When Andrew and Kathy Watts decided to update their house, a four-level, side-split style home in the Fleming Heights area of Halifax, they weren’t sure where to begin.
Revamping homes is a regular part of life for this couple. They own Black Diamond Builders, a Halifax-based contracting company specializing in new builds and contemporary-style renovations. Hoping to avoid drastic changes but wanting to refresh the overall look of their house, they made a modest list of upgrades that included replacing the roof and windows, installing new insulation and re-cladding the home.
Built in the mid 1950s, the house was structurally sound but it was starting to show its age and was becoming difficult to heat. “There was seaweed in the walls, which is typical of houses around here, and it had gotten wet over the years,” Andrew recalls. “The roof was also starting to leak.”
The house seemed destined for a dramatic makeover that would fix some flaws of its original design, while staying true to the casual look and feel of the house. It had an awkward front entrance and a series of cramped, poorly lit rooms on the main floor.
Chatting with architect Rayleen Hill about their dilemma gave the Watts the fresh perspective they needed to get the ball rolling. An instructor at the Dalhousie University School of Architecture in Halifax, Hill runs her own architecture firm in Dartmouth. She had worked with the Watts before on a number of building projects. “The façade was pretty bad and Andrew was wondering if I could design the windows,” Hill recalls. “That’s where the project initiated from.”
She suggested designing a large entryway, opening up the rooms on the main floor, and adding in corner windows in all the front-facing rooms to boost the natural light. “It was about trying to find the right way of renovating the house that would be true to the style of the house,” she says. “There are so many houses around Halifax that have a similar style. This shows how you can bring it up to date without really doing a major overhaul.”
The Watts liked her vision for their home. “When we saw her drawings, we fell in love with it right away and decided to go for it,” Andrew says. “I liked how simplistic her design was for the entryway and the main living space. It opened up all these spaces.”
The change was overdue. Before buying the house in 2007, the Watts and their three kids— 12-year-old twin daughters, Miriam and Grace, and 15-year-old son Justin—had been living in a semi-detached home a 10-minute walk away on Williams Lake Road. “We love the neighbourhood and we were so happy to come across a single family dwelling we could afford,” Kathy recalls.
Andrew’s brother and his family had lived in the unit next door, so the Watts wanted a house that would be open and spacious for the kids. “Our kids were so used to feeling like they owned the whole property,” Kathy says. “We really liked that our new house was almost a double size lot. It was an easy transition for the kids.”
The large landscaped yard, with shrubs and greenery aplenty, appealed to the family. “It was perfect for us,” Kathy says. “We knew the house was a fixer-upper but we thought it had lots of potential, though we didn’t know when or what we’d do.”
His background in building shining through, Andrew says he liked that the house hadn’t been renovated before. “The structure of the house was in very good condition,” he says. “The bones of the house were very sound.”
They started the work in the fall of 2009. The family lived with Kathy’s parents from Halloween until February 2010. “We told them we’d moved in for three weeks and then we stayed for three months,” Kathy laughs. “But they loved having us there.”
The entryway became the jumping off point for Hill’s entire design. “It was very tiny before, just slightly larger than the door swing,” she says. “You had to walk to the end of a long hall to get to the closet. The idea was to make a really good entryway that would fit in with the exterior façade and help with lighting the family room downstairs.”
Hill referenced the entryway of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Muirhead House for her design. “The door doesn’t face the street, so you have to access it from the side of the glass box,” she says. Incredibly, the modest three-by-two-metre (10-by-six-foot) entryway was the only addition to the house. “This one move did all kinds of things,” explains Hill. “It’s about being efficient and coming up with one design element that makes a big impact.”
The entryway boasts floor-to-ceiling windows, making it a bright and airy spot. “We thought we’d put blinds up but it’s such an open space, we didn’t want to cover it up,” Kathy says. It’s become a favourite hangout for Dutch, the family’s nine-year-old chocolate lab. “It’s warm in here all year, so he likes to lay in here.”
Andrew marvels at the simplicity of Hill’s design. “It didn’t require much structural change,” he says. “By just extending the roofline a little bit, it completely changed the look of the house.” Hill set the entryway one step lower, at 58 centimetres (23 inches) from grade, so the attached deck that wraps around the house doesn’t need a railing.
The home boasts about 2,000 square feet of living space. In the main area, they knocked out the walls of the old hallway, creating an open- concept living, dining and kitchen area that’s light filled and roomy. They kept much of the original hardwood floors, plaster walls and mouldings in the home. “When you start something like this, it leads to all kinds of upgrades,” Andrew says.
The focal point of the living room is the Stuv 21 fireplace from Ultimate Home Comfort in Halifax. It has a Baltic birch mantle with shelving on both sides. The Watts enjoy watching the flames from the large cream sectional they found at Statement, a boutique furniture store in Halifax. Ray Frizzell, Statement’s design consultant, helped the Watts pick out much of the furniture in their revamped space. “You can really make the best of a space by choosing the right furniture,” he says. A chic walnut coffee table, a set of round nesting tables and a cream shag rug lend texture and interest. “The shag nature of the rug speaks to the era of the house—it’s really fun,” Frizzell says.
The original kitchen in the home was narrow and outdated. “It was the original 1950s kitchen with Mactac [vinyl flooring] and crazy wallpaper,” Andrew says. They removed the old door to the backyard, making it into an office area where the kids can play on the computer. On the north side of the house, they tore out an old chimney and fireplace, adding in a new floor-to-ceiling patio door. “There used to be no windows or doors to the north side,” says Andrew. “I love all the windows—we get in a tonne of light now.”
They ripped out the old partition wall in the kitchen, adding in a wide island unit with a concrete countertop and drop lighting. On the far end is a space for the fridge, with a built-in china cabinet on the other side facing the living room. “The fridge is somewhat concealed, so you’re not staring at it when you’re in the living room,” Hill says.
Sets of stairs from both the kitchen and the front entryway lead down to the family room on the lower level. “Some people might find it too open but we really like it,” Kathy says. Click cork flooring—the home has in-floor heating—is cushy underfoot, making the space seem worlds apart from an ordinary basement floor. A floor-to-ceiling shelving unit holds the TV and has extra storage for games and books.
A key aspect of the renovation was creating a bedroom for Justin on this level, as well as a second bathroom and a back entryway where the kids can drop off their coats and book bags. They left the bottom level as unfinished basement—for now extra storage space but perhaps the future site of a home office.
The corner windows in Justin’s bedroom, like all the front-facing windows in the house, bring in east and south light. “Before, the bedroom window was facing east,” Hill says. “In Justin’s bedroom, it doesn’t feel like it’s a basement bedroom.” The Watts went with custom Martin windows from ProVision Windows and Doors in Dartmouth.
The downstairs bathroom has a concrete vanity top with a drop sink and the same black porcelain tile found in the front entryway. “It’s a relatively inexpensive tile with a modern 12-by-24-inch [30-by-60-cm] format that we use a lot,” Hill says.
Upstairs, they combined two bedrooms to make a spacious master bedroom, which also features a large walk-in closet. “It has sliding French doors, like a dressing room,” Kathy says. The twins share the other bedroom on this floor. Their bunk beds maximize space in the room, which has matching built-in dressers and closets.
Aiming to improve the warmth of the house, the Watts swapped the oil-fired forced hot air system for an electric hot water boiler that’s supplemented by the wood-burning fireplace. “We also reinsulated the whole house with two-pound spray foam, which qualified us for the Retrofit rebate program,” Andrew says. “We wanted to just stop the leaks and make it more energy efficient.”
The house went from having a low energy- efficiency score to a high one. “We’re close to an R-2,000 home, which is quite something for a house of this age,” says Kathy. “It’s no longer a leaky house.”
Ultimately, its reconfigured layout and improved design works for this busy family, without sacrificing the relaxed vibe of the original house. “It’s hard to see the old house in the new— I sometimes forget what it was like,” Kathy laughs. “The kids feel really comfortable here. To me, it’s still a very casual space, which I love.”