Trish McMaster fantasized about living in a tall, white house.
“Every photograph of a house I’ve ever been drawn to has always been white,” she said. “They look so beautiful, with trees and shrubs against the backdrop.”
But the image had little in common with the massage therapist’s Second World War-era bungalow – this one built in 1942 – that looked little different from tens of thousands of others of its kind in Toronto. “You imagined a little old lady living there.”
Her two-bedroom brick home did the trick when she bought it in 1994. Then in her mid-30s and still working in sales, it was little more than a place for her to sleep between shifts. But she liked the location. Chaplin Crescent, at the near-perfect centre of Forest Hill, is perched on the northeast ridge of the Kay Gardner Beltline Trail – no better place to be for a lover of the outdoors. Plus, only a two-minute walk and quick subway trip separated her from downtown.
Almost 25 years later, Ms. McMaster still liked the location, but had outgrown her house. She practiced massage therapy at home, and there was no proper waiting area or second bathroom for clients. The kitchen was nearly devoid of sunlight and so crammed that the stovetop doubled as a counter. Asbestos wrapped the basement pipes. But what troubled her most about the house was the energy it required to heat it, which grew as the insulation became derelict. By June, 2018, it became clear to Ms. McMaster that it was time for a change.
Her location suited her too well to move away, and building anew was too unfamiliar. Renovating, Ms. McMaster thought, seemed like less work.
Upgrading the run-down bungalow to her standards, however, was no small challenge. That quickly became apparent to Brendan Charters, development manager and a founding partner at Eurodale Design + Build. Mr. Charters said Ms. McMaster made it clear that she wanted a bigger home, but without increasing the cost of heating and maintenance, and all while keeping her ecological footprint in check.
As she puts it, “[I wanted] an environmentally friendly and sustainably built house that didn’t necessarily have to look like a log cabin in the woods. I wanted it to be elegant and sophisticated.”
While the transformation was taking place, Ms. McMaster rented a place in Leaside, where she would keep offering therapy to her clients. Mr. Charters, meanwhile, went to work. Early on, there was trouble.
“We found that the house had been built on a swamp filled with cinder and ashes from an old rail line,” he said. “So, it wasn’t very stable.”
Mr. Charters called Ms. McMaster and told her that to build a second storey on the house, they might need to support it with seven helical shoring piles, costing roughly $2,500 apiece.
“I was nervous,” Ms. McMaster said. “That was one of the first things I heard about the renovation process, and it was bad news. But it’s your house – it’s like a baby. After you’ve committed to it, you can’t just abandon it.”
Fortunately, Mr. Charters’ team came up with a less expensive solution, anchoring the house with a concrete and steel bond beam, extending more than 16 feet into the ground.
Once the building was stable, it was time for its green makeover. Ms. McMaster had scoured magazines to find ways to make her home more environmentally friendly.
Roofing: Ms. McMaster swapped her asphalt shingle roof for a recyclable metal roof, which comes with a 50-year guarantee. She garnished it with 25 solar panels. The panels generate energy and store it in lithium-ion batteries kept in the basement. There, it is converted to electricity and can charge the home during a potential power outage.
Insulation: Ms. McMaster chose Roxil mineral wool, a lightweight, semi-rigid stone wool insulation that is fire, water and moisture-resistant. Mineral wool comes from natural igneous rock and is popular in ecological households for being highly sustainable. “I wanted to go green and that’s what the builders recommended,” Ms. McMaster said.
Mr. Charters said the house was in dire need of an insulation update. Homes of 1940s vintage were often built without insulation in their walls, apart from a narrow air gap between brick and plaster. They get even leakier over time.
Ventilation: New insulation has to be paired with a steadfast air exchange system, Mr. Charters said. Ceiling fans and windows help Ms. McMaster’s home breathe, but the home also has ecofriendly air conditioning on hot days. The house uses an Energy Recovery Ventilation (ERV) system, which uses the energy from air normally exhausted from the home to treat incoming air from outdoors.
Heating: Every floor in the house is hydronically heated from a domestic hot water combination boiler. The warm floors allow Ms. McMaster to turn the thermostat down and save energy. “Because your feet are warm,” said Mr. Charters, “the rest of you feels warm.”
Ms. McMaster got sustainably-sourced, engineered hardwood floors installed, with a plywood base and a hardwood top layer to prevent the wood from cracking and bending from the radiant heat.
By August, 2019, her new home was ready. Ms. McMaster said the renovation cost just less than $1-million and took 14 months – six months of that was simply waiting for city approvals. Yet, even aside from the green upgrades, the tired place Ms. McMaster had come to tolerate is now unrecognizable. The first floor now has a guest suite where her clients can sit before their appointments. The basement, abated and asbestos-free, is used to treat clients and has a second bathroom. The kitchen, now bigger, sunnier and with custom wooden shelving, better supports its owner’s cooking habit.
One last touch makes the house come right out of Ms. McMaster’s dream – the roof is high and gleaming, and the brick is stained white. Nested in green leaves and tree branches and casting a tall, cooling shadow on those who walk the Beltline Trail, the house now blends into its serene surroundings.
“I love my place,” Ms. McMaster said. “I cannot say enough good things about the renovation process.”
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