Skip to main content

Interior designer Sarah Richardson arrives at her latest enterprise and discovers that she doesn't have keys to get in. Neither do any of the assembled designers, stylists and tradespeople assembled this icy Monday morning in March to ready Sarah's house, the house, for Sarah's House, the television production.

The last person to lock up hasn't passed on the keys and so a flurry of phone calls ensues and a set is rushed to the site.

The confusion ratchets up the pressure on a team that is already racing to keep up with the demands of a television series that is set to premier on April 3rd on Home and Garden Television.

Fortunately this group has weathered it all before. Sarah Richardson and her co-workers are the incredibly resourceful and genial bunch that pull rooms together - with seemingly impossible constraints on time and budget - on HGTV's Design Inc.

In that series Ms. Richardson tackles one room at a time in each 30-minute episode. In Sarah's House, she chronicles the transformation of three ghastly Rosedale rental units into one luminous family home.

She'll also unveil the process room-by-room and provide advice and sources in a weekly column in Globe Real Estate.

In mid-March, she's getting the house ready for publicity photos, along with a new set of episodes. Once the snag with the keys is resolved, Ms. Richardson, stylist Tommy Smythe and their team set about laying the dining room table with silver and crystal, vacuuming up the plaster dust and polishing the glass.

Ms. Richardson scoured the city from Riverdale to Parkdale for a suitably decrepit property, then used her own money to buy and renovate it. Most design shows, she points out, focus on one room.

She wanted to record the overhaul of a home from start to finish so that viewers can see how designers create continuity from one room to the next.

She also figures homeowners will relate to the travails of bashing down the walls, working with contractors, and staying within a budget.

Viewers have moved on from simple educational primers, she believes. Now they like to be engaged in the process.

"Other people will get great entertainment out of our challenges and disasters along the way," she says.

"It won't put you to sleep - I'll tell you that," pipes in Mr. Smythe, who's unwrapping lush bunches of white blooms and dividing them among clear glass vases.

When the work is complete, Ms. Richardson hopes that her $575,000 purchase plus $300,000 in renovations will translate into a sale of $1-million or more on the Toronto market.

"I'm in the best area in the city and every area has a ceiling."

In hopes of maximizing her profit, Ms. Richardson follows the adage of buying the cheapest house in the best neighbourhood. In this case, she has bought a three-story detached house divided into three apartments.

Oh, and it's right beside the railway tracks.

"There's always a trade-off," she says. "We decided to embrace it."

Ms. Richardson immediately factored all new windows into the budget. They buffer the house from the sound of passing trains.

Much of the construction budget went into tearing out walls, bricking in windows and making the most of a relatively small space.

A fireplace separating the living room from the dining room was just too troublesome to remove.

"It became the beast that I couldn't conquer so we decided to work with it."

She also knew going in that she would have to excavate and underpin the basement. What she didn't know was that she would lose a foot in each direction from the interior. The finished rooms, as a result, are much smaller than she expected.

That's the kind of experience she hopes viewers will learn from.

Because of the singular demands of television production, the little girl's bedroom on the second floor already has every detail in place - right down to the pink bolsters on the bed and fresh tulips on the dresser - while the paint downstairs is still wet and the front walk is a few wooden planks laid precariously over a sea of mud.

"We had beds made and pillows in place while there was nothing on the other three floors," she says.

But Ms. Richardson is adept at pulling off miracles and by episode 12, the ooze will be an elegant landscape leading to a welcoming porch.

Designers may have a reputation that leans toward, let's say, extravagance, but Ms. Richardson strikes a balance between "save and splurge."

She consults with the tradespeople to find out when it makes sense to spend wildly and when it does not.

"In the master bathroom, the entire room was designed around the cheapest place to put the toilet," she says.

But in order to create the right curb appeal, she decided the front of the house had to have cedar shingles while economical asphalt was just fine in the back.

"Nobody but the train conductor sees the back."

She saved another $15,000 by not enclosing the front porch and, for the little girl's room, she found a vintage second-hand dresser and had it spray-painted petal pink. The side table was $65.

By saving all along the way, she points out, people can have some money left over to splurge on the accessories that add the greatest impact.

"People get carried away with 'I have to have the best,' she says. "They spend so much on the building, they don't have enough to spend on who they really are."

Ms. Richardson describes her own style as "traditional meets contemporary."

She points to details in the master bedroom, for example, where a time-honoured nail-studded headboard is paired with bold floral prints on the bed.

"I do traditional for clients but, in my heart of hearts, I prefer something a little more crisp and stream-lined and fresh."

Ms. Richardson acknowledges that blending old with new is not as simple as pairing an inherited Edwardian table with a Lucite chair and deeming it "au courant."

Different types of wood furniture can work well together, for example, but there must be repetition so the room doesn't look as if it's been assembled from odds and ends.

The home's main floor, for example, mixes mahogany, oak, glass and painted cabinets.

"It all has the same level of formality and polish."

She also prefers pieces that are not overly-adorned.

"Classic traditional with classic modern works very well," agrees Mr. Smythe. "Out-on-a-limb traditional with out-on-a-limb modern is hard to do."

Overall, Ms. Richardson says, people should not be slaves to their home's architecture - they should make the house work for them.

And sometimes features that at first seem like a detriment, in the end become an asset.

"We've all come to love the train," Ms. Richardson says.