Five years ago, David and Sharyn Yeatman began keeping an eye on the real estate market near Brooklin, Ont., where they hoped to find a property close to the rolling hills and river valleys of the protected Oak Ridges Moraine.
At the time, the Yeatmans were raising their four young daughters in an unremarkable suburban house east of Toronto. On weekends, they headed to their cottage.
“When we were there, the kids ran free,” Ms. Yeatman says. “We were motivated to find a place where they could do that every day.”
Their search led them to a 1980s bungalow on a large, wooded lot bordered by a stream.
“I knew that this was the street we wanted to live on,” says Mr. Yeatman, who kept in touch with real estate agents in the area. When he learned of homeowners who were interested in selling privately, he quickly put together an offer.
“It’s something that you need to be educated on and you have to be ready to move in an instant,” he says.
The brick bungalow was well-built, but the rooms felt cramped and closed-off from the outdoors. The Yeatmans’ first priority was to open up the the views from the interior to the beautiful, mature trees that surround the house.
“We bought it for the property without question,” Mr. Yeatman says.
The two were not hesitant to take on a renovation – especially with an architect in the family.
Mr. Yeatman’s sister, Andrea Yeatman, is a senior associate at Toronto-based Studio Lau. She and principal Winda Lau began the design process in September, 2019.
“I think we knew we could make something great,” Ms. Lau says of their first impression upon visiting the site.
The focus for the architects was to provide a modern, bright home with lots of open space for the family. The living and entertaining areas would be offset by more intimate and personal spaces for their daily activities.
Studio Lau presented a myriad of options ranging from a light reno to a complete rebuild. The Yeatmans favoured a plan that would add a second storey to the original bungalow and push up the centre of the house to a vaulted ceiling.
To start, the architects led the couple through the labyrinth of acquiring permits and ensuring they stay within rules that safeguard the water supply and natural flood plain.
As the process moved along through late 2019 and early 2020, the world became aware of COVID-19.
Within a few months, the pandemic was upending the work and home lives of everyone involved in the project.
At the time, global supply chains broke down and lumber prices soared. Many skilled trades were off the job and those who remained were in high demand.
“That summer we weren’t sure if we should proceed or not. It was a bit unnerving,” Ms. Yeatman says.
In the early fall, the Yeatmans decided to press ahead and begin construction. They moved into a rental townhouse nearby and adjusted to life during a pandemic.
The backyard of the new property soon became a retreat where the girls, ages 12, 10, 8 and 5, could run after the family’s Labrador retriever.
“During COVID we couldn’t go to parks so we came here,” Ms. Yeatman says.
As construction wrapped up, the family moved in just in time for the school year to start in 2021.
Today residents and guests arrive to a contemporary building that picks up on the architectural language of the existing bungalow.
“We were keeping either end of the house and adding in the middle,” Ms. Lau says. “It was not just an addition plunked on top.”
Wide steps lead to the front door framed in black metal, with a simple canopy above for protection from the elements.
Inside, the entryway is divided from the main living areas by slats of white oak. The wood adds warmth while allowing glimpses into the living area beyond.
“We see this as a more intimate moment before we enter the grand space,” Ms. Lau says.
The soaring space inside provides lots of room for family members to gather for relaxing, entertaining and dining.
At one end stands the kitchen, which is central to life for a large family. The architects made it beautiful with cabinets painted in a deep French blue, and congenial with a substantial island and six comfortable chairs.
“We do fill these chairs,” Ms. Yeatman says of the family breakfast line-up.
The kitchen transitions into the dining area, with views into the garden. In the living area, a clerestory window sits above glass doors that slide away to open the indoors to a covered porch.
The large outdoor living space gives the family lots of room to lounge and dine in milder weather.
Beyond the kitchen, the architects dealt with the more practical aspects of family life by relocating the mud room and adding a powder room. Now the area provides lots of built-in cubbies and shelves for the girls.
The staircase to the second floor, with white oak treads and glass rails, creates a separation between the main living area and the music room, where the older girls practice for their piano lessons. A cozy window seat overlooking the front yard provides a quiet place to read.
“The light comes through from both sides,” architect Andrea Yeatman points out.
The newly built second floor provides privacy and tranquility.
Mr. Yeatman, who had long been accustomed to commuting by rail to his office at King and Bay streets in Toronto’s financial district, became one of the legions of employees working from home during the pandemic.
In the original plan, his home office would remain open to the surrounding areas of the second floor. Later, Mr. Yeatman decided he would prefer an enclosed space away from the whirl of daily activities.
“That was one of my last-minute changes,” he says.
Mr. Yeatman adds that he threw the architects another curveball when he came up with the idea of adding a window to the loft that overlooks the kitchen and living area.
“The wall was framed already,” Ms. Lau says.
The architects had also carefully designed the façade, and an additional opening in the exterior wall could throw off the balance. They always aim to remain nimble, however, so they drew up some options and now a narrow, horizontal cut-out provides a view of the greenery outside.
The Yeatmans have so far managed to keep the loft as a “no electronics zone” where the girls can read or work on a jigsaw puzzle.
“It’s quiet and removed but you can still see what’s happening,” Ms. Yeatman says.
The architects turned the rest of the second-floor addition into a haven for the parents. In the bedroom, a wall-to-wall window faces the canopy of trees. An ensuite bathroom has a luxurious open shower, stand-alone tub and modern mosaic tile.
The girls have taken over the bungalow’s original primary suite on the main floor. Ms. Lau and Ms. Yeatman reconfigured the space into four bedrooms and two bathrooms for the sisters.
The parents agreed that each girl should have the chance to express her own identity, with the architects guiding the sisters through the process of selecting their favourite colour palette and wallpaper.
Bathrooms were designed to be fun but not childish. One has tile in a striking black-and-white pattern that stands out against muted pink walls.
A second bathroom was brightened with the colour of sunshine.
“We picked this gorgeous yellow tile and made a feature of it,” Ms. Lau says.
Choosing tiles and textiles also proved to be a bright spot for the family amidst the stress of renovating.
“It was so amazing when they came to us with the renderings and everything was so different and fun,” Ms. Yeatman says. “We clung to that.”
The architects wondered if the youngest member of the family would enjoy having a secret door connecting her room to her sister’s. Both girls were keen on the idea and now the tiny doorway, hidden by a wallpaper mural, is one of the features that makes their space unique.
Throughout the year-long construction process, Mr. Yeatman says, he relied on the architects for advice when the contractors asked him to choose between various options.
“You have great visions of what you can build with no idea of cost,” Mr. Yeatman says. “It’s not like going to a store and being able to see what you’re purchasing.”
The architects are experienced in taking homeowners through the options and explaining the costs and benefits of the many decisions that contractors ask for along the way, Ms. Lau says.
By the time the work was finished, the initial budget of around $1-million had been surpassed by about 40 per cent.
Mr. Yeatman says that’s a common outcome that adds to the tension during a renovation, but he is able to see in the finished house that many of the added costs were a good investment.
One of the challenges of building during a health emergency that fueled a concomitant run-up in real estate was that tradespeople raised their prices along the way. The couple also saw their lumber budget soar.
“There were price increases in places where we didn’t expect them,” Ms. Lau says. “There have been a lot of curve balls throughout the pandemic.”
Sharyn Yeatman says that selecting items from faucets to light fixtures was a challenge because the couple could only shop for items online.
She made one of her biggest leaps when she purchased a modern chandelier that hangs from the vaulted ceiling of the living area.
“If you can’t see it in person, everything is a risk,” she says. “It’s not like you can bring it back.”
Once the fixture arrived, Ms. Yeatman stayed with the electrician as they placed every cube.
Ms. Lau adds that modern architecture does not allow for the type of small slips that can be covered up by trim and embellishments.
“We’re more contemporary and that takes a very particular type of skill – the more minimal it is, the more difficult it is,” she says.
As things fell into place and the family settled in, Ms. Yeatman realized the renovation also served as a lesson in parenting: At times the children were questioning the disruption in their lives.
“There’s a lot of stress that goes with doing this, and they could sense that,” she says. “They didn’t understand that we were improving things. When we moved back in, they saw it made sense.”
Now the girls enjoy taking friends on tours of their new home: their parents hear them repeating phrases they’ve learned from the architects.
Ms. Yeatman says that through the lengthy project, the girls have gained a valuable lesson: “they learned, ‘you can trust us.’”
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