AL­WAYS IN RENO MODE

Dfy Stu­dio’s Adah Noelting has built a ca­reer breath­ing new life into old build­ings

Grand Magazine - - CONTENTS - BY KATHRYN STORRING

Should the kitchen cup­boards be painted or would classy new han­dles be enough? Should the old-fash­ioned bath­tub be ditched in favour of a modern shower stall? Should the sec­ond floor be re­con­fig­ured, turn­ing two of the bed­rooms into a large suite com­plete with modern stor­age? And what’s with that closet tak­ing up space in the din­ing room?

Ah, yes – the joys of fall­ing in love with an old house. No mat­ter how many re­vamps it may have en­dured over the years, there is al­ways some­thing more to con­sider.

But this par­tic­u­lar house, in the Mid­town neigh­bour­hood of down­town Kitch­ener, is un­der the dis­cern­ing eye of Adah Noelting, 34, who has built an im­pres­sive ca­reer out of trans­form­ing old build­ings into funky, ul­tra-modern of­fices or com­mer­cial spa­ces.

Her in­te­rior de­sign projects have in­cluded ev­ery­thing from Maxwell’s Con­certs and Events in Water­loo to the Rich Un­cle Tav­ern (for­merly the Berlin) in Kitch­ener, and from Thalmic Labs’ ex­pan­sion into the former Schre­iter’s fur­ni­ture store in Kitch­ener to be­ing part of the team that con­verted a 475,000-square-foot Kitch­ener ware­house into Cat­a­lyst137, a dy­namic

hard­ware-tech­nol­ogy hub.

But ap­ply­ing her bound­less en­ergy to a 113-year-old house was an­other mat­ter. So many ideas. So many pos­si­bil­i­ties. So many twists and turns on the road be­tween get­ting it right and just get­ting it done.

The first chal­lenge was find­ing the right house – a quest that took seven months and 88 view­ings. It wasn’t just a mat­ter of be­ing fussy. Adah and her hus­band-to-be, Phil Noelting, made seven of­fers dur­ing that time, only to be out­bid.

Fi­nally, in 2014, her tena­cious search set­tled on the Mid­town list­ing. She im­me­di­ately lined up a show­ing with a real es­tate agent. “We walked through the house and I called Phil right away and I’m like, I think we’ve found it.”

The home’s ap­peal started at the curb where huge trees shield its wrap-around ve­randa and up­per bal­conies, one large and open, and an­other tucked un­der a roof peak. Many fine fea­tures awaited in­side, ev­ery­thing from orig­i­nal pocket doors and qual­ity wood floors to an in­trigu­ing wooden cor­ner-guard where two walls meet at the top of the stairs.

“We walked through, and I felt like many fam­i­lies were happy in this house,” she re­calls. “Just how it was taken care of.” She points to the stair­case. “You see all the foot­steps and you can only imag­ine who lived in this house be­fore us.”

The house would need up­dates and re­pairs, start­ing with a de­te­ri­o­rat­ing ceil­ing in the liv­ing room, the re­sult of a water leak along an old chim­ney. A house in­spec­tion as­sured the cou­ple that the leak had been fixed, just the ceil­ing re­pair re­mained.

Still, even an ex­pe­ri­enced in­te­rior de­signer can learn a les­son or two from an old house.

Adah and Phil’s mov­ing day co­in­cided with a planned trip to Mardi Gras in New Or­leans. “All of our friends and fam­ily moved us in, we shut the door, locked it, and drove to the air­port,” Adah says.

The cou­ple re­turned to a sea of boxes and a made bed, thanks to Noelting’s mom. The cou­ple was ex­cited about their new home, snug from the Kitch­ener win­ter. That is un­til they dis­cov­ered their pipes were frozen.

“We had no clue what to do,” Noelting says with an in­fec­tious laugh. “We came from a condo. So we were googling how to fix it.”

Their panic took them to the base­ment where they no­ticed a ser­vice sticker on the fur­nace boiler. They called the num­ber at 11 p.m. To their sur­prise, when they gave their ad­dress, the voice on the phone said: “Oh, you’re the new neigh­bours? I will just pop over.”

In­deed, the ser­vice call was pro­vided by a knowl­edge­able neigh­bour who pre­scribed con­cen­trated heat from a hairdryer. It took a few hours, but the trick worked.

Dis­as­ter averted, Noelting set to work on a lengthy to-do list. She had lots of time – or so she thought.

She had just launched her in­te­rior de­sign

busi­ness, Dfy Stu­dio, so she planned to throw most of her en­ergy into the house – cre­at­ing a short-lease apart­ment in the small former store/stu­dio be­yond the kitchen for starters.

But then her busi­ness took off in a flash and be­came her No. 1 pri­or­ity.

In Noelting’s mind, the ren­o­va­tion progress since then has been slow, but a tour of the house ac­com­pa­nied by Cleo the cu­ri­ous cat (who con­stantly poked her mot­tled head out of clos­ets and shelves) re­vealed many ac­com­plish­ments.

The apart­ment unit has in­deed been re­vamped into an at­trac­tive space. In the kitchen, cup­board han­dles have been re­placed, and gran­ite coun­ter­tops and a new is­land added to bet­ter ac­com­mo­date the cou­ple’s culi­nary ex­ploits. Through­out the house, paint and wall­pa­per projects have been com­pleted, doors and win­dows have been up­dated, and car­pet­ing added to bed­rooms that had linoleum floors.

Adah has claimed one of the bed­rooms for a home of­fice, a space flooded with nat­u­ral light from the ex­te­rior bal­cony; Phil set up his of­fice in the ren­o­vated at­tic.

The cou­ple does as much as they can them­selves, like re­mov­ing the win­dow and door frames in prepa­ra­tion for re­place­ments or strip­ping old wall­pa­per.

Not that the lat­ter is al­ways easy. In the din­ing room, they dis­cov­ered they were not just rip­ping down wall­pa­per but wall­pa­per that had been painted over. And it wasn’t leav­ing with­out a fight. But there was more. Like a nasty scene from a TV home-makeover show, it turned out the ceil­ing had also been wall­pa­pered – and painted. (Cue the omi­nous mu­sic.)

The din­ing room was al­ready a sub­stan­tial project. They had de­cided to re­place a large, seem­ingly out-of-place closet with at­trac­tive cab­i­netry; a match­ing book­shelf makes great use of a small cor­ner be­side the door­way to the kitchen. The new wall­pa­per is dark and the trim a daz­zling white; new mould­ings were cus­tom made to mimic the home’s orig­i­nal stylings.

But the room’s main wow fac­tor comes from the new slid­ing glass doors to the back­yard – a project that gave Noelting pause. De­spite her dar­ing ven­tures in the work­place, the idea of knock­ing a huge hole through the dou­ble-brick ex­te­rior wall of her home rat­tled her.

“I was like: ‘The whole wall is go­ing to fall in! I don’t know what is go­ing to hap­pen,’ ” she re­calls, laugh­ing. “I can’t be here while this is hap­pen­ing. Call me if any­thing bad hap­pens!”

For­tu­nately, the skilled work­ers pre­vailed. To­day the glass doors not only usher in oo­dles of light, but the view over the large deck, pa­tio and land­scap­ing also ex­tends the home’s vis­ual foot­print.

Ac­tu­ally, the out­door projects held sur­prises too, start­ing with the orig­i­nal lit­tle deck that had a rug hid­ing the fact it was rot­ting. Noelting stepped on the deck and broke through.

The previous own­ers were not into gardening and the back­yard was over­grown. No prob­lem. Noelting de­signed a fresh start fea­tur­ing cob­ble­stone she had pur­chased from a client who was hav­ing it re­moved. The cob­ble­stone looked great as a drive­way, laid by Phil and Noelting’s fa­ther, and there was lots left over.

But in the gar­den, “no mat­ter what we put down, it started sink­ing,” Noelting says. That’s when they dis­cov­ered that two own­ers be­fore them the space was the do­main of a ded­i­cated gar­dener who had added about a me­tre of rich top­soil. A fat layer of that soil has now been re­moved, and a new pa­tio cre­ated fea­tur­ing a more-for­giv­ing cul­tured stone and moss.

As Noelting notes: “Ev­ery­thing has been a big­ger job than it was sup­posed to be.”

“Ex­pect the un­ex­pected” could be the mis­sion state­ment for Noelting’s ca­reer too. “There are al­ways sur­prises. Al­ways,” she says as she out­lines the mind-bog­gling tan­gents that un­fold in her in­te­rior-de­sign projects. “You have a timeline and you think the timeline’s go­ing to work, but then some mas­sive project comes up in the mid­dle of it.”

It is partly why the in­te­rior de­signer stays in­volved from the first walk-through of a pro­posed space to mov­ing day.

As she de­scribes her work, one mar­vels that she ever has time to fo­cus on her home. And one does un­der­stand why she turns to yoga, med­i­ta­tion and cy­cling for stress re­lease.

It’s not as if Phil has time to burn ei­ther. Orig­i­nally from Toronto, he honed his en­tre­pre­neur­ial skills at Bab­son Col­lege in Boston be­fore mov­ing to Kitch­ener. His startup, Qwal­ify, which cre­ates busi­ness re­cruit­ment soft­ware, now has of­fices in Kitch­ener, Toronto and Mon­treal.

Phil and Adah were mar­ried in Septem­ber 2017 af­ter six years to­gether.

Adah, whose fam­ily sur­name is Trabulsi, grew up in Kitch­ener and grad­u­ated from St. Mary’s High School. Af­ter study­ing in­te­rior de­sign at Fan­shawe Col­lege in London, she earned her in­te­rior de­sign cre­den­tials from the As­so­ci­a­tion of Reg­is­tered In­te­rior De­sign­ers of On­tario. In­clud­ing co-op place­ments, she spent about a decade with Pre­mier Project Con­sul­tants, a Kitch­ener ar­chi­tec­tural-de­sign com­pany.

Af­ter launch­ing Dfy Stu­dio Ltd., where she now em­ploys three peo­ple, her first projects were in two multi-mil­lion-dol­lar homes in the Toronto area. They were “amaz­ing” ini­tia­tives, but Noelting found her­self drawn to the op­por­tu­ni­ties – and chal­lenges – of reimag­in­ing old build­ings for busi­ness ven­tures, of­ten for the tech in­dus­try.

“I really clicked with com­mer­cial de­sign and hos­pi­tal­ity,” she says. “I just have so much more ex­cite­ment and pas­sion for that. I really like to cre­ate spa­ces that peo­ple walk into and have some sort of emo­tion or have a re­ac­tion to it.”

On many projects, Noelting not only does in­te­rior de­sign but also acts as the prime con­sul­tant, co-or­di­nat­ing the other key play­ers, such as ar­chi­tects and me­chan­i­cal and elec­tri­cal en­gi­neers.

On huge over­hauls, how­ever, she is happy to have an ar­chi­tect take re­spon­si­bil­ity for the over­all vi­sion. At Cat­a­lyst137 and its ma­jor ten­ant Mio­vi­sion Tech­nolo­gies, for ex­am­ple, she worked with SRM Ar­chi­tects. For Graf­fiti Mar­ket, an in­no­va­tive foodie ven­ture at Cat­a­lyst137 that blends a restau­rant, craft brew­ery, cof­fee roaster and food mar­ket, she is pro­vid­ing in­te­rior de­sign for Martin Sim­mons Ar­chi­tects.

A ma­jor chunk of Noelting’s work is com­pleted be­fore a client even signs a lease. In fact, some com­pa­nies con­tem­plate plans for more than one space be­fore choos­ing a new home.

The “test fit” will lay out the op­tions: Is the po­ten­tial property big enough – or too big? What about ven­ti­la­tion, day­light and other ba­sic cri­te­ria? And then, of course, there’s the fun stuff – the pos­si­ble de­sign el­e­ments.

“The one thing we al­ways look for is what is the char­ac­ter in the ex­ist­ing build­ing and what can we pull out?” Noelting says. “How can we use what’s here and make it stand out even more?”

Home­own­ers, for­ever look­ing for ways to out­wit a house’s faults, may be sur­prised by some of Noelting’s “finds.”

“Are there con­crete walls we don’t have to plas­ter over, dry­wall or paint, be­cause it has enough beauty in it? Is there tin sit­ting in the base­ment that we can pull up and put on the walls in­stead. Are the ex­ist­ing mul­lions black and then what can we pull out to make sure they stand out in the de­sign?”

Once a lease has been signed and con­struc­tion per­mits sub­mit­ted, a flurry of de­tails come into play as she en­sures ev­ery cor­ner fits the com­pany’s needs. For ex­am­ple, with a tech com­pany, de­vel­op­ers may need a darker, screen-friendly area whereas a mar­ket­ing depart­ment may pre­fer a cre­ative, col­lab­o­ra­tive space. But the de­sign goes much deeper than that.

“You al­ready have the space plan done, but what pieces are mill­work, and what do they look like?” Noelting says. “What is the theme of the space? What is the con­cept for the space? How much fur­ni­ture are we buy­ing? Are there bulk­heads, ceil­ing fea­tures? Is there over and above light­ing? How much glass is in the space? That kind of thing.

“So, it’s ba­si­cally tak­ing it from a space plan to a 3-D (vi­sion): that’s the of­fice. That’s the con­cept and the de­sign.”

Those toil­ing in tra­di­tional of­fices might won­der if el­e­ments of her de­signs are just trendy or quirky. For ex­am­ple, at first glance “quiet booths” that can be used by an in­di­vid­ual or pushed to­gether for a meet­ing may just make you smile. But Noelting sees their func­tion­al­ity, how they add flu­id­ity to an of­fice space, al­low­ing staffers op­tions for both soli­tary and col­lab­o­ra­tive tasks. In some of­fices, she eases the tedium of con­cen­trated work by in­cor­po­rat­ing un­con­ven­tional seat­ing ar­eas that mimic a café or a homey set­ting.

At Vidyard, lo­cated in the former Goud­ies depart­ment store in Kitch­ener, em­ploy­ees can also kick back in a games space or a wel­com­ing roof-top pa­tio. And, speak­ing of un­con­ven­tional, one of this tech com­pany’s meet­ing ar­eas has a library theme com­plete with tra­di­tional leather fur­ni­ture, a cus­tom fire­place and, yes, books.

Open-con­cept of­fices might in­clude wooden trel­lises to add in­ter­est and a hint of pri­vacy with­out the per­ma­nency of walls. Ex­posed beams and pipes can lift the height of a room while colour­ful mu­rals and sleek ac­cent pieces en­liven walls at eye level.

But above all, each project has an in­di­vid­ual stamp.

“We don’t look at what the trends are now or what’s modern and what’s con­tem­po­rary,” Noelting says. “We get to know the com­pany very well first, and we de­sign for their func­tion and for their cul­ture.”

Kur­tis McBride, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer and co-founder of Mio­vi­sion, can at­test to that.

In an in­ter­view, he praised Noelting’s abil­ity to man­i­fest the com­pany’s cul­tural per­spec­tive in phys­i­cal terms, not­ing that she not only pre­sented the big­pic­ture ideas, but also a de­sign that fit the com­pany’s bud­get and other con­straints. As a bonus, “she’s prob­a­bly one of the friendli­est peo­ple you could meet,” McBride says.

Mio­vi­sion cur­rently cov­ers 65,000 square feet, but its to­tal of­fice foot­print within its Cat­a­lyst137 home is 125,000 sq. ft. Noelting has de­signed two ad­di­tional spa­ces, primed for fu­ture ex­pan­sion, and hid­den them be­hind tem­po­rary walls.

Very prac­ti­cal, but her de­sign also comes with a whim­si­cal flourish. Mio­vi­sion spe­cial­izes in traf­fic man­age­ment and data col­lec­tion so what bet­ter fo­cal point for the open-con­cept of­fice than a clever round­about de­sign? It has a lunch­room in the cen­tre with hall­way “roads” branch­ing off into the key of­fice func­tions.

“The of­fice is big enough that peo­ple can drive scoot­ers to get around. No one is

driv­ing cars, thank­fully, but we may have to sig­nal­ize the round­about at some point,” McBride jokes.

McBride is also one of the co-de­vel­op­ers of Cat­a­lyst137, along with Voisin Capital and Os­ming­ton Inc. Through­out the mas­sive en­ter­prise, Noelting worked with SRM Ar­chi­tects to cre­ate a fluid de­sign that meshes the ex­te­rior with the com­mon in­te­rior el­e­ments.

McBride is par­tic­u­larly pleased with the lobby’s 6,000-square-foot events space, an attempt to bring to­gether what he de­scribed as the lo­cal si­los that sep­a­rate tech, the arts and phil­an­thropic ini­tia­tives.

“The hope was to try to break th­ese com­mu­nity si­los down and pro­vide this space that, by virtue of it be­ing free, would at­tract all dif­fer­ent types.

“When you walk into that space, you can feel (Noelting’s) fin­ger­prints all over it and it speaks to what we were try­ing to do there,” he says.

The events space not only pro­vides users with a gi­ant screen and speak­ers, but also the beauty of nat­u­ral light and liv­ing moss walls. Two to three events are held weekly, ev­ery­thing from a char­ity fundraiser to an art show to a po­etry slam.

Frank Voisin, pres­i­dent of Voisin Capital Inc., echoed his Cat­a­lyst137 part­ner’s praise.

“It is hard to over­state how im­pressed I and Adah’s other clients are with her at­ten­tion to de­tail, de­sign skills, and fo­cus on the bud­get,” Voisin said in an email.

Voisin’s other Kitch­ener prop­er­ties in­clude Vidyard’s home, at 8 Queen St., and 41 King St. W., which houses of­fice space and the Rich Un­cle Tav­ern.

He said he first no­ticed Noelting’s knack for im­pact­ful de­sign at Vidyard. Th­ese days, a num­ber of his tenants at Cat­a­lyst137 have hired her for their in­di­vid­ual spa­ces af­ter see­ing her work in the tech hub’s com­mon ar­eas.

“Over the projects we’ve worked to­gether on, I’ve been con­sis­tently im­pressed by her abil­ity to value-en­gi­neer – cre­at­ing highly

at­trac­tive spa­ces at a frac­tion of what oth­ers could,” Voisin said.

“More­over, her de­sign sense is in­cred­i­bly ver­sa­tile, and I’ve seen her per­form equally well across a range of es­thetic styles and in a va­ri­ety of dif­fer­ent use cases, in­clud­ing a num­ber of tech of­fice users, a gro­cer, cof­fee shop and restau­rant.”

As well as rein­vent­ing old build­ings as chic new spa­ces, in re­cent months, Noelting’s cre­ative eye has been tested in out­dated of­fice build­ings.

A Toronto ar­chi­tect has in­cluded Noelting in some of its ren­o­va­tions within build­ings pur­chased in this re­gion by Euro­pro, a Toronto in­vest­ment and man­age­ment firm. Lo­cal hold­ings in­clude The Gal­le­ria, 22 Fred­er­ick and the Mar­ket Square.

Noelting’s con­tri­bu­tions have ranged from up­dat­ing com­mon wash­rooms to de­sign­ing Euro­pro’s Kitch­ener of­fice in the Gal­le­ria build­ing at Fred­er­ick and We­ber streets. In July, Noelting also moved her Dfy Stu­dio of­fice into this build­ing.

Work­ing on straight-ahead of­fice build­ings might seem less in­spir­ing, but not to Noelting.

“Every­one’s look­ing at the brick-and­beam build­ings, but what about th­ese big beau­ti­ful struc­tures in down­town Kitch­ener that kind of got for­got­ten about?” she says.

“So (Euro­pro) is go­ing into them and giv­ing them all new life, which is fan­tas­tic. All of this of­fice space is just sit­ting here in down­town, wait­ing for all th­ese new com­pa­nies.”

She talks about the beau­ti­ful views over the city and the de­sign po­ten­tial once par­ti­tions and drop ceil­ings have been knocked out and the space re­con­sid­ered.

How­ever, her en­thu­si­asm is prob­a­bly not a sur­prise.

When asked to name a favourite re­vamp, she an­swered: “I love ev­ery sin­gle project. They are all so dif­fer­ent and all so spe­cial in their own way.”

PHOTOGRAPHY BY ALISHA TOWNSEND

MIO­VI­SION

VIDYARD

THALMIC LABS

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