The final chapter?

Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios

Renovating isn’t for sissies. Rob Christie and Irene Szabla started renovating the foundry in Pictou about a year ago. The retired couple wanted the old building to be their forever home and they set out to do whatever it took to make that happen. As it turns out, “whatever it takes” is a lot.
The couple completely lost their privacy, as workmen in numbers past counting took over the space. Almost every deadline came and went, unacknowledged and unmet. Unexpected problems reared their heads. And the price skyrocketed. When asked if they’ve blown the budget, they just roll their eyes and grimace, nodding ruefully.
Yet somehow, it’s all worked out. Now on the cusp of having all the work complete, they’re still sane and happy with what they’ve accomplished: a one-of-a-kind home that meets their needs exactly.

Rob Christie and Irene Szabla.
Downstairs, the large open space includes the kitchen, dining room and living area, with the couple’s bedroom and bathroom off the main area.

Downstairs, a large open space holds the kitchen, dining room and living area, with the couple’s bedroom and bathroom off the main area. Upstairs, there are two guest bedrooms, a bathroom and a large library/minstrels’ gallery overlooking the main space.
The house has so many interesting features it feels almost impossible to try to list them all. There’s the niche built into the shower wall to hold the shampoo bottle (right below the line of tile featuring more bling than a Beyoncé concert); the overhead lighting that can be changed from warm yellow to bright white and high intensity to low at the flick of a switch; the sleek tap over the gas stove that lets pots be filled in place rather than carried, heavy and full, from the sink.
On top of that, the space manages to marry authentically antique industrial chic with modern design and convenience. Looking up (wayyyyy up), one sees the newly stripped beams that have been holding the roof in place for more than 150 years. Once painted a depressing shade of green, they’re now showing off their natural grain.

The high white walls form a pristine background for the building’s architectural features, and are ideal to house the couple’s extensive art collection.

In order to bring the beams back to their original state, they were glass bead sanded. This is a process using minuscule glass beads to blast the paint off. It’s more precise than using sand, which can pit the wood because of its lack of uniform size, as well as being more environmentally friendly. But the process left a residue of glass dust on everything in the house. Christie and Szabla had to hose everything, including the walls, down and then shovel up the tiny particles while they were still wet to stop them pothering back into the air.
“That was a slog!” says Szabla.
Down at eye level, sleek blond wood cupboards and walls and granite counters can only be a product of the 21st century. Tying the two layers together are wide pale wooden stairs with a black metal railing as well as large black hanging lamps and wall sconces. Rather than looking sterile, the high white walls form a pristine background for the building’s architectural features, and will house the couple’s extensive art collection.
What are they looking forward to when the last pieces fall into place and they can start on their post-reno life? They’re still discussing their plans. For starters, they’re hoping to do some travelling again, which has been restricted as much by COVID-19 as by the renovations. Christie is also looking forward to focusing on the outside once the inside is truly finished. He has plans for gardens and decks that will fit snugly into the narrow spaces available.

One thing Szabla is really anticipating about having the job done, however, is regaining their privacy.
“I’m going to be so happy not to have workmen in the house at 8 a.m. before I’ve had my coffee.”
As the reno wraps up, it’s clear Christie and Szabla are comfortable in their new home. There have been a few setbacks and surprises. The realization that the big picture window they installed in their bedroom so they can watch the world outside also means the world outside can watch them in their bedroom. The way the polished cement floor discolours when it gets wet is rather a problem in a kitchen. The miscommunication about where gas pipes should run left them with a useless barbecue.
But Christie insists he has absolutely no regrets about the stressful times that are, hopefully, now in the past. He looks around the transformed space with satisfaction and contentment in his eyes.
“This is a calming place.” He points to the large windows high up the walls. “The best feature is the light. It just pours in. I feel relaxed and part of the outside world.” That’s especially true compared to their old stone home with its small, mullioned windows. It’s a very stark contrast.
That feeling of being part of the outside world extends past the front door. Christie and Szabla are both sociable and are delighted to have a small deck adjacent to the sidewalk where they can sit and interact with the people walking by. One day they ended up sharing a glass of wine with a couple from Calgary who were passing by. Another day Christie spent half an hour helping a little boy untangle his fishing line while Szabla and the boy’s grandmother chatted.

Second story guest bedrooms.
The second storey libray loft.

The home is completely accessible. The couple felt it was important to build in such a way so they could stay in their own home even if their physical condition deteriorates as they age. And that decision has some immediate benefits.
“We had friends visit on the weekend,” Christie says, “and she’s in a wheelchair. It’s the first time in 11 years she’s been able to visit us in our home.”
Recently, the couple welcomed their children and grandchildren for a visit. It’s the first time they’ve all been together since the couple’s wedding 11 years ago. Szabla’s daughter lives in Hong Kong and she hasn’t seen her it two and a half years. The other kids are also living elsewhere.
“We had 12 people here and it was great. This place absorbs that experience,” Christie says.
Szabla agrees, adding that there was private space for their guest upstairs if they needed it, but downstairs people flowed from one part of the large open area to another without friction.
Privacy, plenty of space for entertaining, interaction with the world on their doorstep and a place to grow old. It’s clear that Christie and Szabla have created their forever home.