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Globe Real Estate
Reno Diary: WEEK TEN

At home in 'bargain heaven'

A search for the perfect tub leads straight to a residential knacker's yard

Friday, Jun. 13, 2003
All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.

In my never-ending quest to find the perfect bathtub for our new home, I decide to visit the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. I haven't had any luck finding a new bathtub that's as comfortable as the 75-year-old one in our current house. I hope that someone's donated a tub just like it.

Homeowners, contractors and manufacturers donate new and used building materials to 24 ReStores across Canada, including two in Toronto, and another four in southern Ontario. They get an income-tax receipt for the resale value of the donation. Stuff that might otherwise end up in a dump gets reused. And shoppers come away with incredible bargains. The money raised at the stores -- $500,000 a year at the two Toronto stores alone -- covers all the administrative costs of Habitat for Humanity, says Dylan Scott, director of ReStore operations.

I call the store on Bermondsey Road to see if they have any old bathtubs in stock. I'm told they have eight -- including one from the 1920s. Could this be the one I'm looking for?

The moment I step in the door, I am completely distracted from my goal.

For a bargain-hunter and antique-lover like me, this place is heaven. The first thing I spot is something I absolutely must have. It's a large, painted Georgian mantle. Perfect for my family room! It's only $300! Then my heart sinks as I notice the sold tag. It was bought the day before. Rats.

On my way to the bathtubs at the back of the warehouse-like store, I stop at a long row of wooden, exterior doors, many dating from the early 1900s. There are elaborately carved Victorian styles, and Gothic-looking ones with stained-glass cut-outs. (I don't even need a door, but I can't resist.) They range from about $40 to $500. Nearby is a vintage, dark green, cedar screen door with a delicate copper handle ($100), which would be perfect for a cottage. I'm crazy about a set of 1920s hinged garage doors, each about three feet wide, with small windows and raised slat panels ($200 each). (I must remember to ask contractors Patrick and Jerry if these will fit.)

Next I notice a very cool 1950s McClary "Special Deluxe" fridge in mint condition. It just sold for $200.

Just past the mirrored, mahogany doors from the Royal York Hotel ($100) and an antique oak staircase ($380), I find the 1920s tub.

It's a clawfoot tub, in dire need of reglazing, for $350. It looks super comfy, but I can't use a clawfoot tub in my space; I need one that is flush to the wall on two sides.

David Winn, the store supervisor, says this particular tub ended up in their stock after a very brief phone call. "Come and get it," the man said. "It's on the front lawn." The ReStore, staffed primarily by volunteers, has a team that will pick up any resaleable household building materials. They'll even dismantle entire kitchens and set them up again in the store.

He says they once picked up a 10-year old, high-end Poggenpohl kitchen, which originally cost $40,000. They sold it within days for $3,000.

I'd heard that they even had a SubZero fridge. Is that an urban myth? "No, we did," David says. "It was 15 years old. We sold it for $600, which is a lot for an old fridge. The appeal was being a SubZero. He wanted a big, expensive fridge for his kitchen."

Although about 50 per cent of the merchandise comes from "serious renovations or tear-downs," about 20 per cent is donated by retailers and manufacturers, says Dylan, the ReStore director. (The remaining 30 per cent comes from homeowners doing small renovations.)

For example, last year Pella donated about $200,000 in windows. Another company gave a few hundred new mantles. Priced at $100 to $150 each, "which is around the cost of the materials, they flew out the door," David says. Umbra contributed some end-of-line wastebaskets, curtain tie-backs and clocks. And Rona regularly delivers skids of top-quality mistinted paint. If you're not fussy about the exact colour, you can pick up paint (including Ralph Lauren) for $6 a gallon, and $3 a litre. Trendy bamboo flooring, from the Dream Home at the National Home Show, sold quickly for $4 a square foot.

With many Torontonians fixing up older homes, there's a huge demand for vintage building materials to restore some unfortunate gutting that took place in the 1970s and 1980s, David says. One such item is gumwood, a rare and expensive wood from South America and a popular finishing material in city homes in the 1920s. The ReStore is a good source for gumwood trim, door casings and doors, David says.

To find the true bargains, you have to visit the store regularly. "We have a regular clientele," says David. "Some guys come in daily or weekly. We really know what they're looking for."

"Timing is everything," Dylan adds. "We don't know what we're going to get and when we're going to get it. Come in as much as you can."

One woman, building a retirement dream home in Orillia, hit the jackpot when she learned -- during one of her frequent visits to the ReStore -- that the contents of an old Toronto convent had just been donated to Habitat for Humanity. She took her contractor to the convent -- Our Lady's Missionairies on Clarendon Avenue -- where they selected more than $30,000 of wood paneling, quarter-sawn oak flooring, a coffered ceiling, mantelpiece, tiling and even a confessional.

I've written "vintage, built-in cast-iron bathtub" in the store's wish list binder. But, after talking to Dylan, I don't think there's much hope. "Most of them have gone to the sledge hammer," he says. Because a cast-iron tub weighs hundreds of pounds, once someone decides to replace it, it's easier to "sledge" it than remove it.

I'll continue visiting the store, though. And who knows? If I don't find the perfect tub, I may stumble on another mantle or garage door.

As for what's going on at the house while I'm out shopping, they're busy working on the foundation this week. They're pouring concrete footings and starting to build the back wall. More on this next week.


Globe Real Estate

Pieces coming together -- slowly

A ravine lot is peaceful and offers lots of wildlife, things that help take your mind off construction problems. But those red scribbles on the design drawings keep nagging. They can't be good

Friday, Jun. 20, 2003
All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.


I forgot to warn the contractors about the snakes. You see, our property backs onto a ravine. At the bottom of the ravine is a large, spring-fed pond, called Brule Pond after the explorer Étienne Brûlé. We're one of a handful of very fortunate homeowners to have this jewel in our back yard. Forests surround the pond, and beyond that there's the Humber River and parkland.

Every single person who visits our back yard says the same thing: "It's like being in the country." We're just a 10-minute drive to King and Bay and a five-minute walk to the subway, but you'd never know it standing in the peaceful back yard. Looking out the back, you can't see a single home, apartment, road or any other sign of civilization.

Of course, this also means that we share our property with lots of wildlife.

We've seen swans and jumping fish in the pond. We've spotted foxes, turtles, and lots of birds. And snakes.

Now that the weather is finally getting warm and sunny, the harmless garter snakes -- black with two yellow stripes, about a foot long -- regularly make their way up the ravine to warm themselves in the sunny back yard. They've startled the contractors more than once by suddenly appearing on the job site.

"I'm scared of snakes," confesses our contractor, Jerry. This morning, a fearless snake decided to visit the trench where the guys are working on the foundation. Jerry managed to overcome his fear by removing the snake with his bare hands.

Standing in the trench, Jerry says a building inspector has suggested that we might not need weeping tiles and a sump pump to keep the addition moisture-free. The soil is so sandy that any water simply drains away.

However, this has to be confirmed by a soils engineer, and I agree to hire him.

While we're on the topic of costs, Jerry pulls out the working drawings we got back from the city. Every page has many red scribbles. And if you think those red scribbles mean cost savings, think again.

The city has called for many structural changes -- things like putting in larger beams, and reinforcing the roof around the perimeter (something about the existing roof joists running the wrong way). Jerry spent all day Sunday working on these changes, but I still don't know how much it'll all cost. More to worry about.


I'm just about ready to order the kitchen. I've been meeting with kitchen designers for weeks. None of the standard cabinet colours is quite right, so I have to have a custom colour prepared at a paint store. I take in a sample of my counter and ask them to create a paint and glaze (for an antique finish) that will match the counter. They're so busy that it won't be ready until the end of the week.


Since the entire house is gutted, we decided it makes sense to update the heating system. The original ductwork was like a giant weeping willow tree. The main trunk line went straight up from the furnace into the unheated attic. From there, the ductwork branched down into the various rooms. In the upstairs rooms, the heating vents were just below the ceiling. Obviously, this isn't terribly efficient. So we've had a new heating plan created, to meet modern standards of efficiency. The new heating drawings arrived today. Back to City Hall with them next week.

The good news is that the existing high-efficiency gas furnace is large enough to heat the addition as well. Bruce Munro, of Canadian Home Heating in Mississauga, tells me that the only problem with our furnace is that it costs about $500 annually in hydro costs to run the AC (alternating current) motor that pushes the air through the house. He says we can get a high-efficiency gas furnace with newer DC (direct current) technology, which is about 80 per cent more economical to operate. With such a furnace, our hydro costs to run the motor could be as low as $40 a year.

We decide not to go for the newer furnace for now, but we'll definitely keep that in mind when it's time to replace it.

The plumber's also been in, to rough in the new bathroom plumbing.

All the pieces are slowly coming together, but the house still looks like a disaster area.


Globe Real Estate

Taking the measure of a house 

To have a garage or not to have a garage -- that is the question

June 27, 2003
All material copyright Thomson Canada Limited or its licensors. All rights reserved.

I'm measuring a lot of odd things this week -- like my friend's Porsche and my husband's head.

You may think this renovation has driven me completely mad, and that wouldn't be far from the truth. But now that the builders are starting to frame the interior walls, there are lots of measurements that I have to ensure are perfect.

Okay, back to the Porsche and my husband's head. There are very good reasons for measuring both.

First, the Porsche. Like most older homes, our single-car garage is too small for either of our large cars. (Maybe you could drive in, but I'm not so sure you could get out of the car.) So, when we created our house plans, we decided to use some of the garage for a powder room and mudroom. We'd still have enough room left in the garage for storage and garbage, but not for a car.

Our real estate agent -- who never stops thinking about resale values -- was horrified when I told her about this. She strongly advised us to keep enough room in the garage for a sports car.

"Once you're in a certain price range, people expect to have a garage," she said. "Quite often, the husband has a tiny sports car which he loves more than his wife and children. He needs a garage for it."

We were planning to ignore this advice; after all, we're designing the home for ourselves, not for some future owner. However, the city is now calling for some very expensive foundation work for the living space portion of the garage.

In order to save lots of money, contractor Patrick suggests we rethink this area -- and minimize the space we take from the garage. As long as we're making these changes, we may as well ensure that the remaining garage space can accommodate a sports car.

So I ask my friend Pat to measure her husband's Porsche. Pat is the most organized person I know. She finds the manual in her den in less than 30 seconds and gives me the stats I need: 174.5 inches long and 70 inches wide. She tells me their single-car garage is pretty small, too. Her husband put Styrofoam on the garage wall so that he doesn't bang the car door when he gets out.

Now on to my husband Michael's head.

Our bathtub is going into an alcove between two dormers. I actually lie awake at night worrying about whether we're going to bang our heads against the wall every time we lean back in the tub. (I realize I'm devoting way too much of my life fretting over bathtubs, but I've got to get this right.)

So, while Michael is trying to read a book in the bath one evening, I start measuring his head with a tape measure. Well, not his whole head -- just the part that sticks out past the tub (4 inches) when he leans back. I scribble down measurements, and he looks at me as if I've lost my mind.

While at the house the next day, I explain that we need more headroom in the bath area. Builder John, who is contractor Gerry's brother, says we can gain several inches from an adjoining closet by adding a small beam to transfer the load from the dormer to the floor. This, of course, will cost more, but likely won't be too expensive. Well worth it, I figure.

"I made you a skylight," says John with a sly grin, as I walk up the stairs. I look up. Oh my God. There's no roof.

The back half of the roof is open to the sky, leaving just the skeletal remains of roof joists. They'll cover it with a tarp at the end of the day. To complete the open-concept look, they're also starting to remove the back wall. Now when my friends ask how the renovation is going, I simply say, "We have no roof or back wall."

"Pretty soon, you won't have to use your imagination any more to picture the final space," John says. I can't envision a finished home yet. Not even close. Not without a roof or back wall. He says they're going to start building the new back wall next week. I can't wait to see what the new space looks like.


Globe Real Estate

Dr. John's plumbing prescription

Our renovator gets some help in how to avoid buying a really crappy toilet

July 4, 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

When choosing toilets for our new home, who better to consult than someone who calls himself Dr. John P.H.D. (Plumbing Heating Drains). For added emphasis, his business card also has a sketch of a toilet bowl bearing his name.

Dr. John, also known as John Melia, has been in the plumbing business for the past half-century. "This September I start my 51st year as a plumber," he says. The Irish-born Dr. John, who looks much younger than 64 with his strong 6-foot build and thick head of sandy grey hair, started training to become a plumber in Dublin at the tender age of 14.

His skills led to varied projects around the world -- in England, Australia, Ireland, and, since 1973, Canada. After taking early retirement from General Motors five years ago, he started working as a plumbing salesman at Dupont Plumbing & Heating Supplies in Toronto.

Although he left Ireland more than 40 years ago, the years have not diminished his delightful Irish brogue, wit and gift of the gab.

As I sit on a toilet bowl in his waiting room -- well, the showroom -- waiting for my turn to get his advice, he walks by with a customer. "I'd love to have a photo of you sitting there," he chuckles.

"Sorry I'm taking so long," says the woman customer, who tells me she's selecting all the fixtures and accessories for two new bathrooms. "He's such a nice guy to work with."

"Everybody says that," says Dr. John "except my wife. I've been married for 40 years."

After a while the toilet gets uncomfortable, so I wander around the store where I notice this sign: "Unofficial store policy. All customers are most welcome. However! Please note: Unaccompanied husbands require a note from their wife to purchase fixtures." I ask Dr. John who put up the sign. "That would be me. Ladies make 85 per cent of the decisions. And the other 15 per cent are wrong," he says with a sly grin.

I ask Dr. John about the new low-flush toilets, which use six litres of water or less for every flush. All new construction in Ontario, and any bathroom renovations being examined by a building inspector, must be equipped with this kind of toilet. More homes have 13-litre toilets, but some older models use up to 25 litres with each flush. "You could bathe your baby in the tank," he says.

I've heard there are lots of problems with six-litre toilets not flushing properly. Our contractor Gerry installed one in his home, and he says he's ready to take a sledge hammer to it. It sometimes takes three flushes to clear the tank. "What are the water savings there?" Gerry asks.

Dr. John says there have been problems with many -- but not all -- low-flush toilets. When North American companies first introduced water-efficient toilets -- in response to the U.S. National Energy Policy Act of 1992, which required all residential and commercial toilets to use only low-flush toilets -- many tried to merely add a lower-capacity tank to existing bowls, without re-engineering the design. Toilets designed to flush with 13 litres of water or more simply didn't perform as well with less than half the water.

In fact, there have been so many toilet problems in the States -- where only low-flow models can be sold -- that Americans regularly come up to Canada, where they can still purchase 13-litre ones. "Every three-day holiday, we get Americans in here," says Dr. John.

Now many American companies are following the engineering lead of Japan, where high-tech solutions to severe water shortages had created toilets that worked perfectly with only six liters of water or less.

Dr. John says the secret to a toilet that works well every time is the trapway -- the curved pipe at the bottom of the toilet that takes waste from the tank into the drain. The Canadian Standards Association calls for a minimum 1-1/2 inch trapway diameter, which he says isn't large enough to prevent clogging.

Companies like Japan's Toto, the largest plumbing manufacturer in the world, have a 2-1/8-inch trapway, which allows a 2-inch test ball to pass through without clogging. They also introduced a fully glazed trapway. "It makes the trap smooth, so that nothing will stick to it," says Dr. John.

He says other companies are starting to follow Toto's lead, but his first choice is still any Toto toilet. Whether it's the least expensive Toto Reliant ($180) or others that cost more than $1,000, he says "every one of them will flush perfectly. They're generations ahead of us in bathrooms," he says, adding that a standard toilet in Japan tells you the sugar content of your urine.

Four Toto toilets are among the 25 approved toilets of the City of Toronto's Residential Toilet Replacement Program. Under this program, designed to reduce the city's growing water needs, homeowners can get $60 or $75 for each water-guzzling toilet they replace. (For more information, call 416-392-7000.) According to the program's brochure, "toilets consume about 28 per cent of a household's water use. On average, about 30,000 litres of pure drinking water are flushed down the toilet every year by each one of us. This is all to dispose of a comparatively meager 490 litres of solid and liquid body waste."

John McKnight, of the city's toilet replacement program, says $1.87-million has been allocated toward the cost of replacing approximately 300,000 toilets in single-family homes. That will save 26 million litres of water daily. He says he has two Toto toilets -- the Ultimate and the Drake -- in his home, which perform "exceptionally. I never double flush," he says.

In fact, he says the Toto Drake was ranked number one in a recent flush performance study of about 50 low-flush toilets. The study, presented by Veritec Consulting of Mississauga to an American Water Works Association conference in California last month, compared the flushing ability of the toilets by using miso paste to simulate human waste. They started with 250 grams of miso paste and six sheets of toilet paper, and kept adding 50 gram increments until one toilet came out on top. The Drake flushed up to 900 grams of miso paste effortlessly.

Once I choose a toilet design I like -- not to mention considering the options (like a heated seat, silent-closing seat, room deodorizer or built-in bidet) -- there's one decision left: round or elongated bowl. Although the elongated bowl adds two inches to the length, Dr. John highly recommends it. "It gives the guys a bigger target," he says. Also, "there's room for the family jewels when the guys are sitting there."

While I've been researching toilets this week, the guys are removing the last concrete blocks of the back wall. More on this next week.


Globe Real Estate

Seeing clearly

Will this reno ever end? Was the addition a big mistake? The answer is yes to both questions. The dark clouds have lifted, the demolition is over, and it's time to create

July 11, 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

'No wonder you've been so depressed," says my friend Debbie as I take her through the house. I nod as we look around the bombed-like space, with no roof, no back wall and, in spots, no floor.

"I can see why you've been banging your head against the wall," says my friend Kathie during another visit.

To make matters worse, I met a woman last week whose renovation story made me even more depressed. Like us, this woman and her husband purchased a home in dire need of updating. They hired contractors to gut and redo the entire home. They started gutting the house back in April -- the same week we started -- and the project is almost finished. Why so much sooner than ours? Because they didn't build an addition. She tells me she's thrilled with the results, and can't wait to move in.

When I heard that story, I started thinking about how great it would be if we, too, could be moving into our new home in just two weeks. Instead, it feels like this renovation will never end.

If only we'd never embarked on the costly, time-consuming addition. All we're adding is five feet (we can't add any more because of the pool) across the entire back of the house. It seems like a ridiculous amount of work to get only five extra feet. There were the costly foundation problems, not to mention the many structural changes to the roof and entire building. As the guys completed the foundation, the five feet looked even smaller than I'd imagined. By the end of last week, I'd convinced myself the addition was a big mistake.

This week, the black cloud that's been over my head for weeks is starting to dissipate. One day, an old song suddenly popped into my head (if you're a baby boomer, you'll know it): I can see clearly now the rain has gone/I can see all obstacles in my way/Gone are the dark clouds that made me crash/It's gonna be a bright, bright sunshiny day.

Well, I'm not quite at the "bright, bright sunshiny day" yet, but the dark cloud is definitely going away. Why this sudden mood swing? After months of demolition, city delays, cost overruns and other problems, the new back wall is going up. I can finally see space that, until now, I've seen only on paper. The demolition is officially over. Now we're creating, rather than destroying.

This week, the five-foot addition seems absolutely perfect. Although five feet isn't a whole lot of extra space, it actually makes a tremendous difference. The kitchen, family room and bedrooms all feel spacious now, rather than cramped. Those extra five feet also let us turn a ravine-facing bathroom into a bedroom with a beautiful view. Not a mistake at all.

"This is the hardest part," says contractor Jerry, as he points to several steel beams laying on the floor. They have to hoist the heavy beams up into the ceiling area. These beams will support the new floor joists and walls. Some they lift by hand, but the heaviest ones -- like the 20-foot beam that weighs close to 300 kilograms -- they raise with an electrical winch. As luck would have it, it's the hottest, stickiest day of the year. The guys are all topless, but that doesn't help much. They ask me when I'm going to open the pool. Once the beams are in place, on top of steel columns, builder John will weld them together.

I've decided that Jerry is a genius. He came up with a perfect solution to our garage dilemma. As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, we were planning to use some of our garage for living space. However, the city called for extensive foundation work for the garage that would have cost several thousand dollars. Jerry and his partner Patrick know how concerned we are about extra costs, and they're always suggesting ways we can save money. Like with the garage.

Jerry suggested we leave the garage as is, and find another spot for the powder room (which was supposed to go in the garage). He suggests putting it at the front of the house, off the front hallway. I never knew that was possible, since there's no plumbing nearby. But, with the house gutted, he tells me that adding plumbing is easy at this stage. Best of all, it won't cost us any more.

New back wall, more floor space, and now we're saving thousands of dollars, too. No wonder I'm more cheerful these days. Hope it lasts.


Globe Real Estate

Living without a living room

Why waste valuable space on an area that fewer and fewer people are using?

Unsigned Freelance
July 18, 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

'What you're doing is the hottest trend in new home design," says my interior-designer friend as I show her where the new walls will go on our main floor.

She's referring to the fact that our new house will have no living room.

Our first design had both a living room and a family room on the main floor. The more we thought about it, the more we realized how silly that was. We knew we'd never use the living room since there'd be a large, open family room/kitchen across the back of the house.

After seeing several renovated and new homes -- both with and without living rooms -- we decided to nix the unneeded space.

I recently visited a new, ultramodern home in the Bridle Path area of Toronto that doesn't have a separate formal living room. Instead, the entire main floor -- with its floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a pool and mature trees -- is a spacious great room, with a kitchen, comfy seating area and two areas for dining. I can't imagine a better space in which to live.

Friends whose renovations included both a living room and family room say they rarely use their living rooms.

"We spend all our time in the family room," says one friend, whose home is so lovely it has been featured in Style at Home magazine. When do they use their living room, with its Persian rug, antiques and grand piano? "Well, the kids practice piano there. That's about it," she says.

Another friend says her family uses her formal living room only one day a year. "We open presents there on Christmas morning. Then we all go back to the family room," she says.

According to a survey by the U.S. National Association of Home Builders, one-third of homes built in 2001 had no separate living room. Suzanne Cohen, the director of communications for the Greater Toronto Home Builders Association, says she knows of no similar Canadian study, but suspects the statistics are comparable here. "There is a movement away from separate living rooms. We are seeing a trend toward great rooms: a bigger family room and kitchen," she says.

Keeping all this in mind, we decided to turn the living room into a library/home office instead. Much better use of space for us.

Our contractor, Patrick, brings me a file folder full of extra expenses we've incurred. Most of the cost overruns are a result of city-imposed changes to our drawings. Here are some of the extras the city called for: SM Styrofoam on the foundation interior ($294.29); upgrade laundry room floor beam ($360); self-closers on two doors ($410); beam over the bay window ($285); and Douglas fir plywood ceiling and wall stabilizer on the second-floor ceiling ($690).

And here's the big one: Remove and replace the entire rear section of the roof ($3,775). Why so much? "The roof was a source of miscalculation on the part of [the people] who did the working drawings," Patrick says. "They really didn't take the time to get up there and see what was happening." As a result of this "miscalculation," the roof's load-bearing capacity had to be increased by strengthening the beams and span -- and therein lay the extra costs.

Patrick says this kind of sticker shock can be avoided if homeowners take the time to have drawings approved by the city before obtaining quotes from contractors. This rarely happens, though, because most people are anxious to get a project going as quickly as possible. "They blast into it," he says, often without taking the time to plan.

"My philosophy on renovations and homes is: It's the most important piece of your life as far as material things are concerned, so why rush it?" he says. He recommends homeowners spend up to 1½ years planning a major renovation, which includes allowing several months for drawings to pass various city approvals. Our building inspector says he tells homeowners to submit their drawings to the city early in the fall if they want to be ready to start in the spring.

Once the city has approved your drawings, contractors can give you a better idea of how much the project will cost, Patrick says. When a homeowner realizes how much the extras will cost, he or she also might decide not to proceed, or scale the project back. Either way, it's better to know up front what you're getting into. Then again, he adds, there are always hidden surprises. Like the buried septic tank and other debris he encountered when digging the foundation in our back yard. (That came to $6,792.36.)

With these mounting costs, I'm starting to feel depressed again. However, the house is looking better all the time. The back wall is going up, and the view from the window cutouts is breathtaking. Patrick has some ideas on how we can save money to offset some of those rising costs. More on that in the weeks to come.


Globe Real Estate

How to buy a stone wall

Limestone, sandstone, granite -- what to choose? The trick is to find a supplier who's a real brick

July 25, 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

It's tough enough choosing bathroom fixtures, flooring and appliances -- things I'm relatively familiar with -- for our new home. But now I have to buy a stone wall. Pretty soon, the stone mason will come to install stones on the back wall of our house. It's my job to choose them.

"Can't you just find some stones that match the ones at the front of the house?" I ask the contractors.

"No. There are lots of choices. You have to find something you like," I'm told. I'm learning that contractors are happy to demolish and build, but they are loath -- and rightly so -- to make any design decisions. So I go stone shopping -- and my first efforts are fruitless.

Clutching a photo of the stone front of my home, I visit two different stone yards. I wander past huge mounds of limestone, sandstone and granite, in varied sizes, shapes and hues. I also see samples of amazingly realistic artificial stones, made of lightweight concrete. How am I supposed to choose what I need?

Graham Mason, of Mason's Masonry Supply in Mississauga, comes to my rescue. He looks at my photo carefully and identifies some granite, Kingston hue sandstone and Credit Valley sandstone. However, he says the photo doesn't reveal the texture of the stones, so he can't identify them all. He says he'll send someone to the house to correctly identify the stones I have, and try to find a close match.

He tells me this is the sort of thing his business does all the time. The company -- founded by his father in 1957 and now run by Graham and his three brothers -- specializes in finding the right kind of brick and stone for restorations, renovations and additions in southern Ontario.

He tells me the secret to a perfect match is not just finding the right material. It's also getting the right shade of mortar. He says new mortar "jumps right out because it looks fresh." Over time, the mortar -- like some stones -- will darken as it absorbs pollutants in the atmosphere. But that takes years. To get an instant "weathered, old look," a talented mason can add colouring to the mortar, he says.

The rocks I need will cost about $4 to $5 a square foot. But, Graham warns me, "The labour's going to be three times the stone price." There's lots of time-consuming cutting involved, especially around the windows and doors. Fortunately, we're not doing the entire back wall -- just the lower portion to provide some texture and a visual break from the stucco above.

While we're on the subject of stones, I ask about stone flooring. For years, I've admired the flagstone floor in The Old Mill Inn in Toronto. I thought it would be great to have similar flooring in our mudroom. My heart skips a beat when I hear the price -- $2.50 a square foot for random-patterned stones, which is considerably cheaper than other stone flooring I've looked at. However, Graham says the problem with flagstones is that the floor will end up about two inches thick, which in our case is much higher than adjoining flooring. That's because the stone itself is ¾ of and inch thick, and the cement and stucco mesh in which it's set adds another inch. Unfortunately, that beautiful option is unsuitable for our house.

However, he says a company called Owen Sound Ledgerock is about to introduce 3/8-inch- thick, 12-inch-by-12-inch tiles made from Owen Sound limestone. Owen Sound limestone -- the most popular stone in southern Ontario -- is the material most often used for stone walkways, patios and pool decks. The tiles, sliced like bread from huge slabs of stone, will have a consistent thickness, unlike those used outdoors. Priced at about $9 a square foot, they will come in three finishes: honed, sand-blasted and polished (called Algonquin Marble).

I'm all set to place an order until Graham tells me he doesn't recommend these tiles for high-traffic areas. Because of the smooth finish, he says they scratch easily. However, they're ideal for rooms like washrooms. In fact, he's using them for both the flooring and counter in his cottage en suite.

He suggests I use black slate tiles instead, which cost about $5 a square foot. Not quite what I've been dreaming about, but a good second choice.

We have a roof! The guys finished enclosing the roof this week. No shingles yet (another decision I have to make). No windows yet in the big openings at the back of the house. (The windows come next week.) But that most basic of human shelter needs -- a roof over our heads -- in now in place. So things are definitely looking up.


Globe Real Estate

Finding a fireplace that's a real gas

1,024 words
1 August 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

I'll never forget the first dinner party my husband and I had many years ago. The food was in the oven, the table was set, the house was spotless, and then disaster struck. We decided to light a fire to create a warm, welcoming ambiance on that cool, fall day. The house immediately filled up with smoke. Every smoke detector went off. Thinking the damper must be closed, we fiddled with the knob on our stone fireplace — and even more smoke came in. We ran to the kitchen to get a pot of water, threw it over the burning logs, and — you guessed it — even more smoke. Our guests arrived just as we were fanning the doors and opening all the windows. We later learned that a squirrel had built a nest in our chimney.

Once we got up the courage to try a fire again — after the nest was removed — we had pretty much the same experience. Once again, the house filled with smoke. Only this time, the problem was that the logs were still “green,” meaning they had too much moisture in them to burn properly.

As lovely as a real fire is, we gave up and installed gas logs instead. I loved the convenience of a switched-on fire. Aesthetically, they certainly looked like the real thing — with a good-sized flame, glass doors that opened and a screen. However, I was disappointed to discover that they gave off virtually no heat.

So now that I'm fireplace shopping for the family room of our new home, I have a pretty good idea of what I want. I'd like to sit by a blazing gas fire and feel the heat. Most important, I want a gas fireplace that looks like a wood-burning one. I want the look without the hassle.

“Sales of gas fireplaces will continue to ignite because they blend the ancient desire for fire with the modern desire for one that's fast and simple,” says a recent issue of Building Products magazine.

Williams Fazzolari, operations manager of Wilkinson Fireplace Mantels in Mississauga, says gas-fireplace companies are constantly refining their designs to make them look more realistic.

The ceramic logs, moulded from real wood, increasingly look as if they come from a wood pile. Some are charred or split. Others even glow like a real log when the flame touches them, complete with glowing embers below. The flames are now more substantial, unlike the puny gas flames of yesteryear. Some companies even add glass chips to the firebox to make the flames flicker. “It's the ultimate goal for the consumer to have a flame just as realistic as the real thing,” says Mr. Fazzolari.

He says one of the first things people notice is how deep the fireplace is. If it's a narrow box — only about 13 inches deep — it'll never have the look of an authentic fireplace. “They're used to seeing a deeper box,” he says. Most wood-burning fireplaces are about 17 to 22 inches deep, so he recommends sticking with the same measurement for a gas model.

A deep, basic black firebox, however, won't look like the real thing without firebricks on its walls. A ceramic firebrick kit is an extra with most models. Another way to create that wood-burning look is to choose a model with doors and a screen. Mr. Fazzolari warns that adding options — at about $200 apiece for things like a fan kit, remote control, fascia upgrade and a firebrick kit —can quickly make the price skyrocket. “It's just like buying a brand-new car. Options after options. Most people think that what they see is what they get,” he says, adding that the fireplaces in showrooms are usually “fully loaded.”

To complete the authentic experience, consumers can buy incense with a wood fragrance, or a device called a Pine Cone Crackler. This battery-run gadget in the shape of a pine cone plays the sound of a crackling fire.

Mr. Fazzolari says there are three main gas-fireplace manufacturers in North America: two Canadian companies — Napoleon and CFM Majestic — and the U.S. firm Heat'n Glo. As determined as I am to buy Canadian products whenever possible, I find a Heat'n Glo model that's perfect for my family room. The flame, which can be adjusted, looks like a genuine crackling fire. “Heat'n Glo has the best-looking flame,” says Mr. Fazzolari, who carries all the leading brands.

The thing I'm most excited about is that I can order a gas fireplace without that narrow, louvered panel you see on most models. I think eliminating the louvered panel – which screams “gas fireplace” – is crucial to achieving an authentic, wood-burning look. I can replace the panel, needed for air circulation, with one of six decorative designs (one modern, three classic, a leaf pattern, and one of a deer and pine trees). The panels and doors come in several different finishes, including black, pewter and an ultra-modern brushed nickel. I'm going to stick with classic black, with two arched doors.

A new feature on the unit I've selected eliminates the need for a pilot light when the fireplace isn't on. Al McElroy of Hearth Technologies Toronto says most people don't realize that it costs about $10 to $20 a month to keep a pilot light running.

Once I add a slate, marble or limestone surround, a custom-made mantel and installation costs, the total will top $5,000. It's a lot of money, and there are less expensive models and options available, but Mr. Fazzolari says homeowners should try to get exactly what they want. “It's not like a couch; it's not like a refrigerator, where you can dispose of it and get something trendier. It becomes part of the house,” he says. “Look around. Shop around.”


Globe Real Estate

The second-guessing game

Should there be a skylight after all? Is putting the powder room in the front hallway a mistake? Making a decision and sticking to it is easier said than done

859 words
8 August 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

At the start of this renovation, I was determined not to alter our plans in any way. After all, everyone's heard about how costs skyrocket once homeowners change their minds during construction. That wouldn't happen to me.

Well, it's happened. Now that they're starting to frame interior walls, I find myself second-guessing our plans constantly.

It started with the shower in the master bath. It looked fine on paper, but once I saw the space marked on the floor, I wasn't sure it was big enough. I asked one of the builders if two people could fit in the shower — and he turned beet red. We discussed making the shower slightly larger. Before committing to this idea, however, I wanted to know how much more it would cost. After all, the plumbing and framing are already in place. When I was told a larger shower would cost an extra $900, I decided to stick with what we've got.

Then I started rethinking the location of the closet in my daughter Stephanie's room. The closet needs to be carved out of either her bedroom, or one of two adjoining bedrooms. Stephanie told the contractors they should definitely take the space out of her little sister Nicky's room. That's because she discovered that Nicky's room is slightly larger than hers. I can't decide which location is best. Why is it so hard to decide where to put a closet?

Now I'm rethinking the location of the main-floor powder room, too. Originally, the powder room was to take up some of our garage space, but expensive city changes precluded that. So we're back to the drawing board. It seems every day I change my mind about where it should go. Contractor Jerry suggested one location, off the front hallway. Then his partner Patrick told me he didn't like that spot; he said guests would be more comfortable if the powder room were out of the way, by the side door. Jerry's idea would carve some space out of our library; Patrick's idea takes room away from our mudroom. How do I decide?

Same thing with the glass pocket doors between the library and family room. One day I think they should stay; the next day I think we should have a solid wall instead. With the doors, we'd get more light in the library. But they won't keep out noise from the family room.

My 15-year-old daughter Lisa advocates the solid wall. “If you're working in the library, you'll complain the TV in the family room is too loud, and we'll never get to watch TV,” she says in that unmistakable teenage tone of voice. Can't decide which way to go.

Another source of indecision was the skylight. Our upstairs hall won't have any windows, and I'd like to have some natural light there. Jerry says a skylight would be a great idea, but I have to make up my mind quickly.

“When do I have to decide?” I ask. “By the end of the day, since the roof's going up now,” he says. After thinking about the skylight for hours, I decided against it. I called Jerry and let him know.

That evening, I phoned my friend Jane, who also has no windows in her upstairs hall. She told me she wishes they'd put in a skylight when they did their renovation. So I changed my mind. The roof is already framed. Now they have to cut a hole for the skylight. I hope I've made the right decision. Already I'm having second thoughts. The plague of indecision continues.

I told my friend Chris how I'm second-guessing every decision these days.

He looked at me sternly and said, “Stop it.” “But it's so hard deciding. I want everything to be perfect,” I told him. “It'll never be perfect,” he said. “Make a decision and stick to it.”

The next day he brought me a very helpful book by New York City renovator John Rusk called On Time and On Budget: A Home Renovation Survival Guide. “The key to having a successful renovation is to stick to the plan. . . It's easy to want to change, to do something else creative. Don't. If things don't look quite right now, it's probably because they're not finished,” Mr. Rusk advises.

“Clients who are expecting total perfection in architecture will always be dissatisfied with the project. . . Accept that construction isn't perfect. Some compromise will let you get things that are truly important while allowing the project as a whole to go forward,” he says.

Easier said than done, but I'll try.


Globe Real Estate

Sibling rivalries unleashed;

The kids immediately staked out their turf when the renovation began. But the decision to build an addition changed everything, and brought an unexpected result in the ‘bedroom sweepstakes'

974 words
15 August 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

‘The house is really nice so far,” writes my 11-year-old daughter Nicky in a letter to her 13-year-old sister Stephanie, who's at camp.

“They have all the back wall and the roof in and they're starting to put in the windows. I'm sorry to say that I don't think my room is that much bigger than yours [but it still is bigger].”

Sibling rivalry not only continues during a renovation, but it can escalate as children jostle for supremacy in the bedroom sweepstakes.

The first time we took the kids to the house, they immediately raced upstairs like a SWAT team to stake out their turfs. “This is my room! Called it!”

The oldest (15-year-old Lisa), claiming her birth prerogative, instantly grabbed the largest of the kids' rooms.

Mild objections from her sisters were immediately subdued with, “I get the biggest room because I'm the oldest.” I don't know why kids instinctively accept this line of reasoning, but they do.

Stephanie, the second-born, got the second-largest room. However, partly as recompense for not getting the biggest room, she managed to secure a promise to replace her small window with a large bay window and built-in window seat, where she could sit and read.

The youngest, Nicky, who's always had to share a bedroom, was thrilled with the minuscule, leftover room. Tucked under gables at the front of the house, Nicky's new room was more like a sewing room than a bedroom. In fact, I wasn't even sure where I could put a bed. But Nicky was happy dreaming about how she'd decorate her very own space.

Over the next few months, we decided to build the addition, which changed the configuration and location of much of the upstairs. Lisa's and Stephanie's rooms stayed the same, but Nicky hit the jackpot. Her new room would now be a glorious, large space at the back of the house with two windows overlooking the pool and ravine. (Her tiny, old room would become the girls' bathroom.) We explained this to the girls. We didn't hear any complaints from the older two until recently, when they saw the rooms taking shape.

They were, of course, furious that the last-born should be the recipient of such largesse. Each made half-hearted attempts to convince Nicky to swap rooms — but the room allocation stayed.

I was surprised that the older girls — already master negotiators with years of experience at forcefully arguing against the injustices in our home (“It's not fair that she gets to stay up later!”) — gave in so readily. But there does seem to be an implicit understanding among children to honour previous agreements. After all, Lisa and Stephanie had, in fact, staked out their rooms months before.

Nevertheless, to preserve peace in our household, I took each one aside and conspiratorially whispered assurances that she, in fact, had the best space.

“You really have the best room, because it's the biggest,” I told daughter No. 1 about her street-facing room. “You're the only one with a walk-in closet, which is so cool. Plus you've got a lot of neat angles in the ceiling, which gives the room a lot of character.” Lisa — already well into her skeptical teenage years — grudgingly agreed with me only when her friend Hannah pronounced it “the coolest room in the house.”

“You're the only one with a bay window and window seat!” I said to Stephanie. “You got exactly what you wanted!”

“You're lucky, Nicky. You ended up with the nicest room.” Nicky looked at me and smiled. “I know.” Occasionally, the last one finishes first.

What a difference the windows make! With the windows going in, the building shell is at last starting to look and feel like a home. The wood casement windows were designed to look like old-fashioned single-hungs with muntin bars only in the top part. The bars add some character to the windows, without obstructing the view. (In fact, they were deliberately placed so they would be above eye level.) With 150 factory-finished colours to choose from, I used a trick I learned from Lynda Reeves's House and Home TV show to find the right colour for the windows. Since it's impossible to choose a colour from a tiny swatch (the window colour samples were smaller than a business card), she suggests creating large colour boards to make the decision easier. Besides having a good-sized swath of colour to look at, you can move the board around to different locations, to be sure it looks right in different lighting.

A true colour dunce, I started with a whopping 10 colour choices. I had a litre of each colour custom-tinted, and then painted 10 sheets of white Bristol board. I applied three coats of paint to get the true colour. (I actually found the Bristol board a little too flimsy, and would recommend getting a slightly heavier material.) Holding these sheets up to the house at different times of day made it a lot easier to choose the neutral gray/cream I selected, called Westwood Cream.

I'm happy with the colour I chose, delighted with the look of the windows — and, for the first time ever, I actually like the look of the back of the house. I agree with Nicky that the house looks really nice so far.


Globe Real Estate

Throwing in the towel on a vintage bathtub

It was fun, but the quest for a classic tub has proved fruitless. A comfortable new acrylic soaker will do nicely

22 August 2003
All material copyright Bell Globemedia Publishing Inc. or its licensors. All rights reserved.

I've had a strange week. I sat in a stranger's bathtub and walked through a bathtub graveyard. Doing a home renovation certainly leads to some unusual experiences.

Let me tell you about the stranger's bathtub. A very nice Globe and Mail reader e-mailed my editor that he's about to get rid of his 1930s cast-iron tub. He's renovating his bathroom, and getting rid of all the old fixtures. He'd read about my quest to find a comfy vintage tub for our new home. He wondered if I'd be interested in looking at it. Could this be the one?

My children were horrified when I told them I was heading out one evening to look at a stranger's tub. "Do you have to sit in it naked?" "Will there be water in the tub?" "What if he's an axe murderer?"

I told my kids not to worry. "He's a very nice man, married, with kids your ages. He lives in Lawrence Park and works for an insurance company. He's not an axe murderer," I said. Nevertheless, my city-wise 11-year-old insisted I leave the man's name, number and address before I left.

The tub was lovely, but not what I was hoping for. It was built in on three sides, meaning you couldn't lean back without hitting the wall behind. I'd hoped to find one built in on two sides -- like the tub in our current 1929 home -- with plenty of leaning-back space at the head end. I thanked him for getting in touch with me, and suggested he donate it to Habitat for Humanity.

Now on to the bathtub graveyard. A family friend said I should visit a plumbing supply warehouse called Addison's, in Toronto's west end, which specializes in vintage tubs, sinks and toilets. Behind the musty-smelling brick warehouse is a large field filled with close to 100 old cast-iron tubs, from the 1920s and 1930s. Some are clawfoot, others freestanding or built-in. They cost about $200 to $600, depending on the condition. Most need reglazing, which adds about $300. There is an elegant simplicity to these old-fashioned tubs, with their smooth rounded forms. No fancy bubble jets, built-in headrests, or odd moulded angles. It's a look that many tub manufacturers are now emulating. In fact, I spotted one lovely, rectangular six-foot tub in the yard that looked remarkably like a $10,000 cast-iron tub I saw at a high-end bath supply store. (I would've snapped it up, but it's too long for our space.)

As I wandered to the very back of the field, through waist-high weeds, I saw it. The perfect tub! Identical to the comfy one in our current home! I was ready to buy it until owner Jim Addison pointed out a tiny, hairline crack. It can't be repaired.

So I give up. I'm throwing in the bath towel. I officially abandon my quest for a vintage tub. I'm going to order a new one.

Unable to find the perfect vintage tub, I finally chose a new one. I've sat in dozens of tubs over the past several weeks -- including one that cost over $12,000! -- and ultimately picked a Canadian-made, acrylic soaker tub called The Alcove that's very comfortable, sturdy, and reasonably priced ($380 for a basic tub; up to $1,200 with air jets).

"The Alcove is so comfortable, I could sit in there to have my lunch and I'd fall asleep," says John Melia of Dupont Plumbing & Heating Supplies in Toronto.

I've selected a drop-in model, which means it will drop into a frame built by the contractors. They'll build a decorative panel for the front.

Even though I didn't find the tub of my dreams, I think I've made a good choice. Best of all, it's an inexpressible relief to have one less decision to make.