Own Sweet Home


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Like most people about to retire, we looked forward to those activities we’d never had time for before, like travelling across Canada in a motorhome or visiting exotic places. Then along came a fly in the ointment, otherwise known as an unscrupulous financial advisor. As ignorant and trusting investors, my husband and I lost our entire retirement portfolio, including some of the equity in our home.

Forced to sell our house, we’d thought of downsizing at some point, but suddenly we had no choice.

Opting to move to Vancouver Island, which we had always hankered after, we settled on a rundown house in Port Alberni, custom-built for its original owners in 1973.

The house had an unusual design to fit an unusual shaped lot. Empty for a year prior to our purchase, it hadn’t been updated for at least 15 years.

Snags included an old oil furnace, three very drab, leaky bathrooms, and a precipitous front garden, which really should only be attended by gardeners trained in mountaineering.

On the plus side, the house sits on a hill and has views from almost every room: east to majestic Mount Arrowsmith; south up the Alberni Inlet where cruise, logging and tall ships can be seen; west to the town and harbour of Port Alberni and beyond to the snow-capped peaks of Strathcona Provincial Park and the Comox Glacier.

Our daughter is very knowledgeable about sustainable interior home design. Her credo is “beautiful designs with green treads,” which amounts to what is known as “eco-friendly living.” But beware — you can get carried away with this green obsession. My newfound passion for sustainability was overruled when my husband refused to consider a windmill atop the roof.

Against the use of fossil fuel, we replaced the original oil furnace with a heat pump, which reduces greenhouse gas emissions and has the additional benefit of air-conditioning. Removing the oil tank from a downstairs storage room meant the space could be converted, with some framing and drywalling, into a spacious fourth bedroom.

Two years have been spent getting rid of ivy and other invasive plants on the steep bank, and now we are landscaping with native plants that require little or no watering. A giant Douglas fir was topped for safety and a shady, weed-infested lawn has been left to evolve into moss and walk-on chamomile.

Until recently, a clothesline was an emblem of another era — now laundry flaps in the breeze between a fir and a maple — picturesque and another eco option for the summer months.

Off-white, in eco-friendly low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paint, covers the walls throughout the house. VOC in paints increases as more colour is added. Although coloured walls are the current fashion, I believe these will soon be passé. I refused to use Pistachio or Savannah anywhere, in spite of opposition from various quarters. Our choice of classic white (Sea Pearl) sets off our collection of excellent watercolours.

We revel in most of the original “retro simplicity.” The staircase to the above-ground basement has hand-turned Maple spindles; there is a stunning floor-to-ceiling white flint fireplace in the living room, and the lower exterior is flanked with local river rock.

The positioning of original windows is effective in enhancing natural cross-breezes, which cut down on energy-sucking air-conditioning. Most windows have, to date, been replaced with energy-efficient ones. A deep roof overhang on the south side means the house needs less cooling in the hottest months and also creates a long covered balcony.

We did most of the renovations ourselves with the help of our children — well, actually, it was the other way around, but they found it enjoyable. They also helped us shop for amazing sale prices on high-efficiency appliances to reduce energy and water usage.

Our first thought had been to buy a cheap house with potential and resell it as soon as it was finished. Who would have guessed we could find such a hidden jewel — a unique and gorgeous home? True, we still cannot go on those exotic trips we once planned owing to the aforementioned financial disaster, but we love it here in the Alberni Valley, which is a paradise for hiking, boating and fishing.

We've been here three years now, and have been able to let go of our economic woes, which at one time seemed impossible.

From where I sit, I see the M.V. Frances Barkley pull out of the harbour. This is the daily packet freighter that serves the Alberni Inlet. I watch for another 10 minutes as she disappears from view behind Polly’s Point. It makes my day.



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