Margo and Steve Chiasson were tired of living in a home that no longer worked for their family. The couple and their three young children—daughters Cora, Sadie and Hilary— had been in their saltbox home, tucked in a quiet residential street in Halifax’s West End, for about five years when the realization hit that they had outgrown the space.
“We felt like we were bursting at the seams,” Steve says. Margo adds: “Our kitchen was really a one-person kitchen. It had absolutely no storage space.”
They toyed with selling their house and moving into a bigger space, but loved their current location.
Margo teaches Grade 4 at a school a few blocks away and Hilary attends a nearby pre-school. “We love the sense of community here with the corner stores and the residents who have been here for some time,” Margo says. “They’ve adopted our girls as their own.”
They realized their house had the good bones to withstand a renovation of all three floors. In the fall of 2012, they began planning the project for the following summer. “It’s such a quick decision to buy a house,” Margo says. “Here, we knew what we’d be getting, so doing the renovation was a big plus for us. We knew we had a south-west facing kitchen and that it would get in so much light.”
The timing was right. Steve was taking a year off, having just left a long-time job. He had been travelling abroad and dabbling in other pursuits—one of them being East Coast Modern, a Halifax company specializing in custom pre-fabricated homes and studios.
Steve co-founded the company with architect Nicholas Fudge, a good friend from St. Francis Xavier University. “The idea came to us when Steve was thinking of building a bunkhouse at his cottage in P.E.I.,” Fudge recalls. “We started with mod-pods [small, pre-fab constructions] and built them through builders in Antigonish.”
Fudge says his company is the first in Atlantic Canada to market and sell modern pre-fab buildings. Since launching in 2013, it has expanded into selling full-sized pre-fab homes through a partnership with Kent. “The first home will be shipped to P.E.I. this July,” he notes.
The Chiassons thought Fudge was a natural choice to spearhead the design for their renovation. “The aesthetic of our house is what Nick executes with East Coast Modern,” Steve says. “The way it turned out is the vision of the company, even if it’s not a pre-fab home.”
Collaborating closely with the couple, Fudge aimed to transform their house into a spacious abode that would highlight its best features. “They had a beautiful saltbox home to begin with, but they were bursting out of the seams with five people living there,” he says. “I wanted to create a feeling of spaciousness by maximizing the natural light but maintaining privacy as well.”
He also relished the idea of marrying modern and traditional design. “I think they can co-exist but it has to be thoughtfully done to have a seamless transition between the two.”
The renovation would expand the living space on all three levels of the home, which would mean tearing the back end off of the house and extending the rear wall outward by eight feet.
They planned to start the work at the end of June and wrap it up by mid-September, so Margo and the girls could spend the summer at the family cottage in P.E.I. Steve stayed in the home until the second week of July, and then moved in with his sister until the work ended.
The Chiassons were torn between two contractors they knew could both do a good job. In the end, they chose Castone Construction. Though the Halifax company specializes in commercial builds (Pete’s Frootique in Wolfville and the renovated Oxford Theatre in Halifax are recent projects), Steve thought they would stay on budget and stick to the project’s short 12-week timeline.
Castone owner Dean Shea says owning a mechanical-electrical company gives his company an advantage. “A lot of the time, you are waiting for the plumber or the electrician to show up,” he says. “We have the staff to do it all…We are not the cheapest company on the block, but you get what you pay for.”
As soon as Margo and the girls had hit the road for P.E.I., workers ripped off the back wall of the house, eventually adding 770-kilogram steel flush beams spanning the width of the house. Fudge says the beams are the project’s secret weapon. “Not seeing the beams or where the original walls had been is what makes this project so successful,” he says.
When they took down the ceiling, they realized a beam in the basement was under-engineered. “Two new large footings had to be poured in the basement to support the upper levels of the house,” Shea recalls.
Even before the renovation, the house boasted high ceilings—10 feet high on the main floor, nine on the second level and eight in the basement. “I have a lot of appreciation for what carpenters and tradespeople can do,” Steve says. “This was probably the most complex eight feet you’ll ever add to a house because they were extending these open spaces.”
But the original kitchen did nothing to maximize that height. It had just one small pantry and precious little counter space. “Our old kitchen had 12 square feet of counter space, our new one has close to 80,” Steve says.
The new kitchen became the dramatic centrepiece of the renovation. The Chiassons picked out white cabinetry from Ikea and had a custom island built. “The island is command central,” Margo says. “The girls spend most of their time there.” It features a durable acrylic countertop. “This option is mid-way between quartz and laminate,” says Steve.
There is now five feet of space between the kitchen island and the back counter, floor-to-ceiling storage space on both kitchen walls, and even room for an office nook. “We’re enjoying the extra space,” Margo says. “Now the girls can help me out in the kitchen.”
A huge stainless steel fridge/freezer from Sears displays the girls’ latest artworks. “It’s two units but it looks like one,” says Steve, “and it’s also finger-print proof!” Large west-facing windows at the back provide passive solar gain and natural light aplenty. “It’s so nice to be here in the afternoon and evening,” says Steve.
Margo has a great eye for design and enjoyed revamping the interior, picking out the crisp white colour for the cabinetry and walls on the main level. “I went with high-gloss white because it’s easy to clean—it wipes right down. And it lends itself well to the brighter colours,” she says.
She adores kelly green and chose it for the chic stools from Project 9 at the island, and for the accent walls on the staircase and in the basement. “We have three young girls, so we might as well go with the flow,” she says. “It doesn’t look out of place with their toys and their artwork.”
Downstairs, the basement also got some needed attention. “It was a really awkward space,” says Fudge. “The guest room was on the front wall and it had no windows. It was like a mechanical space with the electrical panel in there.”
That space is now a play area for the girls, with a bright new guest room facing the backyard. The play area has an entertainment unit repurposed from the sideboard in the dining room.
Margo is happy the girls go downstairs more often to play and build forts. “They never really used the basement before, but now they have more space and they just love it,” she says.
Upstairs on the third level was all about creating a retreat for Margo and Steve. In the master bedroom, Fudge placed sleek corner NuView windows high up for privacy, matching the other windows on the back of the house. “At first, I worried they were too high,” Margo says. “But it makes perfect sense. You feel as if you’re up in the trees.”
She also loves having her own bathroom. They had considered expanding the existing family bathroom but then decided to use the extra space to build a separate ensuite for the master bedroom. “It was a turning point with the addition,” says Margo. “I was always tip toeing around when we shared a bathroom with the kids.”
Fudge marvels at the seamless look of the entire interior and how well the old blends with the new. “It feels like one big space—there’s no evidence of what it used to be like,” he says.
Steve and Margo are still savouring the afterglow of the project. “We’re just really enjoying it,” Margo says. “Before the renovation, we had a nice house but it wasn’t very functional. Most people are amazed by what you can get with just an eight-foot extension. It’s been such a good experience for us.”