Category Archives: Property Development

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

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

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!

Learning Curve

For most people finding your home is an exciting process. Some people start by calling a realtor, some people go out for a drive and see what’s out there to be had, and some people sit down at their computer and start their search online. Regardless of how you start your property search, unless you belong to the portion of the population that is involved in construction, trades, professional consulting or the engineering fields, you may know a minimal amount about the physical property you are about to invest in. Sure you can research the market, find what houses are going for in the area, explore the financial aspects of the deal, make sure you get all the tax credits you qualify for, and be ‘smart’ about one of the biggest purchases of your life – but how much can a person really know about the important issues in buying a house.

As a recent homebuyer myself I can remember discussing the purchase of our home with the bank, our family, our friends and our realtor. We talked about what we liked about certain homes and what we didn’t like, what area we would like to live in, and what features in a home we wanted such as square footage, an updated kitchen, three bedrooms and a large enough backyard for our growing boxer puppy. Touring through houses we discussed whether we liked the finishes, the flooring, the layout, and what changes we would have to make to allow the house to feel more like our home.

When we finally settled on a house we took all of the usual steps. We had a home inspection, got our finances in order, and when they accepted the offer – we had purchased our first home! We felt that we had done our homework, been diligent, and made an informed decision.

For most people this is how they go about researching and purchasing a property.

After all – what else is there to know?

The answer is there is A LOT more to know.

Ok, so admittedly I am still learning all the things there are to know about a property. But I’ll start by sharing a few things I found most shocking recently through my work at John MacDonald Architect, as I participated with the principal and staff in a house-hunting exercise: (laugh, but I bet you didn’t know some of this either)

  • when you buy a property, whether its a $100,000 fixer-upper or a million dollar mansion, you may own it but you can’t do whatever you want with it. You heard me right: if you happened to buy a house in a heritage district, or a heritage designated house itself, your ability to alter, add, change, paint, or demolish, are – hold your breath- not completely up to you. Permissions are needed, and they aren’t always predictable. Some properties are designated, but sit on a list of properties of special interest that you might not know of.
  • Next, if your property is in a floodplain – wait for it – yes, you guessed it! It’s also not under your total control. Want to build that three car garage you’ve been dreaming of since you bought the place? Think again if the GRCA flood lines say otherwise. And those floodlines show up in the most unlikely places, adjacent the tiniest of streams. You’d never think to check until it’s too late!
  • Zoning. Yes zoning! Dont chuckle and think I hadn’t heard of zoning before, we all have. But who knew there were these binders and binders of rules, and subrules of subrules!? Did you know that you can buy a house in a residential area that might not even be zoned residential? What on earth is “legal nonconforming” anyway? Well, it’s a status that can jump up and bite you.
As if these weren’t enough things to think about, some other points of consideration include:
  • is your house located on a road that is subject to a road widening? Either now, or coming soon? That might cause you to lose a chunk of your front property, and all its trees. In five years your house might be 10 feet closer to the road. Who knew?
  • is your house located in an area that has significant changes planned for it in the near future (hint- find the Region or City Official Plan for your area). Your plans are only some of the plans at work.
  • what are the variances on the property, and what are your chances of getting some too, if you want to make changes?
  • what shape are the structural, plumbing and heating systems in? Does the house have enough electrical services to support your families needs? The architects kept talking about houses with “good bones”. I’m not sure I ever looked at the bones.
  • Did you know that the Region of Waterloo did a study of properties on septic systems, only to discover that about a third of the owners didn’t even know they weren’t connected to the municipal sewers? That they even HAD a septic system?
  • did you know that houses are full of designated and hazardous substances that we don’t even think about? What’s in those old kitchen floor tiles? If they’re 8 inches square, it’s might be asbestos.
All of these things can amount to frustration and disappointment. But don’t be discouraged. Just like you call for investment and legal advice before you leap, there are people who are knowledgeable and happy to help, often for little or no charge,

so that your dream home with the three bedrooms, updated kitchen and large enough backyard for the growing boxer puppy can be just that.
Your dream home.

Some helpful resources include:
  •  local architect offices like ours
  •  city planning departments
  •  building permit offices
  • registry offices
  •  city or regional websites
  •  zoning (usually available online)
  • the GRCA  (their website here) under “map your property”
Happy house hunting!

Cailin Radcliffe

Too School for Cool

This probably makes me a complete dork but my favorite place in the tri-cities’ area is my school. I am not sure whether I’ve grown so attached to it, spending an unhealthy amount of time there, having met some really great people, or whether it is actually just a really great example of a well (re)designed building.

The University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture moved into an old silk mill in Cambridge in 2004. The building, redesigned by Levitt Goodman Architects, with extensive consultation from staff and students, [aka a lot of cooks in the kitchen] is now a bright studio space for its students and faculty with spectacular views of the Grand River and downtown Galt. The design is simple and clean – they took an existing building, carved out a large atrium, and then built out around it. The material palette is simple and lets the main feature of the building – tons of natural light – dominate.

I know I can’t attribute all the experiences I’ve had at the school to the building itself but it certainly is one of the best things about it. Here, the students take pride and ownership of the building; it truly feels like yours. Sure, having your own desk space and a 24-hour access helps, but its uncomplicated design and simple aesthetic makes it a little easier to envision your next few years in this place.


Guest Blogger Milda Miskinyte