Design

Older houses, new looks — Three renos match brains with beauty, preservation with pizazz

Renovations of older properties can be tricky. You fell in love with the character, but your dream home definitely has some quirks. Which original features do you save and which have to go? Do you retain a few endearingly wonky angles or try to level up? Is the hardwood even salvageable?

Here, three couples put their design smarts to work, revitalizing older homes while maintaining their character. In the Glebe, architect Martin Tite and his wife, Nancy Laffin, rejuvenate their condo in an iconic 1970s tower, while urban planning activist Eric Darwin and his wife, Frances Dubois, pour their efforts into modernizing a 1900-era home near Lebreton Flats. And photographer Jerome Scullino and his wife, Nisha, manage to maintain the facade of their 1950s bungalow while transforming the rear into a modern studio space. These are renovations that match brains with beauty, preservation with pizazz.

300 The Driveway: A 1970s apartment

Iconic condo on canal gets thoughtful renovation honouring original designers

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Tite planned the distinctive built-in furniture, like this cozy dining booth, giving his sketches to millworker D’Aoust who then built them out of cherrywood. Photo: Marc Fowler/Metropolis Studio

When an architect gets the opportunity to put his stamp on a building he admires, you know the result will be exquisite. As they walked around their Glebe neighbourhood over the years, Martin Tite, a principal at GRC Architects, and his wife, Nancy Laffin, would often admire the iconic 1970s condo known as 300 The Driveway.

When it came up for sale in 2015, the couple moved quickly to buy, then considered carefully before launching a five-month renovation to rejuvenate the space and make it their own. “It was really important to me to work with the DNA of the building,” explains Tite. “It’s an architecture-first design, and you have to respect that.”

Respecting the building’s design meant keeping the classic oak parquet floor. The “dated” flooring is coming back on trend
Respecting the building’s design meant keeping the classic oak parquet floor. The “dated” flooring is coming back on trend. Photo: Marc Fowler/Metropolis Studio

Respecting the building’s design meant keeping and, indeed, expanding the classic oak parquet floor that runs through the lobby and into each unit. To some, the flooring might look dated, but Tite notes with a smile that in 2016, parquet seems to be at a tipping point. “In six months, everyone’s going to think it’s the coolest thing out there.” The couple also eschewed curtains on the expansive windows that wrap around the north and east sides of the unit — this in deference to the original architect’s vision of a building in which inside and outside are intimately related.

The layout within 300 The Driveway is unusual in that there are no corridors. Every floor boasts a central lobby with four virtually identical units, one on each corner. Tite and Laffin loved the charm of the lobbies, each with its own Indo-Persian carpet, polished wood table, and lamp. “It’s very domestic, very homey,” says Laffin, noting that their living room carpet from Beckwith Galleries references the “extra room” outside their door.

On one side, the cherrywood divider forms an extended bookshelf in the home office. The back side is a floor-to-ceiling partition wall in the living room
On one side, the cherrywood divider forms an extended bookshelf in the home office. The back side is a floor-to-ceiling partition wall in the living room. Photo: Marc Fowler/Metropolis Studio

But the couple truly paid homage to their space through the millwork. This is where their admiration for their new home genuinely shines. Working with Bassi Construction, they “pretty much gutted” the interior, then rebuilt in collaboration with millworker Andre D’Aoust. It was Tite who sketched the built-in furniture that defines the unit’s rooms, passing along the tracing-paper drawings to D’Aoust, then working closely with him to make it happen. The couple’s wood of choice is cherry. “Not a combo you think of with the oak parquet, but it works well,” says Tite.

Laffin remembers it being “a real dance” with the subcontractors and electricians over the five months as D’Aoust built the various furniture pieces, brought them to the site, installed them, then went back to the shop to turn the next sketch into reality. In the living room, sleek built-in seating follows the curves of the windows, while a compact dining booth gets daily use. The cherrywood that makes up a partition wall in the living room is, from the other side, an extended bookshelf for the home office. More built-ins — in the bedroom, entranceway, and bathrooms — establish a unified feel throughout.

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In the living room, the couple eschewed curtains on the wraparound windows — this in deference to the original architect’s vision of a building where inside and outside are intimately related. Photo: Marc Fowler/Metropolis Studio

As the couple surveys their new home, Tite stresses that in conceiving this renovation, he was always conscious of the motivations of the building’s designer, Ian Johns, and builder, Bill Teron. “I felt like we were collaborating even though they didn’t know it!”

Modern Family: A mid-century bungalow

Extraordinary design continues to wow

The studio doubles as a gallery space, the lighting designed to allow Jerome to show his work to full effect when he chooses to mount a display
The studio doubles as a gallery space, the lighting designed to allow Jerome to show his work to full effect when he chooses to mount a display

On a quick walk through the neighbourhood, you might miss this most extraordinary renovation. And that’s just the way Jerome and Nisha Scullino want it. “We didn’t want our expansion to change the look of the street,” explains Jerome. “We saved the wow factor for the inside.”

Theirs is a street that looks like so many developed in Ottawa in the 1950s and early 1960s: generous tree-lined lots populated with modest brick bungalows. Indeed, Applewood Acres, a tiny neighbourhood located in the southwest corner of Alta Vista, was one of the first projects by developer Robert Campeau, who would go on to shape large swaths of the city.

The Scullinos, who run a busy portrait photography business, had long harboured visions of moving their studio into their home, but their plans truly coalesced in 2014 when they got to know the three young architects at the fledgling PLOTNONPLOT architecture firm, which at the time was operating out of the house across the street. “We wanted to create something beautiful, and they understood that right away. They came up with an extraordinary design,” says Jerome.

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The studio loungers are so comfortable that Jerome says he often sits in one with his laptop, working by the light of the large window

That design sees a cedar-clad addition on the back of the bungalow. Jerome’s modern photography studio fills the basement, while on the main floor the added space allows room for a dining room and a master bedroom. The architects — Rebecca Fernando, Grant Oikawa, and Mark Rosen — worked with the couple to rearrange all the interior spaces to make the most of the extra square footage. They, along with general contractor Trent Baumgarten, also embraced Jerome’s vision for modern interiors that paid homage to the home’s mid-century provenance. That meant pairing truly modern design themes with iconic mid-century furniture pieces from Herman Miller, often upholstered in a joyful orange.

While the front entranceway is often used to set a grand tone, the Scullinos saved the best for their clients. Arriving through the side door that opens into Jerome’s photography studio, clients enter a corridor that resembles a cathedral, the ceiling soaring to 23 feet, the passageway lit with an array of glowing Bocci pendants. The studio doubles as a gallery space, the lighting designed to allow Jerome to show his work to full effect when he chooses to mount a display. The overall feeling, though, is both professional and warm, with a textured concrete floor and sleek yet comfy couches and a couple of fun Swoop loungers. “We are a professional photography studio, not weekend warriors, and we needed the studio to reflect that,” says Nisha firmly.

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The shower room, which includes a soaker tub, was inspired by bathing rooms Jerome experienced in Japan. The toilet is housed in a separate room

Other standout areas in the house include the kitchen, which mixes high and low: a wide-plank oak floor is juxtaposed with glossy Ikea cabinetry. Again, the couple has opted for orange to make the room pop. The family eats most of their meals at the counter, perched on the eye-catching Eames stools and looking across at the retro-cool tiles that make up the backsplash. The shower room, while also modern in tone, has a very relaxing, spa-like feel, with a luxe shower and a soaker tub — the two signature elements. Inspired by time spent in Japan, Jerome knew he wanted to separate the toilet from the shower room and install a tub that would be a pleasure to relax in.

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The kitchen mixes high and low, with a warm wide-plank oak floor setting off glossy Ikea cabinetry. Orange makes the room pop — eye-catching Eames stools and a retro-cool tile backsplash using Ciot porcelain tiles

Just over a year since the renovation was completed (construction took place between October 2014 and June 2015), the Scullinos say they still find themselves overwhelmed by the beauty of their new home. “After a few days away, when I come home I still take a deep breath and think, Wow,” says Jerome. “My clients are happy, we are happy. It’s such a pleasant space to work and live in. Everything we created is beyond my expectations.”

Living History: A 1900s two-storey

A reno that says “old,” not “museum”

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On the open side of the kitchen, which faces out to the dining and living rooms, Darwin and Dubois reused the glossy red Ikea cabinets from their old kitchen. Because the line had been discontinued, they extended the kitchen by pairing the original cabinets with new ones in a complementary metal tone. Photo: Christian Mackie

Eric Darwin is a community activist and blogger known for the West Side Action blog that tackles all manner of urban-planning issues — from infill to streetscaping to transportation. But though the popularity of his site reaches well beyond the west side, much of Darwin’s commentary focuses on the Little Italy-Chinatown neighbourhood in which he lives. His observations about reconciling preservation with modernization are always well considered, a thoughtfulness he and his wife, Frances Dubois, brought to the recent renovation of the main floor of their 1900-era home. “We’re not living in a museum,” explains Darwin. “We wanted the bones to still say ‘old,’ but we want to live in a modern way.”

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Photo: Christian Mackie

Keeping the bones meant maintaining the wooden floors and the classic trim that define the house, even as they opened up the kitchen to the dining and living rooms. The couple credit designer Sascha Lafleur of West of Main with helping them shape and direct this vision. “She never imposed her tastes on us,” explains Dubois, “but she did stand her ground. She helped us avoid mistakes.”

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Once they decided to open up the kitchen to the dining and living rooms, a deep sink was a must. (It does a great job of hiding dirty dishes, the couple says, when there’s not enough time to wash them!). Photo: Christian Mackie

Their new kitchen is resolutely modern — and shiny and colourful. Darwin describes himself and his wife as being “like magpies. We absolutely love glitter!” On the open side of the kitchen, which faces out to the dining and living rooms, a gleaming penny-tile backsplash on the half wall behind the stove reflects the light that streams through a side door, the design appearing to change as Darwin and Dubois move about their business. The couple reused the glossy red Ikea cabinets from their old kitchen. (“The red adds a cheerfulness as you look into the darker part of the house,” says Darwin.) Because the Ikea line had been discontinued, they extended the kitchen by pairing the original cabinets with new ones in a complementary metal tone. The expansive counter, with two types of quartz, allows room to bake and provides ample storage space underneath.

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A glass railing at the top of the stairs serves the dual purpose of making the room feel larger and offering a clear view of the home’s original stone foundation. Darwin, who scraped out the rubble between the rocks by hand before replacing it with mortar, says he finds the texture “wonderful. It says ‘old house’ ” Photo: Christian Mackie

On the opposite wall, the couple opted for equally shiny, almost mirror-like mosaic tile and walnut cabinetry, extending a cut-out window that looks into the family room and allows light to flow through the house. Because of the storage space under the island, they had the option of forgoing most of the upper cabinetry in favour of the mosaic wall. It’s intentional that the two sides of the kitchen look like separate rooms, each side playing off the rooms beyond it. “It’s not to everyone’s taste, but it suits ours,” says Darwin simply.   

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The couple is not afraid to use colour and elements that add sparkle, like a hallway chandelier. “We’re like magpies,” says Darwin. “We absolutely love glitter!” Photo: Christian Mackie

As part of the renovation, he also removed much of the wall that previously hid a dark and narrow staircase leading down to the basement. The decision expanded the sightlines of the main floor, making it appear wider while also allowing him to showcase the home’s original stone foundation. A glass railing offers a clear view of the wall, which has a texture he describes as “wonderful. It says ‘old house.’ ”

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The shiny tile backsplash reflects the light that streams through a side door, the design appearing to change as Darwin and Dubois move about their business. On the opposite wall, the couple opted for equally shiny, almost mirror-like mosaic tile. The two sides of the kitchen, they say, look like two separate rooms. Photo: Christian Mackie

Even as they gave their home a contemporary makeover, the couple was ever conscious of preserving a sense of history — the building’s as well as their own lives within it. They have lived here for 35 years, and photographs from their travels take pride of place on the stairwell wall, with watercolours of significant neighbourhood landmarks in the dining room. “This house is for us,” says Darwin. “We want to be surrounded by the things we like.”

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Three sketches — one by local artist Colin White (centre) and two by the couple’s daughter, Michelle Darwin — pay homage to the neighbourhood. While the Chinatown arch will be familiar, the Musca Fruit Store is long gone and the building (at Rochester and Balsam streets) is slated for demolition. Dubois grew up in the neighbourhood and was friends with the daughter of the family that ran the store in the 1960s. The sketch was done from an old photograph. Photo: Christian Mackie