Lofty AmbitionsPublished on January 1, 2008

  • Ulya Jensen, interior designer and co-host, HGTV’s Home to Flip. Photo by Darren Brown

  • Always think resale - “You have to be smart when you’re renovating,” says Ulya. “I’m on the corner of a busy street, so you need to think about how much money makes sense to put into the house. You need to put it into the right areas that will get you the best dollar on the way out, but be careful not to price yourself out of the market.” Photo by Darren Brown

  • All in the family - “I found most of the products locally because my brother-in-law owns Youville Kitchen and Bath Renovations in Orléans and he was very helpful with the sourcing,” says Ulya. “ We currently have stainless appliances on order, but at the time four years ago it wasn’t in the budget to buy them. I really wanted to make sure I did things right support-wise and I bought the maple cabinets that I wanted.” Photo by Darren Brown

When Ulya Jensen toured a 950-square-foot bungalow in Ottawa's Wellington Village four years ago, her friends quickly dismissed it as a lost cause and dubbed it "the doll house."

But the Hamilton native could see the rehab potential hidden within its cracked plaster walls. It was soon after that Ulya rose to design fame when she appeared on HGTV's "Designer Superstar Challenge II" in 2005 and finished as one of Canada's top three designers. The 38-year-old currently divides her time between Ottawa and Toronto where she's filming "Home to Flip," a new show she's co-hosting with Peter Fallico airing in March on HGTV. Ulya recently sat down with Ottawa At Home to discuss how renovation know-how and realistic goals created a space she happily calls home with Russ McDonnell and their cat, Tyler.

When you first saw the house, could you visualize its possibilities?

I could right away. I was with a few friends and they said, "OK, you're not buying that one." They kept calling it "the dollhouse." But I said, "Oh my gosh, that's the best one I've seen." As soon as I walked in I knew that I had to be able to see from the corner of the living room into the kitchen, so the main wall would have to come down for sure. It was also empty at the time, which makes it really hard to see the scale of things and it looked even smaller, if you can believe it. But I knew right away that I could turn this place into something great.

How involved were the renovations on the house?

We did pretty extensive work at the front of the house and took down three walls. I brought in an architect and engineers for advice about the main wall that went right through the middle of the house. They said we couldn't chance it, so we added a support beam that goes all the way down into the basement and sits on the foundation. The kitchen was completely gutted right to the studs and the ceilings were ripped out as well. Removing the plaster walls also took forever and was a nightmare.

Does renovating an older home mean special challenges?

Money always starts to go into the things you don't see, which I hate, but you can't ignore it. There was barely any insulation in the walls and attic, so that really started to chop into the budget. But I'm a realist. Even though I want it now, if you can't pay for it right then and there then you should wait. And that's the way I've always lived my life.

And you have a special name for the renovated space?

Yes, it's my "bunga-loft." It feels like a loft now because it's open concept and the main living space and bedrooms are on the first floor. There were some challenges, especially with the floor. It was bowed quite a bit and I wanted to do a nice ceramic, but it wasn't going to work. It would have popped and chipped and cracked, so I used a new product that's a floating linoleum. People just love it and always say "I love the tile" when they walk in. It was a good compromise.

Is there an area where you splurged?

I think you have to put money where it's important and the backsplash is really the canvas of the kitchen, I find. It's an area that people look at right away and so I took a lot of time to choose it. I knew light and airy was the name of the game in this place. Same with the cabinets. Dark cabinets were really big at that time, but I knew dark wouldn't work in here because it would have been too heavy. Plus the big handles and glass panels add an extra hit, and I hid the microwave in the cabinet above the fridge. It was really fun designing this kitchen.

What's your favourite room?

The combination living room and kitchen. I knew I could achieve this room and I never get tired of sitting on the couch and looking into the kitchen. We have about three annual parties, and we pack 40 people into this place. It's always a great time and every inch of the house is occupied.

Does the house reflect your design style?

This is definitely me. I like things to be clean and modern, but I also love bridging the old with the new. That's the reality for most people who have older homes and they want them to feel new and fresh. I think everybody can bridge the old with the new and I think this place really shows how you can do it properly.

Do the design ideas on your new TV show with Peter Fallico in Toronto reflect your views?

The house that we're renovating for the show is an older home, so it's going to be the same theme of how you make old seem new, but still maintain the character. A lot of the same principles I've used in my place will be applied to that home. Peter and I share the same design philosophy - interior design is for everybody, but you have to know what your budget and your limitations are.

Sign up for our Newsletter
Subscribe to theMagazine

Subscribe to Ottawa at Home for only $25.00 + hst per year. Click to Subscribe.