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Megan Cassidy and Haji Nakamura sit in the kitchen of their Victorian row house with the wall-to-wall French window behind them.Charla Jones/The Globe and Mail

A $1,300 cash house-warming gift was the fuel that started a renovation odyssey for architects Megan Cassidy and Haji Nakamura.

In 2005, with little savings, the couple moved into a 120 year-old Victorian row house in Toronto's Dundas West neighbourhood. "We didn't have money to do much by way of renovating," Ms. Cassidy said, "so we worked in a way that was small and thoughtful and spent time considering how to proceed."

On evenings and weekends over five years, Ms. Cassidy and Mr. Nakamura upgraded the home. Their tiny budget gave them an opportunity for a "more efficient" renovation, and the chance to learn about living minimally.

First, the architects tackled the kitchen, which was characterized by old laminate counters scarred with burn marks and water damage. "The area around the stove was covered by sheets of aluminum foil from what must have been a Chinese newspaper press," said Mr. Nakamura, who recently established the practice Nakamura|Cassidy Design + Architecture. There was no backsplash, and the gleaming white faux-marble tiles on the floor offended the couple's tastes.

With the initial $1,300, they purchased white cabinetry and an oak butcher-block countertop from Ikea to replace the damaged lower cabinets and laminate counters. The upper cabinets, which were in good condition, got a fresh coat of paint to match the Ikea cabinetry, and they installed new hardware.

Ms. Cassidy, who works at the Toronto architecture firm Levitt Goodman, constructed a new backsplash from a subtle rainbow of Bisazza tiles. While products from the Italian mosaic company can be expensive, Ms. Cassidy picked them up for free, leftovers from pavilions she worked on at Toronto's Interior Design Show.

During their first summer in the house, they tore out the kitchen floor and inserted painted plywood until they saved enough money for the Jelinek cork that now covers the kitchen. The warm, natural, and resilient product came with an $1,800 price tag. A new dishwasher was a gift from Ms. Cassidy's mother, and they splurged on a $450 Blanco sink from Home Depot.

In 2007 when the kitchen interior was under control, the couple turned their gaze to the kitchen doorway, which opens onto a back deck that Mr. Nakamura described as "a concrete pit that had been used as a garage space for a compact car." At the time, he was working on designing and building a predominantly glass house for his parents in Port Hope, Ont. Guided by a desire "to get as much of the outdoors as possible inside the house," he created a unique custom wood curtain wall system that allowed the Port Hope landscape to be visible from most anywhere in the home.

Mr. Nakamura applied the design principals from his parent's project to the couple's Toronto home by way of oversized, asymmetrical glass French doors, which occupy the entire back wall of the kitchen. To achieve the glass house effect, he demolished the kitchen wall and inserted steel supports to hold up the existing walls. Then, he built a 6-feet by 9-feet pivot door using glue-laminated and milled ipe wood (for about $800; the hinges cost an additional $1,000).

"We wanted to maximize the amount of light and space from our tiny [10-feet by 12-feet]back deck," he explained, "and the large doors work to integrate the large kitchen to the small outdoor space."

The company that delivered the $800 worth of glass for the door wanted to charge the couple another $900 for installation. "That wasn't in our budget so we rented suction cups, and asked six of our most trusted friends to come over and help us lift the glass into place," Ms. Cassidy said.

When the door was finished, they extended the newly modern kitchen outside by building a countertop for the deck with an integrated BBQ, creating a seemingly continuous line from interior to exterior. They tore down a 60 year-old fence that lined the deck and replaced it with a white steel enclosure made from perforated mesh. Beneath the deck's countertop, they hid a storage unit - for garbage, recycling, and bicycles - that can be accessed from both the deck and the laneway.

"Every square inch of space on the [13-feet by 60-feet]lot is used," Ms. Cassidy said. "I really started to develop a sense of how small things can be and how efficient that could be."

The front of the house still boasted a half-century old fence, so they tore that down, landscaped with perennials that bloom throughout the summer, and convinced their neighbours to chip in for a custom bike rack and planter box that now divides the properties.

Of the rest of the interior renovation, Ms. Cassidy said they kept the work to a minimum by adding modern touches to an otherwise Victorian space. Old wall paper was peeled away, and the walls were repainted in a warm grey colour to offset the trim. "We wanted to get at the inherent character of the original house," Mr. Nakamura said. "We wanted to distinguish clearly between what was our design and what was original to the building."

The total renovation cost the couple about $20,000. But this investment paid off: When they put the house on the market last year, the modern touches - particularly the glass kitchen door - roused interest from buyers.

Of their February move from Dundas West, Mr. Nakamura said he will miss his neighbours, the local coffee shops, and "of course, our back deck and all the light that pours into the house. All that hard work."

But, he added, "We breathed a lot of dust over the years. Doing renovations in one shot will be more satisfying."

Special to The Globe and Mail