One couple recreates their Kitsilano suite as a celebration of wood, iron and warmth.

According to the odds, chances are good your home renovation won’t lead to marital bliss. A recent survey revealed that 12 percent of couples consider divorce after their space undergoes the sledgehammer, and that’s not taking into account the over half who, while not considering full-on separation, still say it was an emotionally stressful and trying experience. You could be forgiven for thinking flowers and chocolates are more romantic than renos, but for Victor Lai, his home improvement project brought plenty of love into his life.

Lai, a director of finance, and his girlfriend, Nadia Hung, were living in the heart of Kitsilano only a block from the beach. Despite the vibrant setting, their place—heavy on Grandma’s hand-me-down furniture—was in a 45-year-old building and in dire need of a retrofit. As a result, they found themselves attracted to any other place but their own: “We always loved the quaint vibe and rustic wood-and-iron charm of coffee shops around town, like Marché St. George and Revolver Coffee,” says Lai. They would linger in these shops as often as they could and then, come weekdays, Lai would escape to work while Hung, a wedding photographer, would meet clients anywhere but their home. It was time for a design intervention.

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Renovation tip: Find a designer with similar tastes to your own

The couple planned to take baby steps with a transformation, starting just with the upstairs. But when they learned they’d have to move out during the dusty process, they elected to renovate the entire 1,400-square-foot home in one go. “I’ve always wanted to live in a New York–style flat with brick and wood beams on the ceiling,” says Lai, “but we don’t have a lot of those in Vancouver.” He went looking for a designer with similar tastes, and like so many other modern relationships, he found her online. Ami McKay of Pure Design agreed to meet.

McKay prefers to think of herself as a connector of ideas. “I marry the people in the house to the home,” she says. “I like putting the puzzle pieces together and coming up with a visual story, since you’re designing for your client, not for yourself.” McKay and her team set to work on a concept and drawings to turn over to the homeowner, as Lai planned to serve as project manager.

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Designer tip: stick to a budget

McKay’s task wasn’t without its challenges. She faced a tight budget, a sunroom disconnected from the rest of the home, and a long, linear floor plan that, with the wrong fix, could easily “turn the place into a bowling alley.” Step one: choosing flooring. (“It’s always integral to the design and sets the mood,” notes McKay.) A European wide-plank oak added an industrial vibe with plenty of warmth. To join the glassed-in, black-framed sunroom with the rest of the space, she wrapped the walls and ceiling of the threshold with the rustic reclaimed wood.

Plans also included running the wood up the side of staircase (which now hides helpful extra storage) and adding a custom dining table, a coffee table and bookcase shelving to display all of Hung’s vintage cameras.

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Designer tip: Move your dining area out of the kitchen

McKay also targeted the “predictable” U-shaped kitchen. It was at the far end of the home and, therefore, dark. “Let’s bring you into the light!” she told Lai, and moved the seating area to the sunroom at the opposite end. She replaced the lower cabinets with Ikea and removed the upper cabinets altogether to create an open and airy concept. White walls throughout help reflect light, and the dividing wall along the staircase was ripped out in favour of a glass partition.

“Kitchens are the heart of the home so hood fans are important—I always like to make them a feature,” says McKay. She encouraged Lai to splurge on a customized metal focal point, though most of her suggestions stuck to a tight budget. “You have a piece of property in Vancouver, you’re young, and it’s expensive,” she says. “How are you supposed to do it all?” McKay chose her material strategically, price-wise, and advised Lai on where he could get more bang for his buck. The hood fan, wood detail and shelving required customization; the rest would fall into place. When Lai received the drawings, he fell in love with them. It was a designer-client match made in heaven.

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Designer tip: Create a space you’ll want to spend time in

Creating the space was a fresh start for Lai and Hung, who became engaged during the process. “We used to go out to coffee shops all the time; now we just want to stay home!” says a happy Lai. It’s the perfect perch in which Hung can now meet her wedding photography clients. It’s also the perfect place for the pair to now plan their own wedding.

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