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Top 10 tips to update an older home without losing its charm

I have always been attracted to older homes: I grew up in an older home, lived in apartments in older homes, and have completely renovated my family’s 1890s home in Hintonburg. It sounds clichéd, but I just love the stories of these homes — the mysteries that unravel as you restore them and give them new life.

I embrace the challenge of keeping the charm of an older home while infusing it with modern ways of living. Maybe that’s why most of my renovation business is centred in neighbourhoods such as Hintonburg, Wellington Village, Westboro, and Lindenlea. The key is knowing what to save.

1. Have patience with imperfections

Your older home is not going to be perfect in the same way a newer one is. Embrace it! That said, always work with a really good carpenter because nothing is completely level in an older home.

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2. Be smart about what’s possible

Most older homes weren’t built with space for giant master bathrooms and kitchens or grand front entrances. If you plan to keep the footprint of your house, you need to find creative solutions. Sometimes you can combine rooms, but lots of times you can be really clever — moving things around and figuring out creative ways to add storage.

DD Ottawa Emma Doucet older home reno

This updated kitchen blends a modern tone with a tin ceiling, traditional cabinetry, heritage paint colours, and intricate crown moulding. Photo: JVL Photo

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3. Save the sightlines

You want to respect the flow of an older house, but some things have to give to meet modern lifestyles. You can open up small rooms in a respectful way, keeping some nooks and crannies and using matching crown mouldings around expanded entranceways to maintain a unified look.

4. Pay attention to scale

Entranceways, kitchens, and bathrooms in older homes tend to be smaller, so keep this in mind when choosing tiles. Smaller hexagonal and pebble tiles look better on the floors of older homes.

5. Don’t be afraid to add elements

One example would be tin ceilings. Your original house might not have had them, but if it’s the right era, adding a tin ceiling in the kitchen looks great and actually makes the room look more modern.

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DD Ottawa Emma Doucet older home reno

Though all the elements are new, the wainscoting, rustic vanity, and traditional faucets ensure this bathroom fits the character of this 1920s-era home. Photo: JVL Photo

6. Preserve the floors

I almost always try to preserve older wood floors — it’s a cost saving and they’re usually in pretty good shape once you sand them down. Even when I come across floors that aren’t in the best shape, they can look amazing if you paint them. You can infuse a more country-chic vibe into an old home by doing this.

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7. Love your light fixtures

Light fixtures add so much character. I save old lights and source others at antique stores or on Kijiji. Sometimes I look for reproduction pieces or fixtures that have the feel of the era but are subtly modern. It adds so much to a home to have lights that “feel right.”

8. Accessorize with window treatments

Windows in older homes were designed to have curtains, so make the most of that. Use them to add a modern esthetic that’s true to the home, infusing texture, colour, and beauty. They also keep out cold or heat depending on the season.

DD Ottawa Emma Doucet older home

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This Lindenlea kitchen has modern amenities but maintains its character through creative window treatments, old-school hardware, and a retro light fixture over the island. Photo: JVL Photo

9. Opt for complementary hardware

I’m obsessed with hardware. You can use it to do modern takes on old things — think glass knobs and chrome pulls and latches. They’re so great.

10. Maintain a sense of authenticity

It feels good to restore a home and give it new life. Each step of the way, stop to think, look around, and take stock. Know that you can be bold while still respecting the history of your home.

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About the Author

Emma Doucet

Grassroots designer Emma Doucet says her passion for design was born in her grandpa’s workshop where she spent many hours wallpapering her dollhouse and changing the finishes. She has transformed a lifelong enthusiasm for good design into a busy 14-member business known for an esthetic that’s both forward-looking and classical. You can reach her at grassrootsdesign.ca or on Facebook.

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