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House Beautiful: Challenging 1990 project house turned into a gem with a view

Heather Ferguson and her husband were having that age-old conversation — move or renovate? — when suddenly a 1990 house on the steep, western side of Gonzales Hill came on the market.

Vivid childhood memories of adventure and exploration in her grandparents’ house were a major influence on Heather Ferguson when she and her husband decided to renovate their 1990 home.

“I remember so well visiting my grandparents’ house at an early age and being able to participate, to do stuff. There was always something going on,” said Ferguson, who wanted to replicate those joyful feelings for her own grandchildren.

She decided to create myriad appealing spaces and unique furnishings. Some of the highlights include a super-soft, Icelandic sheepskin-covered lounger to climb on, amusing stools that swivel, a Buoy seat that bobs and wiggles like its namesake and floor-level windows where kids can lie down and enjoy eagle views over the cliffside of Gonzales Hill.

The fun-loving Ferguson is even considering putting in a little climbing wall.

It’s all been an adventure for her and her husband, too, who originally bought a century-old home on Hampshire Road after retiring here from Toronto in 2011. But they soon realized they’d have to undertake substantial renovations in order to welcome their growing family, which includes two young grandchildren and a third on the way, back east.

They were having that age-old conversation — do we move or renovate? — when suddenly a 1990 house on the steep, western side of Gonzales Hill came on the market. Ferguson saw the potential: a lower level with loads of guest space and an upper floor for one-level living — both accessed at grade thanks to the terrain.

Husband Cameron Turner fell in love with the staggering panoramas of Victoria and the Saanich Peninsula.

“The view was what struck me and the fact Gonzales Hill Park would be our backyard,” said Turner, who was born in Victoria and wanted to retire here after his 40- year-career in mergers and acquisitions. Ferguson, meanwhile, had worked in communications and now wanted to fulfill a lifelong ambition and sing professionally.

Zebra Group was incredibly helpful — “We couldn’t have done it without them,” said Ferguson. In addition to her and Turner’s ideas, the couple made use of their design-rich family. Judy Stothert, a relation by marriage, is a well-known interior designer born in Victoria.

“We worked tirelessly together, ably supported by my sister-in-law Peggy Turner, also an interior designer,” Ferguson said. “They brought technique and experience to the table and helped me bring my ideas to fruition.”

Demolition and design work began in early 2020, with construction by Bruce Bowick and Sons. The couple moved in the following March, finishing just under the wire, before supply chains snarled.

“We dodged a bullet there,” said Ferguson.

The project was structurally challenging, said Zebra Group principal Rus Collins, who noted the home was previously “very chopped up” and the new owners wanted an open plan with easy flow from room to room. They took down many interior walls.

“The house foundations are anchored to rock and you can’t get much better than that, but from a seismic point of view after removing so many walls we needed to do a lot of engineering.”

The front of the house is now mostly steel and the back is sheer walls, he said.

The new design involved integrating a former balcony into the living room, which gives them more room and unobstructed views through floor-to-ceiling windows and doors.

Balconies are fine, said Collins, “but an eight-foot wide deck is not all that useful … whereas adding that space to a living room makes a ton of difference when entertaining.

“The house really works now.”

Zebra designer Laurin Turner (no relation to Cameron) said it was challenging doing the reno during pandemic, but FaceTime and Zoom made it possible.

“Heather and I were able to meet a few times in person before the big lockdown, and she was very involved and hands-on,” which was a very good thing, as most of the house was gutted, ceilings taken down and whole rooms moved.

They relocated the kitchen from the middle of the house to the cliff side, reconfigured the den, living-room and dining-room layouts and created a free-standing, three-sided fireplace as a focal point, separating the lounge area from an expanded bar.

Placing the fireplace was the biggest feat, said Turner.

“We had to prioritize which spaces would benefit most. If it faced the dining room, for instance, it would have its back to the kitchen, so we eventually had it open to the bar, kitchen and living room.”

It was a clever and architecturally pleasing solution, since it doesn’t block any views and is a visual highlight for the whole area.

Other innovations included designing floating wall units with hidden lighting to give a cognac glow to the upstairs den, as well as the lower level rec room. These units look more like attractive wall furniture than shelving and are art objects in themselves.

The Zebra crew “worked miracles and Laurin and Rus were phenomenal,” said Ferguson, adding she and her husband are thrilled with how the house looks and operates.

“We have a big family and love to entertain, so we wanted a house with good flow, and this one now has no dead ends or bottlenecks.

“Everyone always congregates in the kitchen or around the bar, so having the kitchen at one end, the bar in the middle and dining room at the other end works beautifully. It helps stagger the food and wine areas.”

Ferguson stresses the move was definitely not a downsize.

“We are upsizing, but doing it strategically, and I had tremendous support from Karla Skontra at The Happy Nest.”

Being crazy about refurbishing and restoring, she and her husband were able to find many treasures online and at auctions, including antiques, tableware and carpets.

The result is a colourful and well-curated collection of artworks, lamps and whimsical furniture, some of which looks as though it stepped out of the pages of Alice In Wonderland.

The kitchen is all about the views and serious gastronomy, since Turner is a keen cook who specializes in classic French cuisine, which he pairs with a diploma from the International Sommelier Guild.

“Julia Child is my guru,” he said flatly, adding his new kitchen domain is perfect.

Turner noted that when they bought the property, they knew it would require quite a bit of reconfiguring. They had renovated four houses before, but nothing on this scale.

“We were warned that with a renovation such as this, we should get three estimates for everything — and then add them together,” he said with a chuckle. “That was good advice.”