May 12, 2012

A Touch Of New England On Saltspring

Couple custom-builds a 3,800-square-foot island home that has a Cape Cod feel

BY GRANIA LITWIN

Saltspring Island is home to an eclectic mix of residences, from über-chic lakefront cottages and hilltop hideaways to rammed earth, eco-friendly digs and funky hippie hangouts. But on the shores of Vesuvius — the bay, not the volcano — is another kind of architecture, where Cape Cod cottage meets French provincial beach house. Derek and Andrea Sowden’s home also has a pinch of Middle Eastern spice for added zing: a tiny, but exotic set of terraces inspired by a famous geometric landscape in Haifa.

“This was an empty lot when we bought it in 1996,” said Derek, who built the house himself, but admits his first thought was about a wharf, not a house. Before even breaking ground, he had created a 40-metre dock with a float at the end. Derek said the couple loves the location, just two doors from the Crofton-Vesuvius ferry terminal. “It’s such a beautiful bay and very near to Tent Island, which has the warmest swimming in the Gulf Islands. We have the best sunsets, and easy access to Vancouver Island.”

For her part, Andrea loves the “summer noises” and doesn’t mind the nearby hustle and bustle. “It is like living in the ultimate coastal vacation spot — with people enjoying themselves all around you.” Once their dock was built, it was time to design their house. Neither wanted a cutesy cottage filled with knicky-knacky anchors and ships’ bells. “We wanted it to have a seaside feel, but be in a more European fashion,” Andrea said.

The couple had previously lived on six acres in a 600-square-foot space above a barn — “We’ve paid our dues,” joked Andrea. So the move to Vesuvius meant downsizing acreage, but upsizing living space. Their lot is 50 feet by about 200 feet long, and it took some creativity to design a 3,800-square-foot house that could also adapt to the slope. The resulting house is just 30 feet wide, with 10-foot setbacks on each side.

It spills down the hillside on six levels and features 58 steps from top to bottom. (The property drops about 70 feet from road to beach.) “Each interior staircase is only half a flight, so it doesn’t seem like you’re hauling upstairs,” said Derek, whose company, Strait Construction, builds everything from custom homes to modest cottages. The Sowdens’ home has a distinctly New England feel, with its off-white, sand and bleached driftwood colour scheme, beadboard wainscotting, cottage feel and subtle design elements. The kitchen is a favourite spot for Andrea, who notes that everything came from Ikea, including the kitchen sink. The savings were enough for her to splurge on marble countertops.

She also didn’t want any upper cabinets interrupting the view, so there is just one wall of storage top to bottom, at the back of the kitchen. There is no fridge to block the view either. Instead, it’s in the pantry, along with storage for food, pots, pans and beach towels. The pantry’s swing door has a round window that adds a nautical tone to the room and allows chefs and helpers to check who’s coming and going.

The media room is different, too. While some are cavelike spaces with rows of seats facing one direction, the Sowdens’ is a bright family room on the ground floor. At night, they push a button and down comes a giant screen from behind the window valance. “It’s so large, the hockey players are bigger than we are,” Derek joked. Over the room’s white sofa hangs a funky “Welcome to Vesuvius” sign they salvaged from the public dock when it was being restored.

Derek was born in Banff, but visited the island at 21 and never left. He fell in love with the location and with Andrea, who hails from Saskatoon. “I picked her up one day when she was hitchhiking.” Andrea used to have a dog-grooming business, but now drives a school bus on the island. The schedule suits her. “I’m free in the middle of the day to clean house and garden.” Her next project is to extend the garden on to the carport roof, while Derek’s dream is to build a library on their upper-level stair landing.

He put a large water-storage tank under the deck when he built the house and recently installed a rainwater-collection system. “All the toilets, outside taps and irrigation systems now run on rainwater and every time it rains, we say: ‘Oh great, we’re collecting water!’ ” One thing they didn’t cut corners on was windows.

“Some things you can cheap out on, but windows you can’t change easily. People make a lot of mistakes with windows. They choose the wrong size, the wrong proportion,” said Derek, who suggests studying the art of fenestration — the design and placement of windows — before making such important decisions. “For instance, when we did our barn reno, we didn’t put in huge picture windows. We made sure the openings were small, to mimic the look of an old barn.” Andrea has a passion for long, slim windows and chose tall, narrow mullioned ones for her kitchen, another nod to French country. But elsewhere, they saved by using recycled stock.

Victoria Times Colonist

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