The narrow roads of Hintonburg are lined with good intentions gone amiss. It’s easy to say you’ll renovate an old house, but when serious problems jack up costs and timelines, the answer is often to tear down and build anew. But Jonathan Belanger and Sara Parenteau-Comfort made a bold move: they kept their little house and built up, placing two large additions onto the original dwelling.
For over a year they searched for a house to renovate in Hintonburg. They already lived in, and loved, the neighbourhood, but their family was growing. After six failed offers, they bought a 980-square-foot house on Merton Street, between Wellington West and Scott streets. Built in the late 1800s, it was a true fixer-upper with a warren of small rooms, as well as sloping floors and windowsills, but they figured they could handle it: Jonathan had worked in construction and Sara, an occupational therapist, had helped renovate their triplex.
“We were looking for a distressed house,” says Jonathan, “but we underestimated how distressed this place was.”
Days after taking possession in October 2019, they removed drywall in the basement to a daunting sight: crumbling foundation.
“You could see the sand pouring out of it,” says Jonathan.
Stones had fallen out, too. It seemed the previous owner had excavated the basement to make the space higher but had neglected to bolster the foundation. One structural engineer refused to sign off on any solution. The couple considered demolishing, but they desperately wanted to keep the original house. They already had the design by Jay Lim of 25:8 Architecture. Lim had told them its brick cladding was relatively rare — plus, tearing it down would have meant losing the current set-back, which is about three feet or so from the sidewalk. On a small 25- by 84-foot lot this was a big deal.
Fortunately, Maurice Quinn at Capacity Engineering, who worked on the Centre Block restoration on Parliament Hill, “saved the day,” says Jonathan. His solution involved two mixers of cement to shore up the basement walls with a sort of bench. “It was stressful but quick to fix.”
Then came the challenge of squeezing their must-haves into the 12-foot-wide house. “We were planning down to the millimetre,” says Lim, who created a compact, efficient home with plenty of play spaces inside and out. A spacious backyard was a priority, so instead of adding to the back of the house, Lim went up three storeys, which brought 858 square feet to the interior.
Keeping costs low was also essential, so Jonathan took the role of general contractor, which saved about $100,000. In addition, many of the interior finishes are construction-grade materials, including two-by-fours for handrails and railings, as well as unfinished drywall. For the subfloor, they went with OSB subfloor instead of hardwood. Jonathan also built custom pieces, such as the entrance closet with cubicles and planter boxes.
There are two separate additions to the back of the original house. The middle addition, attached to the original house, includes a spacious dining room on the main level. The second storey has a central laundry and clothes storage, and stairs to the third level, which features five-year-old Julien’s bedroom and an office for Jonathan, who works for the federal government. From his desk, a window perfectly frames nearby St. Francis D’Assisi Church. Nearby, a large balcony offers a space for the family to grow vegetables.
The three-storey addition facing the back of the house has a large living room on the main floor, while upstairs the master bedroom sits within a two-storey cube with a cantilevered balcony overlooking the backyard.
The two walls outside the bedroom cube, which are three storeys tall, begged for special treatment. They considered a green wall but settled on something far more unusual: climbing walls. Jonathan, an aspiring climber, clad them in sanded maple plywood. Engineered beams and belay anchors were also installed; the rest is still underway.
“I like to have playful aspects,” says architect Jay Lim. “Something joyful.”
The addition is wrapped in grey and black metal. Walking south up Merton, the house seems in keeping with neighbouring homes, but then you see the black-and-silver metal addition. “There’s that element of surprise,” says Lim.
The overall effect of the multi-layered home with three staircases, balconies, and interior three-storey walls is like an Escher drawing: artistic, fun, and unique. Yet it’s also very much an authentic family home: comfortable, practical, and warm. Perhaps it’s that combination that made it a finalist for best renovation in the Greater Ottawa Home Builders Association contest.
The family moved in August 2020, just in the nick of time: their second son, Vincent, was born in September.
It’s still a work-in-progress — “it’s hard to find time with the kids,” says Jonathan — but the hiatus has given them a chance to develop plans that meet their evolving needs, leaving “potential for further improvement still to come,” says Sara.