It was everything they weren’t looking for in a home: boxy on the outside, nondescript on the inside and, worst of all, decorated in greens and purples. Amy Cowan laughs as she recalls the first time she saw the house that she bought with her husband, Glenn Cowan, in 2010.
“Glenn had toured the house first. We were driving over to look at it together for the first time, and he said to me, ‘You’re going to hate it. You’re going to hate everything about it. But I need you to just think about what you could do with it. Don’t look at the colours, just look at the space.’ ”
Amy is with the RCMP; Glenn is a retired special forces officer who now runs his own investment firm. In 2010, the duo were based in Edmonton, but Glenn was due to be reposted to Ottawa, and with their first daughter on the way, they were looking for a place to settle down.
Though initially drawn to the classic brick houses ubiquitous in the Glebe, they soon realized that Glenn — at six-foot-three, quite tall and broad — didn’t fit into these older houses with their tiny rooms and narrow staircases. “He needs a lot of space,” says Amy.
Despite its negatives, this Highland Park house Glenn had found was spacious, with good bones and a sensible layout. The large lot size meant they could fit a deck and pool into the backyard with room to spare. “Despite my initial reaction, I knew we could eventually make the house into what we wanted it to be,” says Amy. The couple moved in and did a quick facelift — repainting, refinishing the floors, and taking out a couple of walls on the main floor.
The minor alterations sustained them for the next seven years, but as their family grew to four, they began thinking long-term. They wanted more than one bathroom before their girls became teenagers; they wanted a mudroom before the sports equipment began to pile up. They considered moving. “But Glenn and I had gotten married in this backyard, and this was the only place the girls had ever known,” says Amy. “This was home.”
And so Amy tagged design magazines, collected ideas on Instagram and Pinterest, and began sketching her vision for the future.
Amy’s love for decor and design had begun more than a decade earlier in Edmonton, where she enjoyed antiquing. She describes her aesthetic then as countryish, but her design sense became more sophisticated and global as she and Glenn acquired small furniture and art pieces on their work trips. She remembers that period as being fun but frustrating. “We had spent quite a few years collecting things we loved, but a lot of it was in drawers because we didn’t have the right rooms or spaces to showcase it.” The full renovation of their home would finally allow Amy to find space for the items she had wanted to display for so many years.
Having done so much background research ahead of the renovation, Amy could now picture where she was going but did not know exactly how to get there. She decided on the exterior look — white Hardie board siding, black window frames, and a metal roof — but being a knowledgeable amateur will take you only so far. The Cowans’ builder, Fine Spaces Construction, suggested the couple meet up with architectural designer Steve Ardington of Ardington and Associates Design to discuss their ideas. He could take Amy’s vision and translate it into a plan that would match her design aesthetic and take into account the family’s day-to-day lives.
After a quick meeting, Ardington took the plan of the original house — a basic 1970s’ two-storey with a simple gable roof — and sent back his answer: a modern farmhouse with two dramatic peaked roofs and four posts supporting a cozy front porch. “I remember sending the rendering to Glenn at work with a note that said, ‘Now I’m excited!’ ” says Amy. “Right from the start, Steve had a keen sense of what we wanted.”
Ardington is similarly complimentary of his clients. “From exteriors to interiors, this project went very smoothly because Amy and Glenn were very decisive every step of the way,” he explains. “There was never any hemming and hawing — they loved or hated it. And they were always on the same page.” That decisiveness made redesigning the interior a relatively quick process.
From the exterior, the house looks completely new. In reality, Ardington reconfigured only half of the interior, adding a master suite above the garage and rearranging the first-floor rooms directly behind the garage. A dining room originally located behind the garage was turned into a mudroom, while the living room, which sits behind the mudroom, was opened up and made larger through bumping the wall out a few feet into the backyard. The kitchen remained in the same place but was redesigned to fit an open-concept design that led into the dining and living rooms.
Throughout the six-month construction process, Amy worked closely with Ardington’s team, overseeing every aspect of the interior finishings. That had Glenn a bit worried. “He loves the idea of a cozy family home, so I had to keep reassuring him that even though I love white and black, the house wasn’t going to be completely monochromatic.” She took care to add warm touches through wooden accessories and lots of cozy pillows and throws.
Not a huge online shopper — Amy says she likes to see and touch things before buying them — she admits to having a bit of a HomeSense habit. “It’s a joke in our house that anytime I’m running late, I’ll call to say I’m just in a meeting and Glenn will reply, ‘No you’re not, you’ve stopped into HomeSense on the way home.’ He’s usually right.”
In the end, Amy says that even after all the changes, it still feels like her house — just bigger and nicer and slightly more modern. “You hear people say, when they do a renovation, ‘We’re getting used to it’ or ‘It doesn’t feel like home yet.’ For us, when we moved back on December 22, 2017, this felt instantly like home. It just felt like we were coming home for Christmas.” That, she says, was the most wonderful feeling of all