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Bert and Tobi Burbach wanted a house for life - something they could comfortably live in for the rest of their days. What they got was the home of their dreams.

After more than a year and a half of designing, building and tweaking, the retired couple moved into their custom 4,000-square-foot house in Stratford last August. It sits on prime residential land that backs on to the picturesque Avon River, with a bird's-eye view of the spectacular 1887 Perth County Courthouse and one of the city's trendiest old streets, lined with shops and restaurants.

The couple sold their commercial printing business in Richmond, B.C., and moved to Stratford in 2005 to reconnect with their Ontario roots and several of their children who live in the area. At first, they lived in another Stratford house they had bought five years earlier, which they rented while they were away. Although they liked the house well enough, a local real estate listing caught their attention.

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It was a 1950s-style bungalow - not much to look at - but located on one of the city's scarce river-edge properties. The Burbachs bought the house thinking they'd renovate, but after some preliminary design consultations, they came to the conclusion it could never accommodate their needs.

Down came the house and up went the drawing board.

The couple hired Paul Howley of Howley Design in Stratford to draw up the plans. They also hired Rory McDonnell, owner of Howley Design and Build (a separate company that has since been renamed simply Build), to oversee construction.

During his explorations around Stratford, Mr. Burbach had seen the outside of Mr. Howley's own house and loved it. He believed he was looking at an old, restored Ontario cottage, when, in fact, it was a new house designed by Mr. Howley to look old. The Burbachs decided that's what they wanted, too.

"The Ontario cottage is very versatile," Mr. Howley explains. "Basically, it's a square box you can make as big as you want or as small as you want. It's a centre-hall plan with rooms in all four corners, so each room gets light from two directions, making it a very bright house."

The couple met weekly with Mr. Howley to go over the details. "We were quite definite," Ms. Burbach says. "At our age, you know what you want."

Working "collaboratively," Mr. Howley refined the plans. "It helped that Bert and Tobi were involved in the design from day one. They knew what they wanted and my job was to make it work."

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He designed a three-storey house that because it was built into a hill, looked like a single-storey structure from the front. It included four bedrooms (all with enormous closets); three bathrooms; a library; office; wine cellar; open-concept, state-of-the-art kitchen/dining room/living room; a lower-level games room; and two fireplaces.

To top it off, they installed a cherry-lined elevator that services all three floors, including the garage.

"We didn't want mobility issues to ever force us out," Mr. Burbach says, explaining the motivation for adding an elevator. "This is like insurance for the future."

One of the biggest construction challenges was posed by the site itself, according to Mr. McDonnell. "The lot was so sloped, we had to bring in all this engineered fill to build up the back end. It took a lot of loads of gravel; then we had to hire a soil engineer to test for compaction."

The Burbachs also wanted a double garage, but didn't want it to ruin the lines of the house, so Mr. Howley designed a two-car version to fit underneath it, which he concedes "was not the easiest thing to do." The garage is accessed via a very steep and sharply curved driveway that has to be heated to stay usable in the winter. It's equipped with sensors that are activated whenever it snows.

One of the many highlights of the house is the kitchen, which has solid cherry cupboards, a quartz countertop around the cook top and dark granite countertops everywhere else. Even the fridge and dishwasher are covered in cherry to match the cupboards. The microwave is hidden in a drawer and the counter cook top includes a pop-up exhaust fan that draws away steam and vapours during cooking.

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"The kitchen is where we spend most of our time, so that's where we spent the most time working on design," Mr. Burbach says. "We wanted something that felt traditional, but with all the modern conveniences. It also had to be very functional."

During the warmer months, the Burbachs take their culinary expertise to the patio, where they have an outdoor kitchen that includes a built-in gas barbecue, warming drawer, sink and frig.

They managed to get most of the landscaping done before the first snowfall. A custom wrought-iron fence and gate were installed around the front of the house, and more than 100 one-tonne armour stones were shipped in from Orillia to create various landscape levels out back. "One neighbour asked when we were bringing in the canons because it looked like a fortification," Mr. Burbach laughs.

To increase the already abundant light throughout the house, the Burbachs included transom windows over the doors in almost every room. Like all the other architectural details - from the baseboards and crown mouldings to the built-in cupboards and cabinets - everything is top-of-the-line custom work.

Also top-notch is the built-in sound system that generates music throughout the house. All the Burbachs' CDs are loaded on to a music server that can be accessed through a computerized menu in any of the rooms (except the master bedroom). The family photos are also loaded on a server and can be programmed to change every few seconds on any one of several flat-screen TVs throughout the house, creating an instant slide show.

The Burbachs were pleased to discover that most of the goods and services they required were available right in Stratford, from the bricklayer who used old, reclaimed red bricks from Detroit for the exterior walls, to the stained-glass artist they commissioned to make some of the transoms.

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Mr. Howley says the house is not the biggest one he's ever designed, but it is the most expensive. While Mr. Burbach prefers not to discuss numbers, he did say it cost well in excess of $1-million to build it. (And that doesn't include the original cost of purchasing the lot and now-demolished house.)

The opulence of the Burbachs' new dream home stands in fairy-tale contrast to their humble beginnings. Both born to Dutch immigrant parents, the couple met in Whitby in 1957 when Mr. Burbach, a door-to-door pots and pans salesman, attempted to sell his wares at his future wife's house.

"My parents were immigrants and couldn't begin to afford those pots," Ms. Burbach remembers.

But the two soon met again at church, fell in love and began to build a future together - one that eventually led to their dream house and the best pots and pans money can buy.

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