BY DANIELLE POPE | PHOTOS BY SARAH MACNEILL
When Max and Jac-Lyn Mickelson first stared up the steps of their future dream home, the two almost walked away. As Jac-Lyn tells it, Max was not even willing to see the second floor once they realized the state of the house — though Jac-Lyn was taken by the entrance, the sweeping lawn and the neighbourhood where they’d longed to raise their family.
It was a 1912 character home in Oak Bay that showed the kind of wear a century of life brings to a property: the building dipped and swayed in places, decades of belongings littered the grounds and the house was in various stages of deterioration. It was enough to make most prospective buyers turn away at first sight, and others to shake their heads at the costs involved. So did the Mickelsons, at first.
Except, weeks later, the family sold their own home and, as pressure mounted in their housing hunt, they revisited a few properties they’d passed by — including the Oak Bay house. It was the right location, and the couple returned with a builder and designer to assess the reality.
Raubyn Rothschild, principal designer of Rothschild West Design + Planning, says the first time she laid eyes on the house, she couldn’t wait to get to work.
“When I walked in, I was extremely excited to see the potential. The whole house seemed really special,” says Rothschild. “It had so much of what they were looking for in the exterior, and I knew we could turn the inside into what they wanted. I was glad to be involved at this point, because this is the moment when a lot of people walk away.”
The Mickelsons were familiar with the renovation process; both through working on their previously owned 1950s bungalow, and through their construction business. However, a character renovation of this magnitude would involve overcoming an array of challenges, from rigorous permitting requirements and environmental upgrades to sourcing materials and adhering to codes that respected the heritage of the building. They decided to move forward.
“In some ways, I think it started as an act of desperation,” says Max. “We were without a home, and we really had no other options, so we decided to make it work. We turned out to be the ideal buyers, though, because more than anything, we wanted to bring this place back to its former glory, and we had the motivation to do it.”
Though the home was nearly gutted and some areas, like the kitchen, were entirely replaced, much of the original features were preserved — from the coffered ceilings and the wainscotting walls to the fir flooring (in parts) and historic doors that were redistributed throughout the house. In a complex permitting twist, part of the original structure turned out to be non-conforming, and new plans would require a portion of the home to be shrunk by a few feet, devastating the master bedroom. Rothschild surprised everyone with a redesign that transformed the area to a laundry and bathroom, then redistributed the master to its own private level.
“I thought we were facing total disaster with the project at this point, and Raubyn managed to flip it into something that not only improved the plans, but became a signature feature of our house,” says Max. “Sometimes, the best thing you can do is abandon your preconceived ideas and come up with something new.”
Some areas of the house, like the basement, were more tedious. When Matt Kinnee of Kinnee Contracting first saw this level, he was aware it would have to be dug out and rock blasted away so the Mickelsons could have a usable ceiling height on this floor. What he and others weren’t expecting, however, was the grim setting of a deranged metal shop. The area was eerie, poorly lit, and looked like something out of a movie.
“The building had dipped, curved and settled over time, and getting in there to straighten it out was going to be a real challenge,” Kinnee says. “The basement itself was very crammed, and there was metal hanging from every open space you could imagine. I wasn’t quite expecting what we saw, but it sure was good to get in there and start ripping it apart.”
The Beauty Beneath
After less than a year of extreme renovations, the result was a welcoming 3,200-square-foot, Scandinavian-themed family home with three complete levels of usable space — from the main floor’s active living zone, to the upper level’s bedrooms and lower level’s guest suite. The house is filled with natural light, organic materials and texture. Fine details, like the specially dyed black window frames that showcase the wood grain, match the spirit of the home’s vintage feeling while bringing it up to modern standards.
“When it comes to working with old houses, there is so much potential, but you have to build off of what has been created,” says Rothschild. “You need to know when your plans are working, and also when it’s time to rethink things. We wanted to create a home that was going to age well and use materials that have their own patina so it fit with the heritage, and everything feels like it can be used and loved.”
While some elements of the house are brand new, like the kitchen’s high-end Miele appliances and the living room’s ceramic tile gas fireplace, others were saved — almost by accident — like an old pendant lamp destined for the dump that was reenvisioned into the current entry lantern.
“The fact that we were able to preserve so much of the home was really special, and sometimes that takes more work than starting fresh,” says Jac-Lyn. “With any serious renovation, things can seem ugly and dirty and messy before they become beautiful, but if you can just see through it, there’s beauty there waiting for you to find it.”
Architect: Keay Architecture
Interior Designer: Rothschild West Design + Planning
Builder/Contractor: Kinnee Contracting
Engineer: Skyline Engineering
Millwork: Victoria Millwork & Joinery
Counters: Abstract Stone
Floors: Island Floor Centre
Appliances: Lansdowne Appliance Gallery
Light fixtures: Circa Lighting, Restoration Hardware (RH), CB2, West Elm
Window coverings: Island Window Coverings
Electrical: Amped Electrical Contracting
Mechanical Contractor: MGM Mechanical
Painting: Diamond Quality Coatings
Fireplace: Ark At Home