Welcome... Follow along as we renovate our 9th home in 12 years

Saturday, October 23, 2010

10/22/10 - Thank you for the mention Calgary Herald's Ruth Myles...


The Upside of cookie-cutter houses
Stroll down any suburban street in Calgary and 
you'll see many versions of the same house, each 
reflecting the changing taste and lifestyles of the 
people inside. And yes, that's a good thing.
Ruth Myles
Calgary Herald

CREDIT: Baked, Decorated & Photographed By Jenn Chic
Stepping through the front door of my friend Lorie's place is like coming home. Not because I spend tons of time there--I don't--but because it is the same model as mine, a doppelganger house, if you will. And, in a gift from the interior-design gods, Lorie's friend Noelle, just up the block and around the corner, has the exact same house. I get to see how "my" house would look with different decor and furniture layout, plus I can poke around and see how two other families inhabit the same space. Have they solved the front-hall closet quagmire? What about that awkward space beside the door to downstairs? The hobbit-sized bathrooms? The slightly deja vu experience of walking down any suburban street in Calgary takes the pastime of window gazing--in which house-mad strangers peruse other people's living spaces through conveniently lighted front windows--to a new level.

Lorie, Noelle and I all live in the Timberlane model, constructed in the early '70s by Keith Construction in the southeast community of Lake Bonavista. It's a four-level split with 1,473 square feet above grade, 1,115 square feet below. There are three bedrooms upstairs, and a main floor that originally contained a living room, adjacent dining room, compact kitchen, step-down rear entrance, family room with fireplace and eating nook. Down six stairs, there's a rec room and a fourth bedroom. (Two of these tripleganger Timberlanes also have a bathroom on this level.) Down six more stairs, and there's about 900sq. ft. more of livingspace.

The three families living in the "same" house are similar (two parents and an assortment of kids and animals), yet different, and that's reflected by the changes we've made to the basic model. We've modified and tweaked, demolished and rebuilt, all to tailor our living spaces to how we actually live.

While the term "cookie-cutter houses" is often tossed around with derision when describing Calgary's urban sprawl, it doesn't do justice to the homes created by forward-thinking builders, whose standard models have proven as adaptable as a great cookie recipe. Don't like walnuts? Add some cranberries instead. Throw in some cocoa instead of flour and you've changed the overall flavour. It's the same with new houses: you start with the basics, adding and subtracting along the way until you have something that satisfies everyone in the family.

Take, for example, the three recent remodels of the Timberlane. With four kids, three dogs and two cats, Lorie and her husband needed more living space. They recently had a fire-code-sized window installed in the basement, and are contemplating putting up walls to make the makeshift sleeping quarters located there more permanent. Gary's office now occupies the back bedroom on the top level. The kitchen has been opened up to what was once the family room--a condition for Lorie agreeing to buy the house in 2000--and the next big project involves moving the side entrance into what's now the dining room, creating a family-friendly mud room in the process. 

Over at Noelle's, all the walls on the main level were ripped out, then a new one was built to separate the more formal living room from the newly created kitchen and eating area. There's a cosy spot with an oversized round ottoman that her three kids--aged 10, eight and four--like to snuggle up on beside the fireplace that's adjacent to the dining table. Noelle and her husband enjoy the visual and physical separation between the kitchen area and the more adult-friendly living area. Their TV watching takes place in the downstairs family room and the kids have their own cork-floored playroom in the finished basement, complete with a long wall of covered storage for their toys.

My two little ones, six and four, my husband and I just survived a total gut job of our main floor that saw all the walls come down, and nary a one go back up. It's now a wide-open expanse of unobstructed living with French doors leading to an extensive deck out back, perfect for running in and out to the yard. A large dining table sits in what used to be the family room, squarely in front of the resurfaced fireplace. The formerly formal living room is now a part of our daily activities. I can see the TV from the oversized kitchen island--my main gig is writing about the boob tube, after all--a placement many designers would tsk tsk. But hey, it's my house and it works for me. (When I look at model homes, the first things I want to know are the location of the front-hall closet and where the TVs--yes, we have four, one for each level--will go. And don't judge, given that you likely have a few big screens of your own.)

These major modifications are representative of the needs and aspirations of today's modern family. And yet, 40 years ago, the original models were perfectly suited to our parents' expectations. The formal front room (with the shag carpet raked meticulously in one direction, don't step on it!) and separate dining room were reserved for when company came calling. The real living took place in the kitchen and adjoining family room and eating nook. Overall, the square footage was sufficient and the lots generous. Families moved on in and lived their lives quite happily without taking down a single wall or adding a shower to the tamale-sized tub in the main bathroom. They were houses for, and of, their times. But times change, and since houses can't, someone has to do it for them.

Back in the late 1960s, Keith Construction waved its magic wand and conjured up Lake Bonavista from a flat, dry prairie landscape. The neighbourhood just south of Anderson Road and east of Macleod Trail was the first community in Canada to feature a man-made lake, a 52-acre delight that remains a selling point. Lou Luini saw it all happen, from start to finish. He joined Keith in 1957, rising through the ranks. Starting out as a carpenter's helper, he moved on to the position of checker, superintendent, production manager, general manager, then vice-president, then senior vice-president. Over his long and productive career--at 79, he still has his hand in the business with Lask Homes, a custom-home builder run by his son--Luini has built and overseen the construction of thousands of houses all over Calgary, making him an expert on what goes into good home design.

"First of all, you have to have a kitchen to satisfy the wife. That's where I used to spend most of my time when I was turning over 500 houses a year," Luini says. "I spent the time in the kitchen first, then the bathrooms, then the other spaces after that."

Regular trips south of the border kept the company abreast of housing trends, which were then interpreted in the 30 to 40 models Keith built in Lake Bonavista. (The company also left its mark on Montgomery, Parkdale, Haysboro and Parkland, among others.) Bungalows made up nearly half of the 3,259 single-family homes constructed in the community, with bi-levels coming a close second, followed by two-storey homes and split levels such as mine. "The one thing that Keith liked to do was to be the first in the door with an idea," Luini says. He can remember introducing bi-level homes--Keith's "Fmodel"--after a trip to California. The innovative floor plan sold like hotcakes. "There's a million of those out there." And if you happen to live in a Keith-built home with a sunken living room, Luini is the man to thank for that new-at-the-time design feature. "I actually drew the plans for that one in a hotel room. That got copied more in Calgary than anything else I've seen.

But there's a catch: "If you drive down the alleys, you can see how many of them are the same in the back. The front was always changed. I spent hours doing streetscapes with Mr. Keith and the executive committee. We took the front elevation of the houses and hung it on a brass wire in the design room and rearranged them to make the street look nice." It's true. Even today, the majority of rear elevations feature a fireplace flanked by two tall rectangular windows, with the kitchen off to one side.

Not all of Keith's models connected with what home buyers were looking for at the time, though. Luini can recall one design the builder introduced, circa 1970 or so, that was a bit too far ahead of its time. "We built a house with a great room because it was popular in the States. Couldn't sell it for a damn. Wound up putting a partition in and making a formal dining room. Now great rooms are everywhere. My son and I build homes and you just don't build them without a great room."

Fast-forward to 2010 and one of the biggest changes to hit the Calgary market can't be seen on a floor plan or artist's watercolour drawing of a community. In the '70s buying a house was something you deferred until after you were married and had kids, typically. And unless dad had a job that shuffled him around the country, families pretty much stayed put once they got out of the rental market. That's not the case these days.

"People aren't afraid to move from the house that used to suit them to a house that does suit them. It's a stage-in-life kind of thing: people upsize, they downsize, sometimes they'll move for community," says Michael Jacobson, director of product development at Homes by Avi. "Most people go into it saying, 'This is our first house and we'll be here for part of our three-year plan or our five-year plan.' "

Calgary's new-home market reflects this upward mobility with what Jacobson describes as a "specialization of housing types": condos, townhomes, semi-detached, single-family residences, from entry-level to multimillion-dollar jaw-droppers. First-time buyers want what used to be considered upgrades-- stainless-steel appliances, granite countertops, hardwood floors-- and they want them now. "They expect the luxury items. It's just a reflection of what people are looking for," Jacobson says. "You think of the ubiquitous Calgary bungalow where a family grew up with one bathroom. Now we're looking at e suites in first-time purchases."

Before pencil gets put to drafting paper, Jacobson and his team consider who is going to live in the final product, whether it's one of Avi's 70 single-family home models or a multi-family project. "It comes down to price, too," he adds, "what that buyer would be able to afford and how much footage we can give them for that." Floor plans need to be adaptable to a variety of living styles, he says, citing the example of having the option of double master suites, three bedrooms or two bedrooms and a loft area upstairs. "And there is less and less demand for one-use spaces, like formal dining rooms or another sitting room that you don't use very often. People are now looking for flexibility, for spaces that can be used in different ways."

Just like in Luini's day, builders look outside of our borders for clues to what's to come, residential-wise. "If you look at trends in American housing, they're really talking about smaller houses. People are looking for smaller footage, mostly because of cost. In Canada, we didn't start from a place that is nearly as big. We are more familiar with that already
and comfortable with it." That said, there are both major and subtle differences in the housing markets across Canada and even in our province. For example, rounded corners on drywall are pretty much standard in Edmonton, whereas in Calgary, "no one looks for that," Jacobson says. And Ontario, which is more accepting of single-car-garage homes, has held on to the "formal organization of living space" that entails a separate sitting room and dining room, whereas Calgary's more laid-back and open to, well, open-plan living.

Surprisingly--or not, given how boomers are looking for homes that they can stay in for the long haul--there's renewed interest in one-level living. "One of the things I hear a lot is, 'We're looking for a bungalow,' " says Jacobson. Ah yes, everything old is new again. Back in 1958, eight out of every 10 homes built in Calgary was a bungalow, according to Suburban Modern: Postwar Dreams in Calgary by Robert M. Stamp. They were quick housing for an ever-expanding population that liked the option of being able to develop the basement as the family grew. (These are the same sweet, squat dollhouses being torn down in inner-city neighbourhoods to make way for those tall, skinny infills, the supermodels of the housing scene.) Today, one-level living is deemed "a luxury home" in the new-home sector, Jacobson says, and it's primarily relegated to villa-style condominium projects. "I think a lot of people want a bungalow until they have to pay for it. It's not the most economical type of house."


A bungalow, however, is a practical house. Along with her husband, Suzanne Wismer has renovated and sold nine houses in 12 years across the city, including a 900-sq.-ft. bungalow in Crescent Heights that housed a family with 10 children in a previous life, and a homestead that once belonged to the Cross family of Stampede fame. Her latest project is the total revamp of one of those "ubiquitous" bungalows, a 1,850-square-footer backing onto the soccer field at the Bonavista community centre. The interior-design consultant and her family lived in it for more than a year before deciding to pick up the sledgehammer yet again. (Follow her progress on her blog, suzannewismerdesigns.blogspot.com.)

Making a silk purse from a sow's ear is a large part of what drives her. "I go big. I want you to come in and go 'Holy crap!' " The last project she completed in Lake Bonavista certainly achieved that. Working with what is essentially the same model as my Timberlane (but with an attached garage and an extra level tacked on in a previous reno), Wismer added a swoon-inducing 42-foot-by-21-foot kitchen, complete with fireplace and a table that seats 12. And while she loved every inch of the 4,000-sq. ft. home, she sold up and moved on. "It's about the process. The final product is like, okay, but what can I do next? What can I achieve next?"

The building bug is in Wismer's genes (all the way up to her great-grandfather, who was a finish carpenter), but she also does this for a living. If you're renovating with an eye to selling, know what's appropriate for the neighbourhood so you can get your money back out. "Every decision I make is for us, but what's always paramount, no matter what decision we make, it has to be marketable." She recommends going fairly neutral but not boring. Nobody likes boring. Before investing her dollars and design sense, Wismer and her husband did their homework, top to bottom. They toured "stacks of houses" in Lake Bonavista to see what was out there and what their money could buy. They knew the sale price of every house in the neighbourhood and what they eventually sold for. "We had realtors come in and tell us: if we just sell it today, what can we get for it? If we put lipstick on it, what will we get for it? And if we do an oh-my-goodness blowout renovation, what can we get for it?"

Like others who have decided to crumble their "cookie-cutter homes," Wismer recognizes the exciting possibilities that go along with crafting a home from the inside out. The basic ingredients are all here: the footprint of the home, the desired community, the ability to customize a recipe for living that is suited to her family's changing needs. "We need a playroom, but we need private space for the teenager. I have that here. I need that as my daughter grows. I've thought about this: my preteen is downstairs on his own, my daughter right outside my bedroom. When he goes off to university, she can move downstairs and have all this space. I can actually see this working. We're in a bungalow so we can grow old in it."

Which sounds just like icing on a.... Calgary house.

When I look at model homes, the first things I want to know are the location of the front-hall closet and where the TVs--yes, we have four, one for each level--will go. And don't judge, given that you likely have a few big screens of your own.

© Calgary Herald 2010

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