Pictou foundry’s new life is almost here

With its clean white walls and burnished floor, the landmark Pictou foundry is looking less and less like a foundry every day. When Rob Christie and Irene Szabla decided to turn the century-plus commercial building into a home, they knew they had a lot of work ahead of them. Now they’re in the midst of the renovation, and they’re really seeing just what that means. There are workmen everywhere and even though the couple isn’t physically taking a role in the reno, they’re actively involved in every step.

That’s as it should be since the job is hardly a cookie-cutter operation. Everything is being customized to meet their own needs. And that basically means a lot of questions — questions that need answers only Christie and Szabla can provide.

“Every day the tiniest of decisions have to be made. Today it was a shelf in the shower. How tall is the shampoo bottle? How tall is Irene?” Christie says. Szabla had to get into the roughed-out shower space so the tiler could ensure the shelf would be at exactly the right height for her. And it’s a process they go through every day.

A tour through the place involves continually getting out of someone’s way. The painter is moving methodically along the wall, his headphones making him oblivious to his surroundings. Two young fellows are wrestling one of 24 pieces of white oak plywood through doorways and past stairs with little room for anyone else to pass. The problem is compounded by the mass of equipment and supplies filling the entire centre of the massive room — including bubble-wrapped appliances that will one day have a home, but for now, just take up valuable real estate.

Later, when asked how many workers are on the job, Christie pauses for just a minute before pulling out a pad of paper and a pencil and methodically jotting numbers down. Three plumbers, he writes. Two electricians. Three drywallers. A stonemason. The painter. The list goes on until he thinks he’s counted them all. It’s then that Szabla interjects, “You forgot the carpenters!” Four carpenters. The final tally is somewhere around 26 or 27, but that doesn’t count those working offsite, like the cabinet builders, and they’re both convinced they must have left some people out. Even without that caveat, it’s an impressive tally.

“There were days they were all here together.” Szabla laughs before turning serious. “One of the things that really surprised me was how well everyone worked together. I can’t say enough about using local people. Everyone knows each other and they coordinate everything. And even if they don’t know each other, they still work really well together.”

Szabla was also pleasantly surprised at how open the workers were to their ideas. Nothing was impossible. If there was a problem, they said, “we can make it disappear.” If she or Christie came to them with a new suggestion the response was, “what a good idea.”

“The drywaller said this is the most complex job he’s ever been on, but it’s the one he’s most proud of and really enjoyed working on,” says Christie.

That attitude seems to be borne out when speaking with Jim Foance, who oversees the renovation. The Pictou-area general contractor has been in the business since 2000 and has nothing but good things to say about the ambitious project. Foance worked on the building in the early 1990s when some previous owners considered turning it into a museum, so he was already familiar with the structure. But what Christie and Szabla had planned was something else again.

“I thought it was amazing they were going to keep the original building and its charm because people usually like something new. I enjoyed all of it. It’s so different from new home construction.”

That difference might be at least partially ascribed to Christie and Szabla’s status as incomers to the region (even though they’ve lived in Pictou for several years).

“Nobody here would have fixed up the Water Street building (their original home). I think people are just used to these buildings. There was no investment going on in them. Is it because people from outside see the buildings differently or because they have more cash?” Szabla wonders.

As most people are aware, COVID-19 had a huge impact on everything from finding workers and supplies to skyrocketing prices. The foundry reno was delayed for several months because of it. But the pandemic also caused something of a migration to the Maritimes, and the North Shore of Nova Scotia was no exception.

“There’s a lot of new people moving into town. It’ll be interesting to see what they’re going to do if they’re buying old buildings,” Christie says. “Our old place was falling apart. People will use the building the way it is for what it already was used for. But people bring vision if they’re from somewhere else. They see the building for what it could be.”

Despite the huge outlay of money the transformation is soaking up, Christie and Szabla are sure that should they choose to sell, they would see a return on their investment.

As Christie explains, “On Water Street we thought ‘we’ll never see our money back.’ [Spoiler: they did] But now it’s different. We’re at a pivotal point and we hit it just right. The brand-new waterfront development comes right to our door and there are new developments all over town.”

However, he’s quick to add that none of the fixing up has been for resale. “It’s a labour of love.”
Szabla agrees. “We plan on being here 15 to 20 years. I’ll be old and Rob will be even older! It’s designed for us as we age. Everything is on one level and there’s no maintenance.” They call it their forever home. Meanwhile, everyone’s looking forward to the final stages, scheduled to take place in about a month. Even after all the delays, that doesn’t seem too long to wait.

We featured the foundry in our Spring issue. This is the second of three articles. Stay tuned as we track the progress of this renovation.