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The Globe and Mail

An Oakville reno: Old bones in a fresh new suit

This is the story of an ordinary postwar house in a middle-class suburb of Oakville, and how it became something better than ordinary.

The detached dwelling began its career, in 1953, as a $22,000 back-split. Structurally and aesthetically, it was as modest as any other split-level in its subdivision. The home embodied a popular suburban orientation: One came in through the front door into the main level, where the living room and dining room were, then dropped a few steps down to the kitchen, the rec or family room and out to the patio. Alternatively, one could go up a few steps from the main level to the bedroom floor.

The unknown architect clearly admired the then-fashionable open-plan approach to the distribution of interior space. The circulation up and down between the staggered floors, for example, was smooth and uncluttered. But he (or his boss, the developer) believed that potential home buyers, who might be otherwise attracted by relaxed, casual layouts, still wanted a traditional dining room. Hence, the abruptly formal, dark, little dining room on the main level, positioned at a distance, both spatially and psychologically, from the kitchen.

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Secluded though the dining room may have been, it suited the first owners, who altered nothing before putting the property on the market 18 years ago. It was then that the present owners bought the place (for $274,000) and set about raising a large family in it. They also began to reshape it to suit their needs and inclinations, sharply increasing the rate of renovation only in 2011. Now that the overhaul is done, the residence is again on the market, this time for just under $2-million.

The changes made by the couple who currently live there range from subtle to emphatic, but they come together in a project that is fresh, but still modest. There are no monster-home furbelows, for instance, and no pushing out to the lot-line: Though the house has been enlarged, from 2,200- to 3,200-square feet, it has stayed within its old footprint.

The divvying up of the interior area into three different, but closely related floors – the typical back-split configuration – has been retained, but the program of some places have been changed.

The formerly disjunct dining room, for example, has become a music room. Dining now happens around a big slab in what was once the family room, adjacent to the kitchen on the lowest of the structure`s three levels. This switch was important: The couple had both grown up around big dining tables – not eating on the run, as is customary in some families these days – and they now have as many as 10 people over for dinner.

The significance of the dining area, with its original fireplace of stacked light-coloured stone, has been further stressed by pulling open the walk-out to the patio and the heated salt-water swimming pool to 18 feet in width, from 10 feet. This move brightens the all-important dining room and creates a transparent link between the much-used interior and exterior zones of cooking and eating and socializing.

In fact, adding brightness was apparently one of the goals of the 2011 renovation by designer Darren Sanger-Smith. On the main level, one wall of the living room was opened up, and the light-coloured stone wall that surrounds the fireplace, which had been shoulder high before, was extended to touch the room`s high ceiling. Also on this level, Mr. Sanger-Smith has cut away the opaque wall of the upper-storey corridor and put into the now-open mezzanine an almost invisible glass balcony-front that visually connects the main and upper levels.

The other change to the upper-storey interior – the only one that affects the exterior profile of the building – has been the addition of a spacious master bedroom and en-suite bathroom.

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Surely the designer's most conspicuous gesture, however, has been the cladding of the old facades with a high-tech, low-maintenance wood product called Accoya. According to its British-based formulators, Accoya is super-hard and durable; you can build bridges out of it. The stuff is certainly beautiful – very tough-looking, while giving off a rich sheen I've seen only in interior applications of luxurious woods. I look forward to seeing what other designers and architects do with it.

The Oakville house is not spectacular in any sense (athough that cladding is pretty special). But it is a good thing that happened when the old bones of a suburban back-split were respected and built on, and not swept aside to make way for one of those pseudo-mansions now in vogue in the post-war suburbs of Oakville and Toronto.

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