Canadian and British homes are worlds apart in terms of style and layout.
Before moving to Canada, my husband and I renovated and extended our 1930’s UK property, stripping the interior – re-plastering, re-plumbing and re-wiring. It was a major undertaking; six months of dust and noise made possible in equal measure by vast amounts of tea (aka builder lubricant) and a forgiving bank manager. We learnt a lot about house building in the process, from the basics: planning and preparation, laying the footings, positioning the steel, to the niche intricacies: installation of quartz work-surfaces, molded sinks and sun-tubes. We were involved every step of the way.
Built to last?
Living in Ontario, we discovered your average Canadian house is a very different animal. The exterior walls of our UK home comprised two layers of brick with insulation between them and an outer cladding, pebbledash or brick for example. Interior walls were brick or timber frame and plasterboard, and steel girders were used structurally to span and bear load.Here, all the houses we’ve seen going up in the new sub-divisions are constructed of a timber frame sheeted with plasterboard (dry-wall) and covered with brick cladding or aluminum siding mimicking the old wooden clapboard used on American houses since Colonial times. There’s no steel. They’re not the “bricks and mortar” investment we were used to back home. Seeing their construction, it’s hard to believe they’re durable and that’s made us more dubious about investing in property here.
Making the most of your basement
Most Canadian homes have a basement; it’s warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Some people keep it as an open-plan recreational space while others create extra bedrooms, bathrooms, and offices, even a self-contained living space. When viewing property here, basements are listed as either finished or unfinished: in an unfinished basement the timber framing and concrete floor are exposed, while the finished one will have been dry-walled and painted, and had some form of flooring installed.
Many Canadians “finish” their basements themselves and perhaps this is the reason for “taping and mudding”. Back in the UK walls are plastered and skimmed – a highly skilled technique where plaster is applied and “skimmed” thinly over the total wall surface, providing a smooth and even base for priming and painting. Here in Canada, it’s done differently. The seams between the sheets of drywall are taped over with special tape, then “mud” which looks like a cross between plaster and Polyfilla is applied over the top with a trowel. It’s pressed into the seam and smoothed out over the join then left overnight to dry before being sanded and having another layer applied. The mud is also used to fill the indents left by the countersunk screws that secure the drywall to the framing. This process is repeated a number of times before the wall is ready for priming and painting.
Questionable fuel efficiency
Basements are home to the industrial size furnace powering the forced air heating system. In our rental house a central thermostat controls the heat furnace and the external air-conditioning unit. During winter, the furnace circulates warm air through vents in the floors of the rooms, while the A/C unit uses the same system in the summer months. Instead of arranging furniture around radiators, we now navigate grills in the floor and boxed-in vents running up walls.
With this system, the strength of the hot or cold air dissipates the further it travels, so the bedrooms never experience the efficiency the lower floors do. In summer, the basement feels like an icebox but rooms upstairs remain uncomfortably sticky. During winter the dry heat causes cracks to develop in wooden furniture.
It seems an expensive and inefficient way to heat a home but it beats the next most popular method – electric baseboards. These might sound like some kind of musical instrument, but they’re actually convection heaters fitted along the skirting boards. Suddenly the forced-air system seems vastly superior!
Our current rental home is very poorly insulated. During our first winter we put masking tape over all the unused electrical sockets in an effort to reduce the amount of cold air they let in and the amount of heat escaping. We spend at least $300 per month on utilities here – a lot more than we did in the UK. Most houses in rural areas don’t have access to a gas or sewage pipeline, or electricity grid. They rely on oil, propane or wood, and have a septic system and a well.
Making the right impression
Modern Canadian homes are open-plan, with rooms running seamlessly into one another. Boundaries are delineated by flooring, décor or split-levels rather than doors. Stairs and landings are wider too. While this creates an impression of spaciousness and gives the home a feeling of grandeur, in some cases the space would be better used making an actual room larger. It also makes it difficult to confine cooking smells to the kitchen. Master bedrooms generally have an en suite as standard and a walk-in wardrobe, and a laundry room with plumbing for a washer and dryer will be situated on the ground or first floor.
The impression of space continues outside, with large unfenced front gardens set back from the road. A house without a porch is a rare exception. People like to sit and drink coffee and watch the world go by. Some porches stretch the length of the house and many are festooned with harvest scarecrows and Halloween decorations at this time of year.
Wide grassy verges add to the expansive feel. “Curb appeal” is a popular phrase here, denoting the impression a house gives from the outside. While the front garden may be spacious, the back garden, just as in the UK, is usually very small.
Diversity of style
The most popular look for new-builds in southern Ontario seems to be loosely based on Cape Cod crossed with West Coast craftsman style; garages are at the front, balconies are common and the appearance is generally asymmetrical. In older parts of town and rural areas you’ll see examples of Prairie, Georgian, Regency and sprawling Ranch-style bungalows. Single story homes are more numerous here than in the UK and the reason for this is historical.
In the early 1800’s in Upper Canada, property was taxed on the number of stories; consequently houses were built with only half-height upper levels, the only upper windows being in the gable wall ends. It became common for builders to incorporate an additional windowed gable, located centrally over the front door and this style became known as the Ontario House as it arose in direct response to provincial legislation.
In today’s Canadian cities the pendulum has now swung the other way. The concept of Intensification encourages building upwards instead of outwards and towering condominiums of steel and glass now dominate the skyline. Condo living is marketed as the lifestyle choice of the sophisticated elite – with gyms, pools and even theatres incorporated into the package. None of these however, can eclipse the problems with noise, pets and guests that result from people living in such close proximity to one another.
Still not sure
While I love the appearance and “feel” of the average Canadian home, I need to do more research to quell my doubts about efficiency and quality before I feel comfortable investing in one. Or perhaps the answer is to build our own…
Aisha Isabel Ashraf is a freelance writer and author of the popular blog EXPATLOG – a collection of irreverent observations from her experiences as a "cultural chameleon". It's where you'll find her, strung out on caffeine, humorously dissecting the peculiarities of expat life for her own amusement and the benefit of future generations.
Read Aisha's other Expat Focus articles here.