March 20, 2012

Cottage Becomes Light-Filled Showpiece

Designer turns 1950s home into a space with huge stacked windows that’s perfect for sunsets


Elka Nowicka and Paul Pallan have a room with a view at the top of King George Terrace in Vancouver Island’s Oak Bay. In fact, their spacious living room has not one, but a succession of views — each framed by a window that captures a unique slice of sea or sky. The visual composition runs from floor to ceiling along the front of the house. It channels the eye across Juan de Fuca Strait, as if the whole outside world were one great gallery. It’s perfect for Nowicka, who is an artist and finds herself happily gazing out at perfectly framed views wherever she looks.

She and Pallan bought the former cottage three and a half years ago. While they lived there for the first year and enjoyed the 170-degree panoramas, they felt the small windows didn’t do it justice. When they hired designer Bruce Wilkin to oversee a major renovation to the 1950s home, one of the first things he did was explain their view isn’t just about water and shoreline. It’s also about sky. He recommended doubling the living room height and stacking the windows in banks of three.

It’s a signature Wilkin treatment and the motif repeats itself throughout this house in not only windows, but also the main staircase, where open rectangles line the stairwell. This device allows light to pass through and expands sight lines on the main floor. “I do a lot of big, stacked windows,” Wilkin said. “They are simple, but grand. And I think the combination of a more compressed view puts the windows in a more human scale, rather than having one great sheet of glass that can be overwhelming.”

What he likes best about a “stack” is each segment frames a different view. He also repeated the effect in the dining room with nine smaller-dimension windows. “There is something about repetition and pattern that’s very appealing. It’s like being inside a camera with a big viewing box.” Pallan was the one who first pictured living in this house. “It was almost a no-brainer because of the exposure.”

The site is ideal for watching sunsets as well as sunrises, not to mention the ever-changing ocean traffic, racing sailboats, cruise ships, as well as dark scudding clouds, ever-shifting weather structures in the sky. At first Nowicka didn’t even want to peek inside the ordinary-looking house, but it soon caught her imagination, too. On the main floor, which covers 2,400 square feet, the renovation expanded up, but not out. Upstairs, an additional 600 square feet allowed for an office for Pallan, who retired in 2003 from his job as Children’s Commissioner for B.C. Bored by retirement, he now works as a private consultant.

“This office is so bad,” he said jokingly. “I had every intention of using it for all my work, but I get so distracted … I start to gaze outside, and before I know it, I lose my train of thought. If I need to do serious work, I go to my downtown office.” The renovated house feels spacious, peaceful and quiet, he says. “It’s our sanctuary.” One of the couple’s favourite spots to watch the sun set is a second-floor viewing platform that soars above the living room like a crow’s nest.

Nowicka, who works at home, has a similar view from her studio: “It’s a very happy, stimulating environment. We both love the light and open space.” Pallan estimates the total renovation cost close to $500,000 — “and the meter’s still ticking” — but he says it was money well spent since a new house would have cost about $800,000. “It was worth every penny, even though it ended up being way more expensive than we anticipated,” Nowicka said. “We ended up gutting and rebuilding about three-quarters of the house.”

They added high-energy-efficient windows, so even though the hilltop is exposed and windy, the house is warm. “Any little bit of sunlight almost acts like a prism, capturing the sun and heating the house,” Pallan said. “In the summer, on the hottest day, there is always a breeze and we have good cross ventilation.” One reason the project turned out well is that they took their time planning the redesign and lived in the house for more than a year while discussing options. “And Nowicka is very creative and open to new ideas,” Wilkin said.

His biggest challenge was combining something “incredibly minimal and modern with a 1950s-style bungalow. Nowicka didn’t want the addition to be a slave to the past or even informed by it. “So we blew out the existing front of the house and took down a huge fireplace in the middle which gave a big disconnect between the kitchen and living rooms. We made that front box two storeys high, and created the lookout above the living room. It’s a viewing platform that creates a little bit of scale and hangs in space like a jagged point. “It almost feels like you are in the Museum of Modern Art in New York, standing in one of the glass hallways,” Wilkin said.

“We brought the second storey forward so you can look out from the master bedroom, which previously had no view … and moved a weird staircase off the kitchen, which also obstructed the view.” One of the most dramatic new elements is a long, white cabinet suspended between two structural posts between the kitchen and dining room. It solved the problem of two lonesome pillars in the middle of the room, Wilkin said. It is rosewood inside, with maple boxes set into the cabinet and Caesarstone quartz on top. “The kitchen started when I bought this Ferrari red range,” Nowicka said. “It’s a Blue Star with six burners, all gas, very powerful.”

Nowicka, who sells paintings at West End Gallery in Victoria and Edmonton, Canada House Gallery in Banff and Shayne Gallery in Montreal, is fearless when it comes to designing the interiors, whether it’s placing a glass-topped zebra table in her kitchen nook or putting a round of glass on an old Indonesian piece for a dining table. Her coffee table is a copy of an Italian one she saw for $3,000. She replicated it with a table she found at Value Village for $30, which she covered with two layers of glass, fitted with mirror orbs in between.

A long corridor downstairs is lined with rows of cupboards built to hold white wardrobes from Ikea. In the master bedroom, she made unfussy curtains from duvet covers with vertical sandy trim. “It’s quite a wonderful, functional house,” Wilkin said. “The kind of place that reveals itself immediately … not much is hidden in this space.”

Victoria Times Colonist


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