Let’s Rebuild a Mansion


Gail and Barry Giffen, with their daughter’s dog, Batmann, in their restored home’s great hall, which has its original stained-glass windows. PHOTO: KAMIL BIALOUS FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

By Leigh Kamping-Carder

Some married couples settle into their retirement by downsizing. Gail and Barry Giffen are spending theirs restoring a mansion—a 1905 Tudor Revival in Victoria, Canada.

“We wanted a historic house that needed lots of work,” said Mr. Giffen, 70, who ran a company in Alberta that handled disaster recovery. “We wanted to make it ours.”

The house was designed by architect Samuel MacClure for a cold-storage entrepreneur named Biggerstaff Wilson. The property had only one additional owner until 2010, when a local developer purchased the nearly 2-acre lot and carved off about a third of the land to build six townhouses, leaving the mansion untouched.

When the Giffens bought the home in 2011 for 1.325 million Canadian dollars, or about US$1.059 million, the 9,300-square-foot mansion sagged, the facade’s plaster was crumbling, the wood paneling in the great hall had turned black and the living-room windows were obscured by stained silk curtains.

Today, the three-story home has seven bedrooms, seven full baths, two half-baths, an elevator, a detached garage and an attic suite with a kitchenette.

The couple had two main goals: return the main floor to its prime, and thoroughly modernize the second floor and attic space.

“Their approach to it was to maintain as much of the character as possible,” said Rus Collins of Zebra Group, a Victoria design firm.

Mr. Collins took about six months to complete architectural plans for the transformation, partly guided by original blueprints. Construction started in February 2012, headed by Mike Miller, president of Abstract Developments. The bulk of the project took about 18 months and cost $1.3 million.

The couple replaced outdated electrical, plumbing and heating systems, and straightened one side of the house. They spent about $60,000 on the basement to create uniform 8-foot ceilings, and about $33,200 to seismically engineer a new interior foundation.

In the 14-foot-high great room, which has a fireplace and arched stained-glass windows, Abstract’s team stripped the blackened walls and staircase, revealing honey-colored wood.

The kitchen, a former servants’ room, had a linoleum floor, a potbelly stove and a water cistern. An alcove below the ceiling was stuffed with old slippers. “No hidden money from a bank robbery or anything exciting in the walls. No, we found about six pairs of old slippers,” said Mrs. Giffen, 66, a retired teacher.

They gutted the kitchen and butler’s pantry, adding new hardwood floors ($1,600), cabinetry ($39,200), countertops ($13,900) and appliances ($13,500). It now has two farmer’s sinks and a dog-washing station in an adjacent mudroom. Mrs. Giffen’s favorite part is a $2,000 island made from a tabletop found in the basement.

On the 2,200-square-foot second floor, what was once six bedrooms sharing a bathroom, a powder room and a room with only a tub was transformed into four en suite bedrooms and a laundry room. The couple refurbished the claw-foot tub for their master bath.

But it was the 1,860-square-foot attic, an unfinished space with 44-foot floor planks, that underwent the most dramatic change. It is now a two-bedroom, two-bathroom suite with a kitchenette and skylights.

The attic was given a drastic makeover, including adding this bathroom.

One of the biggest challenges was the house’s historic designation, which blocked changes to the exterior without city approval. To build the two-car garage, done in a similar Tudor Revival style, the couple got about two dozen neighbors to support their city application.

Adding an elevator required a 5-by-5-foot extension and bringing a shallow back staircase to code. In the process the Giffens discovered parts of the foundation had turned to sand, necessitating the concrete wall.

In another case, an antique treasure was uncovered: stained-glass pocket doors buried in the wall between the living and dining rooms.


Plumbing, in-floor heating, natural-gas system: $64,800

Stripping and refinishing wood on main floor: $15,300

Kitchen and butler’s pantry: $72,000

Redoing the basement: $60,000

Attic redesign: $68,000

Permit fees: $7,000

New garage: $71,100

Other historic gems include intricate plaster medallions that adorn the main-floor ceilings and old window glass that retains barely perceptible ripples.

The bird-patterned wallpaper in the dining room came to charm the Giffens, who saved it for a nook. “They grow on you after a while,” Mrs. Giffen said.

The Giffens have decorated the home with a patchwork of second-hand pieces. Bathroom sinks are mounted in retrofitted wood dressers. A chandelier in the entryway came from a contractor’s new house. “People were pleased with what we were doing, so they often tried to help us,” Mr. Giffen said.

The Giffens, who primarily live in Edmonton, have been visiting the home for about five years, slowly putting on finishing touches. Their next project? An overgrown rose garden.

“We don’t need any more spaces,” Mrs. Giffen joked. “If you make a finished room, you have to clean it.”

Originally appearing in the Wall Street Journal (https://www.wsj.com/articles/forget-downsizing-lets-rebuild-a-mansion-1502894014)



The Bowker Collection: A Great Solution for Downsizers and Young Professionals

Image: Lindsay Brookes and Abstract Founder Mike Miller

Like many young professionals entering the hot sellers’ market, Lindsay Brookes had a hard time finding a place of her own in Oak Bay before the Bowker Collection launched. Brookes lived in the community with her parents through her undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Victoria and worked part-time and full-time jobs to cover her expenses, deciding to find her own home after finishing her degree. This quickly proved more complex than she anticipated.

“It was difficult,” Brookes said. She and her realtor pored over ways to enter the market, but all three of her offers went unsuccessful. “One bid in particular was over one hundred thousand over the asking price,” Brookes recalled. Already, she was searching in the 700 to 800 thousand price range. “It was ridiculous. I could not compete.” Brookes points to the number of old homes in Oak Bay, whose age guarantees added expenditures in inspection and repairs.

The spacious and elegant penthouse along with a patio is one of Bowker Collection’s many jewels. Taking into account high prices, sky-rocketing bids and the age and condition of most Oak Bay homes, Brookes was forced to extend her stay with her parents. “It’s extremely frustrating, and I know a lot of my friends who are around my age express the same frustrations as well,” she said. Early June, Abstract Developments held a neighbourhood event for the installation of the Bowker Collection. Brookes was the first to purchase a one bedroom unit with a den. While the installation of the Bowker Collection has had mixed reception from the public, the development provides opportunity for older Oak Bay residents to downsize, and may be an option for more young professionals like Lindsay to remain in their home community. “I know it’s been ten years since Oak Bay had a development, and so I can understand and see the pushback,” Brookes said. “But I am very happy that it passed because it allows people like myself and other young professionals to continue living here, working here and contributing to the economic vitality of the community.”

While the collection has helped Brookes and several other first time homebuyers find a place to live, President of Abstract Developments Mike Miller said that the Bowker Collection is, for the most part, being bought out by those looking to downsize. “It’s selling fast because there is no ability to downsize in Oak Bay,” Miller said. As of June 25, 50 per cent of the Bowker Collection had already sold. “It’s such a pent-up demand,” he said, adding that the last time Abstract Developments built in Oak Bay was 2003, and previous to that 1990. The variety of units including one-bedroom and two-bedroom residences with dens, penthouses and terrace homes, range between $585 thousand and $2.5 million.

Not only is the collection brand new, making inspections unnecessary, but buyers are given full ownership of units rather than cooperative ownership. Cooperative housing is common in apartment complexes, where buyers own a portion of the corporation which owns the building, rather than their own residence. “That can be challenging for some people because it’s hard to finance.” Buying in the Bowker Collection means buying property in full – an appealing option for longtime homeowners who need to downsize but want to maintain their own property. In response to the character and architectural culture of Oak Bay, the Bowker Collection attempts to fulfill housing demands while fitting with the scope of its neighbourhood. The development mixes contemporary design with classic, including large windows and real brick exteriors. Those hoping to follow in Lindsay Brookes’ footsteps, or to downsize while maintaining the “Oak Bay way” in location and design, may wish to make the Bowker move.

Morgan Cross
News contributor

Article originally published in the Oak Bay News July 7, 2017

The Bowker Collection a nod to its Oak Bay neighbourhood

Article originally published in the Vancouver Sun, June 10, 2017.

It’s back to the future for the Bowker Collection, Abstract Developments’ new project in Oak Bay, one of Western Canada’s oldest municipalities.

The Bowker Collection’s rusticated brick facade is a nod to the historic neighbourhood, while the solar-ready building and an electric car for residents are forward-looking elements of the four-storey development, the first residential multi-family mixed use project approved by the District of Oak Bay in more than a decade.

Peter Johannknecht, principal at Cascadia Architects, says existing buildings in Oak Bay inspired the choice of materials.

“We felt we needed something to connect the old and the new — a modern building that respects the heritage and history of Oak Bay. We wanted materials that are durable and will stand the test of time,” he says.

In addition to its historic reference, the brick is also a contrast to the white over-sized cube windows in the penthouses, which give the building a contemporary flair.

“These [windows] really break the roof line, give a sense of pattern and bring in lots of natural light,” Johannknecht adds.

The building, to be sited on a triangular lot within walking to Willows Beach, will include 43 suites and six commercial units and wrap around the corner of Bowker Avenue and Cadboro Bay Road. The development is solar ready,  Johannknecht says.

“If the strata wants to install solar power in the future, that has been considered and doesn’t require a big intervention,” he says.

Johannknecht points out that the building will be set back at the corner to provide more space for a pedestrian-friendly environment and landscaping.

While brick defines the Bowker Collection’s facade, the team at Cascadia turned to another traditional finish for the back of the building. Rough-sawn cedar board and batten will complete the building, Johannknecht says. The boards are slightly narrower than usual and there are more battens, designed to give this traditional wood siding a vertical emphasis.

The back of the building conceals a residents-only surprise: a secret garden.

Secret Garden

“I think that inner courtyard – or secret garden – is as much about people viewing it from above and experiencing it, as being in it,” says landscape architect Scott Murdoch, principal at Murdoch de Greeff Inc. “People could look down, and maybe they don’t want to walk down[stairs] and into the garden, but they can look down at it and imagine themselves there.”

Making a site beautiful for residents and also finding ways to enhance its natural systems is a vital part of the landscape design process, he adds.

“We look at a site from an urban design perspective as well as if we were in a natural setting. On this site, that was key.”

The landscape plan includes bird- and bee-friendly plants like honeysuckle, red-flowering currant and mahonia, but the secret garden will be more of surprise for what it reveals in the rainy season than first glances at the carefully selected plants, the hard-packed gravel pathway, fire pit and the tranquil labyrinth.

Murdoch started by exploring ways to slow the rush of rainwater off the building’s roof into the nearby Bowker Creek.

“When water from pipes just shoots into a creek, the creek gets blown out, flooded and the habitat is ruined,” he explains.

To create a beautiful but functional environment, Murdoch designed large rectangular rain gardens to process roof water, allowing it to filter slowly through the soil before it is released into Bowker Creek.

A water feature of three cascading circular pools, with a reticulated water system, is designed to keep water flowing from one bowl to the next, adding “soft noise” to the garden and enhancing the sense of being in a serene space, Murdoch says.

The landscaping in front of the building is also thoughtfully designed. Curb-side bulges are large enough to accommodate Garry oaks and designed to encourage their deep root growth.

“These trees will have a soil resource so they can grow to be 100 years old,” says Murdoch.

Inside the one- and two-bedroom and den units, townhomes and penthouses, buyers can choose from two colour palettes, says Sandy Nygaard, principal at Nygaard Interior Design. The light palette includes white quartz countertops, wide-plank white oak engineered hardwood floors, soft, sandy tone wood-grain upper cabinets, white lower cabinets and a light grey tile backsplash. The medium palette has darker medium-walnut-tone wood-grain cabinetry and features darker grey tiles.

The tile choice for the backsplash was inspired by the linear contemporary dimensions of subway tiles. However, the ceramic tiles in the backsplash have an interesting handmade quality and are vertically mounted in a staggered pattern to create interest, she says.

Bowker Kitchen

Depending on the size and design of the unit, kitchens have either an island or a peninsula. All feature a pantry cupboard and an open-shelf display nook, perfect for culinary accessories or décor. But, the showpiece – or as Nygaard calls it, “the bling” – is undoubtedly the Bertazonni gas range with convection oven. The high-end 30-inch Italian-designed range is standard in all the units, except in the penthouse and terrace homes where the larger 48-inch model with double oven is the choice.

Other major appliances include a refrigerator/freezer and dishwasher by Fisher & Paykel, a stainless steel range hood, a Panasonic microwave and full-sized stacking Whirlpool washer and dryer.

In the bathrooms, the same wood-grain finish as the kitchen cabinets is applied to the floating vanity, which has a square under-mount white porcelain sink. In the ensuite bathroom, the eight-by-48-inch porcelain tiles on the floor continue up the wall behind the shower, laid vertically and staggered to echo the design of the kitchen backsplash.

The entrance to the parking garage is on Bowker Avenue. This is where the electric car, a BMW i3, will be located when not in use by residents, who will also have access to two electric bicycles. There are also electric car and mobility scooter charging stations, as well as storage lockers.

The Bowker Collection units range from 734 to 2,001 square feet. Balconies have gas connections for heaters and barbecues.

Original Article.

Welcome to the Bowker Collection Neigbourhood Event


Join us on Saturday, June 3rd from 12-4pm for our Welcome To The Neighbourhood Event for the Bowker Collection. There will be so much to see and do during the event! On hand will be local entertainment, refreshments, and activities, like:

  • Jusu Bar
  • Good Earth Coffee
  • Music from Victoria local Ange Hehr
  • Garden Works
  • Jackson’s Ice Cream
  • Art and Activities
  • And More!

We look forward to revealing the Bowker Collection to you during our event, offering a detailed look into the design, features and amenities of the collection.

For more information on the Bowker Collection please visit: www.BOWKERCOLLECTION.com


Bowker Collection Approved by Oak Bay Council


Bowker Collection To Be Unveiled June 3rd

On May 10th the Bowker Collection was approved by Oak Bay Municipal Council. Bowker will be the first residential multi-family, mixed-use community in over 10-years to be approved in Oak Bay and is set to launch on June 3rd with a Welcome to the Neighbourhood Event from 12-4pm at 1967 Oak Bay Avenue.

Located in the quiet and picturesque Willows Beach Neighbourhood and within walking distance to 3 Villages & Willows Beach, the four-storey, mixed-use community will offer 1- and 2-bedroom & Den Premium Residences, Townhomes, Garden Homes, Terrace Homes and Penthouses. Ranging in size from 700 to 2,000 square feet, prices will start under $600,000.

“This is the first approved development of its kind in Oak Bay in over 10 years,”

Explained President of Abstract Developments, Mike Miller. “We are excited for the opportunity to join the unique and exquisite Willows Beach Neighbourhood in Oak Bay. Bowker Collection will not only fit with the character of the community, but provide much needed housing in a location that has had limited stock.”

Construction of the Bowker Collection is estimated to begin in the Fall of 2017 and occupancy is estimated for Fall of 2019.

Abstract Developments will celebrate the addition of Bowker Collection to Oak Bay by hosting a “Welcome to the Neighbourhood” event on June 3rd between 12pm and 4pm, offering the public a more detailed look into the design, features and amenities at Bowker.

This event will also mark the Grand Opening of the new community to the public. To learn more about the Bowker Collection, register at BOWKERCOLLECTION.COM for priority information.

Abstract Developments Looks to Help Victoria’s Red Hot Rental Market



Victoria apartments, construction, rentals


Abstract Developments recently received approval to construct a five storey residential/commercial mixed-use building located in the Uptown area near Douglas Avenue.

Originally planned as a condominium development, the Abstract Developments team has decided instead to build the project as a purpose built rental property. With commercial space and 95 residences; this development will help provide much needed relief to Victoria’s red hot rental market.

“The neighbourhood has been undergoing a revival and it needs to continue to occur,” said Mayor Richard Atwell in lending his support to the proposed development.


Victoria apartments, construction, rentals


The development is located close to transit routes on the Douglas Corridor, direct routes to UVIC and the Galloping Goose cycling trail. To help support alternative transportation and reduce vehicle impacts, Abstract has committed to providing 150 secure bicycle parking spots.

Residences will start at $800 a month, below the $850 affordability limit for the Victoria area identified by CMHC.

Abstract Developments is excited to bring this mixed-used community to the area.

For more information please contact info@abstractdevelopments.com.

Summer markets in your neighbourhood

Summer Markets

Victoria’s abundance of public and farmer’s markets makes picking up local fresh produce, artisan crafts and handmade goods a truly authentic experience. With the summer season in full swing, we’re in awe at the variety of distinctly local offerings and memorable market experiences coming to neighbourhoods across Greater Victoria.

Here’s our team’s top five favourites for summer markets around town:

Moss Street Market
Arguably Victoria’s most recognized market, Moss Street Market takes place every Saturday throughout the summer at Sir James Douglas School in Fairfield. With more than 90 vendors offering sustainable and local products along with food and music, the Moss Street Market is great for meandering through for unique finds – rain or shine.

Ship Point Night Market
On Friday and Saturday evenings Ship Point Pier lights up with artisan vendors until 10:30pm, making it Victoria’s latest night market. Overlooking Victoria’s Inner Harbour, Ship Point Night Market is a great opportunity to take advantage of summer’s longer days and stunning sunsets.

Oaklands Sunset Market
For those with busy weekends, Oaklands Sunset Market is just the market for you. Taking place at Oaklands Community Centre on Wednesday evenings starting at 4:30pm, Oaklands Market offers fresh produce, hot food and even a beer garden; making it a great spot to celebrate getting over the mid-week hump.

James Bay Community Market
Two markets in one, the James Bay Community Market boasts handmade, homemade and homegrown offerings from the corner of Menzies and Superior Street on Saturdays, as well as at the Breakwater Market at Montreal Street and Dallas Road on Sundays.

Government Street Market
Our list on summer markets couldn’t be complete without the Government Street Market, a downtown destination for artisan crafts and and services. Taking place every Sunday on Government Street between Pandora and Fisgard Street, strolling the Government Street Market is a great way to burn off that Sunday brunch.

To learn more about all of the summer markets around town, we recommend starting on the City of Victoria’s Public Market page.

Black and White - Shop/Compare

Discover the Black and White difference

Black and White - Shop/CompareBlack and White is redefining stylish contemporary living: there is nothing else in Victoria that stands close. So what makes this iconic collection of residences rise above the rest?

It goes without saying that Black and White has all the elevated features and finishes you expect in a modern home, but there’s more to the Black and White story. We’ve narrowed the list down to 10 key differentiators and invite you to shop and compare.


Cadboro Bay & Bowker

Times Colonist: Condo-commercial development proposed for Oak Bay

Published June 4, 2016 06:00 AM

Abstract Developments is proposing a four-storey development on a pie-shaped parcel at Cadboro Bay Road and Bowker Avenue in Oak Bay.

The plan for the half-acre site calls for a mixed-use building with strata condominiums “appealing to the downsizer” and some commercial along Cadboro Bay,” developer Mike Miller said.


Vancouver Sun: Interest Keen in Victoria’s Black and White

From the Vancouver Sun
Published on: June 2, 2016 | Last Updated: June 2, 2016 10:25 AM PDT

Glen and Tanya Frecker may not have any connections on the West Coast, but that’s not stopping the Toronto couple from moving to Victoria.

“I just always had a feeling that I should go out West, and I never got around to it until the last two years,” Glen Frecker said.

“I said to my wife, ‘We have to get out there and have a look.’ We went out and I was hooked. Our drive from the airport into the city, seeing the sights, it being so different from Toronto — there’s something about the West Coast, it’s just a real warm feeling to me.”

When the move comes — two years from now, after Glen, a 58-year-old biomed engineer, retires — they’ll be settling into Black and White, a new building going up on Fort Street in Victoria.