The most meaningful endeavours are those that are close to the heart, the best collaborations forged through a shared history. In the case of this unique renovation, a big dollop of serendipity also played a part.
Let’s start at the beginning. When Anne and Dave* were the busy parents of a toddler, they contacted a young artist by the name of Bex Fernando to paint a mural on their son’s bedroom wall, a whimsical scene filled with his favourite storybook characters — Wallace and Grommit, Pooh, and Grinch. At the time, Fernando had her heart set on becoming an architect. She hit it off with the young boy and soon became his regular babysitter.
*first names only at homeowner’s request
Two decades passed. Their son grew up and moved out, but the mural remained, a reminder of that babysitter with whom they’d long ago lost touch. In the spring of 2017, Anne and Dave made the decision to turn their riverfront house into the home they knew it could be. But where to start? “Space is so personal,” explains Anne. “So I knew I needed to find someone who was in sync with my tastes, someone who could share my vision.” I wonder, she thought, whether Bex ever became an architect.
It turned out she had. Fernando is a co-founder of the architectural practice Plotnonplot. The two reconnected, and a very personal collaboration was born. The first decision was the biggest — to tear down or renovate. “Bex liked the bones [of the house], so we went from there,” says Anne. She started off with a few pragmatic asks — a gorgeous kitchen and a bigger hallway to welcome guests — and the renovation plans snowballed from there as the homeowner and architect went deeper. “I wanted my home to be calming, with clean, simple lines,” explains Anne. “I wanted it to give us a feeling of peace and tranquility, to be a place to recharge and recalibrate.”
For Fernando, too, the project presented an opportunity to juggle the practical and the ephemeral. “Anne’s father was an artist, and that truly permeates how she sees the world — she appreciates beautiful things and the subtleties of beautiful things,” explains Fernando. “She’s also fun and generous and charming, and I wanted that to come through in her and Dave’s space.” Fernando was also very conscious that the house, though dated, represented the vision of the original architect-owner. “I was always conscious of being reverent to vision of the architect but celebrating that form in new and exciting ways.”
The entranceway was the first order of business. It was so narrow that Anne would have to step back to let her visitors in before leading them down a dark and narrow hallway to the main living spaces. Today, it provides a fitting welcome — a wider corridor, with warm wall lighting hand-placed by Fernando, guides guests in. The other wall highlights exquisite cabinetry in a laminated beech by cabinetmaker Gregor Bruhn of Handwerk. The transformation was made possible when Plotnonplot extended the house by six feet to allow for the hallway to be widened and a laundry room and more storage to be tucked into a long skylit room hidden behind the cabinetry wall.
The hallway opens to a spectacular kitchen. The original space had been somewhat cramped and utilitarian, cut up to accommodate an equally modest family room. “It was described to us as ‘ergonomic’ when we bought the house,” says Anne with a laugh. By moving that family room upstairs, Plotnonplot had the space to design Anne’s dream kitchen — a place geared to cooking and entertaining but equally set up to emphasize the couple’s picture-perfect views over the river. A clean palette sees a continuation of the beech cabinetry in the hallway along one wall, the mood lightened by the soft glow given off by marble counters and white gloss cabinetry.
The living and dining rooms retain virtually the same dimensions, though the room feels much more open now that a clunky front-door vestibule has been removed (the family always used the door at the side of the house). A skilfully lit display cabinet, which divides the family space from the kitchen, was designed by Plotnonplot co-founder Grant Oikawa and built by Handwerk. The decision to install oversized windows opens up the room and provides a sweeping panorama of the backyard, which slopes gently down to the river. Anne says she and Dave now spend more time here, the calmness allowing them to better appreciate the ever-changing scenery of the river.
The original house was essentially a bungalow, though the architect had sketched in a plan to graft on a future second-floor master bedroom and suite. Anne and Dave didn’t need another bedroom, but Bex saw the space as an opportunity for a luxurious media room and a spa bathroom for Anne — and a chance to open up the whole house to more light. Here, a soaring interior roofline draws attention to the loft-like ambience, while clerestory windows and a glass balcony open the second floor to the living space below and ensure light flows into the main-floor living and dining room. Those clerestory windows create a sundial effect as the light moves through the house.
This is a house that defines subtlety — a major renovation that skilfully preserves the character of the original house, both outside and in, while transforming the living experience. “Our goal was always to celebrate the natural siting of the house and its original form,” says Fernando. “It’s a comforting shell, but unexpected inside.” For Fernando, Anne, and Dave, their shared past was a starting point to a shared vision for a beautiful future.