10/03/2013 06:30 EDT | Updated 12/03/2013 05:12 EST

B.C. couple shares lessons learned in creating head space for beach house reno

MILL BAY, - There's every expectation with an invitation to the beach house owned by Ken Bartesko and Glenda Griffin that the most prominent feature of the home would be the view outside. But after stepping inside, it's impossible not to keep looking up.

The vaulted ceiling's white beams and contrasting black metal tie rods crisscross the structure, creating what the couple said was some much-needed head space over the main living space in the 1,800-square-foot, three-bedroom, two-bathroom home.

When the prospective buyers first viewed the property, the outside was spectacular, with a pond, trellis work and gardens worthy of charging admission.

The beach home didn't come close to matching that. In fact, Bartesko described the house as "dark and tacky" on the first walk-through in September 2011.

But for Bartesko, it was still "love at first sight," and the couple set off with what he called "foolish optimism" when they took possession in November 2011.

What resulted was a year-long renovation odyssey, creating what feels like a huge space without the trouble of putting on an addition.

But the couple also uncovered a long list of problems with the home they at first believed was "affordable waterfront" property.

Located in Mill Bay, B.C., the beach view from the back of the home faces east and overlooks the Saanich Inlet, the Saanich Peninsula and, in the distance, several Gulf Islands. It's about a 30-minute drive into Victoria over the Malahat Highway.

Bartesko is a residential designer with a degree in architecture, while Griffin — who jokes her middle name is Renovate — has been building or renovating her own homes for most of her adult life.

The possibilities lured them in with the first viewing. The ceiling on the 900-square-foot main floor was just seven feet nine inches high, shorter than the standard eight-foot ceiling.

But Bartesko's experience in home design also helped him see the light.

"I stuck my head up into the attic, which was just used for storage, and there was beautiful light up there. There was a window at each end ... I just saw the potential of opening it all up and vaulting the ceiling and making it one big space."

Griffin said they began imagining what the home would look like with southern-exposure sun filtering down into the living room.

"Once Ken decided what the possibilities were going to be, the beams are big and structural and because the space is not that big the way to make it feel bigger was to make it all one room and give that ceiling the height that it actually deserved, to help make the whole 900 square feet (feel like) 1,700 square feet."

After negotiating the price down to accommodate a new septic system, they took possession in November 2011 for what Griffin knew would be a daunting renovation. But even the seasoned renovators weren't prepared for what they found.

"Crooked walls, crooked floors," Griffin said, sighing.

"Really bad, wrong plumbing and bad and dangerous electrical," Bartesko added.

Many of the walls needed to be taken back to the studs.

"We ended up doing way, way more than we had planned on," he said.

When the decision was made to open the ceiling, Bartesko worked with a structural engineer on the best option and they decided to use the rods.

"We certainly didn't want a post in the middle of the room. It's small enough," Griffin said.

During the process of opening the ceiling, their builder pointed out that the seaside wall had wowed out over time.

"So part of the solution of vaulting the ceiling with all those beams up there was to crank that wall back up right and hold it in place with the beams we've got," Bartesko explained.

They could have used wood instead of the tie rods for the construction, but Bartesko said they liked the semi-industrial, edgy look and decided to celebrate the structure, painting the rods black against the beach-white ceiling.

A bonus was the creation of a 100-square-foot loft area over the main-floor bath that was officially labelled storage space during the permit process, but has become a space that works well for sleeping accommodations when Griffin's teenage granddaughters visit.

Griffin said one of the biggest challenges was the lighting, now that the ceiling was so tall. They opted for pot lighting in the overhang, instead of on the ceiling, making the chore of changing a bulb much more manageable.

The beach-cottage theme was a guiding principle throughout the house, with light colour tones dominating in the bamboo flooring, paint, kitchen cabinets and engineered stone countertops.

One of the key lessons they say they learned for the next time — if there is a next time — is to always bring a golf ball and a level with them when they go house shopping.

"If the ball runs to the far corner and the bubble disappears on the level ..." Griffin said, pausing. "We're walking away," Bartesko said, finishing her sentence with a laugh.

Griffin said she will also try to remember not to be blinded by the possibilities.

"We love to turn things around and this was just a blank slate. No matter where you looked there was an opportunity to turn it around. But it was the places that we didn't look, all of the behind-the-wall stuff.

"It's one thing to go in and throw in a couple of windows and flooring and even a kitchen reno doesn't bother us, but oh my gosh, it was the stuff behind the walls and it got to be, 'Well, what are we going to do? We've opened it up now; we can't just not fix it.'"

Still, Bartesko said the renovation was much cheaper that tearing the house down and building new, which would have cost about $400,000.

And not everything was expensive. In fact, in a "moment of craziness" Bartesko starting bringing white and dark rocks up from the beach and before he knew it he'd created a rock mosaic of a killer whale. The problem is the whale is on the crushed-rock driveway, and now, he joked, he has to park very carefully.

Bartesko also worked with a furniture maker to design the custom-built ladder with handholds in the side going up to the loft.

The result is better than they imagined and the view — from the house, the deck or their 500-square-foot dock on the beach — provides daily entertainment with porpoises, seals, otters, the occasional killer whale, eagles and herons, the couple said.

"We just sit out there and watch the world go by," Griffin said.