before and after

Before and After: Sabrina’s Open-Plan, Game-Changer Renovation

by Sabrina Smelko

Since I bought my 1950s bungalow in Milton, Ontario two years ago, a lot has changed. As I touched on in my D*S home tour, when mine was the winning bid at an estate auction, I was both proud to own anything at 22, and fearful of the huge commitment I had just made. At the time, I’d just left the advertising world and began freelancing, and I didn’t own a lick of my own furniture.

In those first few weeks of homeownership, I tackled some aesthetic issues (wallpaper, paint, etc.) and began moving in. I bought furniture at auctions, purchased housewares with gift cards I had never had a use for prior, and received many donated pieces from my parents. It was fun, but also scary. Could I really afford a whole house as a freelancer? To ward off the uneasiness and help me feel more secure in my decision, I rented out my basement and all was well with the world: I had a home, a garden to tend to, some security (thanks to a tenant), and my career was taking off.

Fast forward two years, and even more change took place: Shawn began working from home full-time as well, I became busier with my own work, and we re-arranged our living/dining/kitchen space countless times. Layout and space became a sore spot, and we started to feel the effects of a home that didn’t function as we had initially anticipated. Our living/kitchen space needed to serve many purposes — that of an office, a rec room, a dining room big enough to fit friends and family, and our entryway, to boot — and it was failing to do so. The excitement of buying a home had worn off, and on top of our space issues, the reality of living in a small bungalow above someone else started weighing on me, probably more than it should have. I wouldn’t make a peep after 10 pm and before 10 am, waiting for hours most mornings before making a smoothie or grinding coffee beans; if we had guests over, I’d shush them if our dinner party went late; with a single driveway, we would succumb to staying in most nights when the car got blocked in. It may sound trivial and perhaps even petty, but for all of the financial security I gained having a tenant, and for as hard as I worked to save enough to even buy a house, I completely lost the feeling that my house was my home and sanctuary. I found myself sacrificing my own personal enjoyment, and it didn’t even hit me until earlier this year when the biggest change in our lives happened: the addition of a silly little cattle dog named Piper to our family. Cue many sleepless nights compounded by feeling terrible every time she barked! We needed a change.

At the time, I thought the best solution was to rent out the entire home and move, but when that failed, I made it my personal mission to take our happiness into my own hands and make what I already had work. We made the tough decision to evict our nothing-but-nice tenant, and I decided to use some of my savings to renovate the heart of our home to work better for us: the open kitchen, dining and living space. Before, the space was oddly segmented: our TV/media area was placed awkwardly across the walkway to the kitchen in a corner, and we had to crane our necks to watch TV; our kitchen was poorly laid out and lacked storage and counter space; our fixed island and overhead storage (while a neat feature) meant we could only fit two people over for dinner at a time — the list went on. In October, I set out to single-handedly remodel our home in collaboration with Leon’s Furniture and Frigidaire Professional, every step of which I publicly shared on Instagram.

Working within a strict, four-week timeline (to my body, I apologize again!), I completed most of the demolition and renovation by myself with help from my dad and Shawn when he wasn’t traveling for work. Although it felt impossible doing it all on my own while raising a puppy and still working — and I even spoke of regretting it at times — I could not be more proud of the result! Our space is now completely reconfigured and functions so much better. In many cases, I didn’t realize what I was missing out on; things like having professional-grade appliances, and the room to prepare food, has been such a treat. All of the hard work after two years of sacrifice has been worth it. Now, we’re thrilled to call this space home!

I used to browse realty sites in my down-time, and now, my down-time is spent enjoying my home and life. And the best part is that now we’re finally able to share our space — I’m even hosting my family dinner this Christmas! More than nice countertops, pretty plates and a larger TV, this renovation has impacted our lives in more ways than I can count, and has been a huge lesson in taking responsibility for your own enjoyment and making it work with what you’ve got. –Sabrina

This is the view of my kitchen and a snippet of my living area (which extends to the right) from my front door. One of the biggest deciding factors in the layout of my kitchen hinged on the fact that it's within eyesight the moment you walk through the door. I wanted to do something more dramatic with the cabinet color initially, but because they are the first thing you see when you enter my home (and since the area is open to almost the entire main floor), I chose to keep the hues neutral and add visual interest by accenting the shaker-style doors with plants, wood and metal furniture, and color where it counts, like this couch.
Accentuating the bright light and airy feel that my home has (due to the large windows) was a must, and this was another contributing factor to my final decision to go with white and off-white in the kitchen. The pantry (behind the plant to the left) adds some privacy and acts like a visual wall, hiding some of the more messy aspects of a kitchen -- the sink and stove area. It also aided in making the living room feel more separate.
Talk about visual clutter before! This corner section of wall was such an awkward, unusable space before, so we shoved our TV in it when we first moved in. The angle always made for uncomfortable TV watching, and it was made even more awkward due to the fact that it was also the foot-traffic capital of the house. Getting around always meant walking in front of the TV.
Now this wall is the most functional use of space in the entire home, thanks to a floor-to-ceiling pantry, a deep refrigerator cabinet (which I didn't have before at all), and pull-out drawers dedicated to Piper's paraphernalia. Her food and water dishes are located in the mudroom area by the back door, so the choice and placement of this specific cabinet was a very deliberate one.
One of the most dramatic changes happened when we removed the fixed island and overhead storage. I was kind of sad to see it go, to be honest, but getting rid of it meant we could finally fit more people at meal time. I struggled with deciding on whether to install a conventional island with bar seating, but in the end, getting this IKEA extendable dining table was not only cheaper by a long shot, but it allows us to change the configuration and make the table smaller and larger as needed.
Believe it or not, the GRIMSLÖV cabinets and LANSA hardware were the cheapest aspect of the remodel. I could have fit a 40" tall upper, but I deliberately chose a shorter one so I would have room for this open metal shelving. All of the cabinets, shelves and hardware came to under $3,000. But for every step forward in this process, it felt like we took two steps back. Before, a countertop microwave took up valuable surface area, and now, we have tons of prep space for big, home-cooked meals. My kitchen isn't massive by any means, even after the renovation, so I was able to find a cut-off piece of Carrera White Quartz for my countertop which came at a huge discount.
Just when we were ready for the finishing touches of the reno, we ran into a snag. Our old kitchen had a white subway tile backsplash, and we relied on being able to buy the exact tile to match and add on to what we already had. The manufacturer still carried it, and even though we had just purchased the same tile 6 months before, the die lot changed and the color and size were slightly off. We ended up having to rip out the nearly-new backsplash, and all of the drywall that came with it! Just when we thought the mess was over, the next day was spent re-drywalling and patching the holes. In the end, starting over allowed us to choose the perfect shade of white subway tile, which we ended up taking all the way to the ceiling, something we wouldn't have done had we been able to match the tile we already had. Cutting and installing each tile ended up being my favorite task of the whole process.
Rather than drilling into the new subway tile backsplash, my dad made me an L-shaped mounting bracket that we simply drilled into the bottom of the upper cabinet and attached with a nut and bolt to this IKEA rack. With a few plastic bumpers tacked onto the back, this shelf is not going anywhere, and if I ever chose to remove it, my tile wouldn't be affected!
The most drastic transformation happened along this wall. Though the wall was only a few feet wide, it took days to take down thanks to how well-built the home was. Wire mesh, plaster and 5" long nails were found along every seam, but the labor was well worth it in the end! Before, our fridge faced our stove, which was awkward. You couldn't get anything out of the fridge if someone was cooking, or vice-versa. By simply choosing a counter-depth refrigerator and turning it sideways, we were able to save some valuable space and make meal-time cooking easier.
Removing the wall also gave us the opportunity to add a small coffee station, extra counter space, and storage. Evicting our tenant (whose entry was this back door), meant we could have full, private access to our backyard and stairwell. The first thing I did the morning I woke up to an empty house was remove the door that separated our units, which made the space go from crammed to super-spacious! It not only improved our life, but Piper's too. Now, we can simply let her out the back door off the kitchen to romp around the backyard, whereas before, we were always bumping into our tenant and awkwardly trying to pass through two doorways.
As I mentioned before, most items in my home were found on classified sites or at thrift stores, and my $30 Kijiji appliances were no exception. I love to cook, and I grew up in an Italian household with a gas stove, so I can't even recount how many meals I burnt in that first year. Getting a professional slide-in gas range and matching convection microwave after all this time was such a treat!
Piper sitting pretty! She can't not be in photos. When I moved in, I learned that the hardwood floors had been installed a decade ago, so I was lucky to find the exact same manufacturer still offered the exact same floors! It only cost me a few hundred dollars to extend the flooring, and it makes such a huge impact! This vintage Turkish Afghan rug was purchased on eBay from E Carpet Gallery, which, in addition to the oak floors, really warms up the space.
Removing the bulk head meant we could extend our cabinets to reach the ceiling. Both this track lighting fixture and the dining table drum-light were designed by my sister, Elyssa, who works as a lighting designer at DVI Canada. I was so proud to be able to hang her work in my own home. To me, the black, oil-rubbed iron finish looks really expensive and impressive.
This is the view from the sink towards the front door and living space. The dining table is from IKEA and the wire chairs are from Structube.
It's so nice to be able to watch TV while prepping ingredients or eating at the dining table, or to be able to interact with guests as they lounge on the couch while I'm cooking. This yellow number was purchased for $500 from The Bay's clearance warehouse! It was the perfect find, especially after struggling for weeks to find a couch small and short enough to fit the small space.
We swapped the black, plastic legs it originally had with these tapered wood ones. It immediately made the sofa look more expensive and mid-century modern. The gold stool is from Leon's, the birch step-stool/plant stand is from IKEA, and the reversible rug was found at Home Sense.
In the living room, we completely reversed the layout. By flipping the sofa and putting the TV against the wall, we were able to create the feeling of a cozy room. While I love my massive windows, they practically reach the floor, and our home is close to the curb, so we constantly had passersby peering in. These $80 top-down bottom-up blinds from The Home Depot have changed our life! We now can have full privacy while still allowing the beautiful light in, and we still get a view of the sky and tree branches, rather than the street and road and ugly stuff! The media center was found on Kijiji for $90, originally from IKEA.
This is the view from sitting at the dining table, facing the living room. The bronze arc lamp is from Target and the pom-pom wool blanket was found at Home Sense.
Now the living room fully takes advantage of the large windows. This is the view of the space as if you walked in and turned right.
On the wall between the windows along the front of the house, a blank wall space was screaming for something, but typical cabinets would be too deep (making for another head-hazard), and I didn't want the kitchen taking up too much of the open room. I found these super-shallow glass-door units, which look more dining-area appropriate, and house glassware we don't use too often. They have push openers, so there's not even the chance of hitting your head on a handle!
My plants adore the sun. Before, this window wasn't functioning. It was painted shut, and an old A/C unit took up the bottom third. I had it removed and installed a new ribbed-glass window to maintain privacy without having to cover it with blinds or curtains.
This old, knotty wood bench was my grandmother's. When she passed away last year, it was given to me by my dad. It now houses new life in the form of my constant cycle of propagating plants. The chair is from Structube and the pillow is from Tonic Living.
My original front door lets in a draft, but I don't have the heart to replace it yet. I simply roll up a towel and place it under the door in the winter. This chair was found in a dumpster and the artwork on the media stand is from Nimit Malavia, a dear friend of mine, and a signed print from James Jean. The gold French bulldog is a piggy-bank which we've added quarters and loonies to for years. It now houses our funds for dog food, toys, and accessories!

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  • What a lovely remodel – so light and bright! It’s amazing what you’ve done in such a short period of time. Bravo!

  • Love it! All of it!! So bright and beautiful! Be doubly proud of all of those great thrifted finds and the eye and patience needed to get them!

  • The After looks great! Really did wonders to open up the space and add some bright/warmth. I’m also a big fan of having dishware in the open — it’s too beautiful to hide behind cabinets! And hats off to a nice kitchen rug :)

  • Thanks so much for sharing your home…it looks great–very cheery and bright. Love the way you’ve made affordable stuff look much more expensive.

    I too have a white kitchen with white quartz countertops so I was curious as to how you are maintaining the quartz. I was previously under the impression that quartz is difficult to stain and scratch but that has not turned out to be the case, at least for white quartz. Any tips on how to keep it nice and white?

  • yes! those reverse blinds ROCK!
    not sure why we don’t see more of them in use
    I have them in my bedroom and wouldn’t have
    any other kind now
    they are so great at letting the light/sky in and
    blocking the bottom of the window, or completely
    covering at night if those nasty street lights happen to be
    right outside the window

    great choice
    lovely job on your home

  • Beautiful redo!! Where did you acquire the bench with the flower on top? I’d like to use that to store a printer and paper.

  • What a beautiful reno! Great job, Sabrina! I also just want to point out how lovely it is to have a Canadian writer contributing to D*S; I really enjoy Sabrina’s posts because she provides great resources for Canadian readers (not always being able to access all of the amazing stuff that’s available in the U.S. is a constant struggle for those of us living up north). So, thank you, Sabrina and D*S!

    • Krista

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying Sabrina’s posts (I am, too) and I’m happy they’re helpful for any shipping/sourcing issues :)


  • I remember seeing your D*S home tour a while back, and I loved your place then. It’s even more beautiful now! You’ve done a wonderful job with the renovations – that kitchen is to die for!

  • What a gorgeous home you have! I love how bright and airy and colourful it is. :) All that sunlight must be fantastic for your moods. Thank you for sharing Sabrina :)