House Beautiful: Mutual love of houses leads to 1962 split-level redesign

Self-admitted “house junkies” Julie and Robin Muir realized early in their relationship that they share an interest in residential architecture and design.

In fact, when they first started dating, Robin — owner/managing partner of the financial planning firm Hatch & Muir — asked if Julie wanted to go to an open house.

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“Of course I said I’d love to,” says Julie, who works as the director of executive operations for the provincial government.

That was nearly six years ago. That mutual love of houses not only helped strengthen their bond, but resulted in the couple creating their own home, where they got married in the backyard last summer.

Both took an active role in the house project, from designing the interior to refreshing the exterior and creating an enviable entertainment space outdoors.

“We were always looking at houses and knew we wanted to get a project and do a major renovation, so we started looking around for a house that had good bones,” says Julie.

The search ended when they came across a solidly built 1962 side-split house in Oak Bay.

“We like the mid-century style and wanted to keep the house but modernize it,” says Julie.

“Everyone else around us bought these homes and knocked them down,” adds Robin. “They’d pay $1.3 or $1.4 million for the land then build new.”

By renovating the existing house, the Muirs were able to save money and make the best use of its space, even expanding the square footage by converting the garage into a large den in the now 2,125-square-foot home.

“We wanted something open, bright, modern and functional,” says Julie, of their house, which was completed in September 2019 after a seven-month renovation.

The “before and after” pictures show how good design can take a tired older house and bring it into the 21st century.

When the couple first purchased the house, the main floor was divided into four rooms with a hallway connecting them. The outdated kitchen had limited storage, and the living room and dining room still looked as they did in the 1960s.

The interior now better reflects modern life, with one large open-concept, multi-functional space that boasts a sleek kitchen with ample storage, adjacent to a light-filled dining and living room.

The kitchen island, which has hidden drawers behind the bar chairs, has a quartz countertop that was designed with a thinner edge to reflect a more European modern look than the typically thicker countertops popular in North America. (The kitchen cabinetry was by Island Dream Kitchens, while the countertops were from Victoria Granite Ltd.)

The room’s main lighting comes from unusual square-shaped potlights, something the couple first noticed in The Rowan Hotel’s lobby in downtown Palm Springs. Luckily, their electrician was able to find the same recessed lighting for them.

A stunning collection of original artwork hangs throughout the house, from pieces by Julie’s father, artist and graphic designer Kent Allan, to work by Cowichan Bay First Nations artist Arthur Vickers and award-winning Canadian artist Ernestine Tahedl.

They came across 12 etchings, called The Circle of Energy, by Tahedl buried in a linen-covered box tucked away in a second-hand shop in Victoria.

They bought them for $450 and had them framed. In the townhome where they first lived together, they only had wall space to exhibit six, but now all 12 make a big statement adjacent to their dining table.

The dining area is also where large French doors, which replaced a window, lead to steps down to an outdoor seating area. The patio’s centrepiece is a gas firepit, which was bought from Home Depot but spruced up with a custom-built top, designed by the couple, that also serves as a coffee table.

“The idea came out of necessity when I was looking for a place to play crib with my friends and put down our drinks,” says Robin, who had the top fabricated by Pacific Coast Metal Craft.

The same company also did their custom outdoor kitchen, which includes a sink. An indoor bar/media room also has a sink, leading the couple’s son-in-law to joke “they have a sink in every room.”

Over the years, the couple made many trips to Palm Springs, where mid-century-modern style predominates, and were inspired by what they saw. That’s certainly evident in the courtyard-like oasis they created in the backyard. Here, the outdoors flows easily from their indoor space.

The courtyard is private, thanks to a low-maintenance, powder-coated black fence and mature plantings.

The downstairs, which once included a garage, and the upstairs bedrooms were gutted and redesigned to allow for a better flow of space. The new den has doors that allow easy access to the backyard, and a new, separate two-car garage.

One of the selling features of the house was that it’s accessible from both the front and another street to the rear.

“A lot of the design is functional. We want to be able to get from Point A to B , so the flow of the house is important to us,” says Julie.

Even the recycling bins and garbage cans have been carefully considered, hidden from view in built-in containers.

Julie gives a lot of credit to her husband for ensuring the details were achieved and the project completed with no major hitches.

“We couldn’t have done this project without the day-to-day management of the trades by Robin — we would visit the house every day after work, but Robin really managed and organized the trades and sequencing of the work, along with the contractor. He would take our vision and explain it to them in their language, which helped immensely,” she said.

The couple clearly thought about all of the details that, while seemingly small, make a big impact on daily living.

For instance, in their last home, they had to wait for the water to heat up in the shower, and the handle for turning it on was under the water stream, says Julie. So for this home, they used an instant-heat water system and ensured the water handle was on the side, not under the water stream, so you don’t have to get wet to access it.

The ensuite bathroom’s shower also has no lip on the floor for easy access, which is also convenient for aging in place. It’s just one of many smart ideas throughout the home that would have made life easier for the couple well into their retirement years.

However, while Julie and Robin had initially planned to make this their forever home, they enjoyed the remodelling process so much, they are planning to do it all over again.

They recently sold the house and bought another mid-century-modern home in Oak Bay. This one is by the late Victoria architect John di Castri, and while it’s outstanding — and was once even featured in the Times Colonist’s House Beautiful section — it still has room for the Muirs’ design flair.

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