Toronto

Home renovations flourish as families try to make pandemic living easier

As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on most of the economy, home renovations are on the rise as people try to carve out space for work and working out.

Two Toronto families — one in a condo and one in a house — describe creative ways they found space

Michael and Maygan Ouédraogo, pictured with their daughters Naomi and Leila, thought living in a downtown Toronto condo meant they had no options to expand their living space. (Oliver Walters/CBC)

Last fall, Maygan and Michael Ouédraogo's two-bedroom condo in downtown Toronto started to feel "much smaller" than it used to. 

Because of COVID-19, both parents were working from home and taking turns caring for their three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Naomi. Then in September, their second daughter Leila was born. 

At first, the Ouédraogos didn't think they had any options to expand their living space. Then one day, Michael, who is both a financial analyst and a personal trainer, looked at their rarely used balcony and realized if he could find a way to enclose it, it could become an "all-season" gym. 

"I didn't want to do heavy construction because I wasn't a really handy kind of guy to begin with," he said. 

So after some research, he used tension rods, clear tarpaulin and waterproof curtains to protect the area from the elements, put in flooring and brought in a TV and gym equipment.  

"It essentially had become wasted space," Maygan said. "I was considering using it as a storage spot so we could, like, free up more interior space. And when he came up with this idea, I was like, 'this is brilliant.'" 

Michael Ouédraogo used tension rods and clear tarpaulin to enclose his family's condo balcony and convert it into a gym. (Oliver Walters/CBC)

While COVID-19 has decimated much of the economy, the home renovation sector is seeing some growth in parts of Canada as families try to find creative ways to make pandemic living easier. 

According to a report released earlier this year by Toronto-based real estate consultants Altus Group, Canadians spent more than $80 billion on home improvements in 2019. On average, the report said, spending on renovations over the last few years was growing at a greater rate than the overall economy, before the pandemic struck.  

The report predicted that although COVID-19 would curb spending on renovations in 2020, the sector wouldn't be hit "as significantly as the overall economy."

Although it's not yet clear what impact the pandemic had on home renovation spending in the latter part of 2020, Toronto-based interior designer Kate Zeidler told CBC News that COVID-19 has brought a "huge increase" in business — not just for her firm, but for her suppliers and other colleagues. 

The Ouédraogo family's balcony-turned-gym also serves as a playroom or a place to relax. (Oliver Walters/CBC)

Converting space into gyms and home offices are two of the biggest trends, said Zeidler, who is currently living and working in Collingwood, Ont.

"Everybody is finding that they have multi functions for their spaces," she said. "[People have been] feathering their nests and making their homes more suitable to how they felt comfortable living and personalizing their space."

Toronto immigration and refugee lawyer Leslie Anderson knew something had to change when the pandemic forced her out of her legal aid clinic and into working from home, while her two children were doing their schooling online. 

"Sitting on the sofa and trying to manage art class and drafting factums and everything all in the same space at the same time ... wasn't working," she said.  

While working outside in the backyard in the summer, Anderson started eyeing a 50-year-old shed that came with the property. 

When lawyer Leslie Anderson struggled to do her legal aid clinic work in the same space as her two children were doing their online schooling, her fiancé tore down an old shed in their backyard and built a new one suitable for office space. (Oliver Walters/CBC)

At first, she thought she could clean out the garbage that was inside and use the shed as-is.  But as it became clear that the shed was in bad shape, her fiancé offered to tear it down and build her a new one.  

Anderson was thrilled with the end result: a three-metre-by-three metre structure made of reclaimed wood, with hardwood floors, leaded glass windows, a skylight and a fireplace heater to keep it warm all winter. 

"It's a really tricked-out shed," Anderson said. "I'm just so moved by the amount of time he's put into this and the effort and the hard work. It's a pretty amazing act of love."

In addition to the practical advantages of having a dedicated space for work, Anderson said, there's also a significant benefit to her emotional well-being.  

"To be able to have a space that I can just close the door at the end of the day and walk away and have that psychological separation from work to home, where I get to take off the lawyer hat and put the mom hat back on and the partner hat back on ... to be able to have that mental health space is enormous," she said.   

Leslie Anderson's office-in-a-shed was completed just in time for winter. (Leslie Anderson)

Maygan Ouédraogo said she's also reaping mental health benefits from her balcony-turned-gym.  In addition to being a dedicated place to exercise, the space also serves as a play area where Naomi can "bounce around and not jump on the couch beside me while I'm nursing an infant." 

And, it's a refuge where Maygan can get some much-needed alone time. 

"It's opened up our world, to be honest with you," she said. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nicole Ireland is a CBC News journalist with a special interest in health and social justice stories. Based in Toronto, she has lived and worked in Thunder Bay, Ont.; Iqaluit, Nunavut; and Beirut, Lebanon.

With files from Pete Evans and Sabrina Jonas

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