The verdict is in: Alisse Houweling did, in fact, love rebuilding her modern home in Toronto. The undeniable proof? She left her job as a litigator at a downtown law firm to help others do the same.
Houweling discovered her passion for homebuilding when she and her husband Greg Harnish, also a lawyer, built “The Benson,” a new, energy-efficient home on the land where their turn-of-the-century Victorian once stood.
The subsequent interest in their unique-looking pad from curious onlookers — and her own eye-opening moments about the poor condition of their old home while it was being torn down — prompted her to embark on a new career path: guiding others through the process.
Starting Kaav Living certainly hadn’t been in the plans for Houweling initially, but neither was building the new four-bedroom home from the foundation up.
When she and Harnish, who now have two young children (they asked that the children’s names not be used), first purchased their Hillcrest Village house in 2007, their original plan had been to renovate after six months. Yet as their expensive wish list kept getting longer, so did the timeline.
After retaining Kohn Shnier Architects and doing extensive research, they realized they would need to set aside a contingency budget of 35 per cent for unforeseen costs associated with the renovation, a notion that began to plant seeds of doubt in their minds.
“What became clear to us was that substantially renovating an old house was actually quite a risky venture,” says Houweling. “And that if we rebuilt, we would have much more certainty in terms of the cost and the amount of time it would take.”
By 2011, the couple finally agreed the best option for them was to rebuild completely. They revised their budget and began making plans for a brand new home, which would be their stress-free sanctuary, rather than one in need of frequent maintenance and repeat renovations.
Demolition of the old house began in 2013, with the plan being to leave one foundation wall up as an extra barrier between the adjacent home and the new build. But to the couple’s utter shock, the wall they had intended to keep standing completely crumbled into the pit. “When we saw that, we knew we had made the absolute right decision,” says Houweling.
The family moved into a rental for the duration of the nine-month project, led by general contracting company Arceo Group. Houweling admits the process was actually a “smooth ride” because there had been so much advance planning and preparation.
A total of $800,000 plus HST has been spent on the construction of the new home, which has a gabled roof and a brick exterior, and is framed by a layer of galvanized steel. The price tag included permits, basic landscaping, architectural and engineering fees, a general contractor, materials and all sub-trades, but not appliances.
The end result is a bright, spacious, functional home which is extremely energy-efficient. The open-concept kitchen and dining area oozes natural light, thanks to a nine-foot floor-to-ceiling sliding-glass window which blankets the entire back wall of the house, overlooking the backyard.
As part of their commitment to energy efficiency in the home, there is no air conditioning, but the house stays cool thanks to thoughtfully planned layout and design features. Strategically placed operable windows and skylights coupled with transom windows allow for cross breezes and additional ventilation.
Two retractable awnings have also been built off the back of the house for shading. Air-tight triple pane windows, an energy-efficient water heater system and a heat recovery air exchanger help reduce their consumption levels, too.
The uniqueness of the home doesn’t end there; the children’s bedrooms on the second floor are connected by a sliding door, which can be opened in the event of an impromptu playdate or slumber party.
The master bedroom’s windows peak at 12 feet into the gabled roof, where Houweling and Harnish relish looking out to the stars at night.
The 800-square-foot lower level is as functional as the rest of the home and boasts a family room, bathroom and guest bedroom, as well as an abundance of sleek storage cabinets, which help keep the home looking minimalistic and clutter-free.
While the old Victorian that once stood on the land had many lives — serving as a shoe factory, a farmhouse and even a rumoured crack house at one point — today the new home’s unique appearance means there are still plenty of onlookers stopping by to take a peek.
In fact, it has been this steady stream of visitors inquiring about their home that made Houweling realize there was a niche in Toronto’s hot real-estate market that was just waiting to be filled.
Now she facilitates the process for those who want a thoughtfully designed urban home, without the strain of a stressful and uncertain renovation or rebuild process. She begins with a two-hour strategy session to help start things off on the right foot.
Houweling says her own experience — especially the Money Pit moment when the foundation wall came crumbling down — made her want to provide a viable alternative to the risky home renovations many people jump into without considering the possibility of a new build.
“My experience with people is that they typically don’t understand what or know what these projects involve,” she says. “They just dive into them. To be successful you need a thorough plan, a strong team and a realistic budget. They don’t have the right knowledge to get there easily.”
$481,000: Amount the couple paid for their home in 2007
$1.216 million: Amount a Benson Ave. semi-detached home recently sold for
2.5: Number of days spent demolishing the old house
2,301: Total square footage of the new house
40: Number of parking tickets the construction company received during the rebuild
0: Front door; the main entrance is at the side of the house
5: Number of people required to move the kitchen counter into place
44: Number of sleek white storage cabinets throughout the home
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