Drywall, says Jeremy McGregor, is a “nasty product” — an energy hog to produce and transport, costly to install, and easily damaged. Those are three reasons you’ll spot just three sheets of drywall in the entire living room and master bedroom McGregor added as part of a major cost-conscious renovation to his 1904 home in the Glebe. Instead of drywall, the two-storey addition at the rear of the house features vertically oriented spruce walls, spruce ceilings, and affordably priced engineered maple on the floors.
Not only is the woody interior warm and bright (generous glazing helps with the latter), the prefabricated wall and ceiling panels made of cross-laminated timber took only seven hours to assemble into a 400-square-foot addition. That’s right: seven hours to build the main enclosure, in part because the addition simply sits on helical steel piers driven 10 feet into the ground.
Although McGregor’s panels were shipped from Austria because it was less expensive than a domestically produced equivalent, he sees mammoth potential in Canada for this kind of modular construction, which relies on young, renewable trees. “There’s a timber renaissance going on elsewhere in the world — I really do feel wood is the future,” he says. “[In Canada], we have lots of soft timber available on Crown land.”
Using modular approaches like this, where panels are built indoors and quickly joined on-site, can slash homebuilding and renovation costs compared with traditional, labour-intensive construction. And McGregor, whose design-build business, Affordable Architecture, uses modular construction to make home ownership affordable again, is all about cost control.
Unemployed in 2017 when he sharpened his DIY skills by renovating the home he and his young family moved into the following year, McGregor is a familiar presence at Ikea and on Kijiji. Take the made-over walk-through kitchen adjacent to the new living room. “This is a small house, and the kitchen had to be as efficient as possible,” says McGregor. The existing space wasn’t suitable for a family that enjoys cooking, so he reconfigured it, adding a large island with a marble-like quartzite top that pairs handsomely with the stainless-steel countertop elsewhere in the kitchen. You’d never guess, gazing around the seemingly higher-end kitchen, that the cupboards are inexpensive Ikea carcasses upgraded with sleek doors from Ottawa-based Swedish Door.
Cost savings like those carcasses free up cash to spend elsewhere in a renovation. Same goes for the elegant black wall tiles McGregor used in the main-floor powder room. He paid a princely 99 cents per square foot. “They’re black. Put them beside $7.99 tiles and what’s the difference?”
McGregor also scrimped by keeping much of what was built into the original 1,700-square-foot home, especially on the ground floor, and by doing much of the work himself. “I fell in love with building while doing this,” he says, noting that his father was a “hobby homebuilder.”
He also respected the original home, from what was once the front-of-house living room — now a music room/office — through to the dining room (table and credenza both via Kijiji) and kitchen, tying the flow of the old house into the new addition at the back.
Upstairs, McGregor has put his bargain-hunting inclinations to work with attractive bathroom vanities from Ikea and Lowe’s, inexpensive closets, and a Hans Wegner knock-off chair from Kijiji in the master bedroom, where pennies saved meant bucks available for high-quality, energy-saving windows.
Designed with an insistence on meticulous workmanship, the renovation has breathed new and affordable vibrancy into an old home. It’s also given McGregor a chance to cut his teeth on modular building techniques as a possible way forward in an ever pricier housing market. “I think there’s a category for people who want to live in an albeit smaller home but one with a more affordable price tag.”
An earlier version of this story suggested that Jeremy McGregor has his designation as an architect. He is an architectural designer.