Aug 26, 2010

Landscape Dreams & Schemes

Our yard is a Landscapers dream before shot. I am now all too familiar with that nod from landscapers working on a neighbouring yard. The "You know you need me" nod*. With our 90:10 weed to grass ratio, rogue perennial beds arranged according to where the squirrel buried the bulbs** and scatter of toys and buckets from Lily's outdoor escapades, we continue to hold the reigning title of least popular yard in the neighbourhood.*** YYYAAAAYYYY!

One of our neighbours walked up to me while I was watering my weeds recently and told me how the previous owners had such a beautiful garden. "But we've been so busy restoring the interior" I pleaded, "and no family here, and I'm working hard to get the business going, and my husband has a demanding job... and, and, and..." He looked bored. Apparently there's no excuses for an ugly yard in a pretty neighbourhood.

When we first moved to Calgary we had the lofty goal of achieving full restoration inside and out by years end. Fools. After eating all the cans of stuff you swore you were on crack when you bought because you have no money to buy groceries after completing two resto/renos in one season, there will likely be no more fancy Before and Afters to wow you with this year. Instead, please enjoy countless weeks of DIY and pictures of other people's restorations that we covet.

Back to landscaping. We do have a plan for the outside. According to several landscape quotes, it's a $40,000 plan. So we are now scheming on how to get it down to the $5-7000 range. Part of the scheming involves telling relatives the said quote, and getting them all riled up over landscape companies who are taking advantage of young families in Calgary. "Hell, I can do it for an 1/16th of the price" said one, "I'll bring the lumber out myself from BC."

"Really?" (batting eyelashes) "We're free the Labour Day weekend" ha ha. Just kidding.

Here's the plan:

Current Condition of Backyard:

Hubs in the backyard, spray painting out our plan for the deck. We initially did this to get quotes then just kept on going. One of Jay's tasks before guests arrived was to spray paint the deck.

House Colours:

Here are the two contenders. I prefer the second but our neighbour's house is sage. We plan to remove the vinyl siding and replace with drop cedar siding similar to that on the first picture below.

I'm starting to like light houses again. But not sure if it will be too similar to its current state (white with white vinyl and white window sash) Yawn. Sorry, fell asleep.

This colour scheme is gorgeous. And the orange door is a must.

We plan to replace the sick vinyl door with yellowed doorlight trim with a new door (likely from a local New & Used) and this door kit from Crestview Doors. How bold is a peach door? Loves.

Front Yard:

Hubs and I are at a 'vs'. over the front (His boring plan vs. my brilliant one.)

Me: Remove most of the sod except for small patches and replace with small pebble xeric gardens of perennial grasses and clumps of blooming flowers (appropriate for Zone 3a gardens [Calgary]). All plants will require little watering throughout the season and look pretty even in the winter. Also doubles as shield from busy street close to our house.

Him: Replace sod with new sod. Replace concrete crumbling front path with new concrete path. Get a new gas powered lawn mower to mow new grass. (Hubs LOVES mowing the lawn. He always gets misty in that scene from Forest Gump when he gets the job mowing the lawn at the local school)

Inspiration for xeric garden in front


There is currently two levels in our backyard the upper of which slopes sharply down to a sad concrete paver/grass deck. We plan to skim the lower level back further away from the house, pave with square concrete pavers and add a retaining wall. The lower patio will be for a table, the barbecue and will be shielded with a pagoda. On the upper portion, we will create a small concrete paver patio for our lounge set. Most of the areas surrounding the deck on the lower level will be converted to small pebbled xeric gardens with super modern and simple perennial grasses/flowering plants. We plan to integrate a sandbox into one of the gardens that I have a clear view of from the kitchen window. A new horizontal fence will also be built.

Inspiration for horizontal fence.

Both lower and upper patios will be composed of this type of paver with a similar garden to pictured

I like these grasses and the patterning of the pavers

We're hoping to do this same pattern as the edging to the patios

The type/size of gravel we'd like to use for the xeric gardens (but more plants)

We're hoping to get this done in the next year or so (fingers crossed) and we're starting to source out product and friends and relatives who like manual labour. ha ha.


*At first I thought the landscaper was tyring to pick me up, but when it happened again to my nanny and husband, I knew something was up.

**PS. Squirrel, you suck at landscaping. Stick to looking cute and running up trees.

***Actually, we have moved up a notch. Hubs and his dad made a side gate to stop Lily from wandering into the front yard and my mom came out this week and removed all the unsightly (yucky bushes, overgrown plants and weeds from our front garden). It looks much better now.

Aug 15, 2010

Bathroom Unveiling

I have held off on the downstairs bathroom reveal for about a month in hopes of finding some fabric for the window. But alas, I am NOT inspired by fabric choices in Calgary. Anytime you want to come to Calgary, Fabricana, I'll be waiting outside doing cartwheels. In the meantime, must wait for my trip home to Vancouver in September...

Soooo, remember this doozy of bathroom? So bad, it was not even worthy of a before shot (read: I forgot to take a before shot). Some original (sink, back splash, toilet, mirror, light, floor vent), some replaced (1970s floral vinyl flooring), some horrifying (shower).

We worked with Cornad Contracting, who also completed our kitchen. We had a few minor glitches:
  • one tiler we had disappeared for 3 days, was fired then took off with all of our tile - took 2 weeks to re-order;
  • a few personnel changes (three different project managers);
  • the shower tile had to be re-grouted;
  • and the sink wasn't installed in the centre below the mirrored vanity (we have to get that one fixed in the fall).
I counted the number of people that actually worked on that bathroom. 14. In the tiniest bathroom. It was a clown car renovation. HOWEVER, the final result is just beautiful and we are very happy with Cornad's work. Take a look below:

Before - original wall hung sink that was cracked. I looked for months to find a similar second hand replacement.

There was nothing local and the one I finally pinned down was in Seattle at Second Use. And it was burgundy. They were willing to ship but it was going to cost a fortune and I had to have it repainted white. Too much work & $$. Finally broke down and decided to buy new.

Hubs and his brother removed the walls one weekend in May. One of the 14 guys added insulation and new gypsum wall board. The shower has cement board and was sealed with this red goopy stuff. Yes, that is its official name.

Framing out the shower in tile and installing a shower light

And AFTER 3 months with no shower and 1 toilet for a family of 4 plus a nanny:

Pretty much had to redo this entire shower. Frameless shower door.

River rock floor with original drain. I fought hard to keep this drain.

Glass penny tile detailing.

Shower - which I chose strictly for the cute engraved sun and snowflake design.

Original Universal Rundle toilet - need to replace toilet seat in the near future - tad oversized.

New wall-hung sink with chrome console. Mirror was replaced but vanity is original. We added an extra outlet (the only one was in the overhead light!) and a bathroom fan.

I love this sink. So. much. Duravit.

Faucet from Grohe - if this faucet was a man, it would be Olivier Martinez.

We had our plumber mack out the piping (one of the perks of owning an older house, we have our plumber on speed dial - should even consider inviting him to Christmas dinner)

Original light over mirror. The outlet is located at the base of the light.

Hubs had this vent cover chrome plated - was originally a dull dark grey.

From the outside. Ceramic tile and baseboard are new. Door is original but needs to be refinished.

Here's a product list of everything we restored/renovated in the bathroom:

Basin - Duravit, Vero line with chrome console from Robinson Lighting & Bath Centre in Calgary (ask for Michelle - she really knows her products and has excellent solutions for your space)
Faucet - Grohe, Atrio series, from Robinson Lighting & Bath Centre in Calgary (Ditto to above)

Vent cover chroming: Alberta Plating

Shower tiles:
Main - Daltile ceramic Subway tile, Snow Drift (3"x6"), available at Home Depot

Shower fixtures: Moen shower faucet, Level series, not sure where plumber picked this up?

Towels: DKNY Urban Pique White Towel collection, available at Bed Bath & Beyond


Aug 12, 2010

United States of Walmart

I worked in small town USA for a number of years, digging in the dirt and showering at the local pool. Super Walmarts had just made their grand entrance at that time and everyone in town was flocking at all hours of the day to buy their groceries, toys for Christmas, renew their car insurance and get a perm. The ultimate one-stop shopping.

I returned every summer to work, and slowly I witnessed businesses closing in the downtown core and new houses and condos popping up around the Super Walmart - in essence shifting the downtown to the Walmart parking lot. The businesses that closed down just couldn't compete with the low prices. And residents couldn't justify spending significantly more just to support Joe's hardware store.

I now work in heritage throughout western Canada. Most of my firm's projects are in small towns in Alberta and BC. These small towns are dealing with exactly the same issues that hit the US 5 years ago; big box stores looming on the horizon, tempting residents with low prices and in-store Starbucks. And it's unavoidable. For those communities that resist, residents just leave to shop in a neighbouring big box friendly community.

Many municipalities in western Canada have started to adopt sustainable policies and frameworks, that trickle down into all future planning initiatives. At a basic level, local governments may initiate a recycling program, increase transit routes, or encourage residents to support local industries and businesses. We are beginning to work with communities that have adopted a sustainable planning framework.

I've been thinking a lot over the past while on how heritage can contribute to this sustainability movement, apart from the obvious - that a heritage buildings is inherently sustainable. In the heritage community we abide by Carl Elefante's famous statement that "the greenest building is the one already built"*

But how can a heritage building contribute to the sustainability of a community?

My firm is currently working on a Heritage Inventory for the Town of Lacombe in central Alberta. Lacombe's population is almost 12,000. They are undertaking a 2 year, phased program to add approximately 50 to 60 heritage sites (voluntary by owner) to their Inventory. After designation, these 50+ resources will not be permitted to be demolished and owners will work with the city on changes to be made to the exterior of their buildings through the application of Parks Canada's Standards & Guidelines for the Conservation of Historic Places. They will however, get access to grants to restore and will rest assured that the house remains historically intact long after they leave.

What this also means is that 50+ buildings in town will not be going to Home Depot to replace their windows, doors and siding. Instead, they will either have to learn to repair them themselves, or have a specialized trade do it for them.**

These building owners are then essentially switching from a culture of replacement to a culture of maintenance and repair. For those skilled local tradesman, repair and restoration of 50+ resources could potentially be big business. Restoration work is not materials based, like current construction practices, but labour based (as you're striving to restore original material). And because most of the houses are built with similar materials (brick, sandstone, wood, etc) in relatively the same time period (early 1900s to 1920s), a tradesman could easily become specialized in 'Lacombe heritage restoration'.

Now, for those downtown businesses that will inevitably feel the wrath of the big box, they should consider adopting what I'm going to call for the sake of this posting, the Lee Valley Business Model. Lee Valley is a specialized store for builders and gardeners. They have small stores across Canada and a thriving catalogue-based business. They are in direct competition with Home Depot and Rona yet have managed to continue to expand and remain successful. What's their secret? Specialization and tailoring to specific markets. You can buy at Lee Valley what no big box can provide: excellent service, high quality tools and gadgets you cannot find anywhere else. Everyone I know shops at Lee Valley and we all covet their seasonal catalogues.

50+ historic house owners in Lacombe will now need very specialized supplies to restore their houses; window and door hardware, special order wood siding, shingles, replacement bricks, stained glass window replacements, historic lighting, new and used building stores etc etc. Now, this little town that is trying to find a unique identity within Alberta, becomes a hub for specialized historic trades and historic building material businesses. Similar to what happened to Portland, Oregon.

It's an interesting way to look at heritage buildings and their role in the future sustainability of our communities. And at a personal level, good for me to always keep in mind that our heritage house is contributing to the local economy in a small way.


*And for anyone who owns a heritage house, it seems like nobody with any power seems to realize this. I have shared 'words' with provincial/federal eco initiatives (who want you to upgrade wood windows/doors - which can last 100s of years - to vinyl, which lasts 20 if you're lucky); house assessments (who place higher value on synthetic new material over old); house insurance (ever try to insure a heritage house?). And on and on and on...

**Wood windows are actually very simple to repair and are designed to be maintained by the owner. It's a lost art in our culture.

Aug 6, 2010

When Things Go Wrong

When things go wrong, it's always the wrong time for these things to go wrong. Like, when you're on holidays, or when you have to leave on a business trip the next day or when you've just sank every penny into a recent renovation and you can't even afford a ladder to see what the problem may be. When things go wrong, it's always in the wrong room, like your daughter's, who doesn't understand why she can't play in her room. It always seems to be in areas that you thought were ok, that weren't on the rolling list of 'to do's', that you or a professional had assessed and checked off as one of the few things you wouldn't have to tackle while living in the house.

When things go wrong, it always seems to involve elements that you knew you didn't have to deal with in your area, like water (Calgary's considered semi arid) (REALLY?!) And it always seems to be a bit of a mystery how it even happened? (newer roof, water seeping into Lily's room - hunh?) When things go wrong, it will always cost more than you expect and force you to react dramatically in effort to figure out how to pay for the things gone wrong (should I take on a second job, should we just sell the house, do we need to live in a hotel for 2 months while we fix it?)

Sometimes, when things go wrong, you get so consumed with figuring out how to right your wrong that you lose your wallet in the airport on the way to your business trip, miss your flight and have to re-book when you find your wallet, costing you $157 to change the flight, but luckily, you're so upset that you start bawling to the ticket agent who then waives the fee because she feels so sorry for you...

But after you get some breathing room from the thing gone wrong, and realize that there's no need to panic, the house isn't going to fall down, you will find the money to fix it; you realize that this thing gone wrong was somewhat of a blessing. For example, when checking for the leak in the attic, we found out that the kitchen fan simply sucks air into the attic and doesn't vent to the outside. 55 years of kitchen grease ripe for a fire are up there. We also found a mint condition Hasbro game dating to 1967 stored in the rafters. Better be a fun frickin' game that gives us years of joy...

In addition to their propensity for poor timing, old houses in general are challenging. It's part of the whole experience of restoring a heritage house; the good, bad, ugly, stinky, and frustrating that only adds to its layered past. And in the end (if there ever really is an end) these war wounds heal and evolve (hopefully) into to an incredible sense of pride that you actually made it through without burning down the house and divorcing your partner... Someday your thing gone wrong will simply be a good story to tell your friends and family.

Someday.... Not today, though.