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Western Living editor-at-large Stacey McLachlan knew better than to tackle a renovation... but she did it anyways.
Photos by Tina Kulic
I’ve been working with Western Living since 2010, and over that time I’ve probably written hundreds of renovation stories. I’ve covered makeovers big and small, interviewed homeowners and designers about both “money is no object” dreams and tight-budget beauties, and invented a very rowdy drinking game based on the phrase “The house had good bones.”
Here’s what I’ve learned along the way: a renovation is always—always—a nightmare. Things go wrong. It always takes more time and money than planned. Even for designers and architects who deal with these sorts of projects all the time, it’s never smooth sailing.
And yet, last winter, I somehow decided it would be a good idea to try a renovation of my own.
READ MORE: The Full Week-by-Week Renovation Diaries
In my defence, the pandemic prompted many of us to make some crazy decisions: some of us cut our own bangs, others bought terrible apartments. Potato, poh-tahto! Around month eight of working from home, my husband Max and I started hunting for a condo with a little more space, and in the process we stumbled across a priced-to-move, 850-square-foot unit in Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood.
We saw nicotine-stained walls, carpeting destroyed by what I can only assume were some very ill cats, curling linoleum, lighting and closet doors dangling from their fixtures… and we also saw potential. (Well, I saw potential. Max took one step in the door during the open house and turned right back around to wait in the hallway.)
Sure, I knew that a renovation would take some blood, sweat and tears, but an opportunity was knocking to save hundreds of thousands on the typical Vancouver condo ticket price and have an excuse to buy a cool dining room light fixture. Designer Ben Leavitt, principal of PlaidFox Studio, was game to help us with the design; Max’s dad, Paul, was both a skilled amateur handyman and very retired. We could toss our furniture into storage, crash with my mom in the suburbs for a couple of months and be living in our dream condo in Kits in no time.
Leavitt drafted up an exciting, colourful concept for the space. We’d open up the kitchen by knocking out the upper cabinets, and double the depth of the countertop to create an island-like effect (though it would technically be a peninsula) with a breakfast bar and cabinets on the backside. A long plywood built-in bench (complete with storage) would run the length of the living space so that we could tuck the dining table closer to the wall. The cabinetry would be a mix of birch plywood and olive green, while the fireplace across the room would be decked out in a floor-to-ceiling grid of oversized dusty blue and white rectangular tiles. In the bathroom, the plan was for mustard-yellow cabinets with a custom terrazzo countertop and walls covered in white squares with black grout; in the bedroom, a circular drywall cut-out would create a unique architectural focal point behind the headboard. We fell in love with the plan (Who wouldn’t? Mustard cabinets? Get real!) and took the plunge.
We sold our apartment and packed up our U-Haul storage boxes… and spent the next six months covered in drywall dust and taking turns having mental breakdowns.
Listen, I know how privileged we are to have gotten to tackle this project at all. I am so grateful for how much time we got to spend with our parents and how much help we received. But it was also a dark, dark time. There is a unique despair associated with getting a phone call from the tiler telling you that the splurge-y Italian floor tile you bought for the bathroom shattered upon installation, and mental health professionals are not talking about it enough. There are moments when you realize you are putting your marriage vows to the test over an argument about pot lights. There is a darkness that you didn’t realize lived inside of you until the cabinetmaker and the countertop installers disagree about the laws of physics and refuse to do any further work until you, someone who does not know anything about cabinets or countertops, pick a side. I cried multiple times. I snapped at my very kind and helpful mother regularly. I was… not my best.
But as low as the lows were, the highs were high. When the pieces finally came together, it was downright magical. There is no living room floor as beautiful as one snapped together by your own husband and his dad, and the crossword-puzzle-like tiles in your bathroom look even more dazzling when you know intimately the work that went into waterproofing the wall behind them. Scrubbing the bubbling nicotine out of the stained blue walls and covering them with a fresh coat of crisp white? Pure before-and-after satisfaction. Running our bright blue kitchen faucet, dimming our Scandi-chic lights, performing a Rorschach test with the pattern on our kitchen backsplash tile: each was a moment of design joy that suggested some light appearing at the end of the tunnel.
We moved in August 1—five and a half months after the chaos began. And, luckily, the longer we live here, the further away we get from those moments of regret and unhappiness, and the more we nestle in to the appreciation of the final product: the magic of the human brain. (I guess it’s the same psychological function that tricks people into having more than one kid?) Yes, Max continues to give tours of the apartment with a thematic focus of “Look How Sloppy the Baseboards Are,” but we’re ultimately proud of how things turned out. We made it through, and now I cook in our beautiful green kitchen with joy, eat my cereal at our oversized countertop, play elaborate bird-themed board games around our custom Union Wood Co. table, write this very article in my terrazzo-wallpapered home office. We turned an opportunity into a home. (Well, mostly Max and Paul and the tradespeople: I just did a lot of emailing and weeping.)
Would I do it again? No. But only because we managed to create a place I can’t imagine wanting to leave.
Design: PlaidFox Studio
Cabinetry: Sofo Kitchens
Countertops: Paragon Surfacing
Flooring: Atlantic Paint
Kitchen table: Union Wood Co.
Baseboards and doors: Metrie
Additional styling: Vancouver Special
Plumbing: C&C Electrical
Tiles: Tierra Sol, Stone Tile and Concrete Collaborative
Office wallpaper: Anewall
Tiling: Eurostar Ceramics
Over the course of the spring and summer, editor-at-large Stacey McLachlan kept a detailed account of the action (and her psychic unravelling), week-by-week.
Read the full account at westernliving.ca/renovation-diaries
WEEK 1: “We had assumed initially that we would get a demolition team to gut the place, but when we got the quote, Max’s dad made us an intriguing counter-offer of ‘do it yourself, you Millennial goons.’ (Not literally, but this was inarguably the subtext.) So, this week, we have become both Surrey residents and our own wrecking crew.”
WEEK 3: “There are so many micro-decisions to make every day. I thought once we had the plan in place, it would just be like putting together an Ikea Kallax unit (or, in a worst-case scenario, like an Ikea Malm bed): step by step, along a clear and mutually understood plan, maybe with a few arguments about which Allen key to use, just to keep things spicy. Instead, there are so many little things that we forgot to make a decision about that keep coming up. Have you ever thought about where baseboard heaters come from? Me neither. I feel dumb almost every day.”
WEEK 4: “The apartment is either starting to smell better, or I’ve coated the inside of my sinuses with such a fine layer of plaster dust that cigarette stench can no longer permeate it. I wear a mask when I’m there but I tend to collect dust I bring with me, like I’m cosplaying as Pigpen.”
WEEK 5: “It’s plumbing day! It’s plumbing day! It feels like Christmas, except Santa is arriving in a tub, not a sleigh, and the presents are also the tub. Though I won’t be getting hands-on with this particular stage of the renovation, I do feel like I’ve played my part. The emotional labour of hassling the plumbing distributor for five days straight to confirm a delivery date cannot be undersold here.”
WEEK 7: “When people ask me if we have a ‘move in day’ or ‘what’s the timeline looking like,’ I just cut them out of my life. It’s easier this way.”
WEEK 10: “Our talented and very patient cabinetmaker, Radu at Sofo Kitchens, gave us a panel to show us the final colour. It’s propped up on our bedside table, like it’s a photo of our daughter and we’re a cop in a ’90s movie who needs a reminder of what the hell we’re doing all this for.”
WEEK 11: “We wanted the wall in the kitchen down. No one was 100-percent certain that was safe, though I was 100-percent certain it was aesthetically necessary. This brought us to a bit of an impasse. The fine folks at Alair Homes came to look inside the ceiling and gave us the thumbs-up from a structural engineer, bringing peace to the kingdom. Now we just have one neat-and-tidy post and very nice, open sightlines from the kitchen to the hall, and my upstairs neighbours have not fallen through the ceiling even once.”
WEEK 12: “The ceiling has been lovingly spackled and smoothed by a friend of a friend whose first name is Ray and whose last name I can’t recall but it probably should be Michelangelo because this damn thing is more beautiful (though admittedly more minimalist) than the Sistine Chapel. (It turns out that it’s impossible to take a good photo of a ceiling, but please believe me when I say: this is a true work of art.)”
WEEK 14: “Four absolutely giant Mutina tiles for the bathroom floor are delicately stacked in the closet after four incredibly high-stakes journeys hauling them up in the elevator. (Somehow they were at once ultra-heavy and heart-stoppingly fragile? What is up over there in Italy?)”
WEEK 16: “Max stepped on his dad’s hands four times this week as they were laying the floor and now suddenly his parents are going to Powell River for the week—I do not think this is a coincidence.”
WEEK 17: “The countertop installers showed up only to inform us a cabinet piece was sticking out 1/8th of an inch in the wrong spot, so they had to cut their visit short and the whole rest of the carefully calibrated ‘Week of Progress/Road to Victory’ we had planned just crumpled before my eyes, like a literal house of cards or the production of the television show House of Cards.”
WEEK 18: “Tile Guy Dan has probably spent more time at the apartment than we have at this point. He is doing a bang-up job though, and has a lot of very good ideas about how to make things more practical that we ignore.”
WEEK 20: “When we put in the baseboards, we discovered that about 20 percent of the walls are bowed. (Though, on the bright side: what a great hands-on way for any young masochists out there to learn about both fulcrums and futility!)”
WEEK 22: “This weekend, we had the dubious honour of celebrating our five-month renovation-aversary. That’s a pace of 5.5 square feet per day, which, honestly, feels correct. I don’t know if there’s a Tortoise and the Hare-like fable where the protagonist is just slow and steady the whole time—The Banana Slug Who Napped So Hard He Died? Is that one?”