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Sarah Richardson: How to get a big look from a small house

If you’re moving walls, you’ll need to engage an engineer and do some structural modifications, add some support beams and be prepared for a fix-up plan that goes beyond paint and paper. But, in the end, the dust and mess and chaos will all be worth it.

Stacey Brandford Photography

House hunting is a thrilling experience. Trying to find a home in a big city that meets your wish list while fitting in your budget gives a little more edge to the thrill. My twentysomething clients were on the hunt for a home with charm and character in an established neighbourhood close to shops, services and transit. But the real "gotta-have-it" was an address in a top-notch school district. You can renovate any house to suit your lifestyle and your taste, but you can't pick it up and move it from one school district to another. So once my clients settled on a cute little semi in a coveted school district, it was my job to turn a cramped and forlorn main floor into a bright and airy living space.

Go big

When you're starting out with a small space, it may seem that your options are limited. I disagree. While you may have less of everything to start with, dramatic change is possible. The biggest challenge in small homes is a cramped floor plan created by defined rooms. Since most of us crave the bright and airy spaces offered by open-plan living spaces, I think it's worth spending the money to knock down walls and open the main floor up. Of course, to make this happen, you'll need to engage an engineer and do some structural modifications, add some beams to support the walls that you're removing, and be prepared for a fix-up plan that goes beyond paint and paper. But, in the end, the dust and mess and chaos will all be worth it.

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Borrow from thy neighbour

The biggest benefit of tearing down walls is the ability to redefine what proportion of space belongs to which area. In a small house, every inch is critical, and pushing the boundaries slightly lets you redefine the space. I like to think of kitchen design as a puzzle, and playing with all the desired elements until you can squeeze them in and make them fit nets a winning result. This kitchen originally had a ridiculously cramped layout that was bordering on dysfunctional, but it now boasts an island almost eight feet long, complete with oodles of storage and a breakfast bar to boot. By anchoring one end of the island to the columns that were required to support the walls we removed, we maximized its length while also creating a bit of definition between the living and kitchen areas.

Character? Check. Charm? Check

Streamlined, contemporary style is a priority for many young, urban homeowners, but it's not always the design brief we receive from our clients. Each house and each couple I design for offer a distinct opportunity to create an expression of personal style. In this case, the cozy little house had some charming original details, and the couple was drawn to a look that was more cottage-y than contemporary. Since a custom-order kitchen was neither in the budget nor the timeline, I opted for my favourite in-stock door profile (a solid pine door with a whitewash finish), and took the opportunity to add some extra character through finishing details. Antique corbels flank the opening created by the newly installed beam, a swirly marble mosaic adds a touch of whimsy to the backsplash, while tongue-in-groove panelling clad the island and amps up the cottage vibe.

Be brassy

The use of warm-toned metals such as brass and bronze, is nothing new, so I'm not going to try and tell you it's an innovative idea; but I will tell you why I like it, particularly as it pertains to lighting. When you are trying to bring old-world charm to a newly renovated room, vintage lighting can be a great asset. Most vintage fixtures will likely have a brass or bronze cage, so utilizing them in their "as is" condition will save you money and help you get authentic old-school style for less than the price of new. That just makes sense (and cents).

Keep it light

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If your goal is to have the easy, casual entertaining style of your favourite bistro, why not bring a few signature touches home? Forego formal style and expensive furnishings in favour of practical and simple, classic styles, which can help you get the look for less. I scooped up a vintage harvest table for $175 (and repainted the base) then paired it with great new rattan dining chairs that bring texture and bistro chic to this cozy dining area (for less than $100 a piece).

Live large

Every designer has his or her own approach to making the most of small spaces when it comes to furnishings. Mine is to max out the useful space using the least number of standard size pieces to get the best end result. Even the smallest rooms can accommodate a standard seven-foot sofa (choose a narrow arm so you get the most seat out of it). Flank your sofa with end tables that have an ample tabletop and storage beneath (to help keep the room tidy), and strike a pose with some high-impact table lamps. Anchor it all with a good-sized coffee table and add a pair of lounge chairs and you'll have a lovely little spot to lounge and entertain.

Sarah Richardson's Real Potential can be seen Thursdays at 9 p.m. on HGTV.


All cabinetry, HanStone Quartz countertopsin appliances, faucet, dining chairs, floor length mirror, dishes, accessories: IKEA,

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Hardwood flooring(PLAY.2 Talc): Floorworks & Relative Space,

Floor tile, backsplash tile: Saltillo Imports,

Kitchen sink: Blanco Canada,

Cake stands on island and window ledge, bowlon window ledge, vaseon mantle, picture frames, accent plates, napkins: Indigo,

Rug, pillows: Homesense,

Lawren sofa, Coco chairs: Sarah Richardson Design Inc.,

Vintage lighting, oval mirrorat entrance, umbrella stand, side tables: Green's Antiques, 416-925-1556

Silverware, coffee table, dining table, vintage dishes: Elegant Garage Sale,

Wooden BBench, hook board, occasional tablebetween chairs, console table, mirrorabove fireplace: Vintage Fine Objects,

Brass mortar and pestle, brass teapot and vaseson window ledge: Of Things Past,

Brass candlesticks, brass bowlon coffee table, napkin rings, pair of lamps: Around the Block,

Counter stools: Pier 1 Imports,

Decorative corbels: The Door Store,

Drapery hardware, fabrics: Designer Fabrics,

Cabinetry hardware: Lee Valley Tools,

Television: Best Buy,

NuHeat heated floorin mudroom: Ciot Toronto Inc.,

Canisterson kitchen counter: 1698 Queen Antiques,

All trim: Brenlo,

Spraying of furniture: Benjamen Furniture Refinishing, 416-745-2559

Paint Colours: Farrow & Ball,

Living room & dining room walls: Pale Hound 71

Fireplace brick & front entrance walls: Lime White 1

Mudroom & kitchen walls: Light Blue 22

Ceiling: Cornforth White 228

Trim: All White 2005

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