DIY Interior Design: where to start



After spending years working on the floor plan of our new house, then working on exterior elements like roofing, siding, and windows, I’m finally turning my thoughts inward to the interior design and decor of our home. There are many choices that will need to be made over the coming months, and with the exterior work behind me, I was eager to get started.

I began by considering the finish for our concrete flooring. There are endless options out there, from standard colours to custom blends. You can have your concrete tinted, acid-washed, or stained. You can have aggregate added to give a pebbly look, you can choose marbling effects, or you can have a smooth finish that is uniform in colour throughout. You can also choose the degree of shine from the polishing process.

This stained, acid-etched, and high-gloss finish make the floors look like marble.

This stained, acid-etched, and high-gloss finish makes the concrete flooring look like marble.

However, I soon realized that the finish I choose for the flooring will need to coordinate with other design elements in the house, such as kitchen cabinets and countertops, window and door trim, and the overall colour palette for the home, most of which have not been selected yet. Clearly this was not a decision I could make in isolation. I needed to take a step back and consider the overall design style for the home.

I soon found myself overwhelmed by the number of decisions I had to make, and drowning in an endless sea of options with no idea where to start. I knew I didn’t want to hire a designer to “do our home” – that kind of expense is outside my budget – but also, I really wanted to do this myself. I was looking forward to this new avenue for creative expression, one that I’ve denied myself for so long because my ugly mobile home just wasn’t worth the effort. I wanted the result to be an expression of myself, not something that someone else put together for me.

While I was searching for information on how to choose a colour palette for my home, I found some really cool home design blogs. And I soon discovered that there are some great options out there for people like me who want to DIY their interior design, but need a bit of help.

My first great find was Kylie M Interiors. I loved Kylie’s blog articles on paint colours, and I soon found myself reading pretty much everything else on her blog. I liked her style and the personality that came through in her writing, so I was delighted to discover that she lived close by.

Importantly, Kylie is one of a growing number of design entrepreneurs who are using the Internet to provide home design services in a whole new way. She offers e-consulting services at very reasonable prices, and the bite-size portions of expertise she offers are perfect for people like me who want to do it ourselves, but could use some helpful input at various points along the way.

Because Kylie lives about an hour away, we decided on a consulting appointment in person. We met at a coffee shop, and I came armed with floor plans and a laptop bulging with Houzz ideabooks and Pinterest boards. In two short hours Kylie settled many design dilemmas for me, and I no longer felt like I was drowning in options with no idea where to start.

In regards to flooring, she helped me see that a cool colour would provide a great balance to my warm colour palette. And because the living room is relatively small and part of an open concept kitchen/dining area, she advised me to keep the finish simple. I will likely have rugs scattered around the place, so keeping the floor neutral and uniformly coloured will avoid the space getting visually overcluttered. She didn’t say “you should pick THAT finish”, instead she pointed me in a direction that greatly narrowed down my options so that I could make a choice myself. THAT is what I wanted in a designer!

The cool pale grey of the flooring provides a nice contrast to the warm blonde woods and warm colour palette of reds and oranges.

The cool light grey of this flooring provides a nice contrast to the blonde wood and warm colour palette of reds and oranges.

The aggregate finish in this floor provides great detail and depth in a room with a large exposed floor area and minimalist design elements.

The aggregate finish on this floor provides visual interest in a room with a large exposed floor area and minimalist design elements.

The smooth, almost matte finish of these floors doesn't distract from the beautiful wood elements.

The smooth, uniform finish of this floor doesn’t distract from the beautiful wood elements.

Kylie also helped settle a number of other outstanding issues. For example, I wasn’t sure where the polished concrete flooring would end, and what I would use instead in those rooms. She encouraged me to simplify – the house is not huge and too many different flooring choices would break it up and make it look choppy and small. I was happy to hear this, as it reduced the number of decisions I would have to make.

For example, I was thinking of putting cheap linoleum in the kids’ bedrooms since they tend to be pretty hard on their surroundings. She suggested I use laminate flooring continued from the adjacent family room and small hallway area to pull the spaces together. Laminate flooring can be inexpensive but still look good, and it means one choice will take care of several areas of the house.

For the bathrooms and laundry/mudroom she suggested I stick with polished concrete, which was another big relief for several reasons. First, it saves me from numerous tiling decisions (size, layout, materials, colour); second, it maintains consistency in the overall home decor by simplifying the number of floor finishes; third, it’s a great material for “wet” rooms; and fourth, the cost will not be much more given the concrete guys are already there. I can even get them to put lines in the concrete to make it look like a tiled floor, and for the master ensuite, which is north facing, I can add a tint to warm it up a bit.

The look of this tile could easily be achieved with concrete, and no grout!

The look of this tile could easily be achieved with concrete. And no grout to clean!

This tinted concrete floor would warm up a bathroom.

This tinted concrete floor would add needed warmth to a north-facing bathroom.

Kylie also helped me narrow down my choices for the kitchen countertops. Due to budget limitations, I may end up with laminate, and she showed me some great options that would go well with my flooring and the blonde, natural wood cabinets I want (her blog post about laminate countertops really impressed me: not everybody can afford expensive countertops, and she made it feel like a legitimate and positive option).

If the budget allows for more, she recommended quartz, which was nice to hear because (a) I’m sick to death of granite, and (b) my best friend recently redid her kitchen – she did tons of research and loved the quartz she chose as a result. I like the smoother, more uniform finish of quartz, and there are even some that mimic poured concrete countertops (which have a great aesthetic but are somewhat high-maintenance).

Caesarstone in Raw Concrete

Caesarstone in Raw Concrete


Caesarstone in Shitake

Caesarstone in Shitake

Based on photos I showed her of colour schemes I liked, Kylie suggested some paint colours for the walls that she thought would help me get the look I wanted. Choosing paint can be so overwhelming, especially if you don’t have a starting point. With Kylie’s guidance, I know what colour families to start with, and that will make choosing shades and tints much easier (stay tuned for a future blog post with links to great resources for learning about interior paint colours).

I'm madly in love with these creamy wall colours.

I’m madly in love with these creamy wall colours.

Aside from helping me narrow down my paint colour choices, Kylie also made a suggestion that had never even occurred to me. I have a narrow dining area (10 feet wide) with a door at one end that leads to the outside. Because part of that wall with the door is an interior wall (there’s a laundry room on the other side), the door cannot be centred on the dining area, which kind of bothered me. It also bugged me that when the dining set was centred in the room, the door was not aligned with it. I figured it was a minor irritation and I’d just have to live with it since I didn’t want to make the house any bigger.

Dining area is open on the left side to the living room. Along the top wall are three huge picture windows with a pretty view of the property. A kitchen counter runs along the bottom edge from right to left, ending with an eating bar. On the right is a door to the patio. On the other side of the wall 9where the "1000" is, is the laundry room, so the door cannot be centred on that wall.

The dining area is open on the left side to the living room. Along the top are three huge picture windows with a pretty view of the property. A kitchen counter runs along the bottom edge from right to left, ending with an eating bar. On the right is a door to the patio. Below that, on the other side of the wall, is the laundry room.

I had considered putting in bench seating on one side of the table: Sarah Susanka recommends this in her Not So Big House series as a way to reduce the space taken up by a dining set. For some reason, I assumed such a bench would naturally be placed along the exterior wall, topped with windows, and I didn’t like the way it looked in that space.

But it didn’t occur to me to put the bench on the other side, up against the kitchen counter. I suppose I had it in my head that there would be shelving on that side; after all, the room was inspired by this photo:

The inspiration for my dining room and kitchen layout.

The inspiration for my dining room and kitchen layout.

But when Kylie suggested putting the bench against the kitchen counter, I immediately saw the benefits. First, it creates a clear passage to the door, and that prevents the dining suite from appearing to be off-centre in the space. Second, because the bench will be longer than the dining table (at least when we don’t have it extended for guests), it provides easy access from either end of the table.

Having the bench open at both ends means less scootching along for guests.

Having the bench open at both ends means less trouble getting in and out.

Third, it provides a lovely place to sit and admire the beautiful view out the windows while I sip my morning tea. And finally, it provides a great design opportunity: fabrics and throw pillows are a fun and inexpensive way to add colour to a space.

Built-in bench seating allows for use of fabrics and throw pillows to add colour to the space.

Built-in bench seating allows for the use of fabrics and throw pillows to add colour to the space.

It was genius, and I hadn’t even asked her about it! She just saw it while looking at my plans! That right there was worth the cost of the entire session.

I left my session with Kylie feeling so much lighter. With her help and expertise, I’ve narrowed down my options and I know where to start when it comes to the flooring, countertops, and paint selection. Undoubtedly as we progress through the build, I will have more dilemmas I need help with. Knowing I can hire Kylie for a short session, when I need it, rather than committing to having someone doing my whole home, is really nice. I feel like I have an expert resource in my back pocket that I can turn to when needed, and the cost is super budget-friendly.


Before I go, I also want to give a shout-out to another great home design blog that I found: Teal and Lime. Jackie has some great free resources on her blog, and I signed up for her newsletter to get them. That’s how I found out about her online courses. She is currently offering a 50% early-bird discount on her latest course, the Defining Your Style Lab, and I decided to snatch it up (offer expires Feb. 9).

The course starts on March 1st, but she has already given us some preliminary exercises to work on. I’ve been nursing a bad cold, and yesterday with the kids at learning centre and hubby off in the big city for work, I had the house to myself. I was able to lie down with my laptop and work through the first few assignments. I’ve really enjoyed them so far, and I can see that being able to define my own personal style in a way that will help me make choices moving forward is going to be really helpful.

So hooray for brilliant entrepreneurs who are finding a way to get professional design help out to the masses in small affordable chunks of instruction and advice. I’m super grateful to have these resources at hand, and I’ll keep you posted as I make choices and try to make this new house into a home!


Categories: New House Build | Leave a comment

Why we chose NOT to go “natural” with our new house

natural 1

When we first came up with the idea to buy acreage and build a new home, I wanted to use natural building methods. These include strawbale, cob, clay-slip (or chip-slip, made with wood chips instead of straw), cordwood, and rammed earth. The main appeal of these methods are: small environmental footprint, ability to use local materials, and low materials cost. Natural homes can be stunningly beautiful, with styles ranging from organic free-form “hobbit houses” to elegant luxury homes. The costs also vary dramatically.

Can't you just smell the patchouli?

Can’t you just smell the patchouli?


The EcoNest company makes gorgeous homes, but that artisan glory will cost you plenty.

This clay-slip infill, timber-framed home is worthy of a spread in Architectural Digest.

Due to our climate and my own aesthetic tastes, we immediately ruled out strawbale, cordwood, and rammed earth. I also don’t like the “hobbit house” look, which ruled out load-bearing cob. That left a timber skeleton with either cob or clay-slip/chip-slip infill. I spent at least two years heavily researching the subject and talking to local experts (we happen to live in a community with a fairly high concentration of cob buildings), but in the end we decided against a “natural-built” house. Here’s why:

The low-cost appeal of natural building is immediately erased when, like us, you aren’t willing or able to do the work yourself. Most people around here rely on work parties where friends, family, and interested folks in the community come together to make cob and assemble walls. Like moving house, you can only rely so long on the good nature of people to provide hard labour in return for beer and pizza before you end up having to do the rest of it yourself, and this can wreak havoc with your timelines.

Timing your wall-building with local workshops, DIY work parties, and the overall availability of labour can be limiting.

Timing your wall-building with local workshops, DIY work parties, and the overall availability of labour can be limiting.

Natural building methods are labour intensive, and when you have to pay for that labour, any cost savings from the materials goes out the window. You need experts for the walls, for the natural plasters that coat them, and for the earthen flooring. There aren’t that many around, they aren’t cheap (for good reason), and chances are you’ll have to keep bringing them back for regular maintenance. To top it off we live in one of the few places, apparently, that doesn’t have much clay so it needs to be hauled in from elsewhere at added cost.

Aside from cost issues, the use of cob or slip as infill comes with certain practical and aesthetic limitations:

(1) It’s difficult to run plumbing and electrical through solid walls. The pipes or electrical conduits can provide a dew point surface onto which condensation will form in your wall (not good). Or you can build an extraneous structure, like a hollow internal wall, soffit, or other such system, which can be tricky and perhaps not aesthetically pleasing.

(2) The walls need to be finished with a natural plaster inside and out, which requires hiring an expert (or becoming one yourself). I personally wanted wood cladding on the exterior, but I couldn’t find anyone who knew how to do that and some experts recommended against it. You can’t paint natural plasters like you do a conventional drywall surface – instead they are tinted upon application and you are basically stuck with that colour forever (redo-ing a plaster wall is a far different project than repainting drywall). Admittedly, I find the colours of natural plaster very beautiful, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to limit myself in that way. Bathrooms are a particular problem as moisture can build up around tiles and other impermeable substances; the most recommended solution is a lime-based plaster called tadelakt, which also requires a good deal of expertise and doesn’t come cheap.

It takes expertise to create the precise formula for a given climate, and you'll likely need to touch up the walls fairly regularly due to temperature fluctuations, settling, and other factors.

It takes expertise to create the precise formula for a given climate, and you’ll likely need to touch up the walls fairly regularly due to temperature fluctuations, settling, and other factors.

(3) The timber skeleton presents issues with thermal bridging across the wall, and a consistent interface between cob/slip and wood can be difficult to maintain (cracks are common). To do it right takes time between applications. And you need to time your construction right so that the infill can dry properly before the wet weather sets in. In addition, cob is not a very good insulator and walls are typically a foot thick or more. You’ll need either thick logs that require a proper timber framing crew ($$$) or extra-wide studs and planks. I was unable to find consensus on whether to leave the timber exposed on the inside and outside wall surfaces or to bury it beneath a layer of cob or plaster.

In the end, aside from the high cost of getting the natural home I wanted (we were quoted about $300/sq ft by one leading company), what finally drove us to abandon our natural building plans was that we simply weren’t convinced that all the kinks had been worked out of using cob or clay-slip in our unique climate over the long term. It’s not that I don’t believe such methods can be used successfully, we just couldn’t shake the feeling that the industry was still in its early stages here, and we weren’t ready to risk such a huge financial and emotional investment on something we just weren’t comfortable with. Instead we plan to use natural building methods for a shed, workshop, or small barn some time in the future and maybe, based on what we learn from that experience, we will feel confident enough to build a retirement cottage using natural materials.

It's images like this that made me yearn for a natural-built home. One day perhaps we'll have it in our budget to do so.

It’s images like this that made me yearn for a natural-built home. One day perhaps we’ll have it in our budget to do so properly.

Categories: New House Build | Leave a comment

Winter Knitting

For various reasons, our little mobile home has become even more cluttered over the last few months. And since we are about to start construction on our new house, I’m not exactly motivated to organize any of it. The result is that my crafting area has disappeared under piles of stuff, my sewing machine is put aside, and there just isn’t any room left for sewing or quilting.

Winter brings more evenings at home and inside, more watching of shows and movies, and more immediate need for warm woolies, so lately I’ve focused on knitting for my crafting fix. Here are some of my recent projects:

I took a Craftsy course on stranded knitting and steeking. Steeking is when you make something in the round and then cut it to make a flat piece of fabric. I’m still not exactly sure what the point of that is, but to be fair I haven’t finished the class yet so I suppose I might still find out. The first part of the course was about stranded knitting, or knitting with multiple strands of yarn in different colours. The first project was a tablet cover, and each section uses two colours of yarn. Thankfully, I already knew how to knit both continental and European style, so I took to it pretty quickly. I quite enjoyed it, and I love all the patterns you can make. Here is my project:


I gave this to a friend for Christmas as I don’t have a tablet (and because I wanted to give her something handmade and useful).

I also took a course on bias knitting. This turned out to be pretty simple and not really worthy of an entire course (although if you are interested in designing your own patterns I think it would be useful). I skipped over the first project, a simple tube cowl, as it looked pretty boring. Instead, I made a scarf with a pretty ripple edge. I wish I had used a brighter colour, as the pattern itself is pretty but not very striking. And unfortunately the ripple isn’t very obvious when worn. The yarn, however, is lovely soft and warm so I’ve kept the scarf for myself. Here it is laid out for blocking:


Speaking of blocking, I took a Craftsy class in blocking and it has really changed my knitting for the better. I had not really done much blocking before: nobody had showed me how to do it, although it seemed pretty straightforward, and I guess I didn’t appreciate what a difference it could make to my projects. After taking the course I was eager to give it a go, and I blocked the tablet case above, the scarf above, and a bolero cardigan I made last spring (which I never wore because I thought it didn’t look very good on me). Now I will block everything I knit, and I’m so happy with how my projects turned out! Here is a photo of the finished bolero cardigan:


Here is a link to the class project page where you can see the “before” shots of this cardigan.

That cardigan, by the way, was made as part of my favourite Craftsy knitting course, The Perfect Fit Seamless Crazy Lace Cardigan (which you can find on this page). From my review of that class:

“I have been knitting for almost 15 years, and in that time I’ve attempted several sweaters only to end up frogging them because they fit horribly, despite all my attempts at measuring correctly. With this course, I finally have a technique for creating cardigans that truly are a perfect fit!”

Lest this post turn into a commercial for Craftsy, Here is a project I made from a pattern I got on Ravelry. This Fisherman’s Wife cowl turned out really nice, and I made one for both my mother and a friend, both of whom are very cold in the winter! This is knit on large needles and worked up very quickly. It looks great (especially after blocking!), and is very warm when made with a lovely yarn. I think I will keep this one handy for gifts in the future.


I also knit up the Illyria Hat, which it turns out was designed by the instructor for the bias knitting class on Craftsy. I liked the tree design, but the yarn I used was dark and the tree doesn’t stand out well. I may knit another one in a lighter colour at some point.


My current project is a pair of socks for my dear husband. I have so many of my own now, and it’s nice to make them for someone else. Thankfully, my aunt from New Zealand came for a visit this past summer and brought me a fair amount of sock yarn, so I had some just waiting for this project. I’ve completed the first one already and began the second pair last night, so he should have them soon.


I’ve been hankering after a poncho, so that might be my next project. I recently bought one from Costco and while I love the look, it is pretty thin and made from mostly acrylic yarn. I want a warmer one in a nicer wool, although given the size of the garment I’ll probably have to settle for a wool blend so I don’t end up spending a fortune on it!

Categories: Crafting | Leave a comment

Feeding Program Update


It has been about two months since I started implementing the Ellyn Satter Institute feeding program (see my previous posts on the subject), and I’d like to provide an update on our progress.

The first step in the program was to provide regular meals and snacks throughout the day. I continued to feed him on a tray (in his room or the living room), and the trays would always come back empty. Although I worried about the amount of food he was packing away, I did feel a lot better about what he was eating. I made sure to include one of the four food categories with each snack or meal (fruit or vegetable, dairy, protein, carbs) and realized that despite his limited tastes, he was eating a well-balanced diet in terms of nutrition.

The first result I noticed was that his attitude around food and eating underwent a dramatic change. He used to frequently complain about being hungry, and would appear either hesitant and apologetic or whiny and grumpy when he asked for food. Food had become an emotionally charged issue which, according to the program, could alone account for his overeating and obsession with “treats”. I noticed the whole atmosphere around eating changed: he became more relaxed, and I rarely ever hear “Mama, I’m hungry” anymore. Now when I provide him with food I feel good, instead of feeling worried about his weight, and I believe he has picked up on my own change in attitude. It’s easy to see how our path could have led to an eating disorder one day, or even just the constant battle of weight and dieting that so many adults are locked into. Seeing him relaxed and positive about eating is really rewarding.


I’ve also noticed an end to talking about or asking for treats. And no more bingeing, no piles of wrappers hidden under the bed. I make sure to provide him with treats on a regular, though infrequent, basis. For example, one of our meal nights includes potato chips, sometimes I’ll bake cookies and serve them with a snack, or I’ll provide a dessert with dinner. Nothing is forbidden or off-limits now, and it seems that his obsession with such foods has disappeared. It’s not that he doesn’t enjoy treats, he just doesn’t seem to think much about them anymore, trusting that he will be provided with the good stuff every now and then. I can keep treats around and know that he won’t be raiding them.

As predicted, after beginning the program my son began to gain weight. It was hard not to be alarmed given he was already obese, and I tried to remind myself that this was a normal part of the process. Eventually, I succumbed to my fears and began tracking his caloric intake in secret, although by then things were already starting to look up. I sort of broke the rules in that regard, but since he didn’t know I was doing it and I wasn’t changing anything about how or what I was feeding him, I decided it was a relatively harmless way for me to feel less anxious.

The tracking showed what I had already begun to suspect – he was reducing his food intake. Trays began coming back with food left uneaten, and it wasn’t always just the good stuff that was gone. I watched with growing amazement as this pattern continued, and my tracking confirmed it. As the book predicted, once he lost his anxiety and emotional issues around eating, once it became something he didn’t need to think about anymore, he was able to pay attention to his body’s signals and just eat until he was satiated. At his next weigh-in he had lost 2 lbs and I was quietly elated.


Soon after introducing regular meal and snack times, I moved on to the next step in the program – having family dinners at the table. It has gone better than I had even imagined. I was pleasantly surprised by how much interaction there is. My son is positively chatty and funny at mealtimes, and he seems to really enjoy it. Miss Em was not too happy about the arrangement, mostly because she has sensory issues around foods such as ketchup and salad dressings, but when she does come to eat with us it’s very nice to have her there. My son actually looks forward to eating with us all now, and is disappointed on the odd day when we don’t eat together for dinner.


It became immediately apparent that my son eats significantly less food when he eats at the table. Even on “hot dogs and potato chips night” he eats far less chips than he would otherwise. I have received no complaints about the food I serve him, and he eagerly comes to the table to eat. He doesn’t stay long at the table, but that’s fine because he is eating only what he needs.

The one area where I’m struggling is getting more meals and snacks to the table. Our situation is pretty desperate in terms of space. I got busy with my consulting work before the holidays, and the table was covered in my papers and other things that needed some form of organization. Moving all of that each day, pulling the table out from the wall, and bringing chairs over from various places around the house – and then putting it all back again after – is a real pain. It’s all I can do to make it happen once a day, let alone several times a day.

However, since the program is already showing signs of success in terms of the amount of food he is eating, and since construction on the new house is about to begin, I’m probably going to let that part slide for now. In a few months we’ll have a proper dining table and breakfast bar, and all our meals and snacks will take place there. I’m looking forward to it!

In my next post, I’ll talk about my journey through this process and how it has affected my own feeding and eating. Thanks for stopping by!



Categories: Feeding Therapy, parenting | 1 Comment

Site Prep

Stuff is finally happening on the house-building front!

Before submitting our application for a building permit we needed to make sure our septic system was compliant for the new house. When we bought this property, the realtor told us the septic system was designed for a bigger house than the little mobile home on the property. Now it was time to find out if we could keep the existing system for our new home. Having to replace it would cost us upwards of $25,000, which would significantly impact our budget for the house. Also, our old concrete tank is in excellent condition even though it is going on 30 years. The guy who comes to pump it out said he hoped for our sakes the district didn’t make us replace it, as the new plastic systems did not last long and weren’t as well built, in his opinion (after 40 years of doing septic systems in our area). So we were really hoping we didn’t have to do that!

It was a tense few days as we waited to have the system inspected, but the news was good. Our tank meets the minimum size requirements for the new house, and it needed only a few minor repairs (the distribution box needed replacing). Also, the drainage field was overgrown with shrubs and small trees that could damage the pipes, so we had them clear the site and put new raised access lids on (the old ones got buried easily and were hard to find).

IMG_20150825_184809 (1)




The guys also marked out the septic field with little blue flags so that big equipment would not run over it during construction of the house and potentially damage the pipes underneath.

After that, several weeks went by as we finalized the plans and submitted them to the district. Next we had some tree fallers come to take down 3 Western red cedar trees on the property. We will be milling these into planks that will be used for the board-and-batten siding. We also took down 3 or 4 firs and balsams that were either blocking sunlight or encroaching on the house site. The balsams are going to one of the carpenters in exchange for some labour, and the firs will be milled into boards for the ceiling of the master bedroom and living room. I love that we are able to use our own trees for parts of the house!


Watching these guys at work is amazing.

Then this past week, just in time for Christmas, the excavator arrived to clear up the mess from the tree fallers, clear the site for the surveyors, and put in the new driveway.


Best Christmas present ever!

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stared at the view below and imagined the driveway leading up to the new house, and now it’s finally taking shape!





I was pleased that we were able to save the Sitka alder (the leafless tree just to the right of the pump house). The kids like to climb that tree, and there is a Stellar’s Jay who comes and hangs out there each autumn. It’s the only Sitka alder I’ve found on the property, too. Instead, we removed a small Western dogwood, but we have many of those on the property.

Up at the top of the drive where the building site will be, were the remains of an old greenhouse. We’d removed the roof a few years ago to make a pig shelter – it was an eyesore, and I’m glad it’s gone now! With the tree removal and clearing up the brush, it looks a lot bigger up there now.






Things have halted for the holidays, and we are awaiting our building permit before we proceed with digging holes and making forms for the foundation. But at least something is happening!

Categories: New House Build | 1 Comment

On the Road to Eating Competence


In the last two posts in this Feeding Therapy series, I outlined the feeding and eating program developed by the Ellyn Satter Institute and provided some background to explain how I became a “feeding failure”. Today, I discuss our goals and our plan for getting there.

The ultimate goal of this program is to get my children to the point of Eating Competence, which is a model developed by the Ellyn Satter Institute. As described by the model, eating competent children:

  • feel good about eating, and have the drive to eat
  • naturally eat as much as they need, and grow in the way that is right for them
  • learn to eat the foods their parents eat
  • enjoy a variety of foods, and enjoy learning to like new foods
  • enjoy family meals, and learn to behave well at mealtimes


In the case of our family, there was a lot of overeating going on, virtually nothing that the adults ate was eaten by the children, the kids had a very limited variety of foods they would eat, and an intense dislike for anything new. Family meals did not happen in our household, and the kids actively resisted the idea of doing so (and frankly, so did I, for reasons outlined in my last post).

Achieving the goal of Eating Competence requires me, the parent in charge of feeding, to follow the Division of Responsibility, which is:

  • provide regular meals and snacks
  • choose and prepare the food
  • serve food at the table, without TV or other distractions
  • make eating times pleasant
  • show children by example how to behave at mealtimes
  • be considerate of your child’s lack of food experience without catering to their likes and dislikes
  • don’t serve foods between meal and snacktimes
  • let children enjoy the body size and shape that is right for them

I know from past experience that, when starting any new lifestyle plan, it’s important to take baby steps towards the end goal: do the first step until it feels normal and natural, and then add the next. So, as recommended by the program guidelines, I broke the process down based on where we were starting from and the particular eating issues that our family was facing.

  1. the parent is responsible for providing food
  2. implement regular meal and snacktimes
  3. eat one meal at the table together as a family
  4. gradually have more meals and snacks at the table
  5. gradually reduce the “extra foods” added to the table to accommodate specific likes and dislikes

In my next few posts, I’ll talk about how it is going, the steps we have implemented, and any difficulties or results we are seeing. Thank you for following along!




Categories: autism, family life, Feeding Therapy, parenting, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

How I Failed at Feeding my Children

white flag

About 2 and a half years ago, I wrote this post about giving up on the feeding therapy program I’d tried to institute. Not much has changed since I surrendered to convenience foods and making three different recipes at every meal…until now, that is.

In the last two posts in this Feeding Therapy series, I describe the Ellyn Satter Institute approach to eating and how it shed light onto my own struggles with eating and weight loss, and I outline their program for feeding children. In learning about the program, I came to realize that I was responsible for my son’s weight problem in ways that had never occurred to me.

I had started with such lofty ideals as a new mother: How did I get to be a Feeding Failure?

It starts, as eating issues usually do, with my own childhood. My mother was a war survivor who suffered through hunger and food scarcity as a young child. She used to make us stay at the table until our plates were cleaned. It made for many an unpleasant evening as I tried to force myself to eat foods that made me gag and sat alone for what felt like hours after everybody else had left. I vowed that I would never do the same to my own children.

My kids started out as great eaters, but they soon dropped one food after another until their diet was startlingly limited. It’s called food jagging, and it creeps up on you slowly and unexpectedly until you suddenly realize that they’ve backed themselves (and you) into a food corner that is now making it difficult to provide balanced nutrition for them.


At first, I tried to fix this by following the advice of others to make them “try a bite” of vegetables and other foods that we all thought they should be eating. This, combined with their sensory issues and attention deficits – none of which were recognized by us at the time – made for some really horrid mealtimes. Lots of crying, screaming, arguing, cajoling, and full-on body tantrums.

I tried…I really did…pressured by my husband, my mother, and my own ideas about what feeding children should look like. But my gut told me that so much stress for everyone could not possibly be good for the kids or our family. So I gave up, and began cooking and serving separate meals to the kids and the adults. Lots of work for me, but at least it was peaceful.


I reasoned to myself that, since we were a homeschooling family with a husband who worked largely from home, we got enough “together” time that not having sit-down meals together wasn’t a problem. Feeding the kids separately from the grownups also offered us the only apparent hope for eating our own meals in peace. Every now and then we’d give it another try, and it always ended in misery and failure.

Then they were diagnosed with autism, which I took as further justification for giving up on family dinners and hopes of a varied diet. Cue the gummy vitamins.

We moved into a tiny mobile home, and the dining table quickly morphed into a workspace for me. The kids’ bedroom was right off the kitchen, and it was just easier to serve them in their room, rather than having them come into the already crowded kitchen to pick up their food.

My mother came to visit us one week and asked, as neutrally as she could (I give her credit for that), if I served the kids their meals on a tray every day or was this just because she was visiting? (nope, I did it every day, for every meal). It was then that I started to realize just how far into crazy-land we had come.


I told myself that when our new house was built, I’d make them eat at the table or breakfast bar like normal children, and stop serving them like a waitress. But it’s unlikely we would have eaten together. I’d have served them first to get it out of the way so I could enjoy a peaceful dinner with my husband.

You can imagine that making so many meals, so many times a day, quickly became exhausting. When convenience foods no longer cut it, I moved to making them prepare their own meals. It started with me telling them I was no longer making lunches, then progressed to breakfast on weekends, and then I made the ultimate deal: in exchange for pizza twice a week, I created “make your own dinner night” twice a week. That was four nights a week I didn’t have to make a bunch of different dinners – win for me!

But despite the appeal of the pizza, the kids never embraced the concept of making their own meals (they eventually changed it to one night a week; that’s how much they hated making their own dinner). Miss Em simply didn’t make anything on those nights, and turned instead to her stash of junk food (she regularly cycles to the corner store, buys food with her own money, and saves it for just such an occasion). Mr. Boo made himself dinner (usually some double or triple stack salami sandwich creation), but he complained and stomped around every damn time. And he left a mess in the kitchen that I was loathe to make him clean up, since by then he had only just calmed down and would likely have had a full-on meltdown if I’d pushed it any further (by end of day, that is the last thing I feel like dealing with).


So that is how I got to the point where I was able to say “yes” to every item on the following checklist for kids who are overweight (or have other eating issues):

  • meals and snacks occur at irregular and unpredictable times
  • meals are not eaten at the table, but in front of computer or TV
  • the kids tell the mother what they would like to eat and mum makes it (short order cook)
  • the kids are responsible for feeding themselves without having achieved Eating Competence (which is the end goal of the feeding program)
  • the kids binge on certain foods, sometimes even hiding the evidence (one day I discovered a stash of snack wrappers underneath my son’s bed)
  • the Division of Responsibility is not being followed

I was a Feeding Failure. And because of it, both my kids had diets that were severely limited and limiting (for example, visiting friends for dinner always meant I had to bring food for my kids). And worse, my son was obese.



But now I have hope, because the information I’ve learned has given me the tools I need to make family dinners a success. I now understand that the family dinner is about so much more than just connecting as a family (which is nice anyway, even when you are a homeschooling family):

  • It exposes the kids to the presence of new foods, which is the first step in overcoming limited food preferences, and essential for kids with sensory issues around food.
  • Kids don’t tend to enjoy hanging around the table too long (especially if they have ADD), which gives them a motive to eat just enough, and not too much.
  • People tend to eat less when they focus on their eating than if they eat while performing other tasks (like being on the computer).
  • Having food in serving dishes means everybody can decide for themselves how much to eat, rather than being served a portion that tempts one to “not leave anything wasted” and thus eat beyond satiation.
  • Having food in serving dishes allows kids to pick and choose from the nutrients in front of them: research shows that kids will naturally choose foods their bodies need and, over a period of days, will naturally balance out their nutritional requirements.
  • Being at the table allows kids to learn the social norms and expectations around eating in their culture, which will allow them to function better when in restaurants or eating at other peoples’ homes (especially important for kids with social disabilities).
  • It’s less work for mum to have one place where eating and messes take place, and not have to collect dishes from all around the house.

So after an initial wave of guilt as I realized all the ways I’d gone wrong in feeding my kids over the years – and that this was directly related to my son’s weight issues – I took comfort in recognizing that I didn’t have the knowledge and guidelines I needed to be successful back then. And I was excited about this new information, because I believed it really could work with my children.

And once I believed that I could make this happen, that we could sit around the table together as a family and enjoy a meal, that my kids could learn to try new foods, that my son could return to the weight that is right for him…I realized how much I’d wanted this all along.

In my next post, I’ll talk about the baby steps needed to go from being a total Feeding Failure to the end goal of Eating Competence and happy family meals.


Categories: autism, family life, Feeding Therapy, parenting | 3 Comments

Feeding Your Overweight Child


In my last post, I spoke about the new feeding and eating plan that I discovered after taking my overweight son (who also has autism) to visit a clinical nutritionist. I discussed some of the principles of the plan, and how it shed light on my own struggles around eating and weight loss. Today, I’m going to discuss the plan in the context of feeding children.

The plan I’m referring to is based on the Feeding Dynamics and Eating Competence models developed by the Ellyn Satter Institute. I should point out that this plan is for ANY CHILD, not just the overweight child. But since that is the issue our family is dealing with, it’s the one I’m going to focus on here.

The basic premise of the program is that children are born hardwired to eat what they need: no more and no less. This immediately reminded me of my days as a La Leche League leader, when I would counsel anxious new breastfeeding mums to let their babies take the lead on when to eat, how much to eat, and how often. So I knew this premise to be true. What I didn’t appreciate was that it continues throughout childhood and into adulthood providing we (the people doing the feeding) don’t screw it up.


We screw it up by imposing our own values and anxieties around food on our children. We fuss over the ones who don’t eat much, and we chide those who eat a lot. We try to force the picky ones to eat “just a bite” of new foods, while we deem a category of favourite foods to be “bad for you” for the overweight kids. We let them eat in front of computers or TVs, so they don’t focus on their body’s signals of satiety. Or we don’t feed them often enough, triggering anxiety about when they will next be fed and how long they will have to go hungry, which leads to overeating when they finally get some food (a smart evolutionary strategy gone awry). We don’t eat together as families much anymore, so our kids are not exposed to new foods (and here’s the part that nobody told me: sitting in front of food is the first step, a real honest-to-goodness step, in learning to like new foods. That “just one bite” that we were told to insist on? That is much further down the list of steps, and even further for kids with sensory issues).

So, here it is in a nutshell: Satter calls it “the division of responsibility”. I, the parent, am in charge of the what, where, and when of eating and my school-age children are responsible for the whether and how much.

I make sure they eat regularly (no more than 3 hours between offerings), that they sit at the table without distractions (other than my stimulating company, or that of the rest of the family), and that they are offered foods from each of the four groups Satter lists as essential for growing kids: protein, carbohydrate, fruit or vegetable, and dairy (that last one assumes, of course, that there are no dairy allergies, and the book gives details on how to accommodate those). And here’s the fun part: make the food delicious! Cook with fat, sprinkle butter or sugar on those veggies, make everything a joy to eat. Provide a well-balanced offering of delights, and watch mealtime become fun again, not just for those who eat it, but for the one who is preparing it too!

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Nobody wants to come to the table for this.



A delicious, well-balanced meal that’s a pleasure to make and a joy to eat.

The kids are responsible for deciding whether or not to show up for the meal (understanding there is no eating in between meal and snacktimes), what foods on the table to eat, and how much of any food on the table to eat (the exception being dessert, the only rule for which is that there is only one serving per person at the table).

That’s it.

No rules about how long the kids must stay at the table – if they are wanting to get down from the table and/or they are starting to act up, then they are done eating and we need to respect that so they learn to understand what that feeling means.

No rules about eating vegetables before dessert – they can eat their dessert at any time during the meal. It’s only one serving, so it won’t “ruin their dinner”, and they may learn all on their own that it’s nicer to save the sweet stuff for last (or they may not, and that is okay).

No rules about “trying a bite”, no matter how picky your eater. The steps to getting to eat a new food are:

  1. look at the food,
  2. be close to the food,
  3. touch the food,
  4. play with or manipulate the food,
  5. touch the food to the mouth,
  6. taste the food,
  7. chew the food,
  8. swallow the food.

There might even be some more in-between steps in the case of kids with sensory issues. The idea is that, if they are continually exposed to the variety of foods your family enjoys, and there is no pressure on them, they will slowly (or quickly, each child is unique) go through the steps and, when they are older, will learn that new foods are nothing to be afraid of.



No rules about eating one of everything on the table: if they make an entire meal out of bread and butter, let it be. They will eventually round it out – maybe not that day, but most likely that week – and even fresh, white bread slathered in butter gets boring if that’s all you eat every day. Their bodies will soon crave what they need to balance it out, and you’ll make sure it is on the table when they do.

Finally, no forbidden foods. Regularly (reasonably often) offer cookies for a snack (with a glass of milk and some fruit on the table). Let your kid have as many cookies as they want, while they are at the table. Have potato chips on hot dog night, and make sure there is enough for everyone to get their fill. If your child has learned not to trust that these foods will be available, he or she may begin by scarfing down as many as can fit in their tummies…but eventually they will trust that such foods will be offered, and no limits will be imposed, and this can greatly reduce that chance of eating disorders, or even just the routine binge-and-guilt cycle that too many adults (including myself) get sucked into. It will also make these foods lose their “forbidden fruit” appeal, which goes a long way to healthy eating habits in the future.

I have to say, that when I first started reading I found myself sliding into a pit of guilt. My son was overweight, and to add to the guilt of having let him get that way, I was now faced with just how badly I had screwed up the feeding of my children over the years. On the checklist following “why is my child overweight?” I ticked off pretty much every single item. Regular mealtimes? nope. Eating at the table? nope. Division of responsibility? nope. I realized that I had basically tossed my kids into the deep end of the feeding and eating swimming pool without giving them the proper foundation. No wonder my kid was fat.

How did I get there? I’ll answer that in my next post. I’ll also be blogging about instituting the plan (which happens in stages) and discuss our challenges and triumphs. These posts will be tagged under “Feeding Therapy” if you wish to follow along (or read about some previous tried-and-failed plans).

For now, I would encourage anyone in charge of feeding kids, or anyone who is struggling with their own eating and weight issues, to visit the Ellyn Satter Institute website. I have bought and read two of their books: Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming and Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family and I would recommend either of them.


Categories: autism, family life, Feeding Therapy, parenting | 2 Comments

Eat Well

Aspen Thanksgiving

Like many adults, my weight has slowly increased with age. Over the last three decades, I have lost and regained the same 10 to 20 pounds. And while I have never been significantly overweight, I have tried a few of the more popular diet and eating regimes, which I can sum up in relatively few words:

Slim-Fast: the bars and shakes lose their appeal fast, they are nowhere near as enjoyable as real food, and the “sensible dinner” soon turns into a pigout followed by endless second helpings and sinful desserts as you brace for the next round of starving through your day.


The Paleo Diet: if you were raised in a culture where rice, pasta, or bread is a staple (which pretty much covers all of them), you will eventually miss these foods desperately. In a pathetic attempt to recreate those delicious and satisfying foods, you will learn complex recipes using previously unheard of ingredients such as coconut oil and almond flour that contain twice the calories and cost five times as much, while being only a tragic substitute for the real thing. I love cauliflower, but making pizza crust out of it will never be as satisfying as sinking your teeth into a soft, chewy, gluten-y pizza pie. And if you should ever be interested in running a 10k or cycling over reasonable distances, you will soon discover, perhaps painfully, that “carb loading” really is a thing.


Calorie-Counting: perhaps the simplest of the weight-loss programs, this allows you to eat anything you want, with no forbidden foods, provided you log every single calorie you eat. Today’s calorie counting apps make this process fairly quick and easy, so long as you eat packaged foods and dine out at chain restaurants. If you like to cook or bake, be prepared to weigh every portion and recipe ingredient, and to do a lot of math. If you like to dine out at somewhere other than Boston Pizza or McDonalds, if you frequently attend potlucks, buffets, or have meals at a friend’s house, you will find this more difficult. On days when I run, I found it easy to meet my calorie goals, but on non-exercise days I frequently went hungry.


I haven’t been crazy enough to do the Slim-Fast diet since I was an undergrad at university, but I did do the Paleo diet a few years ago, and up until about a week ago I was still on the calorie-counting plan. The results of both were the same: Initially I had no trouble sticking to the plan, I easily lost weight, and figured I was set for life only to slowly regain the weight and fail the second (and third, and fourth) time around.

I understood missing bread and pasta, so I wasn’t too hard on myself when the Paleo Diet proved a bust for me.

Blog Photo

But my failure at calorie-counting was really frustrating. I couldn’t understand what was going on for me that I continually ate past my calorie goals, sometimes eating when I didn’t even feel hungry, or eating high-calorie foods that I didn’t even like all that much. Was I stressed? Was I unhappy? Was there some other psychological issue causing me to overeat? I couldn’t find any such reason. Day after day I would wake up thinking “this is the day I stick to it”, and within a couple of days I’d blown my count.

The solution, as solutions often do, came to me from a completely unexpected source. An appointment with a clinical nutritionist for my overweight son turned me on to an approach to eating that I’d never considered. As I read through the articles and books, I realized that so much of what the author was saying fit with my experience and explained my repeated failures at reproducing my previous weight-loss results. I’ll go into the book and the approach in much more detail in a subsequent post about Feeding the Family, but here I’ll talk about the issues that really hit home for me personally.

The problem with ANY kind of restrictive diet, whether it is not eating certain foods or controlling the portions of those foods, is that it leads to a cycle the author calls “restraint and disinhibition”. After controlling your food for so long, your body eventually rebels and drives you to seek out high-calorie, high-fat foods. Nothing less seems to suffice, and you are led to believe that you actually hate vegetables and will never be satisfied without a steady intake of potato chips and cookies. This cycle, which is described in great detail by the author and backed up with references to numerous studies, described my experiences perfectly. I saw myself in that pattern, and it explained my experiences with every diet I’d tried.


I began to recognize the tragic consequences of continuous attempts to “eat healthy”. I had stopped baking because I could never stop myself from eating more cookies than my count-for-the-day allowed, nor could I turn down a second or third slice of homemade bread fresh out of the oven. I stopped making homemade meals because they were more difficult to count, and many of the meals I used to enjoy cooking were not low-calorie enough for me to enjoy them on days other than my longest running days (leaving me to deal with leftovers that I wasn’t allowed to eat). I even began eating frozen low-calorie dinners, something I had never done in my life, and I somehow convinced myself that these foods were tasty. I even sometimes turned down visits with my mother because that usually meant either eating out, or being served delicious homemade cakes and pies that I was not supposed to eat!


It really hit home to me when the author asked us to perform a simple thought experiment. She asked us to make a list of the meals we would make if we had NO restrictions at all on our eating. As I dug through the cobwebs of my mind, I began to remember all the meals I had loved as a child, and the ones I had later learned to cook for myself. I was raised on stir-fries and rice (my mother was born in Hong Kong and lived there for many years) and roast beef and yorkshire pudding (my father is English), and fried rice was one of my go-to comfort foods. I recalled wonderful homemade soup recipes, pasta sauces, a fantastic tortiere made using my mum’s pastry recipe, sausages with mashed potatoes and mushroom gravy, and risotto to die for. I’d been raised on food like this, and was never overweight until I left home. Why? The book explained it to me.

The approach is two-part. The first relates to the what of eating, and the prescription is delightful: eat delicious, tasty meals. Discover (or rediscover) the joy of making yummy food. Eat until you are satisfied, and don’t bother with portion control or calorie counting. Make eating a pleasure, something enjoyable that satisfies our deepest cravings for variety, flavour, and satisfaction. Cook with fat, because it makes food taste delicious. Enjoy your vegetables by roasting (without holding back on the olive oil), by coating steamed veggies in melted butter and salt, by braising carrots in butter and brown sugar, by dipping celery sticks and raw pepper slices into ranch dressing, by doing whatever you do to make your favourite vegetable dishes shine. Don’t use substitutes (unless you have a medical condition that requires you to do so). Love the food you eat! Look forward to your next meal because it will taste delicious, not because you are starving and want food…any food.

The second part relates to the where and when of eating. Don’t graze, don’t eat mindlessly in front of your computer, the TV, or a book. Don’t wait until you are starving and then seek out whatever food will satisfy that urge quickly and deeply – such habits lead us to dispense with cooking (must…eat…now!) and to reach for high fat and high calorie foods that satiate without providing much in the way of nutrition. Trying to reach for a bowl of carrot sticks when you have made it through your whole day on a dry English muffin and a cup of coffee is fighting Mother Nature, and you know the old saying about doing that.

Instead, have regular snack and meal times throughout the day – and eat only then – so that you approach eating hungry, but not famished. When you are hungry, all sorts of delicious foods look appealing – from vegetables to succulent roast chicken – and you can take the time to enjoy the food rather than desperately shovelling it into your mouth. Pay attention to the food, savour it, have as much as you need to feel satisfied without stuffing yourself. Prepare a variety of foods so that you have a well-balanced table of delights from which to choose: fruits and vegetables, carbohydrates, fats, and proteins. Make each of these dishes mouth-wateringly tasty, and you will ensure that you don’t fill up on the starch and fat while neglecting the veggies and protein (veggies help fill you up so you don’t overeat on the fats and carbs, and protein keeps you feeling full longer, but you won’t want either of these if they don’t taste delicious). Enjoy dessert, even go back for seconds if you like, but wait until you are done with your meal, and eat until you are full, knowing you can always have more at the next meal or snack if you want.

This is not a prescription for weight loss. Instead, it is a program designed to have you reconnect with your body’s natural drive to eat what it needs and stop eating when it is done. This instinct is something I taught as a breastfeeding counsellor – all babies are born with this ability – but we mess with it as we get older. We become adults who no longer pay attention to our body’s cues, and instead seek out intense flavour to make up for a bland diet of low-fat, low-flavour, low-enjoyment foods. We seek out quick, high-fat foods to halt the gnawing hunger that pushes us beyond caring about variety and nutritional composition. We eat on the run and pay little attention to the process of eating. We eat convenience foods because spending time to cook meals that aren’t awesome could be better spent elsewhere.

As I read through the materials given to me by my son’s nutritionist, I realized that I had been sabotaging my own attempts at maintaining a healthy weight by falling into the cycle of restraint and disinhibition (and the guilt that follows).


Determined to follow this new plan, I made a list of meals I loved and began to make them.

I bought perogies for the first time in years, fried them up with onions, and ate them with sour cream. But I also made one of my favourite vegetable dishes: kale sauteed in coconut milk. I truly love this dish and ate so much of it that I didn’t need to pile up my plate with perogies, although I had given myself permission to eat as many perogies as I wanted (and I did).

I went to the grocery store and stocked up on staples I haven’t bought in way too long: chicken stock for homemade soups, tomato sauce for pasta sauces, rice of all kinds (wild, arborio, basmati). I dusted off recipe books and planned for curried vegetables, and beef and broccoli stir fry, with as much rice as I want.

I started baking again, and was reminded of how much I love baking! I made banana chocolate chip muffins, and toll house chocolate chip cookies. Now the leftover halloween candy holds no appeal for me, because the stuff tastes awful compared to my homemade treats. And since I eat them after a meal, when I’m already pretty full, I don’t eat very many of them. Then when I crave more of them, I make myself wait – because it won’t be for long – and by the time I’ve finished that meal or snack, I only want one or two because I’m full and satisfied again. I’m not going hungry, and I’m not depriving myself, and I’m not restricting myself so that cycle of restraint and disinhibition is halted in its tracks.

In my next post, I will present this program in full and discuss how it relates to the problem of my overweight son and the severe food restrictions and lack of variety in both my children’s diets.


Categories: Feeding Therapy, Personal Growth | 2 Comments

Designing the Perfect Floor Plan

Screen Shot 2015-11-13 at 10.15.57 PM

Almost-final floor plan for our new house. Some slight modifications were made after this version, but the room layout is the same.

Designing a floor plan from scratch can be a difficult process. If you live on a city lot, chances are you have several constraints in terms of the length, width, and height of the building. If you live in a subdivision or strata situation, you may even have limitations on the style or design elements. On the other hand, like us, you may live on acreage and have many choices in terms of the location of the building site and the orientation, size, and dimensions of the house. The challenge with this situation is figuring out where to start, because the possibilities are almost endless but the budget usually is not.

I worked on the floor plan for our new house over many years, and the final result is the product of a great deal of thought and research (and endless revisions). Here are the steps I took to create our floor plan, and which I would recommend to anybody embarking on a similar exercise.

Step 1: determine the site and orientation of the house.

If you live on a city lot, you may have little to decide in this regard, but on a bigger property there are some considerations. In terms of our building site, I knew from the beginning where I wanted the house. Our property slopes gently to the southeast, with a pretty view of woods and mountains beyond. The obvious site was at the top of that hill. That was also a good choice due to its proximity to the well head, incoming electrical supply, and septic field. In addition, water coming in from outside the property (a neighbouring forest at a higher elevation) enters at a spot downhill from the site, thus alleviating any concerns of water pooling around the foundation. In terms of orientation, we wanted to incorporate passive solar design, which means the long side of the house is oriented east-west and the south face contains lots of windows. Luckily, our property faces south, and the views are also in that direction.

Before we owned the property, part of the hill had been dug out to make room for the mobile home and detached garage. This left only about 50 feet from the western property line to the 10-foot drop-off where the hill had been dug into. We decided to tear down the garage (which was shoddily built in the first place), have the house extend over the drop, and use the resulting space underneath for a walkout basement. Not only do I have an intense dislike of basements and didn’t want one, but I also wanted my house to be on grade, a single-level home. We solved this by keeping the walkout basement as an uninsulated space that is physically and thermally separate from the house. We will also have the excavators build up the ground on either side of the entrance to the walkout, so that from either the front or back of the house, virtually the entire house will sit at ground level, like this:

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Step 2: carefully plan the location of exterior doors

Once the site and orientation of the house is chosen, the next step is to determine where the exterior doors will be located (front door, back door, side entries, patio doors, etc). One of my biggest pet peeves is houses designed such that the doors are not used properly. How many people do you know have homes where everybody enters through the side door, back door, or sliding patio doors rather than the front door, because the front door is not located close to the spot where people arrive at the house, and another door is more handy? Or how many parents complain that their children come traipsing in and out of the house with muddy boots and wet play clothes through a living room door rather than the mud room door, because the latter is not located close to where the children play outside?

I was determined to make sure that wasn’t the case in my new home. I considered where we go when we head outside to do “dirty work”, such as gardening or heading off for a run on the muddy trails, and I placed the door to the mud room (which is also the laundry room, so that sweaty, drenched, or dirty clothes can go straight into the wash) in a place that makes it the easiest option for coming and going from such activities. It’s also where I would head out when walking the dog, so it’s a logical place to put pet supplies such as leashes, towels for drying off, and pet food. I can even put up a dog gate to keep her in the laundry room if she is really wet and needs time to dry off before entering the rest of the house.

The main entry door is located right where guests would naturally park their cars when visiting, and is the closest approach if you are coming on foot from the street. It is the only obvious entryway from the approach, making it the first and only place guests will be drawn to, and nobody will have to wander around scratching their head wondering where the front door is (I’ve actually been to houses where that is the case).

Another entry door is located next to the carport, and is where the family will leave and enter when departing or arriving home by car. Instead of passing through an unattractive and cluttered space, as back doors often do, I wanted a pleasant and welcoming entry. After all, we’ll be using it every day. Why not make it a nice experience? (I learnt this from reading Sarah Susanka’s books , which I highly recommend, even if you are not wanting a “not so big house”). So the family entry leads into the cheery family room, where parents returning from errands will be greeted by the kids, with a suitable launch pad and plenty of room to hang coats and place shoes so as to keep things tidy and organized. It’s also not far from the kitchen, so as to limit the lugging of groceries through the house (note: the door is missing in the floor plan at the top of this post).

Step 3: group rooms based on the desired light and views

After making a list of all the rooms I wanted in my new house, I grouped them according to the the need for views and natural light and what side of the house that would put them on.

On our site the lovely, sweeping view is to the south, which is also where the most daylight is coming from. The east gets the morning light, and in our case provides a view of the street, the driveway, and our two neighbours (albeit off in the distance). The west and north sides receive virtually no direct sunlight due to being bordered by dense forest and a wooded area, respectively.

By considering the desired lighting and views for each room, I was able to draw a crude diagram of rooms in relation to the four directions – N, S, E, W – which helped begin the process of laying out the floor plan.

For example, the living room is a public space so I wanted it to enjoy the best views and be brightly lit, which meant having it on the south side of the house. The dining room will also be used by guests and a nice view adds ambience to a family meal, so it too was placed against the south wall.

The kitchen should also be brightly lit and have some views to entertain the cook and dishwasher. My kitchen is on the north side of the house, but is completely open to the dining room, with its large south-facing windows. A north-east facing window by the kitchen sink provides a view of our driveway and entry to check on the arrival of visitors and guests.

Bedrooms aren’t used much, if at all, during the day, so having a lot of daytime light is not important to me. I chose to put the master bedroom on the east side of the house to get that morning light, and so I can peek out a window to see if an early visitor is arriving, or to check if the garbage truck has come, without having to get out of bed.

The kids’ rooms are placed on the west side of the house, which is up against a wall of very tall trees and a relatively deep forest. Not a lot of natural light, but plenty of opportunities for wildlife viewing, especially deer and elk (and rarely bears, who generally don’t come close to the house), which the kids will appreciate more than the morning sun.

Bathrooms don’t need views or bright light, neither does the walk-in closet, so they had lowest priority when it came to the prime light and view locations.

Step 4: separate public and private spaces

Consider your home under conditions where you are entertaining, or when guests are visiting. Guests will generally need access to the living room, a bathroom, and the dining room. As well, modern homes are designed with easy access to the kitchen, so that the cook can interact with the guests while getting the meal together. Placing the main entry near these areas will avoid having guests wandering through hallways, the kitchen, or areas where the kids tend to hang out, like a family room or bedrooms. It can feel invasive for the guests, and it puts pressure on you to keep the whole house guest-ready clean rather than focusing on certain areas.

If you have a guest room, it’s nice to have that placed closer to the public spaces, though this is a matter of preference. For example, in a two-story home where the master and kids’ bedrooms are upstairs, you may wish to put a guest room downstairs so that the family has some “down time” away from company when it is time to retire. And of course, it would be great if the guests don’t have to share a bathroom with the kids, not just for privacy reasons but because kids are messy!

Because our house is all on one level, I created separation between public and private spaces using specific design elements and a carefully planned layout. The house is roughly rectangular, and I ended up placing the public spaces in the middle of the home, with private spaces on either end. My design is a modified version of this floor plan, so I’m able to show you some examples of the layout (my rooms will be smaller, and the design finishes will be different).

The main entry leads into a large living room, which is open to the kitchen and dining room, as illustrated in the photo below.

living and dining

As shown in the next photo, an open hallway separates the foyer from the living room, which provides a transitional space between the entry and the living space, and also helps to define the living room as a separate space despite being quite open (the concept of a transitional entry is another idea gleaned from Sarah Susanka).

The area between the pillars and the wall behind is an open hallway.

The area between the pillars and the foyer, running left to right, is an open hallway.

At one end of the hallway is an entry into the kitchen, defined by a vertical post:

from kitchen

At the other end of the hallway is a similarly framed opening, with an overhead beam and a vertical post that is attached to a wall corresponding to the one shown in the photo above where the TV is. That end of the hallway marks the entry to a transitional space between public and private – a small corridor that contains the door to the guest room, which is across from the door to the guest bathroom, and ends at the door to the master suite. That last door marks the entry to a private space, containing the bedroom, a walk-in closet, and the ensuite bathroom.

At the other end of the house is another private space, with the kids’ bedrooms and bathroom. Between that private space and the public space is a transitional area that leads from the back of the kitchen to the laundry room and family room, where the kids will hang out with their friends. The friends will want to be closer to the kids’ rooms, and they won’t mind using the kids’ bathroom (and the kids won’t mind sharing it with their friends). Adult visitors won’t have to venture into this part of the house, and the kids’ friends won’t mind if their hangout area is less tidy or beautiful than the rest of the house.

Step 5: consider how your family uses the space

Each family has their own daily rhythm and lifestyle, and the way rooms are used (or unused) differs from one family to the next. I found it very helpful to spend some time mapping my family’s movements at various times of the day, throughout the homes we have lived in, to consider how we use the various rooms in our home throughout the day. What tasks are being performed? Are we together or seeking quiet private spaces apart? Is there space for the kids to be creative, to play, to study, or read quietly? Is there a quiet, kid-free space where adults can retreat? (Sarah Susanka calls this the “away room”, and it’s a must-have for any family home)

Our kids enjoy playing computer games and video games. These activities can be noisy, especially when playing together or with friends. Having a family room that is separate from the living room gives the kids a place to hang out with their friends without the adults being banished to their bedroom. It also means that if the older one and her friends don’t want the younger one around (a situation that has recently become an issue in our household), they can retreat to her room and he still has somewhere to play. And the kids have a place to hang out while the adults are entertaining guests in the living room.

The family room has a built-in, wrap-around sofa for TV viewing and console gaming that also provides a reading nook by the window. There is also a workspace for projects and ample room to display artwork and the kids’ creations, a desktop computer, and plenty of shelving and cupboards for books, board games, and art supplies.

The family room is placed near the kids’ bedrooms for when they need some down time in between games, and near their bathroom for easy access during playtime. It’s also close to the laundry room with an exit to the yard if they want to go outside and play, and they can do so without having to traipse through the kitchen or living room.

The close proximity of the family room to the kitchen is handy for the kids and their friends – I even designed the layout of the kitchen so that they can come in and grab a drink or snack without getting in the way of meal prep and cooking. And it’s close enough that I can keep an ear open for sibling battles while I’m working away in the kitchen, but separated enough that I’m not right in the middle of the noise.

My husband often works from home and enjoys doing so on the sofa with his laptop. The living room will provide a place during the day where he can do so in relative peace, away from the noise of the family room. It is a more formal space for entertaining or visiting with friends and family. We can also make phone calls in peace. The living room is our “away room”.

Like many stay-home parents, I spend most of my time at home in the kitchen. I’m often on my computer while things are heating up, cooking, or baking, so having a desk in the kitchen is a must. There is an eating bar at the large kitchen island so that the kids can keep me company while they eat a snack, or guests can keep me company while I prep a meal. Because the dining area is part of the kitchen, I’ve designed the layout so that diners aren’t facing an open pantry, my cluttered desktop, or a pile of dirty dishes when they sit down to eat. I’ve also placed the kitchen close to the laundry room, so that I can easily tend to the laundry in between kitchen tasks.

I’m a crafter: I love to quilt, sew, and knit, and these hobbies come with a good deal of supplies and a requirement for ample work space on a flat surface. I’ve dreamed of having a proper crafting room, and this new house has one. It was important to me that the room be readily accessible from the main living space and not feel like a remote room to which I was being banished. Out of sight is out of mind, and projects have a way of languishing if they are not readily visible and accessible. If I have to go out of my way to retrieve and work on a project, it just doesn’t happen much. This is similar to the garden zone principle of permaculture: keep the kitchen garden closest to the house, because a garden that is far away is not visited and tended to as much. It sounds simplistic, but I have found this to be very true for me. Accordingly, the sewing room (which is also the guest room) is connected to the living room by a set of french doors (not shown in the floor plan above), which will usually be open (unless guests are staying the night). This will make it easy for me to attend to my projects while staying in sight of my husband (and thus feel like we are keeping each other company), who is likely to be on the sofa using his laptop, watching a movie, or playing on the gaming console. I can also easily bring my handwork into the living room to watch with him, and easily return it when done rather than leaving it out there to clutter up the space. The room can also function as an extension of the public space, for example it could be used to lay out a substantial buffet should we end up having a really large party.

Step 6: consider your pet peeves

Does it drive you crazy when everybody crowds into a kitchen that was not designed to accommodate guests while a large, cold, and uninviting living room space lies empty elsewhere in the house? Have you ever visited a home with your kids only to find them banished to a floor above or below where you have no idea what is going on and can’t monitor their interactions? Does it feel intrusive to enter a home and have to walk through narrow corridors past open bedroom doors or through a busy kitchen on your way to the living room? Does having to descend into a dark, unfinished basement have you avoiding laundry duty? Having a fireplace in the kitchen may look cozy, but can make cooking over a hot stove miserable. Similarly, a fireplace in the dining room can make a hot meal unappealing to overheated guests. Make a list of things that drive you crazy, and avoid these pitfalls with proper design.

One of my pet peeves is guest bathrooms that are located within the public space, such that going to the bathroom becomes a public event. Take the case of a living room with a bathroom whose door faces into the living room. You are visiting with a few other guests and you need to use the bathroom. Everybody sees you enter; everybody see you come out (in such situations, I find myself overly conscious about how much time I take). Everyone can hear the sounds, which may include the toilet being flushed, hands being washed (or not, to the consternation of the audience) and other sounds that don’t need to be mentioned in polite company but which are a fact of life for organisms with complex digestive systems. I was very careful to design our layout so that the guest bathroom was handy in terms of proximity to the living room, dining room, and kitchen, but at the same time out of sight. In addition, people using the bathroom don’t have to walk through other rooms where the kids are hanging out, for example, and drawing attention to themselves. It becomes a private affair, with no audience nearby listening in. It is also very close to the guest room for the convenience of those spending the night.

Step 7: plan for the future

When kids are young, having them close by at night is both reassuring and much easier on everybody. We coslept with our children until they were around 3 or 4 years old (their first beds, when they were about 2, were placed in our room), but eventually they wanted to transition to their own rooms, and having them in a room next door was perfect. It meant that I could clearly hear them at night if somebody had a bad dream or was scared, they could easily come into our bed whenever they needed to, and I wasn’t rushing across the house in the middle of the night to tend to a sick or frightened child.

Our current plan has the guest room next door to the master suite. I will mainly use that space for my sewing and crafting, but if my kids end up raising a family in this house, or if we have grandchildren visiting, that room can be used as a child’s bedroom.

When the kids are older, both kids and parents will appreciate having some separation between bedrooms. In the new house, our kids’ bedrooms are located at the opposite end from the master bedroom. Although I would have been happy with all the rooms together on an upper floor (if I had ended up with a two-storey home), I would have placed a walk-in closet and/or bathroom(s) in between our bedroom and theirs. Let’s be honest, there are things that you don’t want your kids to hear when they get to an age where they recognize such sounds for what they are! Besides, teens have a tendency to keep night-owl hours, and my days of wishing to stay up past midnight doing anything other than reading in bed are long gone. In our current home, the master bedroom is off the living room, on the other side of the wall with the TV. It will be so nice to be able to go to bed in the new house and not be disturbed by the sounds of my husband playing Battlefield or the kids squealing and laughing over a game of prop hunt.

Step 8: pause and evaluate

Taking years to get this project started had one major advantage: I made many, many changes to the plans as I monitored the use of our space, the way we spend our days, the use of inside and outside living spaces, and many other considerations. Over the last year or so, the changes grew smaller and smaller, which is when I knew I’d arrived at the right plan for us.

One thing I loved to do was walk around the space in my mind. I would pick a task, such as making my morning cup of tea, and I would walk through step by step in my mind using the floor plan. What route did I take to get to the kitchen? Where is the kettle, where are the mugs, where are the tea supplies, and where do I fill the kettle? Doing this allowed me to see where it made sense to put things such as drawers, cupboards, the stovetop, and the sink. I imagined taking my dog for a walk – where are my shoes and my coat? Where is the dog leash? Where will we be headed and what exit door will we use? What part of the property will we return through and where is the nearest entry door? What if the dog is soaking wet? What if I am soaking wet?

I would also stop throughout the day and see what everybody was doing. For example, on a typical weekday morning my son is hanging out in his room watching YouTube, my daughter is curled up on the sofa drawing on her tablet, my husband is in bed with his laptop because there is no other place for him to work in peace, and I’m in the kitchen making tea and answering emails at the dining table (which is never used for dining because my laptop and papers are all over it). In the new house, my son may stay in his room, or he may bring his laptop to the family room, where it is brighter, more inviting, and more comfortable and where he can watch YouTube on the Playstation. My daughter may curl up in the corner of the family room where there is a reading nook by the window, use her headphones to listen to music and tune out her brother’s videos. My husband can be in the living room, relaxing on the sofa with his laptop, and keeping me company while I putter around in the kitchen, sitting at my desk while the kettle boils.

These exercises sound simple, but they help you determine what spaces you really need, how they are used, and where they should be located in relation to each other.

Most people don’t want to take years to develop a floor plan, and working with an architect is one way to avoid having to do so. However, the more you know about what you want, the faster the architect can put it all together and the less time it will cost you to have him or her work on the design. Whether you can afford an architect or not, the tips here will help you speed up the process. However, be prepared for it to take more time than you expect. Your builder will likely raise some issues you hadn’t thought of, and you may run into roadblocks when it comes to getting your building permit that require you to modify your design. Be patient – you’ll be living with this plan for years to come, so make sure to get it right!

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