An unconventional Mill Creek duplex allows a growing family to cohabitate with the in-laws.
By Caitlin Crawshaw | March 8, 2014
At the end of a quiet cul-de-sac, a stone’s throw from Mill Creek Ravine, a brand-new slate-grey house stands out from most of the more traditional-looking homes that neighbour it. Completed in January, 2013, the house is home to Edmonton homebuilders Andrew and Ewa Harbinson (owners of Metro Enterprises Ltd.), and their two daughters, Maddie, 3, and Ariella, 5.
But this isn’t your typical detached, single-family house. Walking up the front steps, you’ll see a second door to a separate suite, the home of Andrew’s parents, Dave and Cathy Harbinson. In spite of its unified exterior, the house is actually a duplex containing two separate abodes, allowing a young family and retired grandparents to live under the same roof.
It’s an unconventional situation, but it’s working well for all involved. The family is very close and they enjoy the time they spend together. And the situation works well for both couples when they need an extra hand. With the grandparents next door, Ewa and her husband have “built-in babysitters.” And when Dave and Cathy are out of town (they own a vacation home in Canmore and travel regularly), they have someone to water the plants and shovel the snow.
“Some people will ask us, ‘How can you live with your in-laws so close?’ But with us, it just works,” says Ewa.
While they all live under the same roof, they don’t spend every minute together – especially now that the novelty has worn off, says Cathy. “Initially, for the first few months, we’d see the girls every day. But now we don’t. It’s probably better … so we can maintain our separate lives, but also be one family.”
It helps that the house has been designed to meet the family’s needs. Unlike a traditional duplex, the two suites in this home aren’t mirror images of one another – instead, they fit together like asymmetrical Tetris pieces. Each has a different square footage and distinct character.
Ewa and Andrew live in a 2,500 square-foot, two-storey suite, which extends over top of the in-laws’ 1,300 square-foot “bungalow.” The two-storey suite is designed for a growing family (and a 150-lb. Great Dane named Aussie), with high-end laminate floors and ample storage.
At the front of the home, the glass walls on the couple’s office – the home base for their company – provides light and visual interest to the front entryway. The high-contrast kitchen opens up to both an informal dining room and living room, with large windows looking out into a shared backyard with a large deck for entertaining.
Upstairs, the home boasts four bedrooms: Three kid-sized rooms and a dazzling master retreat. A large bedroom space is flanked by an en suite bathroom that would rival one found in a five-star hotel. A walk through the bathroom leads to a custom walk-in closet almost as large as one of the children’s bedrooms.
Downstairs, Ewa and Andrew opted for acid-etched concrete floors, which are both modern and durable. There’s a guest bedroom and a large, kid-friendly family room. In previous homes, the couple had rented out their basement, and they were at a loss as to what to do with all the space downstairs. So, Ewa designed a built-in playhouse for the kids in one corner. With a loft space featuring a slide, a pretend kitchen and kid-sized furniture inside, the space is well-used by the couple’s young daughters.
With the exception of the children’s area, the entire home takes a minimalist approach to dcor. At the top of the stairs, Ewa hung close-up photos of the girls, printed on gallery-wrapped canvases. In the dining room, a monochromatic modern painting adorns a wall. Throughout the house, most of the walls are painted in very light, neutral hues. This simple approach keeps the focus on the home’s architecture, particularly its high ceilings and large windows.
All of this is very different from the in-laws’ home next door. “Ours is very modern, whereas theirs is more craftsman,” says Ewa. Cathy puts it differently: “We’re old folks!” she laughs. But there’s nothing stuffy about the 1,300 square-foot space she shares with her husband, Dave. A modest entryway opens into an open-concept living area with a contemporary stone fireplace and wood-grain laminate flooring in warmer hues of brown.
The space is populated with more traditional furniture – a toffee-coloured leather couch and a mahogany dining room table, for instance – and art from the couple’s many adventures abroad. Down the hallway, barn doors open into each room, adding character and saving space, at the same time. At the back of the home, a master suite looks into the backyard, with a glass door that opens onto the deck.
Both couples agree that their homes fit their lifestyles perfectly – and not by accident. It took years of planning. The lot was purchased in January of 2010 when Andrew and Ewa’s realtor spotted an ideal infill property in Mill Creek. The 50-foot wide, 200-feet deep lot is unusually wide (most lots are around 33 feet wide; a double lot is at least 66 feet wide) and ideally situated next to the ravine.
At the time, Andrew and Ewa had just finished building a home in King Edward Park and were content to stay there. But because Dave and Cathy were looking to downsize from their own south side home, finding this property presented a unique opportunity. They began working with an architect in October of 2010.
Because Andrew and Ewa are homebuilders by trade (they started their company in 2009 and specialize in infill homes), they enjoy the design process – especially for the “spec” homes (homes built without a specific buyer in mind). “With customers, you’re always bouncing ideas off of them and working through that process,” says Ewa, “but I really enjoy the picking part.” Making these choices for her own family is especially fun, she says.
Finally, in November 2011 – almost a year after starting the design process – the physical work began, starting with the excavation for the foundation, an area the size of an Olympic swimming pool, says Andrew.
While the construction went fairly smoothly, there were a few snags. Because of its unconventional design, the home was technically neither a duplex, nor a detached home with an in-law suite. Eventually, they pulled city permits for stacked row housing. It was also tricky to create a proper fire barrier between the suites, since they shared more than one wall.
The home was finished after 14 months of construction; Cathy and Dave moved in January 2013 and Andrew and Ewa moved in that March, after selling their previous home.
Even after all of that, both couples balk at the idea of the house being their forever home. Circumstances could require another move, at some point. But for now, living under the same roof is working beautifully for Harbinsons. “It’s an awesome set-up,” says Ewa.