For Canadian expats Amy and Michael Romkey, the challenge of setting up home in a foreign country became even more frustrating when the front door to their new villa in Dubai’s Damac Hills – purchased off-plan four years previously in 2013 – swung open to reveal a never-ending snag list. Unfortunately, this kind of long, extended wait and an underwhelming home at the end of it is not an uncommon scenario for UAE property investors to find themselves in, and the Romkey’s had to decide to sell and make a loss, or take charge and transform.
With Harper and Dylan, their two young daughters, to think of, turning their backs on their new residence wasn’t an option. ‘When we saw the brochure, Damac Hills had the look we wanted – contemporary with a white façade, clean lines, big windows ... it looked like a home that would resonate with us,’ recalls Amy, who works as a sales director for a leading software company. ‘Now you see this style a lot but back then it was the only contemporary development. The poor quality of materials and all the snags were very disappointing especially as we had bought a new property because we didn’t want the hassle of renovating.
'For years I’ve been collecting photos of homes, furniture, lights et cetera that I might want to have one day, so when we realized we were going to have to renovate we decided to take all of those ideas and make it a home that we would feel comfortable in, that’s grownup for us and clean and simple but also comfortable and relaxing enough for the kids to run around.'
First, the Romkey’s sorted out unwelcome waste management issues and added air conditioning to overlooked areas like the utility rooms and the back porch, and then they made several upgrades to improve the aesthetics. To create the modern look that they had been expecting, they knocked down an interior wall that blocked the natural light and replaced all the floor tiles, many of them damaged, with sleek, smooth-concrete-style tiles from RAK Ceramics, while the kitchen and all the bathrooms experienced complete renovations.
Some areas of the property were disconcertingly unsafe, especially with a five- and three-year-old running around. The Romkey’s replaced the cheap, wobbly aluminium staircase with chic, white marble steps and glass panels, while outside they had to remove a large majority of façade tiles, as many had already fallen off from a dizzying height. ‘When we first saw the house, we had pages and pages of snags, it was ridiculous,’ says Michael, a management consultant. ‘Then the challenge was to find a quality contractor that could figure out our needs and who wouldn’t be overpriced. Merrit Interiors were great, and they were the most professional contractors that we worked with on this project.’
Merrit Interiors helped the couple finish off a number of spaces to match their preference for a streamlined, functional Scandinavian-style of living, fully renovating the kitchen and bathrooms, including the large walk-in shower and floating vanity unit in the master suite, plus custom shelving in the guest room cum play room and in the utility room. Their dream kitchen is now a calming space in contemporary tones of white and grey, subway wall tiles from Bagno Design and a lovely central island made from a dappled Silestone quartz surface, which strikes a balance between practical and design-led. ‘We love the central island; we saw so many that were plain but we wanted something with a pop because the rest of the kitchen design is quite clean,’ says Amy. ‘Now the kitchen is one of my favourite spaces in the house. It’s where we spend time as a family, we love to cook and the girls play around the island.’
After the structural elements, flooring and finishes were completed, Amy and Michael could finally start making their house a home with furniture, travel mementoes and the abstract artwork Amy collects. The living room takes a comfortable, no frills approach with a simple pearly-grey sofa and dining set in ivory and dark wood from Danish brand BoConcept, contemporary pendants and floor lamps in chrome, and pops of colour added from artwork on the walls. As the floor-to-ceiling window-wall draws all eyes outside onto their lush garden and pool, they’ve carefully chosen furniture that doesn’t compete for attention. ‘We like BoConcept for furniture as its clean and simple, which is our style, plus it’s great quality and a good price,’ says Michael. ‘We wanted our home to feel peaceful and uncluttered. I’m not a fan of seeing things everywhere so that’s why we have lots of storage built in, and we don’t have any unnecessary accessories on show.
‘Our concept for the backyard was for it to be an extension of the house, where we could hang out in the garden and have just as good a time there than anywhere in the city,’ says Michael. ‘On the weekends the kids are in the pool, I’m doing the barbecue and we can invite our friends over and entertain; it’s really nice and we have a great time outside for most of the year.’ The lush garden wraps around the villa on three sides, landscaped to make the most of the compact plot: there’s a grassy play area for the kids, a built-in barbecue and dining area on the other side next to the kitchen, while the pool stretches the length of the house in between, with a sunken seating area where Amy and Michael can keep an eye on the girls swimming. A custom pergola and overhead fans keep the al fresco dining area cool and casts dappled shadows over the Kartell Masters chairs and the long wooden table from Dubai Garden Centre, an eye-catching piece made from a single piece of tree trunk. ‘When we realized the backyard was smaller than we expected, we had to be really efficient with the design and where to position things,’ says Amy. ‘I wanted to capture the feeling of being on vacation, so we can come home and be reminded of the places where we’ve travelled, with a pool and tropical plants.’
She’s carried the blue from the pool throughout the interiors with little pops, from the dark teal of the Normann Copenhagen bar stools in the kitchen to the splashes added through artwork in the living room, stairway and master bedroom. Amy’s art collection has developed over the years and has been influenced by their new home since they moved, with pieces carefully chosen to fit the space and complement their interiors. The large artwork that takes up an entire wall in their home gym and the framed canvases in her bedroom are the first pieces that Amy had specially made by an artist, Dubai-based Paloma Carrera, taking a natural step from buying to commissioning. ‘This was a learning curve for me to have something commissioned, because usually I see something I like and buy it, instead of describing what I want,’ says Amy. ‘I love art and collecting art. I like the idea of living with a kind of art gallery feel – but comfortable at the same time because this is our home.
‘What we wanted to do when we moved in was to make it feel like ours, which is why we bought instead of renting. Even though it shouldn’t have taken so much work to get to this point, at the same time I know we are very lucky to have this place as our home. Now that we have redone it to our style we are very happy here, and it’s exactly where we want to be.’
The owners: Canadian nationals Michael, a management consultant, and Amy Romkey, who works as a sales director for a leading software company, moved to Dubai 11 years ago. Since then they’ve had two daughters, Harper, 5, and Dylan, 3.
The home: Their five-bedroom villa in Damac Hills features a living-dining room, kitchen with utility and store rooms, and a downstairs guest room cum play room. Upstairs, there are three bedrooms, while a fourth has been turned into a home gym.
Photography by Stefan Lindeque
Read more from InsideOut magazine: