Category Archives: Real Estate

To Buy or to Build?

For the past ten months my fiancé and I have been submerged in the housing market. The frustration, disappointment, excitement, and prices have all been a little overwhelming and I thought I would share my experience.

As a first time home buyer the process of buying a home is a little confusing and as the largest purchase I have ever made, I wanted to be sure we picked the right one. We saved up our downpayment and with our realtor went shopping. In our price range we found very little that met our expectations, most homes needed major renovations, which we wouldn’t have the money for after buying the house. So we decided to increase our budget a little, sadly we where met with the same situation. We knew we would have to do some work to make the home our own, but we were met with homes that needed total renovations, needing some combination of a new kitchen, walls removed, new floors and bathroom guts. Any large renovations were not something we were willing to under take with our up coming wedding, and our housing budget maxed on the cost of the home.

After viewing countless homes in many different neighbourhoods a family member suggested we look at a new build in a brand new subdivision. I was sceptical, I hate subdivisions, on the outskirts of town, so disconnected, nothing within walking distance, all the houses look the same, little or no parks or public spaces, and the homes themselves are not very architecturally pleasing. Despite my objections my fiancé convinced me to keep an open mind.

We visited the sales centre, and yes the street and the exterior of the homes lacked character, but the interior was beautiful, a far cry from the homes we saw with our realtor and on MLS the past seven months. We were shown all the finishing choices and floor plans we could select, we could completely design our home for a price less than our original budget. It was exciting, but I had to take a step back and think about if I could live in an isolated subdivision, turns out for the price, I was willing to give it a shot. After reviewing all the possible floor plans we selected the best option for us and put down our deposit. We bought in during the pre-build phase which meant we where able to make some changes to the floor plan at a very reasonable cost. We where told we could move in on December 11, “Home for the holidays” is what they told us.

Then the set backs came, pushing our closing date back four months. We where renting at the time and could not sign another years lease, we had to move to another residence where we could live month to month. We were very disappointed we would not be “Home for the holidays”, but glad we where not forced into another years lease, even if it meant moving. Then after a few more months of waiting we were contacted by the builder to start making our finishing selections, we were met with disappointment again. Turns out most of the finishes we were told in the sales centre were standard, were not, and we would have to pay extra for these “upgrades”. This gets expensive, we were given one to eight standard options and the rest were upgrades. So, we  mixed  in some upgraded options on things that could not easily be changed or would make for better resale value.

We are still in the process of building and I often think if we would have bought an existing home we would be living there already, slowly making changes to suit our taste. Then I remember the houses we viewed and the amount of renovations they needed to be comfortable. Even with all the set backs I feel we made the right decision for our first home, we just have to remember to keep the upgrades to a minimum. I will keep you posted on the process as we move forward. 

Guest Author: Trena Tataryn

A Greener, Cheaper Home

IMG_8272With utility costs, pollution, and water consumption on the continuous rise, the task to improve the environment and lower utilities costs is often on the minds of many homeowners. While a net zero home may not be an option for everyone, there are some simple improvements and upgrades you can make to achieve a greener, cheaper home at any price point.

Rainwater Barrel

Rainwater Barrel

Rainwater Barrels – Collect free water using a rainwater barrel. At an average cost of $100, a barrel will pay for itself in 5 years, saving you about $20 a year on your water and sewer costs, depending on the size you select. Rainwater has many uses including, plant and grass watering, car and window cleaning, and all sorts of other outdoor jobs and cleanups. Many municipalities offer rainwater barrels at a discounted price during certain times of the year, so keep an eye out.

Low-Flow Toilets – In an average home more than 30% of the water consumption is literally flushed down the toilet. Today’s more modern, low-flow toilets use less than 5L of water per flush, while their older counterparts need 13L per flush on average, using unnecessary water while hiking up your bill. A good low-flow toilet will run you about $250, but will save you $100 per year on your water bill, making the investment well worth while, returning your investment in 2.5 years.

Low-flow Faucets and Shower Heads – Easily cut bathing water consumption by 50 to 70% by switching out shower heads and sink faucets. A low-flow shower head or faucet rang in price from $60 to $300 depending on make and style. By upgrading these fixtures throughout your house you will see a noticeable decrease in your bill.

Programable Thermostat – Having better control of your indoor temperature can save you a lot a cash. With the average family home saving $150 per year by decreasing/increasing the temperature at night and during the day (when no one is home). A good programable thermostat will cost roughly $75 – $150. They are easy to install and can allow you to program the temperature several times throughout the day, 7 days a week. Returning the initial investment usually within one year or less.

Energy Star Logo

Energy Star Logo

Energy Star Appliance – With appliances efficiency is key. High efficiency products help reduce greenhouse gases and lower you energy bill. There is a lot of information on Energy Star products, so do a little research before heading to the store. Be sure to purchase products with the Energy Star logo (the international symbol for energy efficiency. Here are the best rated Energy Star appliances of 2013.

Power Strip/Bar with Switch – For about $7 -$15 you can pick up a power bar with an on/off switch, allowing you to plug in any number of items. By turning the power bar off you cut down on stand by power or “vampier power”. Stand by power accounts for 5 – 10% of electrical use in a typical residential home, as many electronics continue to use energy even when the devices is turned “off”. For more information on reducing stand by power visit:

Residential Solar Roof

Residential Solar Roof

Solar Energy Systems – Yes, the initial cost of solar is hefty, anywhere from $10,000 to $45,000 for the solar panels, system, installation and connection to your local grid, depending on the size of your home and energy needs. This investment can be offset by a monthly cheque from your local hydro company by participating in the Ontario microFIT-income program. This programs allows hydro companies to buy clean renewable energy from home owners with excess kilowatt hours (kWh). Homeowner’s with a rooftop solar system will receive a cost per kWh for every kWh that is sold to the grid. By participating in this program the system will paying for itself in an estimated 9 to 10 years, not too bad considering you will be producing your home with your own clean renewable energy as well. 

Whether you plan for a complete home renovation or just some simple around the house improvements, incoporating a few of these features into any project will create a cheaper home. With that you can feel good about helping to improve our environment with your greener home. 

Moving Back to the City; The Urban Living Trend

The suburbs became the epitome of the ‘Canadian Dream’ following World War 2, as couples desired settling down,  more privacy, and raising children in safe, quite neighbourhoods. Then came the Baby Boomers; wanting to create much of the same lifestyle as their parents, the suburbs thrived through the 60’s and 70’s as large homes and modern cars became status symbols. Today things are starting to change, with raising gas prices, long commute times and a growing awareness of environmental issues, people are saying no to suburbia and are moving back to the city.

Echo Boomers, Generation Y, Millennials, or whatever you like to call them; the children of the Baby Boomers have historically tried to separate themselves from their parents and their new lifestyle choice is no different. Moving to the cities Echo Boomers are a major contributor to this migration trend and are helping create this new lifestyle norm. Growing up in the suburbs this generation is opting to live close to work, restaurants and entertainment; abandoning the car and saving on time and gas costs. This urban lifestyle is about walking, biking and public transit (they aren’t call Echo Boomers for nothing). This generation doesn’t see the need for large half empty homes, lawns that need constant maintenance, or having to drive to the corner store, instead the desire is to be centrally located. According to Statistics Canada the density in large Canadian cities grew an average of 126.26 people per square kilometer from 2006 to 2011, topping the charts where Vancouver who’s density increased by 210 people per square kilometer and Toronto, increasing by 177.1 people p/ It’s all about location and the most sought after are becoming those within the city.

Despite Generation Y’s quest to separate themselves from their parents, Baby Boomers are following the initiative of their children and making the move  themselves. As Baby Boomers approach retirement they are realizing their large, empty homes require too much maintenance, and the family vehicle continues to cost more and more to drive. Many Baby Boomers are seeking homes that better suite their lifestyle; hunting for smaller home which require little or no maintenance, are in close proximity to all amenities, contain a sense of community and can easily be locked up when traveling. Downtown condos are becoming a popular choice, offering Baby Boomers the lifestyle they are looking for. With so many people now competing for the same properties, prices are on the raise.

Together these two large groups are creating quite a lifestyle tend, raising property values in cities and increasing the number of high rise condos being building. According to the Canadian Mortgage and Housing annual report; a record of 27,504 new condo unites where under construction in the city of Toronto at the end of 2011, increasing the city’s total number of condo units to 199,000. Will this urban living trend redefine the ‘Canadian Dream’? What does this mean for our cities, suburbs, transportation modes, property values, and environment? Change is inevitable and it seems we are about to whiteness the next big lifestyle shift; what the outcome will be, only time will tell.

Future Toronto Condo sites. Photo from

The Perfect Party House

Have you ever wondered what makes one home better for entertaining than another? Why no matter how many times you invite friends over for a get together they never seem to commit, but there they are the next weekend at the house with the pool table, and wet bar. Sure these features are fun, but it’s the space within the home that makes people feel welcome.

Making a few changes to your space can create a more inviting space where your guests can feel comfortable and are more apt to having a good time.

First impressions are important. When you welcome people into your home you want to put your best foot forward. Your entrance should be warm and inviting, clutter free, and large enough for a few people to comfortably remove their outerwear. A good party house has ample shoe storage (you don’t want guests tripping all over each others shoes), as well as an area near the entry where guests can independently get their coats.

The entry is where first and last impressions are formed, so make sure it’s pleasant. Try to take advantage of any nooks and crannies in and around your entry, creating open shelving, or a small closet will make better use of the vertical space allowing you to remove entry consoles, freeing up valuable floor space.

Traffic flow is always important and a party is certainly no exception. The ideal entertaining house is large enough for people to move through freely but maintains intimate and warm areas to converse. These comfortable areas ideally should be created around what one might call a central “hub”. This is a room that connects other key entertaining spaces, like the kitchen, dinning room, patio and living room. This allows for guests to move through the space easily and encourages conversation by creating several intimate social areas while maintaining the traffic flow through the “hub”.


Having different areas of the home open for guests to move through also allow them to decide where they feel most comfortable rallying.

Simply re-configuring your rooms can create this type of “hub”; for example it might make more sense for your family room and dinning room to switch places. Also consider any rooms that tend to go unused, maybe removing or partly removing a wall will open up the space to its full potential. Really think about how your spaces are or are not used and take into account the flow, a few small changes can completely change the feel of the space.

Making your guests comfortable is the key to hosting a successful gathering.

A group of guests will always settle in the kitchen. Having high-level seating in this room is the best way to ensure that they are relaxed and don’t feel as if they are looking to be waited on. A kitchen island with pub style stools encourages guests to help with the preparations while they keep you company. If you don’t already have a kitchen island you can put one in, if you have the space. If not consider the option of a movable island.

Think about transitional pieces. If selected correctly, the kitchen island can double as a serving buffet or that wet bar you always wanted.

Think about your home practically, if you have a formal dining room that is never used there’s no point to it. Change it up and create something beautiful in that space instead. Make every public area in your home one that’s comfortable and enjoyable and your guest will never want to leave.


Our Treehouse

As a feature project, John MacDonald Architect, along with Storeworks has undertaken the redesign of a residential property here in Kitchener. Located in the  St. Mary’s Historic Conservation District, the home was built in 1948 and features the appeal and charm common to the wartime houses in the neighbourhood.

In need of some TLC, the property is undergoing a total gut and re-design. Featured as a design storm project at JMA, numerous options were discussed and debated with design team members, local realtors, home stagers, and members of the public. Given that the property was built in the 1950s certain amenity and features were missing in the home that most feel are ‘givens’ so to speak, in more recent construction. Features such as an upper floor bathroom, an open concept floor plan and a finished basement were all design elements highlighted by the design storm. In keeping with the heritage designation, and the general aesthetic of the neighbourhood, the exterior finishes were decided early on to be minimal and true to the original colour palate. New siding, new windows and doors and a new roof are the major components of the work in the re-design of the exterior.

Given that the idea was for this to truly be an ‘office’ project, John has taken up the new role as general contractor for the project. Beginning with the total gut, and demolition of the interior walls, flooring, ceilings and the back half of the roof (in order to accommodate the new second storey addition), the project has progressed through to framing, and is currently in the process of being re-roofed (literally as we speak!). In the coming weeks our team will work on electrical, plumbing and mechanical work, followed by drywalling, flooring and finishes- working to a fall completion date.

We’ll be providing updates form time to time on how the project is progressing and the various features we’ll be incorporating that relate to design, history, sustainability and just plain fun.

Like most homeowners we already have a taste of the  joys of renovation and contracting with trades 🙂

In the end, we’ll have a great step by step record of the project in photos and blog posts and we’d love to have you come by for a tour once its all done. Stay posted!

Design Storm: Brewing up Good Ideas

Much like it sounds, a Design Storm is an exercise to explore design ideas for a project. The concept is simple yet effective, and has yielded great success for those who have used this service. Rather than hiring one designer to create a design concept, Design Storm allows each designer in the office to independently consider and develop project ideas and sketches of their own. After everyone has finalized their concept for the project, a lunch session is arranged and the client, and whomever else they wish are invited to come to the office, where each design will be presented and critiqued. In the end the client walks away with 8-10 design options, and a critique of each option.

Following the session the client is free to take the designs and decide on aspects they would like to incorporate into their project. This is a great way to create direction for a project when the client is unsure how to proceed. The lead designer will then create a final design with all of the different aspects incorporated, giving the client the benefit of a whole office of architects working on their project, rather than just one.

This approach can be applied to any project of any scale.

Recent Design Storms here in the office have included the space planning and floor plan reconfiguration of an upscale condominium here in Kitchener, for a client wanting to re-model and add re-sale value to his property. Working within the existing floor plan, each designer re-worked the layout. Some chose to remove walls and create an open floor plan, created extra storage, enlarged and updated the en-suite bathroom, added much needed working/office space, and changed the placement of the kitchen. Other designers chose to keep more of the existing layout while flipping the master bedroom to the opposite side of the condo to incorporate the balcony, reworked the layout of the kitchen and created a space for laundry and storage in the unit. For this specific project, the owner chose to submit their own design concept for the exercise, and then worked with the designers to incorporate parts of each design into the final product.

Another example of the success of this service was a design storm for the total gut and re-design of a house. In this scenario the designers had a blank slate to decide whether to add an addition, add dormers, create an open concept living space, add amenity such as a main floor powder room in addition to the upstairs bathroom, or make whatever changes they deemed necessary. At this specific session, local realtors, home staging experts and potential buyers were invited to the session, with the client’s permission, to provide comments and input into the final design. With this extra input, we were able to present a well rounded critique of each design from various points of view, so the client was able to make informed decisions to get the best value for the sale of their project following the re-design and renovations. Following the lunch session the client then considered the various options and worked with a designer to create a final design and drawings, which are now in the process of being implemented in their total house renovation- we cant wait to see the results in the fall!

The Design Storm service can also add value to the sale of your home, as it presents a number of possibilities for potential buyers looking to change the space, or add extra features. One specific example was a design storm for a client wishing to present possibilities for a property he was having a hard time marketing. Designers worked with the client to understand the property, its challenges, and the feedback he had received from potential buyers, to outline designs that solved spatial issues, created a layout with a main floor bathroom, more generous master bedroom and en-suite.

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Whether a private client, a realtor, commercial client, contractor or business, this is a great way to gather a variety of ideas for your project at a reasonable rate, with no commitment to act. We create the designs, alter the designs to suit your needs, and you take them away to do with them as you please- whether you decide to proceed with the project or not.

If you have a property, home, condo or townhouse you want to re-design, update or sell- Design Storm is a great place to start!

Better like this? Or better like this? The Optics of Design!

In our design work we’re constantly pushing and pulling, tinkering with this and changing that. That’s fundamental to design. It’s kind of like going to the optometrist! “Better like this or better like this, better like this or better like this …”

And like the process of selecting lenses for best vision, the goal of design is to eventually arrive at a sharp, well-focused image that really works.

How do we know if one solution is better than another, if we don’t have a clear understanding of the project’s context, its priorities, aims, and goals? This is often overlooked in the design process, as we jump straight to creating combinations of ideas and forms, but it’s probably the most important part of our work. If we forget to explore the project’s aims and goals, and its constraints and context, then how will we evaluate the design? How do we know that it’s better like this, or like this?

Recently we’ve purchased a small property that needs our help and ideas. It’s a storey-and-a-half house in Kitchener’s St. Mary’s Conservation District. It’s sorely in need of rejuvenation, and that means ideas. Since we’re in ideas business, it’s a great fit. Why not put our ideas to work for ourselves? Well, that’s the plan. We’ll see how it turns out.

We started by documenting the house, the property, and the neighbourhood, and thinking in rough terms about how grand a change to create. We didn’t nail down the aims and goals of the project too tightly, in case we missed some great possibilities. Then we had some fun. Over the course of a couple of days, everyone in the office created a possibility for the house. Ten different designs emerged, and we convened a lunch session to examine and discuss them all. We even invited some real estate agents, a home stager and interior designer, and some acquaintances to the critique, to share some lunch and have some fun. They were great.

Some of the ideas were for larger additions, some for no addition at all. Each had its own level of investment and reward, its own emphasis on where to spend and where to save to achieve the overall goal. Discussion was lively, and between the ideas and the session it generated a second phase of design. What’s interesting is that no one scheme was chosen as the winner. Instead, what emerged was a realization that by combining aspects of the designs (a kitchen layout here, an idea about using the basement, a change to the rear roof line to create more second floor, etc) we could further push and pull in a sort of “Round 2”, where a stronger and clearer design emerged. Tinkering and massaging some more, and seeing how aspects of the ideas could combine, created a final design that’s greater than the sum of its parts! That’s often the way it goes, and part of the reason that design takes patience and perseverance.

Better like this, or better like this?

We’ve now documented the design for construction purposes, and the changes will soon be underway. We’ll keep you posted as we move through construction, and we’ll see how the ideas continue to enrich and transform the property.

We’re excited to see how the journey goes!