snug for Paul, an IT consultant, and Shelley, an energy consultant, their 15-year-old son Russell and energetic Bordoodle Arlo, so they opted to put a 400-sq.-ft. addition on the back of the house. This would afford a comfortable family room on the main floor and a bigger primary bedroom upstairs — complete with closet space.
When it was time to make decisions about configuring the rooms and choosing finishings, Shelley confesses that they were lost. “Paul wanted a barefoot, casual beachy feel. I wanted an island for the kitchen, a gas fireplace and updated windows and utilities. Beyond that, we didn’t know what to do,” she said.
They brought in the skilled eye of designer Tracey Fisher and a distinctive style began to take shape. Fisher suggested relocating the kitchen to the front of the house to maximize space and flow in the narrow house.
When it came to design, Fisher took her cue from the nearby Kew-Balmy Beach. “We talked about creating an elevated modern beach feel. Not dolphins and seashells, more of a feeling of Montauk.”
Engineered white oak flooring and coordinating open shelving throughout the main floor provide a light, sandy tone. And the strategic use of shiplap on feature walls throughout the house add cost-effective character and durability, particularly on the stairway that sits on the wall they share with their neighbours. “Shiplap is insulating and very forgiving, especially when you have a teenage boy going up and down all the time,” said Fisher.
Oversized rattan pendant lights from Pottery Barn anchor the kitchen island and add the coastal sophistication they were after. Warm white Shaker-style cabinets on the working wall contrast with grey cabinetry under the quartz-topped island. Paul got the kitchen amenities that every home chef appreciates, including a Wolf gas range, farmhouse sink and built-in, oversized fridge and freezer.
The dining area features a long farmhouse table and coordinating bench picked up from Pottery Barn after a long search. “This was a hard one because we wanted a narrow table to fit the space. We knew that this was the place where family dinners, homework and entertaining would happen. It needed to be right, and the darker wood is a good contrast to the white oak,” said Fisher.
Adjacent built-in bench seating, complete with storage, was painted the same white as the kitchen cabinetry and ensures they can comfortably seat 10 people. A servery in the same grey as the kitchen island sits opposite the table to make setting out food and drinks simple and accessible.
The living area at the back of the house is where the family gathers to relax. Fisher suggested subtle lighting over floating shelves and shiplap 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 shiplap at ceiling-level.
“Gas fireplaces can get hot quickly in a small space. I wanted Shelley and Paul to be able to enjoy the ambience without overheating, so we had it vented at the top,” she said.
The ceiling is an engineered hardwood that’s one tone darker than the floors. “We didn’t want to sandwich the room with the same tones, but it’s similar enough that it picks up the white oak in the cabinetry throughout the kitchen and living room and it maintains that feeling of an elevated surf shack,” said Fisher.
Shelley says the ceiling is what made the biggest impact for her. “When that went up, it made the house. It’s cosy and beachy in exactly the right way,” she said.
While the entire second floor got a makeover, the most impactful changes include a sleek bathroom that’s a study in contrast. “This would be primarily Russell’s bathroom and we wanted to make it 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,” said Fisher.
With no window in the bathroom, lighting was critical. And since the former hallway was so dark, Paul considered installing a skylight.
“Unfortunately, the cost to put in two skylights was going to be $6,000 because there was a framing issue with the existing joists,” he said.
They got a similar effect by putting in five Velux solar tubes, one in the bathroom and four in the hallway. The sun tubes bring in natural light from outside and came in at $700 each.
The couple says the dramatic renovation has improved their quality of life significantly. “It’s like night and day. It’s liberating to feel comfortable, entertain easily and just enjoy the openness of the house. We have more space and less stress,” said Paul.
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