“I would have hired someone if there wasn’t a pandemic”: Six Torontonians who embarked on DIY home improvement projects

“I would have hired someone if there wasn’t a pandemic”: Six Torontonians who embarked on DIY home improvement projects

Photo by Scarlet O'Neill
Jillian and Warren Duncan

She’s a real estate asset manager, he’s an investment banker

Warren: We bought our home in the Junction Triangle in December 2018. We did major work on it with a contractor, knocking down a wall and moving a kitchen, and now live on the main floor and basement, with a tenant upstairs. I have diabetes and I’m immunocompromised, so we’ve been following Covid news closely since December. Early on, we suspected we’d be working from home when the pandemic hit Toronto.

Jillian: We wanted to get our dining room sorted so we could have an official workspace. Before, we only had a table and a couple of chairs. We decided to build banquette seating around our dining room table so we could work together comfortably. It would also make it easier to slide the table towards the wall and out of the way when we wanted to entertain in the future. Our living space is 900 square feet and it was important to incorporate storage, so we decided to make the banquette double as cabinets. We purchased all the materials before lockdown started. At first, we looked into hiring a contractor to make it for us, since we are both usually super-busy. But when the pandemic hit, we suddenly had much more time on our hands, and thought we should take advantage of that. I love the research and design process, but struggle with the building. That’s where Warren comes in. We’re over-planners: we made detailed drawings and measurements of the project beforehand. I used Pinterest for design inspiration.

Warren: I’m definitely not a handy man at all. I work in finance. I’m obviously far less efficient than a contractor, and I make more mistakes. But we learn from it. It seems so simple to build a box. But you have to take a lot of things into consideration. I made an Excel model that included any overhang or length changes we’d need because of the baseboards. YouTube was also a great resource for any questions.

Jillian: We got all the plywood cut for us and used paint we already had. We tried to be as thrifty as possible because we didn’t want to go to the store. The whole thing took about two weeks of working in the evenings and 20 to 30 hours in total, if you include planning. In total, it cost us around $300. The lumber and trim were $200, plus another $100 for hinges and paint. And, of course, there were some blood, sweat and tears thrown in.

Here’s what it looked like before
And after

Warren: Our house is super-old, so there’s not a right angle in the place. The floors are slightly slanted and some of the corners are rounded. It was easy to put the three rectangular boxes together, but more challenging to level them across the whole space and finish them properly.

Jillian: Our way around the wonkiness was to add trim on the outside of the banquette to hide any imperfections. If you really look at it you can see there are a few warped boards. But that’s what gives it character, right? We both work from the space now, which can be challenging when we’re both on calls. We have multiple screens, but we put them all away at the end of every week. I don’t think we would have tackled this in our pre-Covid lives, but it gave us a sense of pride and accomplishment. Both of us have office jobs and don’t get to use our hands often.

Warren: Right now, I would take on another project like this, but if you’d asked us on hour 25, I might have had a different answer. Finishing it took away the scare factor.


Nike Onile

Designer and artist

I’ve been working only from home, primarily doing video consultations. My company is called 800 SQ FT, and it’s mostly about designing small spaces, though I also work on commercial and larger residential projects.  I live in a 700-square-foot studio loft on Queen West. It’s completely open, and my sister was quarantining with me, so it was challenging to be stuck in a space with no walls for such a lengthy period of time. When my clutter was staring me in the face each day during lockdown, I knew I needed to take action. It started feeling like the walls were closing in on me. I had put off dealing with it before because I didn’t have the luxury of time. As an interior designer, you acquire a lot of beautiful things you don’t necessarily need but you also don’t want to let go of because you might be able to use it down the road. I wanted to find everything a new home, either by selling it, repurposing it or giving it away.

Here’s the clutter before

My goal was for the space to feel like a blank canvas. I wanted an open, airy vibe. For me, it was about letting go of things that made me feel heavy. It was cathartic in that way. Now, the space certainly doesn’t look bare to others, but I’ve edited in a way that allows me to have mental clarity. My aesthetic is eclectic. I like mid-century, I like modern, but I also like adding a lot of texture and raw materials that have a well-travelled look. And I like to add colours, patterns and textures that speak to the essence of my cultural home of Nigeria.

And after

When I started the edit, there was no strategy to it. I just pulled anything that no longer had a purpose and put it aside. The books, decor items, furniture, art and frames lived in that corner in boxes until I coordinated people to pick them up. It felt like I got rid of an entire apartment’s worth of stuff. It was at least 20 boxes. I was able to sell almost everything over Facebook Marketplace. I worked on it for a month and a half—but intermittently. Some days I would work for a few hours, other days I would take off.

Now that I’ve mostly finished, I would tell people to start with one particular area and keep working on that area until the items have left the building. If you start pulling everything, it can become overwhelming. I did that and still have this massive pile of things I need to get rid of. But overall the space feels way lighter. With so much heaviness in the outside world right now I needed to be in a space that felt good to me.


Chrissi Forte and Parker Gilpin

She leads global campaigns and storytelling at Shopify, he’s CFO at Vitaly

Chrissi: The basement of our four-level church conversion off the Danforth was a dead space before Covid-19. Our laundry was there, but it was otherwise mostly unused. When the pandemic hit and we were both forced to work remotely, we first thought to build a home office down there. Then, when we realized gyms probably wouldn’t be re-opening anytime soon, we decided to turn the basement into a gym. Exercise is important to both of our daily routines and mental health. Before the pandemic, I worked out at Loft Cycle Club, doing a lot of spin, weight training and pilates. Parker went to One Academy.

Parker: We wanted our gym to feel like a destination we’d be motivated to visit, as opposed to just a room where we worked out. Before, there was tiled flooring, which isn’t great for working out. We looked into flooring options, and settled on rubber flooring tiles to make the space look and feel like a real gym.

Chrissi: We didn’t want to spend an arm and a leg outfitting the space. The flooring was a cheap solution that amateurs like us could easily install. Parker did all the measurements for the flooring—it would have been a disaster if I tried to do them.

Parker: The flooring is from a Toronto company called Landmark Athletics, and we ordered it online. They helped us size it out and figure out how much we needed. It only ended up costing about $1,000, and installation took two evenings after work. It went on right over the tile. We just need to cut corners around the walls.

Here’s the basement before
And after

Chrissi: They’re like rubber puzzle pieces, so you just have to connect the edges. We were worried we’d need to put something between the rubber and the tile floor, but we were lucky the floor was level enough. Honestly, if it wasn’t a pandemic I would have 100 per cent outsourced.

Parker: We outfitted the space with whatever equipment we could find in our parents’ basements. It’s impossible to find gym equipment right now. People are charging 300 per cent markups on Kijiji. My parents had a bench press at their house that my mom was dying to get rid of.

Chrissi: I ordered dumbbells and booty bands from Amazon as soon as lockdown started, because I knew I would need something heavy at home. A couple years ago, the gym I used to attend in the east end went out of business and had a blowout sale of their equipment. I scored a pilates ball, a bosu ball and a cheap gravity machine, which is like a pilates reformer. It was 10 per cent of the market price, but was just collecting dust in the corner of the basement because the space wasn’t really conducive to working out. We also moved a TV to the basement so we’ve been able to stream our regular classes on Zoom.


Sara Koonar

Social media entrepreneur

I moved into my Beaches house last May. Before that, I lived in a condo for 10 years, and I’d never gardened before. I bought the house from sellers who’d lived there for a year and a half, and the people who were there before them cultivated what they called a secret garden—it was just full of wildflowers, weeds and vines that covered the whole length of the long backyard. They even had a koi pond. The owners before me filled in the pond and added grass but never got to the rest. I wanted to clear out the overgrowth and vines so there would be more room to hang out, sit with my family and play with my dog. I wanted it to feel like an outdoor sanctuary, surrounded by flowers and a canopy of trees.

I worked so much last summer that I had no time to do anything myself. I had some landscapers give quotes for a full redesign—including stone work, planting and clearing—for about $20,000. My original plan was to hire them in stages over a five-year period so I could afford it. But then I wondered if I could do some of it myself to help bring the cost down.

My pandemic gardening project originally started because I missed my workout classes. I struggle to work out at home. It feels like such a chore. But I was really active before, and I was feeling restless. One day in early May, I decided to go into the backyard and trim the bushes. My FitBit told me I had done more steps in one day than in the previous month combined. So every day after work I started doing small backyard chores. Then, I turned what was initially a leisurely outdoor activity into a full-fledged landscaping project. For me it’s been more about physical activity thing than anything else. Plus, it’s a good opportunity to put my phone down and not think about the crazy things that are happening. Now, before I go to bed I watch gardening time-lapse videos on YouTube.

The first step was clearing out the two soil beds that spanned the length of the fence. They were filled with overgrown bushes, weeds and broken planters. I filled about 25 lawn bags with weeds. I bought a cultivator from Lowe’s, which tills the ground. It was a huge help getting deep into the soil. I was bent over using a handheld tool and it was so uncomfortable.

I planted some lilac bushes, hydrangeas and peonies. Then, I used a woven landscape fabric to essentially smother the rest of the weeds. They were so deep in the soil that even when I pulled them out they would come back. I discovered online that landscape fabric provides a physical barrier between the soil and the sun, so the weeds can’t grow. I placed the fabric over the soil, and then added mulch on top. It was the most fun part of this whole process.

I’ve been FaceTiming my parents every day, and they give me pointers. They both grew up on farms, and my mom’s family in Italy has a vineyard. It’s been hard not having anyone to help me in person. My parents would love to be able to come over and be a part of it. And I’m sure it would be hilarious to watch me give gardening a try. With the landscape fabric, I initially put the mulch down before the fabric, so had to shovel it all back into the bags and re-do it.

Here’s the garden before
And after

I have a Mini Cooper, so I had to do three trips to Canadian Tire for the mulch. So far I’ve bought 12 bags. You just drive by and they fill your car. I also don’t have a driveway, and I had to park down the street and carry it home. It was better than any workout I’ve ever done. My neighbours were cheering me on by the end.

I never thought this would be possible to do on my own. I would have hired someone if there wasn’t a pandemic, just because I wouldn’t have the time. Including plants, mulch and tools, I’ve spent about $500 so far. I have started sketching designs for the rest of the yard. I go straight outside at 5 p.m. and usually work until the sun starts to go down. I’ve done half of the weeds, and one-third of the garden. I’m going to continue doing what I’ve done to the first half of the backyard to the rest. Rinse and repeat.