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Funky St. John’s renovation

A dated 1980s bungalow gets a chic DIY makeover with modern decor and fun custom lighting.

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Becki Peckham and Chris Nicholas kick back in the living room of their revamped St. John’s bungalow. With its cool, grey tones and modern styling, the living room looks nothing like the original 1980s-era space, but still has plenty of room for entertaining.

It’s a typical 1980s suburban neighbourhood: tidy three-bedroom bungalows and split levels with meticulously cleared driveways line either side of a street that will sprout basketball hoops and hockey nets when spring arrives. But what lies behind one door is anything but ordinary.

  • Becki Peckham and Chris Nicholas kick back in the living room of their revamped St. John’s bungalow. With its cool, grey tones and modern styling, the living room looks nothing like the original 1980s-era space, but still has plenty of room for entertaining. Photo: Kenneth J. Harvey
  • Photo: Kenneth J. Harvey
  • Photo: Kenneth J. Harvey
  • Chris and Becki wanted a clean, minimalist look for the kitchen. Everything from the spice rack to the toaster is concealed. Photo: Kenneth J. Harvey
  • The couple built their own floating shelves, sturdy enough to hold books and part of their camera collection. Photo: Kenneth J. Harvey
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Becki Peckham and Chris Nicholas, a couple in their late 20s who started dating in high school, moved in together a few years ago. But unlike other couples, their first home wasn’t a ratty apartment  sparsely furnished with hand-me-downs. Instead they bought  an out-dated two-level bungalow. And for the last three years they’ve spent every spare minute modernising everything about it, from the living room ceiling to the basement floor.

While the entrance is modern and tastefully stark, its cool white walls are not unexpected. The surprises start when climbing the half flight of stairs into the main living area. There’s no Berber carpet on these treads and the sides are thick, shatterproof glass. “We had to send to Montreal to get it,” Chris says. “There was no one in Newfoundland willing to tackle it.” In the living room, one dark wall has an inset fireplace with minimalist flickering flames over cool cream rocks.

Another wall is covered in wooden slats; what looks to be just a design feature conceals the guts of the entertainment system. The slats hide the wires and the television appears to float. A third wall features backlit blown up X-ray photographs of two old cameras. Photography is a bit of a thing for the young couple. “We met in the dark room during art class,” Becki says, smiling at Chris on the couch beside her.

The kitchen’s original panelled oak cabinets and stuccoed ceiling were amongst the first targets of Chris and Becki’s makeover. And the wall between it and the dining room is long gone. “We knocked it down the very first night we moved in,” says Chris. Hip-hop style art dominates one wall of what is now the dining area. Gleaming Corion counter and peninsula tops reflect the cool grey lines of the stainless steel appliances and the minimalist white cupboards.

Things get really cool when Chris, a techie with a taste for experimental lighting, gets out his smart phone. With the push of a button he can change the concealed RGB LED lights from party bright to movie-watching low. The couple can control the lights and sound system throughout the house by either a master panel in the hallway or their phones.

And ambiance isn’t just created by the number of watts on the go. The lights can change colour from bubble-gum pink to lime green with equal ease, altering the atmosphere in the living room or the kitchen. Since they connect to the system wirelessly, Chris and Becki can phone home when they are out and have the house warm and brightly welcoming when they return.

Becki’s always been obsessed with home design. When she was a little girl, she used to draw up floor plans while watching design shows on television. Now she runs a mini marketing and photography agency from home and does a lot of work for a St. John’s interior design company, SAM Design, which keeps her inspired.

Chris came into the project clueless. The first time he tried to cut a piece of drywall, he used a circular saw and was immediately covered in gypsum powder because he didn’t know he was just supposed to score it with a knife. However, he was more than willing to go along with whatever Becki wanted. For his day job, he’s a radiology resident doctor at the Health Science Centre in St. John’s, specializing in diagnostic imaging.

Becki’s creative vision and Chris’s analytical focus make them a formidable pair when tackling a project. “Chris couldn’t picture it when we started,” Becki recalls. “The house was ’80s and ugly and I said, ‘This is perfect!’ Chris was, ‘I dunno, man.’ But once we started the project he got more into it.” Now Chris is every bit as enthusiastic as Becki and loves suggesting ideas of his own. “We started by emulating magazines,” he says. “Now we’re coming up with original concepts.”

Not everything has worked out as planned. Chris pictured the ceiling in his office as a sleek, high-gloss grey. After too many nights of sanding well into the wee hours, he finally gave up. The ceiling now has a more restrained matte look. And suppliers don’t always have products that live up to their vision.

“I wanted square corners on the peninsula,” Chris says with some frustration, “and those appliances aren’t modern enough.” Becki’s uncle, Jeff Parsons, was the couple’s mentor during the project. He’s a custom woodworker and contractor who guided them though the work, advising them about which walls to knock down, for example. A valuable contribution, considering the couple demolished the wall between the kitchen and the dining room the first night in their new home. “They knew what they liked, but they didn’t have a clue,” laughs Jeff. “But they’d continue on. I’d get a text: ‘We’re gonna try this.’ They were full of questions.”

Though Becki points out the custom cupboards Jeff built for them in the kitchen, he takes little credit for the work that’s been done overall. “I did a lot of work with them, not for them,” he notes. “They didn’t shy away from things. They’ve made a lot of mistakes but they’ve learned from them. The difference between what they can do now and what they could at the beginning.” He pauses for a moment, considering. “I know guys in the industry who couldn’t do this kind of work.” The couple hope to be completely finished the renovation by the end of this year, but that doesn’t mean the end of their dream. “We really want to build a house on the ocean,” says Chris with a speculative look in his eyes. “Like right on the ocean, literally. We’ve learned so much doing this place. This is just the start.”

East Coast Living