From Small Town to Big Time

By Brooke Madden

Sitting at my kitchen table, on the 31st floor, overlooking the ghost town I once called downtown, I feel an eerie calmness. The city isn’t supposed to be calm, or serene, or silent. It’s supposed to be wild. Its quirky chaos is what drove nearly 3 million people here in the first place. When I moved here from Burlington, Toronto was an animated, provocative entity. But as I sit here now, overlooking desolate streets, abandoned office buildings, and listening to the chime of vacant streetcars pass every seven and a half minutes, it’s abundantly clear: times have changed. 50,375 people left Toronto in 2020. 

Why?

Our perspectives have shifted.

Suddenly, we’re understanding the importance of human connection. We’re valuing our relationships, our hobbies, our food, our space (oh, how we’re valuing our space!), and ultimately learning how to take a deep breath, slow down, and say thank you for what we have. Toronto’s provocation is simply less conducive to our newer, yet ironically more primal values. And where better to explore our new values and nurture our changed perspectives than the country? It all makes plenty of sense, but this city slicker is going to need some more information when it comes to country living, real estate, and maximizing the farmhouse lifestyle.

I sat down with my good friend, interior designer, mother of four, and host of new HGTV show Farmhouse Facelift Carolyn Wilbrink and her brother, craftsman, and co-host Billy Pearson to discuss the country life.  

Growing up as farm kids, Carolyn and Billy have been working, playing, and collaborating their entire lives. Their designer/craftsman relationship dates back further than you might have expected. “Growing up, we could spend an entire day in the barn building straw forts. Billy was the king of straw forts! He would use bails of hay and straw, and even build different levels with wood he’d find in the barn,” recalls Carolyn. 

Who says you can’t mix work and play?

As the two matured, their designs did too, eventually leading to their Burford house project. An intimidating undertaking, and huge fixer upper, Billy and Carolyn were “the only people who saw the potential in that house.” Carolyn documented the project on her Instagram account, a move that would soon change the lives of the small-town siblings. HGTV approached the pair, and the rest was history!  

Now, having wrapped the first season of Farmhouse Facelift, Carolyn and Billy are beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to have worked with 10 different families, helping them fully embrace (and fall in love all over again) with their farmhouse lifestyle. 

And what a more poignant time to be embracing such a lifestyle? As we collectively rediscover values like healthy living and taking our time, our environment reflects it. Carolyn notes, “People, even in places like Burlington, are getting gardens and growing their own food. People are wanting to raise their families with more green space, with more room to roam, to have that organic lifestyle, and really slow down from the fast paced life of the city.” 

But let’s make one thing clear: slow does not mean boring!

Even though Carolyn and Billy are all grown up, they’re still having just as much fun as they did building straw forts on their own farm. Their country upbringing allows them to connect with each family in a way city-based designers and contractors simply cannot.  

“All the farmers that we got to work with were genuinely appreciative that Billy and I were actually farm kids,” Carolyn mentions. “We grew up doing the stuff they do every day,” Billy adds. This makes finding common ground with each family easy, but, as is the farm-kid way, Carolyn and Billy are sure to go the extra mile. When they meet the homeowners, they “sit down with them and ask ‘Okay, how do you use your house?’ or ‘Oh, you have four kids? I have four kids! But you don’t have any storage!’” Finding common ground and developing genuine relationships with the homeowners is an important part of their process so they can ensure they’re doing the best job possible. There’s no better way to get to know the families’ needs than by getting to know the families. Each family is unique, so each renovation has to be unique too. 

“The reveal makes it all worth it – all the crazy long hours,” Billy admits. After a laborious renovation process, each episode ends with Carolyn and Billy finally revealing their hard work to the homeowners. “Nothing was scripted. Their reactions and ours were genuine,” Billy emphasizes. Both hosts agreed that revealing their work to the homeowners to be the most rewarding part of the process. “When I go in and show a mom of four ‘Hey, I just gave you so much storage!’ it’s easy for me to be passionate because it was something I did, and she’s excited too!” says Carolyn. “It’s not even that they’re grateful to us. We’re grateful to them! For actually trusting us to do this kind of work,” Billy acknowledges. 

If and when the world slowly starts returning to “normal”, I hope we remember how our perspectives have shifted over the last little while, and welcome the new values we’ve acquired. I hope we embrace more farm-life values, appreciate each other, and focus on gratitude. Gratitude for our families, gratitude for our space, gratitude for our land, gratitude for little memories we get to revisit any time we look at a picture hanging on our wall. Gratitude for storage – for that matter! Gratitude to have a place to call home, when home is the safest place to be. Carolyn and Billy embody these values, and remind us that sometimes all you need is to take a breath, slow down and say thank you. Not only are the pair changing lives, “We’re doing what we’re truly passionate about.”

To me? That’s important TV.

Farmhouse Facelift airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET/PT on HGTV.
Follow Carolyn and Billy’s Adventures on Instagram: @carolynwilbrink, @billypearsonbuilds