Tag Archives: Allan Britnell


The Italian job, inspirational ancient architecture in Rome, Tuscany, and Venice

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The Italian job, inspirational ancient architecture in Rome, Tuscany, and Venice

Anyone with even a passing interest in construction and architecture can’t help but be blown away by the magnificent, gorgeous structures built by the ancient Romans and then later during the Renaissance. So join us on a photo tour of Rome, Florence, Venice, and the Tuscan countryside.


1) Colosseum Interior

Covering six acres of prime Roman real estate, the tiered seating area was originally shaded with awnings. At 50 metres high, it’s equivalent to a modern 16-storey building. The word “arena” is Latin for sand, a convenient floor covering to soak up all the blood and sweat from the gladiators. The sandcovered wooden floor could be removed and the arena flooded to stage naval battles. Much of the original metal and stone building materials were later pilfered and used in nearby medieval building projects, including churches and palaces. An earthquake in 1349 caused much of the southern wall to collapse.

2) Pantheon Exterior

By far, one of the most imposing and impressive buildings in Rome has to be the Pantheon. Originally built as a Roman temple in 27 BC to honour all (“pan”) the gods (“theos”), it was rebuilt during the reign of Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD. The brick exterior shell is filled with poured concrete – a Roman invention.

3) Vatican Mosaics

While the Vatican houses some of the world’s greatest art treasures – including Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam as part of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling – I was (pardon the pun) floored by the vibrant, three-dimensional effects on these ancient mosaics.

4) Egyptian Obelisks

There are 13 Egyptian obelisks scattered around Rome, brought from Egypt by various Italian leaders over the centuries. They’re typically mounted on top of a sculpture or fountain, and capped with a Christian cross. This one, in Piazza del Minerva just behind the Pantheon, was erected by Pope Alexander VII in 1667.

5) Pantheon Dome

The jaw-dropping domed ceiling is precisely 142′-wide from side to side and 142′-high from floor to ceiling. At the base, the walls are a 20′-thick mix of concrete and stone. The ceiling is thinner, less than five-feet thick, and includes lightweight volcanic pumice in the mix. The 30′-diameter opening at the top, the “oculus,” is the building’s only natural light source. The floors are sloped down towards drain holes for rainy days.

6) Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine

All that remains of the Basilica of Maxentius and Constantine today are three vaulted arches that formed the north end of an enormous building that was originally more than 300′-long and 200′-feet wide, with a ceiling more than 100′-high in the central knave. This government office is where homebuilders of the day would have lined up to apply for building permits.

7) Colosseum Exterior

Of all the ancient marvels remaining around the world, the partially ruined Colosseum in Rome is probably the most instantly identifiable. Completed in 80 AD, it was originally known as the Flavian Amphitheatre. The stadium built for epic gladiator battles – and using early Christians as lion food – could hold up to 50,000 spectators. The more recognized name is thought to come from a colossal statue of Emperor Nero that once stood on the site.

8) Construction Hoarding

While under renovation, this Roman building – and many others undergoing repair – was draped in a screened hoarding harking back to the structure’s glory days.

Florence and Tuscany

1) Agriturismo Farmhouse

Our home base in Tuscany was Podera la Castellina, an agriturismo or farm property that rents out rooms. The building was first constructed as a convent in the 13th century. In 1504, the property was converted to a farm by a wealthy local family. At one point, the two-storey structure was used as a barn, with the farmers’ family living upstairs and the animals penned on the lower level.

2) Ponte Vecchio

The Romans were the first to build a bridge at this narrow stretch of the Arno River, and there are records of several subsequent bridges built, then washed away by flooding over the centuries. The original Ponte Vecchio was built around 1000 AD. It’s somewhat unique in that it is lined with storefronts, housing butchers in medieval times, jewellers selling to well-heeled tourists today.

3) Roman Ruins in Voltera

Of course Italy is literally littered with Roman ruins, including this theatre at the base of the wall around Voltera in the Pisa region.

4) Orvieto Cathedral

While the Vatican in the most-sought out church on an Italian holiday – though Vatican City is technically an independent City State wholly within Rome – there are countless other postcard-worthy churches to visit in the country, including the cathedral in Orvieto, constructed between 1290 and 1607.

5) Laneway in Sienna

One of my favourite things to do when visiting olde European cities is to aimlessly wander along the narrow laneways. The only thing slowing you down is the urge to constantly stop and take photos. At the end of a T-junction in Siena, I looked right to see these charming stone archways, the left as I headed uphill under this exposed beam walkway.

6) Florence Cathedral

The cathedral in Florence, clad in green, pink, and white marble, is better known as the Duomo for its impressive domed ceiling. The dome’s architect, Filippo Brunelleschi, studied the Pantheon in Rome to understand how to cover the opening at the top of the church.

7) Gratuitous Family Selfie

The Britnell-Malik family, posing in front of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence. The upper level includes part of passageway known as the Vasari Corridor that the powerful Medicis would use to cross the Arno from the Palazzo Vecchio to the Palazzo Pitti without having to mix with the peasants crossing the bridge.


1) Venice Rooftop Deck

With no backyards to speak of in most Venetian homes, if you want a deck, you put it on the roof. While they look a little precarious, they’d certainly offer spectacular views.

2)Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute

The Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute overlooks the eastern end of the Grand Canal. There are more than 170 Gothic, Baroque, Rococo, and Renaissance-era buildings lining the two-mile long canal, constructed between the 13th and 18th centuries.

3) Da Vinci Museum

There’s a unique museum in Venice that houses working models of 60 different machines designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, including wooden ball bearings, the first flywheel, a self-supporting bridge, a parachute, glider, and various pieces of military equipment.

4) Venice by Gondola

Yes, taking a gondola ride is a clichéd touristy thing to do. It’s also not cheap – about $120 for a half-hour tour. But you know what they say: When in Rome. Er, Venice. Travel tip: Avoid the traffic-clogged Grand Canal. Instead, find a gondolier who’ll serenade you on a route through some of the narrower waterways.

5) Rialto Bridge

The Rialto Bridge is the oldest and most famous of four bridges that span the Grand Canal. The stone bridge was completed in 1591, permanently replacing earlier wooden structures. Today, it’s lined with shops catering to the hordes of tourists.

6) Laundry Day in Venice

Electricity is prohibitively expense in Italy and only the largest palaces in Venice have enclosed yards, so clotheslines are strung across the narrow streets.

7) St. Mark’s Square

The Piazza San Marco, or St. Mark’s Square, covers about three acres, all built on top of wooden pilings driven deep into the soil below. It’s barely above sea level so the square is frequently flooded. The original bell tower collapsed in 1902, but was rebuilt 10 years later.

8) DHL Delivery

While Venice’s 118 islands are all linked by more than 400 bridges, everything has to be brought in – and out – of the city by boat, including garbage and recycling. The city has a fleet of floating buses for residents and tourists to get around.


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How to run a business that thrives in any economy

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How to run a business that thrives in any economy

Long-time readers will be familiar with Breakthrough Academy, the B.C.-based business coaching and management program designed specifically for contractors and homebuilders. In case you missed it, earlier this year we were invited to attend their Winter Summit in Colorado. You can read Allan Britnell’s recap of the event here.

On Oct. 3, BTA will be hosting a roundtable discussion in Mississauga on “How to Run a Business That Thrives in Any Economy,” followed by a mix-and-mingle social. The event is free for Renovation Contractor readers to attend. Click here more information and to register.



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Jim's Place - Eco-Conscious Design

Jim Caruk builds his own dream home in Toronto

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Jim Caruk builds his own dream home in Toronto

Photography by Alex Lukey

There’s an old line about the cobbler’s kids going barefoot, the idea being that he or she is too busy repairing shoes for their customers to make shoes for their own children. Lucky for Jim Caruk’s daughters, this was never the case. The homebuilder and star of HGTV’s Real Renos (among other shows) has always viewed his own house as a showcase for the high-quality design and craftsmanship he always puts into the homes he builds for his clients, and his latest home is no exception.

Jim Caruk designed his home with an intentionally masculine, industrial look. The exterior features a mix of red brick, limestone, and black-accent panelling, capped with a Vicwest metal roof that has a 50-year warranty.
Jim Caruk designed his home with an intentionally masculine, industrial look. The exterior features a mix of red brick, limestone, and black-accent panelling, capped with a Vicwest metal roof that has a 50-year warranty.

Jim’s style takes centre stage

The four-bedroom, 3,800-sq.-ft. home is located in Humber Valley in the west end of Toronto. Now that his daughters are grown and have families of their own, (Caruk’s known as “Papa Jim-Jim” to his four grandchildren) he was free to indulge in some of the more masculine, industrial touches he favours. The exterior façade features a mix of red brick, limestone, and black-accent panelling. The lofty, industrial-looking windows bring in plenty of light, while the Vicwest metal roof will withstand the elements for decades with its 50-year warranty.

The maple and leather bench in the entrance foyer is from Toronto-based Objects & Ideas (ObjectsAndIdeas.com). All their pieces are designed and made in Toronto, using Canadian materials. The floor-to-ceiling wainscotting is typical of Caruk's "tricked out" trim.
The maple and leather bench in the entrance foyer is from Toronto-based Objects & Ideas (objectsandideas.com). All their pieces are designed and made in Toronto, using Canadian materials. The floor-to-ceiling wainscotting is typical of Caruk’s “tricked out” trim.

Inside, Toronto-based design company and retail outlet, 36 Knots helped burnish and furnish the look. “We were going for a contemporary, masculine look,” says 36 Knots’ Yvonne Tristani. “We used solid pieces, such as the heavier-set walnut chairs with blackened steel panels in the living room, offset with light leather cushions and very neutral carpets.”

The imposing piano converted into a coffee table in the living room is actually a double salvage. Caruk picked it up from a former client who was going to throw it out.

Jim Caruk’s favourite space in the home is the combined kitchen and dining room that span across the entire rear of the house, and leads to the covered back porch.

Outdoor oasis

“My favourite space is the dining room/kitchen. It’s the entire back of the house, and it leads out to the covered porch,” says Caruk.

The porch is a cosy covered seating area that looks out over the surprisingly secluded, tree-shrouded yard. The tongue-and-groove ceiling features embedded pot lights and a ceiling fan over the dining table. Glass railings provide an unobstructed view of the 12-by-20-ft. in-ground pool. In the basement, there is a guest room, or nanny room, with an ensuite bathroom.

The covered rear porch looks out on to the secluded, tree-shrouded yard with an in-ground pool. A ceiling fan over the dining table and a gas fireplace provide three-season comfort.
The covered rear porch looks out on to the secluded, tree-shrouded yard with an in-ground pool. A ceiling fan over the dining table and a gas fireplace provide three-season comfort.

Next-level energy efficiency

While the design, finishes and furniture reflect Caruk’s personal tastes, it’s what is behind the walls that he feels makes the biggest impact.

“The best feature of the house was working with Owens Corning to create a net-zero ready home,” says Caruk. Net-zero ready homes use the latest in building materials and design to minimize energy consumption. These features include insulation with R-values exceeding the current building code as well as sealing all the air gaps inside and out to prevent wasting heating and cooling energy. By adding a sufficient amount of solar panels, or other green energy options, a home can be classified as net-zero, meaning that it produces at least as much energy as it consumes every year.

The solid walnut and blackened steel living room chairs are contrasted with light leather cushions and very neutral carpets. Jim Caruk salvaged the coffee table made from the guts of a piano from a past client who was going to get rid of it.
The solid walnut and blackened steel living room chairs are contrasted with light leather cushions and very neutral carpets. Jim Caruk salvaged the coffee table made from the guts of a piano from a past client who was going to get rid of it.

“Building net-zero is still in the fairly new stages and it costs more upfront. But, in the long run, you’ll get that money back,” says Caruk. “My gas bill was cut almost in half.”

With more than 45 years’ experience building high-end homes for himself and his clients, Caruk has spent just as long learning how to build better homes from the inside out. His latest personal project showcases how you can combine attractive esthetics – matched to the homeowner’s particular tastes – with the latest innovations in energy efficiency.

Freelance writer Allan Britnell is the managing editor of our sister publication Renovation Contractor, and the editor of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association’s members’ magazine, Building Excellence.

Builder and Designer: Jim Caruk, Caruk Hall Construction, Architect: David Small Designs, Styling: Christine Hanlon, Carpets and Furnishings: 36 Knots The Style and Staging House


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Urban Heat Islands

Hot town summer in the city

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Hot town summer in the city

Edited by Allan Britnell

For the last 100 years, scientists have been exploring the reason why temperatures are so much warmer in the city compared to the rural areas surrounding them. This phenomenon, called an urban heat island, is a direct result of our activities.

Unfortunately, with global warming, this increased heat continues to go up in areas with lots of stone and concrete like parking lots and even in our own backyards. Even though more cities are investing in green spaces and promoting green roof technology, several online sources state that more than 70 percent of all of the surfaces that we are currently installing in our landscaped spaces are concrete, pavement, stone, or pavers. We are turning our own backyards into mini urban heat islands! Now if you have a client who wants a patio or if you specialize in stone masonry and installation, then there is good news. There are simple ways to reduce the heat in the backyard and still have a beautiful space that will not only last for years it will help increase the home’s value.

Help your clients choose lighter stone colours. Dark stones using black or dark grey pigments have been very popular for the last decade. Like wearing black clothes on a sunny day, dark stone choices heat up way more than the lighter options. White paving stones have become very popular for designers because of the modern aesthetic. Unfortunately, while going with a white paver might be better to displace heat, the idea of the sun bouncing off of the surface already makes my eyes hurt just thinking about it. Instead, I try and move my clients towards lighter colours that have flecks or speckles of darker material in them.

Throwing shade: Cantilevered umbrellas keep the sun off of guests, while rugs help prevent stonework from absorbing too much heat.
Throwing shade: Cantilevered umbrellas keep the sun off of guests, while rugs help prevent stonework from absorbing too much heat.

Incorporate shade into the design

By increasing the amount of permanent shade on the patio, you reduce the amount of sunlight and heat that the stones actually absorb. I’m a big fan of a pergola with large fabric panels that can be installed every spring and removed before the snow. This is such an important add-on to any project. Make sure to ask your clients if they have planned on adding shade. If a pergola is not for them, suggest using a large umbrella. I’ve been impressed with a lot of the new technology in umbrellas lately. Solar-powered models that are cantilevered with a good heavy base not only allows you to create shady all day long, they also charge in the sun, creating free light wherever you need it at night!

Simply adding an outdoor rug is also an effective way of displacing the heat. While stone may absorb and hold the warmth of the sun, the synthetic fibres of outdoor rugs don’t. Even the darkest rugs hold significantly less heat than a dark patio stone. They also act as a barrier between the sun and your patio, preventing it from heating up in the first place.

This summer is going to be a hot one across the country. Lets educate our clients so that we all work towards managing the urban heat islands that we are creating in our backyard.

Carson Arthur is a landscape designer and television personality.


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How to move customers past price

How to move customers past price

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How to move customers past price

Edited by Allan Britnell

Do your team members ever give you this excuse when your company loses a customer, “Our competitors are hammering us on price. That’s why we’re losing business.” It’s a convenient excuse that puts the blame on those nasty competitors. But the truth is, most customers don’t buy based on price alone. If that were true we’d all live in the cheapest homes, buy the cheapest vehicles, and every time we went out to eat, we’d always eat fast food. As you know, customers buy based on overall perceived value. The question becomes, what do today’s customers value – to such a degree they will willingly pay a premium? The answers may surprise you.

What Customers Really Want

Having worked with more 400 client organizations and conducted surveys of 11,000 of their customers, we discovered there are some 35 factors that customers consider (often subconsciously) when they decide to pay a premium. Here are two that I talk about in my training seminars and speeches.

Selection is Overrated

Today’s customers suffer from decision fatigue. It begins first thing in the morning when they decide what to wear, which lane to drive in, and which of the hundreds of emails or posts on their portable devices are worth their attention. So when it comes to buying something, the last thing customers want is a large selection that makes choosing complicated.

What customers really want in today’s world of too much clutter is what I call A.I.D. – Analysis, Interpretation, and Direction. Customers want you to analyze the various options available for them, interpret those options based on the customer’s individual needs, and direct the customer to a maximum of three choices. In other words, for complex purchases customers don’t want to work with an order taker. What they value is a trusted advisor.

Don’t Be Better, Be Different

When it comes to discussing your offerings with potential customers, claiming your product or service is better than the competition won’t likely motivate them to switch to you. Chances are your established competitors are not selling junk. In customers’ minds, if what they’re currently buying is reasonably good, then it’s not worth the risk and hassle of switching over to you for a slight improvement in quality. Unless you’re offering something that provides a different – as opposed to better – way to achieve an outcome, customers often stick with the devil they know.

That brings us to how you communicate your uniqueness. After listening to the customers’ specific needs, describe to them the conventional solutions to their particular problem. Then explain that given the customer’s unique needs, conventional approaches won’t achieve the desired outcome, and how they may instead create unintended negative consequences. Then reveal how you are bringing a different type of solution; one that addresses their unique needs while avoiding undesirable consequences. Now the customer sees you as significantly different and price becomes less relevant.

Bottom Line

Trying to beat your competitors’ prices is rarely a profitable strategy; especially if you’re not a huge organization with massive economies of scale. Instead, remember that what customers really want is greater overall value. Often getting your customers to move beyond price simply means training your team members to change the way they talk with customers. To boost your profits and market share, could it be time for a tune-up of your team’s customer communications skills?

This article is based on the bestselling book, Influence with Ease, by motivational speaker, Jeff Mowatt. To obtain your own copy of his book or to inquire about engaging Jeff for your team, visit his website.


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New contest – introducing the wow factor

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New contest – introducing the wow factor


They say that change is good. With that in mind, we think it’s time to change up our back page contest. Back when we launched the magazine we had “The Doh! Moment,” featuring readers’ on-the-job mistakes and the lessons they learned from them. Later, we had “Problem, Solved!” which featured readers’ ingenious workarounds to some of those little issues that constantly crop up on jobsites. And back in the February/March 2016 issue we introduced, “Work Smart, Not Hard,” that acknowledged the many ways readers have figured out to most efficiently go about their day.


In the February/March 2019 issue, we’re introducing our latest back page contest: “The Wow! Factor.” These are those situations you walk into and say to yourself, “Wow, what were they thinking?!?What’s the worst thing you’ve ever stumbled upon on a jobsite? And how did you fix it? Share your story (and some photos if you have them) and you could win a great prize.


Email your suggestions to Managing Editor Allan Britnell (allan@renocontractor.ca) or snail mail them to “The Wow Factor,” Renovation Contractor magazine, 37 Sandiford Dr., Ste. 404, Stouffville, Ont., L4A 3Z2.



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Home exchanges 101

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Home exchanges 101

One of the features in our Aug./Sept. 2018 issue, “Loving Frank,” is about a home exchange managing experience editor Allan Britnell recently had in Chicago. (The home was an early Frank Lloyd Wright design.) Here’s a sidebar from that piece on home exchanges.


One of the ways we’ve been able to travel so much on a magazine editor’s income is by using home exchanges for our accommodations. Last summer, we spent a month travelling through England and France and only had to pay for one night’s hotel accommodations.

Direct exchanges are the most straightforward: You stay in my home for X-number of days, and I’ll stay in yours for the same period of time. The other option is a “non-simultaneous” exchange. The two parties agree to swap homes, but not at the exact same time. This is a great option for people with vacation homes as they can retreat to the cottage while guests are using their primary home.

No money changes hands between homeowners; you simply play the monthly or annual fees (starting as low as $10 a month) that that the various home exchange websites charge. Some sights, such as LoveHomeSwap.com, include a “points” system where members can use accumulated points in lieu of an actual exchange. We stayed in London last year on points while our Chicago hosts used our home, allowing us to “bank” the visit until this spring.

There is a bit of work clearing out personal items and prepping for your guests’ arrival, and if you’re booking multiple exchanges you’ll need to someone come in to change the linens and tidy up between guests, but the cost savings on accommodations far outweigh any minor inconveniences.


The hardest part is the time spent searching out locations online and trying to coordinate timing (thank you again Mehnaz!), but we’ve found the experience to be far more rewarding than simply saving money on hotels. Owners usually leave a “house guide” outlining how to operate various household items (ranging from the TV remote to where the fire extinguishers are), that also includes recommendations for where to eat, shop, and sights and attractions that most tourists would miss. We’re often in contact with our hosts/guests during our stays sharing updated details, and we’ve keep in contact with many of the families we’ve exchanged with.

We’re lucky enough to live in a nice part of Toronto (nestled between High Park and the Humber River), close to shops and restaurants, and a short walk from the subway. It also helps that our house was designed and decorated by my wife, Mehnaz Malik, of NatariDesign.com.

If, like Frank Lloyd Wright, you’ve built your home to be a showcase for the quality of your work, then you may well draw attention from the owners of Tuscan villas, wild western spaces, Caribbean condos, or anywhere else you might like to spend your down time.

Then again, if you’re like the cobbler whose kids have no shoes and living in a perpetual jobsite, home exchanges might not be for you!


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August/September issue coming soon

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August/September issue coming soon

Our next issue is with the printer and should be landing in mailboxes shortly. We kept our managing editor, Allan Britnell, busy on his summer vacation working on the two main features in the issue. One is about a road trip he took with his family to Chicago early in the summer. But the Britnell family doesn’t stay in hotels when they travel; they’ve avid fans of home exchanges. In this case, they had the chance to stay in a home designed by famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright.

Those of you with the travel bug who are looking for an interesting and affordable way to explore the world will want to take note of his sidebar, “Home Exchanges 101,” where he explains the ins and outs of swapping homes.

I know he also went abroad later in the summer, travelling to Denmark and Spain. (The guy likes to travel!) While there he took more notes and photos of some of the unique building practices and designs he spotted that we’ll include in another travelogue in an upcoming issue.

The other feature in this issue, “Building an Envelope,” obviously enough looks at the various components of the building envelope, covering everything from foundations to roofing materials.

Finally, I’m very pleased to welcome aboard our newest columnist, Manny Neves of Hardcore Renos. We profiled Neves back in our February/March issue where readers learned of his unusual route to the business that starts with a filmmaker’s eye and includes a lifelong passion for architecture. Going forward, in each issue of the magazine he’ll explore a topic of concern for contractors in his piece, “What’s on Manny’s Mind?!?”

Of course, we’re always interested to hear what’s on your mind as well. Send your ideas, comments, and suggests to Allan at allan@renocontractor.ca.


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