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.
Summerwood has a showroom in Scarborough, where we headed to take a closer look at some of their building samples in person. Just as we were feeling overwhelmed, Senior Designer John Hickey came over to speak with us, and couldn’t have been more 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.
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. He was our guy.
After the waterproofing job was done, we realized it never occurred to us they would need to jackhammer the concrete steps off the side of our house, 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, which 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 went off the rails, as you might have known it would.
Summerwood’s 1-2 week process to provide the permit drawings took more than four, with many unanswered calls and an explanation that key staff members had left. This was followed by the city ultimately rejecting the drawings not because of the contents, but because Summerwood’s BCIN number had expired. More tense waiting periods and lack of communication, followed by the discovery that our permit application would now go back to the bottom of the waiting list. Then to top it all off, there was an internal delay with the City of Toronto, and our “Fastrack” permit that was supposed to take 5 business days took three full weeks on the second go-around. 3 weeks and possibly 3 years off our lives.
In late August, we finally gave Dave and his crew the green light, and they made very short work of our back yard. It 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!
Over the next couple of weeks, the flagstone and armour stones arrived and were installed, with stone slab steps slung around by these guys like it was child’s play! Next up came the removal of our asphalt drive and walkway out front, and laying more of the same stone.
There were a lot of additional steps that involved me purchasing and hauling bags of dirt and rolls of sod myself to test the look, getting the guys to do some more of that too, and then asking them to add additional rocks in the front and back to shore up some of the landscaping. In the end, I think what Dave, Ed, Jeff, Mike and George managed to create for us is pretty fantastic.
While Dave and his crew were working so hard to do 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 sort of in pieces off to the side somewhere and on fire. Then, just when we finally had an install date confirmed…they called and said one of their installers died and the funeral was going to be on our install day. There was nothing to do but give condolences for their loss and hope the new-revised-rescheduled-semi-firm install 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 she 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.
In the end, we’d do a lot of things differently if we had to do it over, but we’ve come out the other side and intend to love our new outdoor spaces!