Designer Sarah Richardson On Her New Show, ‘Sarah’s Mountain Escape,’ and Tips for Home Design
Designer Sarah Richardson’s show 'Sarah’s Mountain Escape' documents her buying and renovating a 5000-square-foot Bavarian-style lodge. Photo: Valerie Wilcox/Courtesy of HGTV
Canadian designer Sarah Richardson’s new show Sarah’s Mountain Escape documents her buying and renovating a 5,000 sq. ft. Bavarian-style lodge. Haus Heidi, the $4.2 million, eight-bedroom, eight-bathroom bed-and-breakfast lodge sits on nearly one acre of land. Richardson designs in Toronto, where she lives and works, while her team handles construction in Whistler, B.C. The audience follows Richardson working between her two homes to check on progress ahead of Whistler’s busy ski season.
Richardson, 50, and her husband Alexander Younger, 52, viewed the property in January 2021. They decided to purchase and upgrade it to help escape from the pressure of the pandemic.
“I’m always looking for something elusive,” says Richardson. “I think it’s kind of safe to say we went for the extreme.”
According to Richardson, the renovation process took 16 months to complete — more than twice the time they anticipated.
Richardson recently spoke to Zoomer about the challenges of renovation, the art of design and about what the future holds for Haus Heidi.
SHERLYN ASSAM: What drew you to Haus Heidi? What do you look for in a property that will tell you it’s a good investment?
SARAH RICHARDSON: It was unique and it was full of charm and character — maybe too much charm. It’s not a house that I would ever buy in Toronto. For a vacation destination [and for] Whistler, which is a four-season playground and a real mecca for international travellers, being unique and daring to be different isn’t always a bad thing.
What really struck me was that the house was quirky and filled with character, personality, and felt fun. It was really a time when I thought the world needed to reconnect with a lot more fun. We made the wild leap. I will admit that we might not have thought it through as much as we normally would have, but when you’re thinking about investing you need to consider what the long term looks like. They’re not making more [of] Whistler. It’s bordered by mountains. It’s really tightly held and land is at a premium. That sort of area comes with a premium price tag, but it also tends to be more desirable to a specific market. One could argue that it makes for a good investment, and we’re testing that theory.
SA: What was your biggest takeaway from creating this ski resort getaway?
SR: If you’re thinking about tackling something that is outside of your comfort zone and the area where you normally transact your business, make sure you really think through what the potential challenges and pitfalls might be because they might be a lot more than you imagine. It’s my industry and it’s my career, so I don’t think anything is insurmountable or unachievable. But at the same time, I think that a lot of people when they consider their retirement might be thinking ahead to, ‘Oh, I’m just gonna go and buy a place in Europe,’ or a far-flung destination. Before embarking on a renovation, it’s really good to consider what your appetite is for that. And I would do the same for buying a house you’re gonna live in. Do you have the appetite to handle the mess, the chaos and everything that comes? All the unexpected that comes along with a renovation?
None of that was surprising to me, but the longer it took the harder it became. There’s also a cost factor in terms of getting to the site to visit and time away from the office and everything else. But I’ve run my business with the mantra that, ‘The only answer is yes.’ I enjoy challenging myself. So my takeaway is, we did it. And as my husband and I joke, we’re still speaking to each other. We’re still a team. But I think if you’re going to tackle a big project outside your comfort zone, make sure you have a great team and know what you’re getting into.
SA: What advice would you have for those who do not have a formal design education or may not be familiar with this world but want to begin designing in their own homes or renting out property?
SR: Not everybody has the opportunity to go to school, and I do believe you can’t teach taste and an innate knack for design and home and decor. Renovating without skill is challenging and dangerous, but what I always suggest is that if you are interested in this field, start with your own home. Let it be a showpiece of who you are, how you think about design and what your interesting and innovative and unique solutions are. Make sure your friends and network know that you are available. Invite people to experience your home. You can offer your services. You might want to do it on a volunteer basis to get some word of mouth and get some experience as opposed to being focused on charging from minute one. Because sometimes the most important lessons and the best lessons you learn are the lessons that you’re not getting paid for. I think that you could start out by offering to help friends out and then hopefully they will refer you. There is a strong referral component in design.
People can intern for somebody in the design field. But I always recommend that it’s super important to make sure that if you’re going to work for somebody or with somebody, that you like their style because you’re representing them. It’s really important to make sure you’re learning from someone who you admire and would ultimately like to emulate in your field.
SA: What is the most rewarding part of design and a process like this?
SR: What I love about the process is the transformation. I’m deeply invested in the transformative process and I’ve always been drawn to that. That magical experience of taking something as it is and reimagining it into something completely different. We reprogrammed the house in terms of where the spaces were. We moved the kitchen. We moved the living room. We flipped this from here to there. We took a really deep dive on the overall plan and that’s always rewarding.
As a Toronto girl, I do not understand how something should feel in Whistler. And people [from the area] would come in and say, ‘Wow, it really feels like it’s here. It really feels so soulful and that it’s meant to be here.’ That for me is super rewarding because I always want a house to feel deeply rooted in its surroundings and location. And for this property, I wanted to take a lot of inspiration from the natural landscape but not in a thematic way. Just in a way I wanted it to feel tied to where it is. And it’s housed in the mountains and there are many, many really talented artisans and craftspeople living and working in the community. We worked hard to embrace their talents and showcase their creativity through the show and in the house. That lends a little extra touch to it all. We didn’t just sort of roar in with everything from Toronto. We didn’t order it all online. We wanted to make it feel like it belonged.
SA: How can you discern when a certain pattern or design is a fad or if it’s going to be something timeless?
SR: Good design and enduring design is always in style. It’s so hard to know what’s gonna last and what’s not. How do you know if it’s not going to last? When it feels too hot and too everywhere. If it’s suddenly everywhere, I would guess in two years, it’s going to be nowhere.
Trends are developed by the industry, whether it’s the fashion industry or the home design industry or the paint industry, to give us something to talk about. For me, natural materials and taking a quiet sophisticated approach is always in style. When I try to think about what I want to use in my work, I often know if I have liked this for the past five years, 10 years, 15 years. There are a lot of parts of home that are costly to invest in. You don’t want to be making those decisions and then regretting them in six months time.
SA: What makes this process and Sarah’s Mountain Escape different from your other series like Sarah’s Cottage or Designing Inc., and all the other products that you’ve worked on?
SR: What’s interesting about this project is — and what makes it different — is this is me designing for everyone I’ve never met in a house that I won’t live in. When you’re designing your own personal space, you just have to sit with it and think, ‘Do I love this? What do I want for me?’ When you’re designing a space you’re trying to get it right, but you have to realize, ‘I know what I’m looking for when I go on a holiday in the mountains, but I have no idea what anybody else wants.’ That makes it tricky because that’s the unknown. I think in design, whether it’s for yourself or for a client, or whether it’s a rental and you don’t know the people, it’s this fine line between wanting to push a new idea but also wanting to make sure it feels like it will [be] appreciated. That it will really feel relatable and engaging for a wide audience.
SA: Now that the renovations are complete and it’s almost ready to open, what does the future have in store for Haus Heidi? And what does the future have in store for you?
SR: For me? I’m gonna take a break from big rash decisions. We have a new project on the go. We literally flew back from the last shoot day from Haus Heidi. I took a red eye home on a Friday night and on Monday I went to a new project that we’re tackling. I never stop thinking about design, but I’d like to think about design and be home for a few minutes.
Now it’s Haus Heidi’s opportunity to go out into the world and be a really welcoming place where anyone can come and create memories. I think that’s the key focus of travel now. People are looking to escape their everyday life and go somewhere where they can make memories. I think the upside of having a large home is that you can gather with friends and family and do just that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Sarah’s Mountain Escape premieres Oct. 19 at 9 p.m. EST on HGTV Canada.