a peek inside the fishbowl

03 Jun, 2010

There’s no time like the present for this wartime home

Posted by andrea tomkins in: Home/reno

I love our home. It’s a wartime home, built in 1942 or ’43. It is cozy and full of personality. It is utterly charming. It has a VERY small footprint in an amazing neighborhood. I am thankful to be living here and I pinch myself every day.

wartime home - ottawa

This house is us.

It’s 1.5 storeys with three bedrooms, one four-piece bathroom upstairs and a two-piece downstairs. I loved this place the moment we saw it.

I remember running my fingers down the thick banister that connects the main floor with the bedrooms. It felt warm against my skin; a single piece of tree that had had a million hands eroding it ever so slowly with every passing touch. Sold!

The realtors, trying to be helpful (and I suppose to give the sale more appeal), suggested that we could slice off our backyard and sell it to someone else to be developed. Mark and I both looked at each other, aghast. Why on earth would we want do that?

Although we’d never consider selling off our backyard, we’ve realized that we can fill a bit of it with some extra house.

Twelve years ago I didn’t mind the tiny closets, the nonexistent front hall, the unfinished basement, and the fact that the living room is completely separated from everything else … resulting in a rather awkward floor plan for a family of four. (I really should sketch it out for you Now uploaded here – it’s weird.)

Having that upper .5 storey means we have heavily sloped ceilings upstairs. Although they add charm and personality and a certain feeling of comfort in the bedrooms, it also means that each one has at least one totally unusable wall (one that can’t be used to lean a bookshelf against or even to hang a framed photo or two) and very small closets.

We consider ourselves lucky to have an upstairs bathroom as part of our .5 storeys (we’ve seen some places that don’t), a garage, a dry basement, and an addition of an office as well as an enclosed back porch.

I think we have about 1200 sq.ft of living space. I have spent 12 years thinking about it and I know that I don’t really even want THAT much more. We’re don’t want a monster home filling every square inch of our lot, but we do want room to breathe. We need smart space.

In our neighbourhood, those little City of Ottawa Committee of Adjustment signs are cropping up faster than weeds after a rainstorm. Many times the appearance of this sign means that the individual or the developer is requesting the city for MORE of something. They want two houses where there should only be one, greater height, greater depth, or greater width for whatever it is that they’re building. There are zoning by laws in place. Why can’t people build within them? Gah. That’s a whole different post.

We have been taking a good hard look at our everyday needs. I’ve read some of Sarah Susanka‘s work and I really like her philosophy about living space, which tends to be open in some areas (like the kitchen/family room) and closed off in others (like bedrooms and work areas). And then there’s the issue of the space we think we are supposed to have. Take the formal dining room, for example. Do we really need a separate room for special occasions? With a table that seats 12? Personally I’d rather put the extra space towards other areas of the house, like a main floor laundry and mud room.

All this is so overwhelming. We’ve been talking about it for years but the time has finally come for a major remodel and serious upgrades. We want to finish the basement and make it into a livable area with storage. We want to expand two storeys out the back and reconfigure the space to include a better-functioning kitchen and a family room, get rid of the garage and tack on a secondary entrance and a mud room. AND THEN I would love to have the backyard beautifully landscaped. *sigh*

Since we’re planning on being up to our armpits in drywall dust and paint chips for god knows how long, I would love to implement some eco-friendly features, like a tankless hot water system and a high-efficiency furnace. Sadly, Mark will not entertain the idea of solar panels, a green roof, or geothermal heating, and he won’t let me get rid of the driveway, but projects like the Now House (have you heard of it?) make me realize how much is possible in terms of green design.

So now we’re looking for someone to help us take on this massive project. And we really don’t know where to begin.

I’m afraid of this taking over my life – that all I’m going to be thinking and talking about for 18 months is plumbing and electrical work – but we are at a crossroads and since we don’t want to move this is the path that we need to be taking right now.  

Ideally I’d like for someone to ring my doorbell and hand me floor plans of someone who was in our exact situation and remodeled their home in the same way we want to, thus saving us the anxiety of the design and planning stages.  (And then POOF the house would be fixed up! Ha.)

Ideally we’d like to hire a design/architect who can help us figure out how to reconfigure our space in the best way possible, AND give me 3D renderings because I am TERRIBLE at visualizing this kind of thing. We need someone who is really creative, and most importantly, has worked on our kind of house before.

Anyone know anyone?

It’s so big it is paralyzing. Other than tearing pictures out of magazines, where do we start?

36 Responses to "There’s no time like the present for this wartime home"

1 | Dave

June 3rd, 2010 at 8:47 am


We had a house like that in Saint John, NB. At some point, a previous owner kept the original footprint but turned the .5 floor into a full floor with a half-bath, three full bedrooms and a silly large hall (with a door leading to outside stairs).

I loved that place. A joy to live in. A joy to heat. I wonder if I’d find it a joy with three teenagers. Maybe I would.

2 | Lee

June 3rd, 2010 at 8:49 am


Sounds like you’re going to have a nice series of posts on renovations up and coming!

No advice on where to start and what to do. If you are any good at taking measurements and drawing in 2D, then maybe http://sketchup.google.com/ can help you with the visualization of things in 3D.

3 | bushidoka

June 3rd, 2010 at 9:14 am


You may want to check into the provinces new Micro-generation program. You can actually lease your roof space for solar panels. We’re looking into it right now.



We definitely feel your pain on space. We’ve got just shy of 1000 sq ft of living space in our 1880s home in Hintonburg, and just had our 3rd kid a few weeks ago. Soon we’ll be stackin’ ’em like cordwood!

4 | Betsy Mae

June 3rd, 2010 at 9:27 am


We are feeling the same way, want to stay, need more space but not the kind of space that new homes offer, love our property, don’t want to live with the process and planning of a major reno, ugh. I wish we could make smarter use of our house that’s for sure, I just don’t always trust the so called professional organizers…I don’t know anyone who has used one except for when they are selling their home and need to stage it. I don’t want to stage my home! Use professionals and check them out is my only advice, there’s nothing worse than an addition that looks like an addition and feels like an addition!

5 | Gemma

June 3rd, 2010 at 11:07 am


Hi there,

I live in the Westboro neighbourhood as well and we are currently in the process of doing a complete basement renovation. We are using a couple of contractors that we really like so far, so if all goes well I can pass along their names to you, if you like!

6 | Marla

June 3rd, 2010 at 12:19 pm


My only suggestion? Do something you’re already good at – take notes about the little things. What you do as you move through the house – for example, where coats and boots go (as I remember from our visit) when you enter. And views and sight lines! What I wouldn’t give to change the places of a certain door and window in my kitchen… Where you need more outlets! That’s huge. Wouldn’t it be great to have things where you want them, not just where they have to go because of the outlets! And what I learned too, is that most people have their homes set up in much the same way as they did when they first moved in and placed things “temporarily”. So where would you REALLY like things? I’m excited for you!

7 | BeachMama

June 3rd, 2010 at 12:25 pm


I know people who can finish it up after the framing and stuff is done, but not to start where you are. Best wishes and I don’t envy you one bit (drywall dust is my enemy after a year of basement construction). But, you will love it once it’s done.

8 | coffee with julie

June 3rd, 2010 at 12:35 pm


We are in the EXACT same boat! Same small footprint, same big backyard awaiting and extension. But it’s all so overwhelming that we’ve been putting it off for years. I think we’re at the point now that if it doesn’t get done by the end of next summer, we’ll lose our minds! I’ll be eagerly following your reno posts ….

9 | Kelly

June 3rd, 2010 at 12:42 pm


Call Sirois & Sons 613.724.3200 ask for Pierre. Tell him I referred you. He will take care of you and if he can’t, he will tell you who can. I would trust him with my first born…

10 | Ginger

June 3rd, 2010 at 1:07 pm


I am so excited to see a picture of your house. I love it! I can’t wait to see the changes that happen over the next while.

I haven’t had direct experience but my parents have ended up building 3 houses and I have heard the discussions and the things that they wished they had but didn’t think about.

I agree with Marla’s comment about taking note of where you would like things. Notice where you want more storage. My parents always started with an architect, of course they were building from the ground up. But make sure the plans are just as you want them.

11 | Demae

June 3rd, 2010 at 1:11 pm


I followed this reno story for a good part of last year.


I liked the approach this couple and their contractor took in keeping the character of their home while updating it and making it more energy efficient. You might get some ideas from their experience.

A work friend who lives in Mckellar park had a basement reno and addition done by Cada Construction and was very pleased with how it turned out.

Good luck.

12 | Judy

June 3rd, 2010 at 1:25 pm


The geothermal heating is really gaining popularity in Winnipeg and there were (Still are?) some neat financing options for it.

When we were in our condo we put closet systems in everywhere! We had them designed for us at the Solutions store and installed them ourselves. It was totally worth it. We sat down with them and told them what we needed (ie front hall had to fit stroller parkas, boots, and at least four baskets for mittens etc – they did that and more!).

Not quite a professional organizer but it helped!

Good luck finding a contractor!

13 | bushidoka

June 3rd, 2010 at 3:03 pm


BTW, the folks at ecogeneration above can give you a pretty good estimate just using google maps and streetview! They just got back to me with one .

14 | andrea

June 3rd, 2010 at 3:37 pm


Did I mention that this amazing person has to be able to work within a budget? :)

Thanks all! Keep ’em coming.

Marla: what didn’t you like about seeing a bungle of coats and boots right at the front door!?! ;)

Everyone else: Our “closet” in the front hall has no door on it. HENCE my deep desire for the mudroom/cloakroom. Click to embiggen:

bad sketch of our floor plan

15 | Elizabeth

June 3rd, 2010 at 4:23 pm


Have you checked out local architect Linda Chapman? I have no direct experience with her, but I believe she strongly subscribes to many of the “small/smart home” ideas put forth by Susanka. In my post-war neighbourhood, where some of the newer renovations are sadly monster-home-ish, her signboard is out in front of a lovingly updated but still modest home. She also has great eco-cred, having been responsible for the very green Mountain Equipment Co-op building in your neck of the woods.

16 | Laura

June 3rd, 2010 at 4:35 pm


I have a weakness for home renovation shows. Looking forward to readng about your plans…improving your home is such a satisfying feeling. I’m not from Ottawa so I cannot refer anyone, however my sister in law and a few friends just completed big renos/additions in TO. Two of them knocked on the doors of houses that completed renovations, that they loved. I suggest you do the same…if something catches your eye. That way you can see the reno, and hear first hand all about the experience. Good luck! :)

17 | milkfacemama

June 3rd, 2010 at 5:10 pm


My parents (and pretty much everyone on their street) have used an amazing contractor who pretty much does everything – I’ll get his contact info for you. They’re on Faraday (just the other side of Island Park) so the houses there are similar in terms of style/when they were built, etc.

18 | Binki

June 3rd, 2010 at 5:50 pm


Andrea said: What I’d like to do is expand off the back… increase the size of the kitchen and create a family room on the back right of the house. But what to do with the existing dining room? ”

The family room would be where you will eat your meals? Where do you currently eat? In the kitchen? If you eat in your dining room, then why are you getting rid of it? Not sure I follow.

Get Google Sketchup and draw/dream. I designed a cottage in Sketchup and it worked really well. I got to walk around and get a feel for the cottage (on screen/simulated) before I settled on the final look/layout.

19 | andrea

June 3rd, 2010 at 6:21 pm


Thanks everyone! Email me if you have specific info re: architects. (Some of you already have.)

Binki: The kitchen has no room for a table so we take all of our meals in the dining room. I would like the new back part of the house to encompass eating, casual dining as well as a family room. Let’s call it a “great room.” :)

I don’t want a formal dining room. Catch my meaning?

20 | Jennifer

June 3rd, 2010 at 6:40 pm


Hey Andrea, how exciting your thinking of doing this, although I think your place is as cute as a button as is! I hear ya about the space, we are currently right in the middle of an addition off the back. We are keeping it small though. Back yard does look like a bomb went off in it. Stop by if you want to see what we’ve done. Like you we just needed a bit more space and did not want to lose the backyard.

21 | Rebecca

June 3rd, 2010 at 8:34 pm


Love that you have such a home with character.

I have a small townhome, cookie cutter built by a builder in suburbia and we are about to embark on a kitchen make over to extend our stay here even longer. It has no character but it is a home in every sense of the word.

I look forward to seeing your renos and plans!!

22 | Chantal

June 3rd, 2010 at 9:18 pm


Oh I love those war time homes. My husband and I tried to buy a house in your neighbourhood 10 years ago, just as the market went insane. As first time home buyers we couldn’t handle the stress of bidding over asking price and putting offers in sight unseen. Now I often wish we had bit the bullet. I miss that area (lived in a condo near there for 5 years). I can’t wait to read all your posts about the reno. I am sure you will be so happy with the end result, even if the project itself will be stressful. Take care.

23 | Robyn

June 3rd, 2010 at 9:35 pm


Our home was your home five years ago — a cozy 1.5 storey post-war building that we loved. (We’re only two streets from you so I know what you mean about loving the neighbourhood.) We chose Gerhard Linse to our reno — he’s absolutely fantastic and works well within a budget (and will be frank about what can be done for the budget you have.) There’s no doubt it’s lots of work but so worth it … we read Susanka too, and didn’t have to enlarge the footprint very much to get a lot of usable space. Good luck!

24 | Lee

June 4th, 2010 at 12:31 pm


@bushidoka: Do you know if you have to claim the money made through the MicroFit program as part of your income?

25 | DaniGirl

June 4th, 2010 at 12:48 pm


Oh my goodness, you’re reading my mind! In fact, I have half a post written about how we’re thinking about maybe starting to look for a new place, and how ridiculous I think the concepts of formal living rooms and formal dining rooms are. As we’ve been looking, it seems to me that there are tiny houses and ginormous houses, but no, um, *normal* sized houses. I love our tidy little townhouse and especially its location, and only consider moving because I’d like each kid to have his own room and the miniature galley kitchen is starting to drive me insane.

I’d love to do what you’re doing but the choices would paralyze me! Will be watching and cheering, though!!

26 | Erica at KitchissippiKids

June 4th, 2010 at 6:59 pm


OK, we should talk. We moved into our house 9 years ago. It began it’s life as a wartime bungalow. A second floor addition was then added about 30 years ago when our predecessors had their 3 boys. The addition was actually 2 feet bigger in front and back and is still in good shape and a really good design. The downstairs kept its original bungalow configuration, was fairly disfunctional and had never seen a hammer (still those original kitchen cabinets till this May!)

With the development of our third little guy into an “eater” we realized that we had no room for him at our 4 person kitchen table. That seemed the ultimate in unfairness and I, in a fit of desperation, sent an e-mail off to neighbourhood contractor Brian Drury suggesting that I was about to put a sledgehammer through my kitchen cabinets. Things moved relatively quickly from there….

Backtracking just a bit, the first step we took was actually a few years back when we hired a designer (Tamara Phillips, an instructor at Algonquin). She talked us through how our family used the space, what we were looking for and what might be possible. She drew up three possible concept designs for a very reasonable price. We sat on those for another 5 years but ultimately we used one of them. We actually forewent the architect and simply went with our contractors advice. Becuase we don’t have a lot of time on our hands we simply jumped in with both feet and went for it….after 8 years of sitting on it, that is.
We gutted our main floor, opened up the living and dining room, added the original bath onto the kitchen, reconfigured the back mudroom to incorporate a small powder room and bumped out the back wall 2 feet.

This is a bit disjointed but if you ever want to chat in person send me an e-mail. I also have a very good friend on Fraser who has just moved out of her house and did go the architect route. She could give you some really good informtion on that as well as on the permit process.

27 | Miss Vicky

June 5th, 2010 at 1:25 pm


We’re going to be launching into a basement reno soon as well, so will be interested in your adventures – and any contractor recs! Me, I like a formal living room and dining room, so I just want the extra space a rec room in the basement will bring. I’m tired of using it as a place to store crap.

28 | andrea

June 6th, 2010 at 7:46 am


Thanks everyone for all of your help and comments. Seems like many of you are in the same kind of boat.

Look for more posts on this topic as we kickstart this process!


29 | This week it was about Architect D. >> a peek inside the fishbowl

January 29th, 2011 at 9:58 am


[…] morning I woke up thinking about the reno. I first talked about it here. It’s something Mark and I have been talking about a lot, although it isn’t reflected […]

30 | Roy

March 31st, 2011 at 8:39 pm


It’s nice to stumble across this little old house. Very charming, it kinda reminds me of an old timber bungalow I moved into in Dorset, England back in the 70’s. Though bigger it had a similar charm. It was called Woodlands, and the name paints the picture.

After we moved in we found out the bungalow had started life as a rabbit hutch which had grown into a property of three bedrooms, two studies, a big living room and moderate dining room.

I am sure you lovely house has less of an animal related history.

31 | Sarah

April 6th, 2011 at 1:01 pm


I know this is a crazy idea, but have you heard of the simulation game The Sims? That game allows you to design houses, in addition to having simulated people. What I suggest is that you create a replica of your house, including your floor plan, and from there you can experiment. You might enjoy your simulated family too! LOL I’m just curious, though: why does your husband doesn’t want to install solar panels and other eco-stuff in your house? I think having a green home is lovely.

32 | Simon

April 7th, 2011 at 1:51 pm


I came across your site while doing some Google searches on wartime homes. Your home is lovely. I see this post is almost a year old, I wonder how it looks like now after all the renovations you were thinking of doing.

33 | 32 | Simon

April 12th, 2011 at 5:59 am


I am deeply touched this story knowing that there are still individuals who are still humble at heart to be able to retain what was erected by the labors of love that keep the legacy of their forefathers alive. Living in their established abodes only strengthens their bond with the family and ancestry

34 | Chaser Cruz

May 24th, 2011 at 1:16 pm


Our home is the place where we can rest, feel relax and a place where we spent our quality time with our family. Renovations of our house is a big hassle especially if we do not have enough knowledge how to start it. Glad that there are realtor’s who are paid for house renovations and will help you to update the entire look of your house.

35 | Lynn

October 16th, 2016 at 12:40 am


We have a wartime house in British Columbia. Few updates but we LOVE our 1.5 story, 4 bedroom, 1 bathroom with a laundry room and ‘tv room-Lego building room!’ in the basement. We are considering converting the 2 bedrooms upstairs into a master bedroom with open style bath, maybe with a claw foot tub? Has anyone else done this type of reno in these homes? Would love to see pics or share ideas

36 | Kelly

March 7th, 2017 at 5:46 pm


Hi all, I bought a wartime house in Sault Ste Marie Ontario. I’m wanting to put a powder room in upstairs as mine only has the main floor bathroom and the main floor bedroom is now a dining room.
Any ideas or pics would be most helpful. And, which closet is the best one to use.
Approx. cost estimates would be great too!
Thanks So Much,

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  • a peek inside the fishbowl » Blog Archive Look who I found! - a peek inside the fishbowl: […] He (or she) was just hanging out on a hosta. He’s the only one I’ve seen from our brood. […]
  • andrea tomkins: Me too! I am REALLY looking forward to it. We didn't get to go last year so I'm really counting on it this summer!
  • Ginger: I hope COVID-19 doesn't take away your camping trip!
  • andrea tomkins: It's going to be tough. The problem is that everyone seems to have a different tolerance. Some people think it's no big deal, while others haven't lef
  • Ginger: I'm that person too. I liked my personal space before this, but now...I would prefer even more than 6 feet please!
  • andrea tomkins: We have a natural gas BBQ but we bought this portable one a few years back fo camping and/or picnics. I loooove the smell of burning charcoal! And yes
  • Corvid: You have a charcoal grill *and* a gas bbq? Or just charcoal? I have both. Charcoal flavour is unique/delish. What restaurant is that?

The Obligatory Blurb

My name is Andrea and I live in the Westboro area of Ottawa with my husband Mark and our dog Piper who is kind of a big deal on Instagram. We also have two human daughters: Emma (20) and Sarah (18). During the day I work as a writer at The Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre. I am a longtime Ottawa blogger and I've occupied this little corner of the WWW since 1999. The Fishbowl is my whiteboard, water cooler, and journal, all rolled into one. I'm passionate about healthy living, arts and culture, family travel, great gear, good food, and sharing the best of Ottawa for families. I also love vegetables, photography, gadgets, and great design.

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