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'The setting matters most'

Waterfront location on Portage Inlet prompted two-phase makeover of 1950s home


Writer Grania Litwin and photographer Frances Litman are known for their sense of style and knowledge of outstanding design. They tour homes around the south Island, talking to homeowners, interior designers, architects and artists who influence the way we live.

Two-foot-itis is a disorder that afflicts many boat owners - they start talking about needing a boat that's just a little bit bigger.

It infects some homeowners too. Barbara and Bruce Scott caught a serious case when they moved into an older home on Portage Inlet, but cured themselves with a renovation that added several feet to almost every room.

They bought their 1958 home 10 years ago from the original owners. A two-phase makeover saw them popping out walls here, there and everywhere. When they couldn't extend a wall, they used mirrors to expand the space visually.

"The house was structurally in very good shape, but it was unappealing," recalled Barbara of their first viewing. "There had been no yard work done. It was very outdated and the rooms felt small. We wanted to modernize it and open up the views."

They did a quick facelift before moving in, "to bring it up to our standards so we could live there for a while" - which involved removing old panelling and carpets. They added new maple floors and renovated a bathroom.

A few years later came a major reconstruction, popping out the master-bedroom windows three feet under the eaves, moving a wall several feet, pushing out the living-room windows three feet and adding a "carriage house" suite over the garage.

"We hired a contractor to do it properly, but we did a lot of the donkey work ourselves," said Barbara, a realtor for 36 years. Her husband owned his own house-inspection firm - it's how they met - and they now work as team realtors.

They were married in the house, which prompted a garden transformation that wrapped up recently with the completion of an inviting outdoor room. As an added feature, they created a two-foot roof extension and covered it with glass.

With five boys between them, the duo knew all about large houses, but this time they wanted a home just for two. "It is not a large house, just 2,000 square feet, plus 600 for the carriage house," said Barbara. "But the setting is what matters most."

She jokingly recalled that their friends thought they were nuts to buy the property, but she and Bruce loved the 1950s home - "it had a great feeling" - and couldn't resist a third of an acre of waterfront.

"It was mainly the water exposure that appealed, and the fact the house was so well built," said Bruce. Although, he adds, there were some odd elements, including a strange absence of access to the waterfront. No patio, no decks, nothing.

"And there wasn't a shrub in the garden," said Barbara.

"Friends ... thought we'd flipped our lids because they couldn't see our vision. All they saw was a hideous house with lots of dated wallpaper over panelling.

"Some people can't see past the cosmetics."

But the Scotts are the ones who are smiling now, as friends and visitors rave about what they have accomplished.

The house needed upgrading but "had excellent bones," said the former inspector, who ran over it with a fine-tooth comb before they put in an offer.

"I looked for all the usual suspects: ants, moisture issues. I checked the wiring, plumbing, furnace, roof ... all the hard-core stuff. Everything was sound, and I found the workmanship and materials were good."

Their goal was to make the house look more modern, but they didn't gut it.

They left intact decorative railings and interesting features, such as the two-way fireplace, although they did paint over the previously pink brick.

"We pushed out the windows as far as the eaves would allow, which added space to the rooms, which meant we could have side windows for bigger views," said Bruce, noting it wasn't as expensive as a whole addition because they didn't have to change the roof.

In the kitchen, they replaced all the cabinets, took out a wall and removed a door.

Barbara wanted a long, narrow island. People advised against it, but she loves the result: Not only does it add lots of storage, "but it's one metre wide and four [metres] long - ideal for entertaining."

They also added a tall snacking counter, where everyone gathers during parties. "I always wanted a standup cocktail bar," she said.

They kept a long line of windows over the sink wall, but replaced them with double panes. New countertops are quartz because it's a nonporous, foodsafe surface that does not harbour bacteria as granite can. (That's why granite is not recommended for commercial kitchens.)

"I like the texture and smoothness of quartz and the plainer look. Granite is too busy," said Barbara, who said she has seen hundreds of kitchens and "I can tell you, one day there will be great ugly pile of [granite countertops] at the landfill."

A flat-roofed carport was replaced with a new double garage, and a legal suite above pays their taxes and utilities, said Barbara, who loves decorating and planning improvements.

"She's also a glitter girl," said her husband with a chuckle, pointing out the glitzy crystal glass taps in the bathrooms, the spangled stone quartz counters, and stream of Swarovski crystals that cascades down the shower wall.

At night, the Christie Point apartments across the water sparkle like jewels. "I love that," said Barbara. "Most water-view properties in Victoria have nothing to look at after 4 p.m. in winter. It's a grey hole, whereas we have this beautiful row of reflecting lights all year round - and when the moon rises across the water, it's gorgeous."

Upstairs, the original home had three bedrooms and a bathroom, all running off a long hallway. In the renovation, the Scotts created a guest bathroom and den. They moved one wall to create a larger master bedroom, then turned a small bedroom into a spacious ensuite. Two former closets morphed into one large walk-in.

By pushing out the wall of windows a few feet in the living-room, they enhanced the garden views, and then began designing an outdoor living room and kitchen.

"Barbara is a great decorator and designer," said Bruce, who likes eating breakfast outdoors and enjoy their almost-tropical garden.

The garden room is a mecca for guests all summer long and even into the shoulder seasons, thanks to the roof and and industrial-size heater.

"I wanted to match the roofline to the house, so I put in a pine ceiling," said Bruce. "Now it's a real outdoor living room, not just a garden feature."

Their front garden has a West Coast ambience with native plants and six large fish sculptures, while on the waterside, it's all about a Mediterranean mood, complete with palms and banana trees.

"Having a 2,000-square-foot home is so much easier to care for, and the garden keeps me fit, bending and stretching," Barbara said. "And in how many major cities can you walk down to your dock at the bottom of the garden, hop in a boat and putt downtown for dinner? We can be in the Inner Harbour in just 45 minutes, travelling along the Gorge Waterway.

"We can never go away because nothing is better than this," she said, only half jokingly. "Every day we feel so lucky to be here, and every time we go on vacation, we're disappointed."

Go to our website to take a video tour of this home