October 23, 2012

Mountain home rocks its natural surroundings

Spectacular panoramas surround Vancouver Island house carved out of hillside above the sea

GRANIA LITWIN

Victoria Times Colonist

Bruce and Anne Muir used to live on a fully landscaped, one-acre, urban property that was high maintenance, thanks to large swaths of lawn and herbaceous borders. But five years ago, they made an extreme lifestyle change. After touring a ruggedly beautiful hillside property, they bought 75 acres on southern Vancouver Island’s Maple Mountain and subdivided it into four 10-acre lots, keeping the remaining 35 for themselves.

They called it Braemuir — which means mountains and sea in Gaelic — because the rocky site is 350 feet above sea level with spectacular panoramas. “We fell in love with this property the minute we saw it, and decided to keep it as natural and low maintenance as possible. We sold all our lawn mowers,” said Bruce, who is a contractor and owner of Elmworth Construction. “It was a lifestyle change that we made because we really enjoy hiking and biking. Behind us are acres of mountain and forest trails — and yes, a few bears.”

Bruce and his wife enjoy “fairly extreme biking” and have cycled through mountains in Arizona, Peru and Mexico. “I didn’t want a lot of garden to keep us tied down, so we don’t have a blade of grass,” Anne said. Not only does their property have little or no landscaping, no blasting was done to create a building area for the house. “We just cleaned off the rock and poured concrete to conform to it,” Bruce said. It means they have an “organic basement” with numerous gullies and outcrops, rippling rocky edges and deep dips.

One rocky outcrop is large enough for a wine cellar, which Bruce plans to make look like an underground cavern. “We took as much care as possible not to disturb the trees, which is why it feels like a tree house upstairs, and we used a lot of local materials,” he said, pointing to the giant rough-edged slab of granite that forms a weighty hearth. They used as much rock as they could from the property to build numerous retaining walls. All the Douglas fir timbers were logged and milled on site.

Their resulting 3,900-square-foot home can best be described as West Coast Arts and Crafts. “We wanted a casual space because we do lots of entertaining,” Anne said. “But we also wanted lots of volume,” said Bruce, pointing to the 32-foot ceiling in the “great” room. “It’s a bit of a cathedral, but we like the extra space.” They feel they need it with a household that includes two daughters, as well as a number of dogs and cats. The south-facing home is bathed in light all day.

Only two rooms in the house are viewless: the television room, which faces the driveway, and the upstairs office. In the latter, a large interior window offers views across the upper balcony, through the living room and out the front windows, “so I can sit at my desk and look out,” Bruce said. They also have extensive outdoor living areas on multiple-level decks, with 850 square feet on the main floor, 400 on a lower level and 700 on the ground floor under the house — perfect for rainy days.

A spacious patio off the master bedroom upstairs adds another 150 square feet and is their favourite spot for getting fresh air. “There is nothing so swell as sleeping outside in the summer,” said Anne, adding that they both love to watch the eagles, hawks, owls and other birds on the wing. The home has three bedrooms plus an office, as well as a small extra room off the master bedroom, and lots of storage — including space for their 12 road and mountain bikes, which are often used by their daughters and visitors.

Bruce, who recently celebrated 25 years in the building business, has won several awards for environmentally conscious developments, for his commercial work and an innovation award for a recent four-plex. His specialty is high-end homes, but he also builds seniors’ retirement complexes, mostly in the Cowichan Valley. That commercial experience was handy when it came to installing the harrowingly high living-room windows, which were among the home’s biggest construction headaches.

“We had to bring in commercial scaffolding and a special crew. It was very challenging,” he said. All those soaring windows and the natural light they allow make it the perfect home to display their growing art collection. Anne, who works in community development for the Multiple Sclerosis Society in Duncan, enjoys collecting art. Among their unique pieces are recycled ironworks by Cowichan Valley artist Brad Allen of Meddle Art, which hang on various walls and above the fireplace. Cowichan metal artist Michael Mintern made their gates and they collect paintings by Laura Harris, Julie King and Coco Jones, among others.

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