Renovation photos by Genevieve Renee
Too often, basements get a bad rap. These dark, subterranean spaces are either ground zero for horror movies or, at best, a rabbit warren of uninspired storage rooms that ultimately turns us all into zealous hoarders. Clean, efficient planning was never really a basement’s original M.O.; as such, pickle rooms everywhere are left to languish.
The basement before the reno: What you'd expect in an unfinished basement.
But what’s forgotten in our collective apprehension of the much-maligned basement is that they’re also treasure troves of extra space, often doubling the square footage of a house. As it turns out, Calgary designer Louis Duncan-He’s clients wanted just that—an extra 2,100 square feet to their existing 2,100-square-foot rancher in the Varsity area. But they were looking for a basement that didn’t feel like a basement.
With a young toddler and a baby on the way, the homeowners—who spent all their time on their main floor—needed to get their hands on some extra space fast. “They wanted a very California-chic, Pacific Coast natural feel,” says Duncan-He. “And it needed to be bright and airy, but warm and homey too.”
The light and bright, coastal-inspired basement today. Photo by Genevieve Renee
The designer’s background, while not the traditional route, was perfectly suited to bringing their ideas come to life. “I spent 12 years in corporate advertising so I’ve always been in a creative field,” he says. “Taking something abstract and making it tangible is what I’ve always done.”
When he and his physician husband moved from B.C. to Calgary for work, he stumbled into design by accident. “We were hosting a party and there were all these young physicians in the room,” he says. “There was this sad girl sitting on the floor and when I asked her why she was so sad, she said she was going through a divorce and hating her house.”
Duncan-He immediately told her he’d help her get on her feet. “I got you!” he said drunkenly. “I’ll help you design your house!” The next morning, she promptly called him and that led to the next client and the next and eventually the homeowners of this project.
One of Duncan-He’s design challenges was that this basement with its 8-foot ceilings had very few windows. “How do we make it bright and airy?” he wondered. To accomplish that, he felt an overall tension between the natural and the refined was key. Throughout the space, natural materials dovetail seamlessly with elegant fixtures and finishes for a perfect balance.
Bathroom BlissGenevieve Renee
The bathroom feels anything but basement-y: clad in soft powder blue, the double-sink vanity is broken up by a linen storage tower hewn in white oak with echoes of driftwood. “Because they wanted a natural sensibility, I balanced the neutral blue with a white oak so it was airy, organic and easy to look to it,” says Duncan-He. The pretty marble quartz countertop from Vicostone offers a perfect foil to the contemporary matte black hex-tile floor with off-grey grouting that allows the geometric shape to pop.
Meanwhile, the wallpaper was chosen for its illustrative quality but also its monochromatic tone. “Because the homeowners saw this space being used more by their children and visiting family/friends, they wanted a mix between fun and playful with chic and elegant,” says the designer.
“I love mixing metals,” he says of the champagne gold vanity sconces and lower cabinet hardware mixed with the matte black mirror and faucet. “The owner naturally has more of a feminine sensibility and likes things to look pretty so I added a few touches here and there that nod to that.”
“We wanted to bring in a little of that westcoast surf shack vibe, but not overdo it,” explains the designer of the shiplap feature wall. Originally, there was also a large fireplace, but it sat at a diagonal and blocked the siteline from the door. The owners opted to nix it in favour of a more open feel and so Duncan-He replaced it with a media wall.
The homeowners also wanted a comfortable lounge area, but wanted it friendly for their two-year-old. The Cello from EQ3 was called in—“it’s modern and low, but quite plush and inviting,” says the designer. Cognac leather accents were added to “tone down” the neutrals and so the Cello ottoman in cognac can be pulled up to the couch and invoked as a footstool or stay centred as a coffee table.
The adjacent post—a structural beam—needed to stay so was clad in white oak veneer. “I always say that if there’s something that needs to be there, you have to make sure it doesn’t look like a mistake,” says Duncan-He. “It’s got to be purposeful and like an intentional a design feature.”
Work It Out
“These clients are very fitness conscious and love to be healthy and in shape,” says the designer. “They wanted a really beautiful and useable gym to take away the day’s stresses—but it needed to be functional.” The solution was a home gym with a decidedly boutique hotel vibe. Duncan-He split the gym into two parts: one side features equipment while the other side—a yoga and pilates space—features a white oak herringbone-pattern floor with an arrow that points to a feature wall where the wife takes some me-time. A light tray ceiling wasn’t the easiest to pull off with just 8’ and electrical to hide, but “it was an exercise in working with what we had and making it intentional.”
White oak veneer—the same veneer used for the pillars—was used to create a custom bench with storage.
The preserved moss wall installations were first prototyped by the designer at home (“My physician husband is very handy!”), but are now mainstays in Duncan-He’s work. “Once you install it, it will always look that green—it’s a touch of nature without committing to a large plant!”
What’s in the Box
A cozy wallpapered 24” x 53” nook recessed into the wall for the client’s young daughter means she can climb in with a parent and read. “That wall was actually tricky because it was on a diagonal so we decided to drywall over it and balance it out to create a focal point for her,” says the designer. “The clients wanted the space to feel special for her so we put potlights inside and wallpapered it.”
A custom cushion in creamy leather offers a slightly tone different from the leather accents throughout the rest of the space “so it’s not so matchy matchy, but still ties in,” says Duncan-He.
A round dining table and chairs with overhead Sputnik-style chandelier in black and glass add drama and sophistication to an otherwise diminutive kitchenette. The pint-sized kitchen counter features the same marble quartz from the bathroom as does the kitchen hardware; the shiplap echoes the living area’s media wall. “I believe in creating design that’s balanced by taking textures and materials and spreading them out; it creates continuity but also slight variances too,” says Duncan-He.
Genevieve Renee The designer originally conceived of a playhouse for the small area off the livingroom, but the homeowners were keen to keep the space open so it could be converted later. A rainbow wall detail in more muted colours keep with the organic feel, but also hint at playfulness.
There Will be Mud
The client’s wishlist included a functional mudroom; as such, the designer crafted it in the same light blue cabinetry as the bathroom. Shiplap walls, matte black hardware and a white oak built-in bench all nod to that continuity throughout without being overly studied.
Design: Louis Duncan-He Designs
General Contractor: Strong Residential
Millwork: Casa Flores
Living Room/Main Area
Sectional + Ottoman : EQ3 Cello
Sideboard: Rove Pastoe
Sconces: House of Troy
Shiplap and floating shelves: custom install, white oak shelves
Chandelier: Matteo Novo
Table: Moe's Ottago
Tile: Glocal perfect natural
Custom millwork in white oak and harbour haze (BM)
Mural: Cover these walls
Nook millwork and cushion are custom, Maxwell fabric
Rug: Ruggables Metro
Wallpaper: Cole & Sons Melville Neutral
Tile: Centura Sfumature
Millwork: custom, white oak/harbour haze/cloud white (BM)
Flooring: rubber flooring by Nora
Moss walls: custom by Louis Duncan-He Designs
Sconces: House of Troy
Millwork wall: Custom, design by Louis Duncan-He Designs