Most home renovators run into an unexpected challenge or two when beginning an ambitious reconstruction project. Perhaps the foundation is crumbling, some drain tile is failing or - perish the thought - an infestation of powderpost beetles has attacked a support beam. In this Oak Bay home, there Mwall: were no such nasty surprises, but the owners did run into a brick a large fireplace right in the heart of their newly purchased 100-year-old home. The couple tried to manoeuvre around the obstacle initially, with the help of Rus Collins, president and co-owner of Zebra Design and Interiors Group.
But eventually, they decided to remove it altogether, since the chimney posed problems not only on the main floor but in the basement and second storey.
"It was like an iceberg: small at the top, huge in the basement," said the owners.
By taking down the chimney, brick by brick - a process that took almost a week - they opened up the main floor, added precious space upstairs and created subtantial changes in the basement.
The removal eased the way for Collins to open up the kitchen, move the dining room to a new location adjacent to the kitchen, add a powder room where previously had been a small parlour and include a new ensuite on the second floor.
"The fireplace was a real sticking point, as it was right in the middle of the house," said Collins, noting once it came down, the feeling inside changed dramatically. A new gas fireplace now stands at the end of the living room.
The owners then took another bold step and decided to redesign and rebuild the main staircase - also at the hub of the house.
Not only did the stairs have a serious slope from one side to the other, but headroom above them was woefully inadequate.
"It was one of the weirdest things I've ever run into in a house," Collins said. "And it appears the stairwell was actually built that way, with a very low ceiling so anyone over average height had to duck. Never seen that before."
Owners Justine and Gordon (who asked to use their middle names) are 5'9" and 6'2" and didn't want to spend the rest of their lives stooping as they climbed the stairs.
Collins solved the problem by raising a section of ceiling, which added headroom and made the stairwell not only roomier but safer, since one of the handrails was previously affixed to a wall, making it hard to grasp.
Headroom was stolen from a small bedroom upstairs that was reconfigured into a large walk-in closet and master ensuite. By happy accident, the raised area in the closet become a handy bench, perfect for pulling on boots, folding sweaters or packing for a vacation.
Collins said the house had other flaws: "The kitchen layout was kind of weird, very closed-in, and the owners wanted to move the dining room closer to the kitchen.
They also wanted a bigger living room, more open-space design and a powder room."
The couple bought the house in August 2011, downsizing from 4,000 to 3,000 square feet.
"We looked at about 100 homes before we saw this one," said Justine, noting many older homes have basements, but few are full-height like this.
"We wanted a traditional three-level house, with bedrooms upstairs, and we were looking for something not just old, but Craftsman style - and close to amenities, shopping, a rec centre."
They found it all near Oak Bay Village, and on flat land, too. Their last home was near the treeline in North Vancouver and they didn't want steep hills anymore, whether driving, walking or biking. "We were not psyched for a big physical conquest every time we went out," he said with a smile.
After interviewing three designers and three construction companies, they chose the three-phase Zebra team of architectural and interior designers, as well as construction crew. During the seven-month facelift, which began in November, they lived in James Bay.
"Our goal was to fuse traditional aspects with a modern look," said Justine, who is a consultant and executive coach. "We feel the house has another 100 years of life now."
Martin Whitehead, co-owner of the company and its construction manager, said there was some "scope creep" because the owners did more than originally envisioned. "But at the end of the day, it worked out very well.
"Taking out the fireplace meant a bit of mess and required putting in engineered beams," he said, but they were necessary anyway after two load-bearing walls were removed on the main floor.
"We started out just doing the kitchen and bathroom, but it kind of grew and I'm so glad it did," recalled Gordon. "We won't look back and say we should have done this or that. We want to live here forever."
The owners said the crew was marvelous, especially when Justine became ill during the project. "You hear all kinds of stories about contractors and trades, but our experience was the reverse," she said.
Interior designer Lorin Turner said Justine was a treat to work with because she was open to taking risks and loves colour.
"And the house had a beautiful feel the moment you walked in, even before we started to break it down and build it back."
Turner kept wall and millwork tones neutral to showcase the owners' artwork, but used dark, oiled oak floors. "It's not glossy and you don't see bare wood if it scratches.
They wanted something durable and dark. It is almost a matte black." Cherry cabinets are stained dark espresso, while maple kitchen cabinets are painted.
Turner said the goal was to make the 1980 kitchen more contemporary, adding Justine is a terrific cook and longed for a big island.
"The previous one had a tiny island facing a nook with a small table. We kept the fridge where it was, but moved everything else, including doors and walls."
They also added new closets and raised door heights throughout.
"We had hobbit closets ... the house was full of real head-smackers," said Gordon, who has scars to prove it. But he said one of the biggest bangs for his buck came in the basement.
"It was an ill-configured space - we called it chimney alley," he said, because moving from one part to another involved such a circuitous route.
Highly usable now, it features new windows, laminated wood floors, a bright laundry and a large showroom for his eight road and mountain bikes. Its walls are hung with classic old biking posters, he has an extensive repair bench and a custom, extra-wide door.
After a long, thirsty ride, Gordon now parks his bike, then helps himself to a cool one - on tap. His keg is currently filled with Phillips Slipstream Cream Ale - another reason he likes Victoria.
"There are so many micro-breweries here ... I like beer and bicycles," he said with a grin. "And these things run strong here."
Justine agreed the Island lifestyle was a big attraction for the couple.
"We've been coming to Victoria for years and years. It seemed a good time to sell in Vancouver - from a financial perspective - and a good time to take a step toward retirement.
"Moving at 65 doesn't make sense."
Dave and Kathy Hunt of Zenith Development were responsible for the garden makeover, which included rearranging every plant in the front yard. "The previous owners obviously loved plants - they had one of everything," joked Kathy. "But the new owners wanted us to give their new garden a bit of structure, so we dug up everything and rearranged it, allowing plants room to grow.
"We also cut back about eight feet of hedge in the rear garden, giving the owners a bit more valuable Oak Bay real estate by extending the yard. It was a huge hedge that was overtaking the garden, so we took that out and pushed the fence back."
The garden has some French-style balance now, "not rambling plants," said Kathy, who noted she and her husband have been doing this for 36 years."We mostly design and build from the ground up, for high-end new construction."
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