April 8, 2012

‘Classic’ Home Stood On Stilts During Facelift

Crumbling foundation demanded unique renovation to create a modernist retreatBy Grania Litwin

Renovating a house is one thing. Gutting it inside and out, right down to the studs, stripping off the exterior finishing, lifting the century-old structure, then blasting underneath to create a new basement and garage — is another thing altogether. “It was pretty challenging,” acknowledged Mike Miller of Abstract Developments, who spearheaded the massive two-year renovation for two Victoria professionals, both in their mid-30s.

“The house is on a hill and the biggest job was lifting it. We had to hold it up there while we strategically dismantled the underside, excavated, blasted to create a bigger basement and new garage, and then put in a new foundation. “We’ve never done a project quite like it before, where we held the house in place on a cliff, so to speak. It was more work than we thought.”

Owners Liz and Will, who asked to keep their last name private, agreed it was a tricky project. “The whole house had to be put on stilts, about 100 of them, because the foundation was crumbling — it would not have been great in an earthquake,” Liz said.

Not that they were worried. They bought the house on Aug. 8, 2008, “and that is lot of lucky eights,” said Liz, who was born in Ontario and whose grandparents came from China. “The number eight is very auspicious. The Chinese word for eight sounds similar to the word for prosperity.” And their street number adds up to nine, which symbolizes long life.

The reno wasn’t completed until two years after they bought the Vancouver Island property, but the couple got married there anyway, on New Year’s Eve 2010. “We slept on an air mattress,” she recalled. “I had my wedding dress on while the Abstract guys were still painting, said Liz, who had a baby girl three months ago. The team also included designer Rus Collins of Zebra Design, who helped revamp the layout and exteriors, and interior designer Sandy Nygaard, who put the icing on the cake.

The couple had wanted a waterfront home, said Nanaimo-born Will. “But one thing about waterfront, even on the hottest day, it can still be cold. By chance we saw this place on Gonzales Hill — talk about having an epiphany: this was it for us.” Their imposing 6,000 square-foot residence reveals a classic exterior to the outer world, but the interior is a fluid, Zen-like, modernist retreat where each living space flows serenely into the next. “We took a yin-yang approach,” said Will.

It’s evident in the contrast of classic and contemporary, of dark walnut floors and light-filled rooms, water views and rocky landscapes, hard-edged millwork and soft furnishing. “We’ve tried to contrast hard and soft materials, old and new, and East meets West,” said Liz. A rare Chinese totem stands in their bedroom, a wedding gift from her parents, and they intend to complement it with two first nations totems at their front entry. “We always thought we’d have a very modern home, because we deal with technology in our professions and we are a young couple,” said Will, “But we now think this is pretty cool.”

The reno involved taking down many of the interior walls, and adding elements such as a see-through fireplace, but they also wanted some hidden rooms. For instance, the kitchen holds a surprise behind what looks like a typical row of kitchen cabinets. While one side of a cupboard swings open to reveal shelves of soup and canned beans, the other opens into a whole room — a large pantry. There are several other camouflaged rooms, passages and secret areas behind panels in the walls. But despite those echoes of the past, Will stresses it is a “smart” home. Everything from lights and media, to appliances and security system can be controlled from his telephone. He can even activate driveway heat if it starts to freeze.

The house has four bedrooms, five bathrooms, a media room with a bar separating it from the workout area, and a glass-walled wine cellar. The couple don’t drink much wine, maybe a bottle a year, but they have it for friends. Most of the floors throughout are walnut, which doesn’t have a mirror polish; it glows softly. Miller said the project was enormously demanding.

“It covered everything from stem to stern, including foundations, walls, wiring, plumbing, windows, roof, seismic upgrade. It’s good for another 100 years now — but we retained traditional aspects such as the coffered ceiling, grand staircase and foyer. We even added dormers. “It still looks classic, still has a very period exterior with the slop-dash stucco and split-face granite. I really like the outside; I find it very romantic.” Often associated with exclusive, contemporary and brand new homes, Abstract is a specialist in restoration and renovation, too.

“We’re branded contemporary, but the truth is we’ll do anything that’s unique and inspirational,” said Miller, who recently spun off a new development company called Nvision Properties. Miller said as well as building houses, he has built a good team with a retention rate of 97 per cent. But he is the guy who gets inside the client’s head to figure out what they want: “I’m the conductor who brings it all together.” That has led to more than 60 projects since he started his company a dozen years ago, and scores of accolades including more than 30 gold winners from the CARE (Victoria), Georgie (B.C.) and SAM (national) awards.

“The ones that stand out for me are the people’s choice awards, and being featured in Architectural Digest,” he said. “That was the Pulitzer for me.” This house won CARE awards for best residential interior, best residential reno and best master suite over 800 square feet. It also won a Georgie silver for best residential reno and was a SAM finalist.

Victoria Times Colonist

The two-sided fireplace can be enjoyed from the great room or the outside patio.

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