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House Beautiful: Renovation from the inside out

Long after remodelling the interior, couple transforms the outside of their home With dwarf boxwood and yew hedges, creamy white shrub roses, Japanese an-emones and mophead hyd-rangeas, landscape designer Twyla Rusnak and landscape architect Illarion

Long after remodelling the interior, couple transforms the outside of their home


With dwarf boxwood and yew hedges, creamy white shrub roses, Japanese an-emones and mophead hyd-rangeas, landscape designer Twyla Rusnak and landscape architect Illarion Gallant created a vision of green and white for a hip young couple.

It’s a vision that beautifully complements the 1930s-era home that was previously renovated from top to bottom.

The designers used a couple of hundred boxwoods to define the new garden spaces because Sandra Fulton likes a minimalist look with everything crisp, tidy and lined up.

Sandra’s husband Bob Fulton is more relaxed and loves outdoor sports, so they joke their home is where Chanel meets Cowboy.

Rusnak managed to bridge the gap by using rows of boxwood to screen the looser form plants, such as the hydrangeas and the rampant vegetable garden.

She also ringed an old apple tree with new lawn, edged it in boxwoods and outlined other garden “rooms” with rock walls built by Benito and Pablo Masonry.

The biggest challenge was drainage in the backyard, where the land sloped toward the house, creating serious flooding.

“The whole area was solid clay, but that’s what nature had organized so we had to deal with it,” said Rusnak. “Drainage is always a big issue with landscaping.”

The owners now have a new drainage system around the house and a curtain drain (or California drain) around the back patio, which is covered in custom aluminum grates, an attractive linear element in itself. “It makes a dressier statement than plain old, off-the-shelf functional grates.”

Sandra wanted the back to feel like a courtyard, so the designers played with the grades, created various levels, added 40 centimetres of soil in some places, planted yew hedges, created walls at seating height and tossed in some gravel paths for variety and crunch.

The front garden also had issues, namely a hump by the road from which the ground sloped down to the house again. They solved this by designing a bed of boxwoods and roses along the property line, supported by another rock wall.

A visitor now takes a couple of steps down then crosses a small flat stretch of lawn to reach the front steps.

It’s like walking down a charcoal grey, granite hallway between two green carpets, and the effect is heightened by breaks in the path at intersections of cross points, which are lined with neat strips of grass.

It’s one of Rusnak’s signature design details.

While the front garden is small — about three by six metres — it has a big impact, and for extra textural and visual interest Rusnak paved the middle of the drive with tumbled-granite cobbles. Boxwoods throughout are clipped into rounds, as a soft counterpoint to the rectangular pathways and walls, and the whole garden looks much bigger than when it was covered in grass.

Bob and Sandra couldn’t be more thrilled.

“We bought this house in 2002 and knew it didn’t have much curb appeal,” said Sandra, but they liked the price and area, and soon started a full inside renovation, which lasted about 10 years.

“We worked from the inside out,” said Bob, an engineer who did most of the interior work himself. The final phase was a major upgrade to the home’s exterior and landscape, which included a new garage, conservatory addition and raised kitchen garden.

“The key element was landscaping, and because we have no skill at that, we hired Twyla and Illarion,” said Sandra. “They really understood what we wanted. The back yard used to be mush in the winter — just grass, a shed and playhouse.”

Sandra wanted a garden that was simply elegant, with only white and green flowers, and the designers delivered her dream with all white shrub roses, called “gourmet popcorn,” blooming hellebores, California lilac hedges, hydrangeas and more. (They even took out a tree with red berries.)

“We were inspired to do this on a recent trip to London, where we saw a lovely conservatory and garden,” said Sandra, who is managing director of Connect Hearing for all of Canada, and travels to Europe frequently. “I also love the idea of indoor-outdoor living. Twyla and Illarion were able to integrate the conservatory into the landscape beautifully and we love the result, which is formal but still suits the home. Now we have in-floor heating in a room where we can enjoy the garden year round.”

She explained they were influenced by travels in France too, where people live in smaller spaces. “Our house is quite small by North American standards, but when you go to Europe you see the sense of it — there is no reason to have a huge house.”

She loved wandering through the Tuileries garden in Paris with its mixture of gravel and manicured trees, and she also appreciates the concept of low maintenance.

When they did the inside renovations, their goals were similar. They were looking for low maintenance combined with balance, formality and architectural interest in their 2,000-square-foot home.

They painted the kitchen, added a farmhouse sink, crown moulding, new countertops and beadboard on the walls. “It was mostly cosmetic,” said Sandra.

Old furniture was slip covered, blue silk drapes were added and they built out the off-centre fireplace to make it look centred. “We learned to do a lot with mouldings,” said Sandra, who enjoys the home’s semi-Euro feel now.

They also painted the interiors in a variety of soft greys — “Not 50 shades,” she joked — with names like pewter, fossil, charcoal, and the rest of the house is cloud white.

“It’s been an amazing transformation.

“We’ve always had a lot of family barbecues and now we have a lot more space for family and friends. The kids’ favourite addition is the vegetable garden. It’s giving us all a fun chance to dabble, but we don’t have to see the mess because it’s screened.

“And there’s no problem with flooding. We watched during the recent big rain and all the water ran into the drains. It’s fabulous.”

Bob explained they had put a lot of effort into upgrading the interiors in recent years, and now it was time to create something special outside. “We felt the old garden, which was just grass and a couple of sheds, didn’t do the house justice.”

They both credit Michael Graham, of Michael Graham Construction for working with them to find a new look for the front, and for also building the new conservatory, garage, replacing all the windows and bringing the basement up to code.

“We removed all the exterior stucco and put on rain screen and cedar shakes, and we added overhangs on the sides and front, over the porch and the old garage, to add dimension,” said Graham.

“They were a little budget-minded, but we added some nice esthetics and we replaced the straight staircase out front too, giving it an L-shape and a landing instead, which looks much nicer.”