August 2, 2012

Vancouver Island homes goes from rustic to efficiently urbane

Vancouver Island home renovation traded rustic for ‘marvellous’

BY GRANIA LITWIN

A block and tackle hung over the food-preparation area. Outdoor-style fencing divided the family room from the kitchen, and dusty beams, salvaged from an old barn, criss-crossed the ceilings. It looked as if a horse might amble through at any minute or a hay bale drop from above. Yet designer J.C. Scott was undismayed by the scene — in fact, he was delighted and excited by the sight of this Central Saanich home on Vancouver Island.

“Sometimes, you get a project and know that no matter what you do, it’s never going to be fantastic. It’s just going to be better,” he explained. “But then, very rarely, you get a project and think to yourself: When this is complete, if the clients and I agree, it is going to go from okay to fantastic. It’s going to be marvellous. The change will be qualitative and transformative.”

One look at this house and he knew that was the case. “Designers dream about this sort of project because it really is possible to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” The bones of the house were good. The views were potentially tremendous, though obstructed by trees. The foundations were excellent. The basement was huge. It was just the interior barn-rancher style that made a visitor want to gallop for cover.

“It might be appropriate for a mountain house or a summer cottage in cowboy country, but not for a West Coast retirement home,” Scott said. Owners Hugh and Sherry Paterson, who purchased the house two years ago, admitted they found the rustic flavour too much. “We took possession on a Thursday and started demolition on Monday,” Sherry recalled. The renos lasted 12 months.

The house demanded drastic measures and they decided Scott, with his vision of harmonious proportions and natural construction, as well as his interest in sustainable design, low carbon footprint and organic style, was the man for the job. “I’d worked with J.C. before on commercial restaurants and chose him because of his experience and personality,” Hugh said. “Right after our first meeting, we had a huge level of comfort,” said Sherry, whose background is in commercial property management. “We loved the fact he was so excited about the property. It was a good match.”

The couple wanted to open up the inside, bring in more light and lasso that country-western style, so they installed all new windows and doors, removed some walls, stripped the interior down to the studs and redesigned virtually every space. All electrical systems, plumbing and insulation were replaced, “which gives us peace of mind, no surprises,” and Hugh, who couldn’t wait to remove a “dinosaur” wood-assisted furnace.

He created four heat-pump zones: “We now have a Trane air-to-air heat pump, with backup variable speed propane furnace. And we also have a separate LG air-to-air split system incorporating three zones: master bedroom, lower office, guest suite and rec room. It makes the home very energy-efficient and comfortable,” said Hugh, noting they also use gas-powered instant hot water in their two ensuites.

Because Hugh is a mechanical engineer, he understood the concept of energy efficiency and natural convection airflow, Scott said. “So we introduced windows that open in the lower part of the rooms, to allow cool air in, and more at the top of the house, in clerestory windows and skylights along the hallway, to let warm air out.”

As the inner temperature increases, hot air rises and as it rushes out, the movement creates low pressure, which pulls cooler air in. The openings and closings are thermostatically controlled. Hugh added that because the home is on the side of a hill, air naturally flows uphill, so low windows made sense. “Natural ventilation is much cheaper than a fan and absolutely silent,” Scott said.

It hearkens back to his architectural-history training and passion for the work of Sir Joseph Paxton, who invented the modern greenhouse and assembly line. Among other great works, Paxton designed the Crystal Palace exhibition hall in 1851 — although back then, there were ladders, catwalks and hand cranks to open windows.

The country-western theme is now gone, but Scott is quick to stress the home is not formal. “There is still a stone fireplace, for instance, but the stone doesn’t go all the way to the ceiling now, so it’s no longer overbearing.” The double-sided chimney also used to be wider, but they shaved off a metre off the side when the old chimney was eliminated, which helped open the view.

“We used a local company called K2 Stone, with quarries on Vancouver Island. It’s stone veneer functions like faux stone, has great corner detail and can be applied over wood or plywood, indoors or out. We took the fireplace down to the concrete block and re-skinned it.”

A major change was replacing the old beams and posts. They used Douglas fir for the posts. For the beams, however, because the spans were great and excessively large beams could potentially crack, they used engineered ones in wood and steel, clad in 3⁄8-inch veneer. The whole house celebrates the view.

“We now have a yin-yang experience: On one side is this great expansive view, and on the other an intimate one, of squirrels and birds,” said Hugh, who is building a pergola on a rear deck with rough cut, old growth cedar beams. Interior woodwork here was specially treated to stand up to the damp climate. Precautionary steps included sealing or painting all ends, and even inside surfaces that aren’t visible. The workers re-masked the whole house and re-lacquered all the corners again in situ after trim was sanded to fit.

Scott also introduced several landscaping initiatives, such as levelling the main entrance with fill and gravel to make it more senior friendly. “We don’t want to move again,” Hugh said. The main entrance has one small step now and the kitchen door is dead level. (Scott advises that a little step adds to an entry’s formality, which can also be achieved with a larger forecourt or recessed entry.)

Another clever detail was a fully opening window beside the bathtub. Three panes collect to one side, creating a stunning open space. “We don’t need a hot tub,” said Sherry, who loves the view to Saanich Inlet. The biggest change is in the kitchen, where a small window and upper cabinets were removed to enhance the view. Sherry says the kitchen functions perfectly for one or more, which is handy, as they belong to a dinner club.

The kitchen has an invisible pantry behind the wine cooler and fridge and cherry wood panels. Under the dark Brazilian granite is a sleek microwave and food-warming drawer. Their home now has all the key elements of a country retirement house: great entertaining spaces, a home office, comfortable quarters for guests, some level lawn, a large workshop and garage — and a basement designed for a self-contained caretaker if needed.

Was there ever any thought of razing the house and starting anew? “Never,” said Scott, whose mantras are reduce, reuse and recycle. All the windows, barn wood and beams were carefully removed and recycled. Not only does the architectural historian believe renovation is the right thing for the planet, he’s also respectful of what came before.

The only part of the home that was rebuilt was a small kitchen solarium, replaced by a more traditional, larger sunroom to magnify views of the Malahat. The old aluminum one was leaky, cold, and unwelcoming at night, and didn’t offer great vistas because the windows were divided like those of a greenhouse. “We only added four feet, but it was a huge expansion of space and view,” said Scott.

Victoria Times Colonist

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