What is built when we work together…

By on October 21, 2011 — 2 Comments

When I saw a picture of the Rupert House for sale on a bulletin board, my mother, always able to spot an affair of the heart, realized I was swept away. “Well dear,” she said, “there are many ways to fall in love…” Meanwhile my pragmatic father was more cautious. “Watch out,” he advised. “Old houses can be real money pits!”


Grey Heron before it was painted grey…

Naïve about the challenges of home-ownership yet thoroughly in love with the house and its setting, I heard their words and still went ahead.

That was fifteen years ago, and looking back, both parents were right. Tending and restoring the old house has been expensive, but it has also been a labour of love.

The heating costs of a 160-year-old house could cripple any sensible budget. Crumbling plaster and lath walls over the layered brick exterior hardly counted for insulation. The window panes, with their bubbles of antique glass, were more decorative than functional. For air conditioning, I relied on the shade of several large trees, sometimes escaping to a tent in my back yard on very hot days.

Last year I decided it was time to do some major renovations, to overhaul the kitchen and add a bathroom on the main floor. I wasn’t sure who to trust to tackle such an unpredictable job. While every renovation inevitably yields surprises, I knew a heritage house could be a real can of worms!


Marek doing what he loves best…

I asked friends for references, then called Marek Szpunar, a contractor who started his career rather late in life. Honest and hard-working, Marek views his work as a vocation, not just a job. He takes an old-world pride in his craftsmanship.

We began the demolition, almost half of the main floor of the house. While I forget how many dumpsters came and went, each load revealed more of the hidden story of the house. Hand-made square nails. Beautiful rough-hewn beams, some still covered in bark. Ancient cloth-covered wires that made my electrician cringe, and several dried-up mice were gradually exposed.

Most people dread renovations and I wasn’t sure what to expect. However, despite the chaos, dust and noise, the whole process was ultimately quite joyful.

Looking back, I don’t think my experience was just a matter of luck. It was my son, Dmitri, the tile-setter on the team, who commented about the atmosphere on the job. “Nobody treats the trades-people like you do, Mom,” he said. “Lots of people don’t even give us a drink of water.”


Maybe I was naïve, but making the workers feel welcomed and appreciated seemed really important. If they treated without respect, I knew our relationship would suffer, and so would the work. My appreciation was genuine — I needed their muscle and expertise!

As the project developed, the job-site felt more like a community barn-building project than a homeowner’s headache.

We greeted each other in the mornings, usually over coffee. Sometimes they brought me a fresh cup and most afternoons I made a fresh pot for them.  I kept cases of soda and juice cool and handy and when I could manage, I made simple lunches. “It’s grilled cheese sandwiches again, guys!” I’d call, cutting through the laughter of Marek’s young apprentices who constantly joked with each other while they worked.



As plaster dust gave way to finishing details, we developed an affection and mutual respect for each other. Marek was always gracious when I changed my mind about various details, some more major than others. Meanwhile, I helped as a gopher, researching sources and picking up supplies. All of us were proud of the beauty we were creating and the history that was being restored.

The project was so successful that I did another round of renovations this year! This time, I was prepared for a long, dirty but creative process, from the dustiest demolitions to the last touch of paint by the front doorknob.

Everything is finished now and I find myself strangely exhilarated rather than exhausted. In the absence of the contractors, an echo of laughter lingers along with the memory of many delightful moments.



Isn’t this how hard work should be — joyful and generative? With a strong protestant work ethic, my father taught us to appreciate work projects as a way to strengthen family ties and build community. Whether we make a delicious meal together, build a lovely garden, or dive into a home-renovation, creating beauty generates a sense of personal and collective pride.

In the midst of so much gloom and uncertainty, I’m sure these simple ways of working together, rather than just paying for services rendered, can bring real pleasure into our lives.

P.S. If you’d like to contact Marek, I’ll pass his phone number along to you, but only if you promise to treat him as well as he deserves!

(for publication in the Vaughan Citizen)


More blogs about Grey Heron’s renovations: Living Room Renovation

Created a Renewed Sacred Space

Youtube Presentation: The Process of creating the Raven Essence Garden



  1. I think the greatest gift that we can give each other, whether boss, tradesperson, friend or child, even a flower or plant…is the gift of being seen and heard. If that is accomplished, only good things can follow. It gives us a level playing field. If I feel seen and heard I can grow in unimaginable ways.

  2. Beautifully stated, Catherine… thanks for your comment.

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