Expect The Unexpected
When we bought our house, the back yard was as blank a slate as it could be. We had dreams & good intentions, but a cascading list of challenges (financial and logistical), plus a set of hard-partying neighbours just made us want to stay indoors.
Over time we took some baby steps: a hand-built raised vegetable garden, a holly plant here, a lilac bush there, and a small DIY garden shed from Home Depot. Every year we would scrape and fill “potholes” with soil and diligently add seed, but what we eventually ended up with was a lumpy, patchy space used primarily as a dog run. And that shed we so proudly built ourselves? Hopelessly saggy, and becoming more so thanks to tunnelling rodents (tip: we should have chosen a poured concrete pad foundation over concrete blocks). We needed help.
Step one was to get the waterproofing of our entire house done by Mud Monkeys, since there was no point building a stone patio and new driveway without doing this first. Step two was to interview landscape designers in the spring, knowing that we’d want to be on someone’s schedule for later in the summer. The Home Stars website was helpful with reviews and links to portfolios, and we did a lot of real-world research on what kept drawing us to properties outside the city. The answer frequently involved a cozy room with lots of windows overlooking greenery – something our house simply doesn’t have. So we decided that’s what needed to be built in the yard.
We’ll skip the unreturned phone calls, the disheartening interviews, and the outrageous quotes we received (one guy from outside the city quoted $255,000 for the job, including $30,000 for landscape lighting and tree planting that were never part of our want list), and fast forward to the company we hired to help us: Summerwood Products.
We headed to Scarborough take a closer look at some of Summerwood’s building samples in person. Just as we were feeling overwhelmed, Senior Designer John Hickey came over to speak with us, and was very helpful. He took time out of his day to explain the different design styles they offered, then showed us how to customize additional options on their website. We discussed the need for a city building permit, and how to navigate that process as well. John told us our next step should be to meet with his “concrete guy” Dave Youngs, to ensure our site would support our design ideas before committing to anything.
Dave returned our call quickly, and dropped by for a site visit. He’s a big guy with decades of experience in concrete and construction, handling much bigger projects than ours. He walked around the yard in flip-flops and shorts with a small notepad, waving his hand and solving our problems. “Oh yeah, we can lift that shed you got there and pour a concrete foundation for it, no problem.” Interlocking flagstone patio? “Yeah I got a stone guy, no problem.” Concrete pad for the new outbuilding, new driveway, and new steps out front? “No problem. We’ll just fit this job in between some bigger stuff we got going on in the area.” His laid-back attitude and very reasonable quote sold us immediately.
After the waterproofing job was done, we realized it never occurred to us that Mud Monkeys would need to jackhammer the concrete steps off the side of our house for access beneath, which resulted in another call to Dave. “Can you add some stone steps for the side of our house to the work order?” Dave: “No problem.”
Our next steps included making final decisions on the size of building we wanted (measuring and mapping it out with boards on the grass), how much grass we wanted to sacrifice to stone, and of course, picking the stone.
Dave sent us to a great place called Parkview Building Supplies, where we looked at some Unilock options in the yard. Here is another tip for newbies: don’t judge stone samples on a rainy day without going back on a dry one! The stone looks completely different in different conditions, and you want to be sure you’re happy with your choice (and perhaps investigate sealing options, a final coating step that can bring out the colour of the stone).
We made all of our decisions and wrote Summerwood a deposit cheque in June, with the plan to begin construction in mid-August. All we needed were the drawings to submit to the city for a permit, which could be had in as little as 5 business days, since we qualified for the Residential Fastrack enhanced permit service. And here is where the train first began to go off the rails.
Summerwood’s 1-2 week process to provide the permit drawings took more than four, with many unanswered calls and ultimately an explanation that some key staff members had quit. When the drawings were finally submitted to the city, they rejected them outright because Summerwood’s designer had let his BCIN number expire. Trying to get new drawings with the updated number from Summerwood was frustrating. We resubmitted the permit application, and we went back to the bottom of the waiting list with the city – which was another 3 weeks for a 5-day “Fastrack”. Thanks to Summerwood, the summer was gone.
In late August, we finally gave Dave and his crew the green light, and they made very short work of our back yard. The sod was excavated, levelled, formed, and ready for concrete to be poured in three days. While they were at it, they also removed a section of our sagging fence and poured concrete to support the posts. Since they were already doing so much concrete work, we figured what’s one more thing – and asked them to add a circular pad as a spot for our birdbath and extra chairs. We ran outside before the concrete dried, and added our family imprints to it!
Unfortunately, when the small shed was lifted and returned to its new concrete support pad, the crew broke one of the door hinges – which we had to discover on our own when we found the door just lying in the yard. It’s not a replaceable part, so trying to use it and keep it shut has become an ongoing frustration.
It wasn’t until the stones were laid that we realized Dave and the crew didn’t remove a lot of soil before pouring gravel and adding the stones. We had no idea that the entire yard would be raised by about six inches, instead of digging down and ensuring the finished landscaping remained at the same height our yard had always been. It never occurred to us this was even a possibility. Our property (and our entire street) is on a gentle slope, and what we’ve ended up with is a level platform in our yard that feels less private, because we can see more of our neighbours’ yards – and they can see us.
This required the installation of a stone step where our yard had previously been level. It also required the addition of massive armour stone boulders along the side to act as a retaining wall, because the stone patio now ended in an abrupt dropoff. It was going to make mowing the lawn on the landscaped area very challenging and steep, but there was no remedy for that at this late stage.
In the front, they installed the driveway to also be level instead of following the graded slope of the property. They tried to sort of slope a giant pile of dirt along the side of our driveway, which impacted our neighbours’ lawn and property, and they were not amused. Same thing along the side of our front walkway, which had also not been dug down and now had a dropoff onto our formerly level front lawn. We had to figure out a solution, which was to ask for a small stone retaining wall to be buried beside the driveway to hold the stones and slope towards the street, and some additional armour stones to hold up the left side of our walkway. I also had to purchase and haul large quantities of dirt and sod to finish the job in the back yard that the guys only partially completed and just left.
In the end, our curb appeal was greatly improved, but there were about to be even more issues than we realized.
While Dave and his crew were working hard on their part, I’m sad to say that Summerwood was nowhere to be found. We began to refer to them as “Summerwon’t”. There were delays due to back-ordered parts, promises that weren’t kept, phone calls that weren’t returned, more delays due to more staffing changes, and some contract terms that just simply weren’t met. So if the train was off the rails before, it was now lying on its side and on fire. Just when we finally had an installation date confirmed…they called and said one of their installers died and the funeral was going to be on our installation day. There was nothing to do but give condolences for their loss and hope the revised date would actually happen.
On October 30, Donny and Chris showed up and put in the first of three twelve-hour days assembling what we are still currently referring to as the “she shed”. It was incredibly exciting and yet also more than a little stressful to realize we were changing the view in our back yard forever…but it looks beautiful!
We’ve got so many talented people doing their thing now: an electrician installing a subpanel in the shed, a tech guy wiring her up for sound and Internet access (we can shut the windows and turn up our own sound now if the neighbours’ pool parties get out of control), and a contractor helping us figure out how to properly insulate and finish the interior.
We’ve learned a lot and finally come out the other side, and now we intend to love our new outdoor spaces!
Over the winter, our driveway and patio froze and thawed, and began to heave. As the snow fell, we realized Ed had installed the stone steps flush with the back door – so any small amount of snow or ice meant we could not open the door or access our yard.
Within a couple of months, several stones cracked from the movement, gaps opened up between stones, and the stairs heaved so high that using the back door at all was impossible for several weeks.
In the spring, it became obvious that there was also a problem with the height of the patio stones around the shed – they actually overlapped the bottom of the wood slightly, so that any rain leached up into the wood and remained perpetually wet. We ended up with a 1-2 foot high water stain all around the bottom of the building.
We contacted Dave to let him know we were having some issues, and he said he was quite busy but would drop by to investigate. After three weeks, we grew tired of waiting and called another patio stone company.
They did a site visit and lifted stones from our driveway and from our patio to discover the base did not match Uni-Lock’s installation guide. Instead of HPB and clearstone for good drainage, our entire property was covered with inches of fine limestone screening. This holds water, which then froze, and caused a lot of the heaving.
It cost us close to $20,000 to have this new company lift every single stone on our property, scrape out and haul away the limestone screening, replace it with the required base, and re-lay the patio stones. They were able to slope the driveway properly, to eliminate the need for the retaining wall on our neighbour’s side. They were also able to lower it back to be flush with our garage floor at the top and the sidewalk at the bottom – Dave’s crew had once again installed the stones too high.
We have also since discovered that piles of gravel were left in the areas designated for landscaping, and the small amount of topsoil did not support the sod, which all died. And continues to die, because unless we dig down and remove all of the gravel from all around those areas, we are still trying to grow grass on top of stone.
Dave was decent enough to admit the mistake, and agreed to reimburse us 25% of our repair costs. It took repeated requests over the course of a year to receive the periodic payments, but at least he did that for us.
It was a very expensive and stressful life lesson, but a valuable education nevertheless. We know more than we ever wanted to know about landscaping and construction, and would handle a future renovation very differently.
Ask the right questions. Get everything in writing. Don’t make payments until you have estimates and drawings in writing. If your guys won’t provide it because that’s not how they do things, find some new guys. And when you do have people working on your property…supervise.