Home renovation goes viral in West Vancouver

Home renovation goes viral in West Vancouver

When Jenna Phipps started an Instagram site documenting the renovation of an abandoned house she and her boyfriend bought she never expected it to go viral.

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Since buying an abandoned house on a rocky bluff in West Vancouver in September, Jenna Phipps, a YouTube content creator, has collected scrapes, bruises and about 1.5 million new Instagram followers.

Some are worried (“I just feel sad for you on this awful investment”), others are hooked, as if to an IV, and desperate for more of her warm-hearted, goofy, dopamine-inducing posts (“Jenna, baby, I don’t mean to stress you out, but once a week is not enough”).

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They’ve got advice (“Get a wheelbarrow!”), criticism about her DIY approach (“hire a professional!”) and even questions about her integrity (“It’s about her and the house is a MacGuffin.”).

Sure, it took awhile for her to figure out that work gloves, respirators, boots and overalls were a better choice for demoing than a hand-knit sweater and her favourite green sweatpants, but the style transformation was genuine.

Her online persona pre-house renovation was a charming, funny, fibre arts-maker (think candy-coloured knitted projects). She also posted videos of thrifted finds, including her dog Jack, which she “thrifted” from a rescue organization, and open-hearted ask-me-anythings about everything from her height to dealing with anxiety.

Now that she’s sporting Carhartt work overalls and wielding a sledgehammer, her online following has exploded — she got 40 million hits on her post touring the property.

One follower wrote: “If you restore this absolute gem of a mid-century home, I will absolutely be here for every episode.”

So will her celebrity followers: Jessica Chastain, Kira Kosarin and Cynthia Erivo.

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Since first posting about buying the abandoned house in January, she and her boyfriend, Nick Volkov, have already turned down more than one request to sign on for network home improvement shows.

There’s a reason she doesn’t ever refer to it as a house. It’s not just a house: it’s a home and a love story.

Phipps, 28, and Volkov, 27, a tech project manager, had only been together a year when they started talking about moving on from their 700-square-foot rental. They wanted to buy, and were open to a fixer-upper. He’s handy, she’s creative. What could go wrong?

Volkov stumbled across the property while scrolling through listings online. The listing showed stunning drone footage of a West Coast modernist home perched on a bluff with panoramic views straight over Howe Sound to the Gulf Islands, and Fisherman’s Cove directly below.

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Jenna Pipps and Nick Volkov bought an abandoned home in West Vancouver Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104211A

It didn’t show the interior, and the house was listed as a tear-down.

They had to sign a liability waiver before entering the property.

“The roof was caving in, the drywall was falling off, holes in the floor,” said Phipps.

“It was a bit of a shocker,” said Volkov.

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Despite that, they saw the potential.

“It was the architecture for me. I’d never seen a house like this in Vancouver before. This was so rare,” said Phipps.

Designed by architect James Tettamanti, and later the home of architect Herbert Challier, the house was once featured on the front cover of Western Homes & Living magazine with a four-page photo spread.

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Jenna Phipps and Nick Volvo at the house they are renovating in West Vancouver. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104211A

The design features classic principles of mid-century modern architecture, including clean lines, floor-to-ceiling windows, flat planes, natural wood and wood panelling, and a flow between rooms and indoor-outdoor spaces.

There was a two-storey stone fireplace inside, and in the backyard, a long-neglected swimming pool, half-filled with rainwater, with reedy plants growing under the surface.

The house was a time capsule, empty for at least four years since the death of Challier’s son. Books, personal effects, mid-century furniture, forks, knives, architectural plans and two pianos had all been abandoned with the house, leaving the impression of life that was filled with the style, elegance and optimism of the era.

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The house had languished on the market for months without an offer, and Phipps and Volkov were able to get it for $2.1 million. Not cheap by some standards, but a bargain in the Vancouver housing market.

Plans to clean out a room and move in right away quickly evaporated.

The carpet was so rotted that they had to shovel it up like manure. They found black mould, carpenter ants, a collapsing 67-year-old roof and an electrical panel that smoked when they turned it on.

“We went straight into the deep end,” said Volkov.

“He’s design and DIY-handy,” explained Phipps. “I’m more about the story.”

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After removing 10 tonnes of drywall, Phipps and Volkov discovered the home has good, solid bones. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104211A

The couple are doing the renovation themselves nights and weekends. The worst was taking off the drywall — 10 tonnes.

“We had to carry it piece by piece to the bin,” said Phipps.

As they stripped back the drywall, they discovered good bones: rot-resistant old-growth wood studs, a rock-solid foundation and fully intact wood panelling they plan to restore.

The couple plans to carefully preserve the architectural integrity of the house.

It’s hard not to walk through the space and imagine what life must have been like here, and what it could be again, or to feel Phipps’ creative imagination colouring the space.

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The stone fireplace extends from the top floor down to the bottom floor. Photo by NICK PROCAYLO /10104211A

They also haven’t been tempted to sign on with one of the TV networks that are clamouring for their content.

“I don’t want to give up the freedom to do it my way, and make it my own and share it,” said Phipps.

There’s another reason too. This project isn’t a flip — they plan to build a life in the home.

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