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Chris and Suzanne Sadler began the process of building their retirement home in Thornbury, Ont. with a non-architect, but it quickly became clear that their needs were not being met and worked with architect Kaegan Walsh to create their home.Kaegan Walsh/Kaegan Walsh Architect

Small-town Ontario ain’t what it used to be. When architect Kaegan Walsh was in short pants, Thornbury (current population 3,474) was a dusty farming town, and the factories still had operating punch clocks and workers to punch the cards.

Today, one of those factories has a cider and beer brewhouse, and, on Bruce Street South, there are at least three hipster coffee shops, an art gallery, celebrity chef Mark McEwan’s Fabbrica restaurant, an “artisan pasta” shop and a few well-appointed home décor shops. While in Thornbury’s case it might have to do with the proximity to Collingwood (and all the coffee-addicted ski bums) it suits retirees Chris and Suzanne Sadler just fine.

“You can walk right to town, it’s only a couple of blocks. … My barber’s there, he’s a fantastic guy,” says Mr. Sadler. “Suzanne was just walking home and one of our neighbours gave her a butternut squash.”

It’s the difference, says the affable couple, between being a townie and a rustic, and as former Torontonians who lived a few steps from Castle Frank station, it was the former that ruled when they went looking for a lot in 2018.

“Chris was in Europe somewhere golfing, and [our broker] Josh Dolan notified us both that this house was on the market,” says Ms. Sadler. “I’d always said I want waterfront and Josh said ‘there’s water view’ so I said ‘Chris, buy it.’ I guess, in the winter, when all of the leaves are down there’s a tiny glimpse,” she says with a laugh.

They had rented out the bungalow that was on the lot until demolishing it in September, 2021 and did not move into their new house, designed by Toronto architect Kaegan Walsh, until this April. That glimpse of the Beaver River will be a welcome feature for the next five months.

The couple started the process of building their retirement home with a non-architect, but it quickly became clear that their needs were not being met. The massing was clunky and the couple’s desire to age in place by having all main rooms, including two primary bedrooms with ensuite bathrooms, on the main floor had resulted in an awkward floor plan. The need for a swimming pool (for pleasure, and to help with Ms. Sadler’s multiple sclerosis) on a protected ravine lot didn’t help.

“We were very spatially constrained with these setbacks on the back,” says Mr. Walsh as he stands in the neighbour’s driveway to get a good view. “Even with the property line here, there’s a 1.2-metre setback on the sidewalk; I don’t think people outside of the industry really know this, but we’re down to the millimetre here: this corner is as close as it can be to where it is. We moved the house as far back this way to get the pool in, we scrunched it to a certain extent. There’s a lot of push and pull.”

  • Thornbury, Ont. home of Chris and Suzanne Sadler. Design by Kaegan Walsh.Kaegan Walsh/Kaegan Walsh Architect

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Because Mr. Walsh knows his way around a drafting board, a visitor to the Sadler residence wouldn’t notice anything pushing, pulling, or any other architectural acrobatics – only an immediate sense of calm as the initial shock of the all-black exterior wears off and the door swings open to a creamy-white, light-filled interior. And, as they hand their coat to a welcoming host, that same visitor will hardly notice that they’ve passed the entrance to one of the main bedrooms.

That’s due to the clever floor plan: the two primary bedrooms are contained within the first of three bays; these bays are expressed on the exterior by wing walls that extend outward. So, under the left bay, where the roof is lowest, the front bedroom pushes past the front door and the rear bedroom pushes past the backyard stairs. This means that a first-time visitor will walk alongside the front bedroom as they approach the front door. Once inside – the middle bay contains the foyer, a powder room and the great room – she is drawn to the light and height of the great room, where two skylights frame passing clouds (a sort of poor person’s Open Sky by artist James Turrell at Japan’s Chichu Art Museum, jokes Mr. Walsh).

But, should she sit on the couch, she won’t be overwhelmed by the clouds and volume of air overhead. The dark porcelain of the fireplace, the black-framed sliding doors and the lowered kitchen ceiling combine to keep things cozy.

Should the party move to the kitchen (in the third bay) and Mr. Sadler busy himself making cocktails, our visitor will notice the clever bar-storage area built into the same core that contains the powder room and fireplace. Perhaps she’ll also glimpse the shadow play on the kitchen’s gorgeous Mutina backsplash. And she’ll very likely gasp when she spots the sculptural staircase.

“Made by a guy just up the road,” Mr. Sadler might tell his guest about the stairs, and then expand that tidbit to say that most of the house’s parts came from within a few hundred kilometres before being assembled by Baylyn Construction. After the first cocktail warms him up, he might even show his guest the small, long room Mr. Walsh specifically designed for the waxing and tuning of skis. And, about the small second floor and partially finished basement, he’ll say that, while they don’t get that much use, overnight guests love it.

“If and when we sell this,” says the septuagenarian, “another family will come in here and say, ‘Okay, there’s a lot of potential.’”

And what do the Sadlers think about trading busy, big city life for that of townies with a glimpse of water? “Oh, I had a severe case of FOMO [Fear of Missing Out] at first,” says Ms. Sadler of her first few months in Thornbury. Gradually, however, she says her smile switched from when she arrived in Toronto to when she hit the highway to leave.

That’s because small towns ain’t what they used to be.

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