January 30, 2012

Couple Wasn’t Looking For a Castle, but They Got a Moat

For their retirement home, pair focused on finding something warm and inviting — but not a mini-mansion


Bigger has never meant better to a high-energy couple in North Saanich, and that was especially true when it came to designing their retirement home.  “We didn’t want a starter castle,” David joked.  David and Jennifer, who asked to keep their last name private, retired here from Hong Kong five years ago and had no interest in a mini-mansion. As a result, their 2,700-square-foot home is brilliantly unpretentious and comfortable, yet spacious feeling and meticulously finished inside.  Whenever faced with a choice, they selected quality over quantity, simplicity over supersizing and, with the help of architect Brian Morris and builder Rob Parsons, they achieved it at Chygwyth — which means “home on the hill” in old Cornish.

While not a castle, the house does have a short bridge that leads across a tiny moat to their front door, but David explains that was because of the demanding site.  “A huge effort was necessary because this lot is very steep; there is a big rock outcrop over there, a huge hollow here.” A sheer gully on the property was transformed into a long interior staircase and the rest of the site required 100 truckloads of fill “and a huge amount of concrete for footings,” David said.  One of the early questions was whether the view lot could be built on at all. It was so obstructed by trees, they brought in a bulldozer several times to judge the lay of the land.  The solution was a three-metre drop from road to garage and another eight-metre descent to where the house now stands. Below that, the nearly half-hectare property plunges again, down to a wonderful garden. The two thought long and hard about design. “A lot of homes are showcases, but rather cold and not really livable,” David said. This happens, he thinks, when people focus on layout and room size. He and Jennifer believe a home’s character derives from details, not volume.

The home’s living room has a tantalizing outlook.

“We put our money into the interiors and wanted to build better, not bigger. What makes a place homey is the finishing, not footage,” David said.  Their interiors feature beautifully crafted mouldings around windows and doors, beamed ceilings, finely tailored built-ins and window seats.  The owners’ commitment began in 2002 when they bought the lot and began creating a meticulous scrapbook of ideas and pictures so they could build in 2006. Not only is it a visual compendium, but also a philosophical statement that touches on design elements such as focal points and the architectural concept of enfilade, often seen in baroque palaces.

Enfilade refers to a straight, axial relationship between rooms aligned via connecting doorways, which eliminates hallways and adds a sense of sequential surprise.  David and Jennifer love surprises and illusions.  One of their favourites is the stairway with balustrades that diminish in height as you climb, while the pony wall below increases — as if built for a Lewis Carroll story. The steps, which are coated in varnish mixed with crushed walnuts for grip, widen as they descend, and the walls are off square, adding to the eccentricity.

Another surprise awaits visitors in the entry, where a wide pillar narrows toward the ceiling and blocks the tantalizing view.  “When you come down the driveway, you know there must be a view, but you don’t see it immediately when you enter. It’s held back until you come into the living room, like privileged information,” David said.  More visual bonbons abound in their many eclectic pieces. For a dozen years, David was chairman of the department of sport science and physical education at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and Jennifer worked as a health care teacher.

Before that, the Cornwall-born David taught for 25 years at the University of Manitoba and Jennifer, who was born in Singapore and mostly raised in Australia, also travelled extensively. (The two met in the unlikely spot of Vanderhoof and always wanted to return here to live.)  Their home contains treasures they have collected from around the world: Balinese stools, masks from Thailand, Tibetan picnic vessels, Chinese chairs and a bench from Java covered with material from Chechnya, in the Caspian Mountains. Working with such thoughtful clients was a delight for their architect.

“The more information clients pass along, the better I understand what they’re after,” Morris said. “It’s wonderful to be with people who communicate so well verbally, and through sketches and writing.”  One of his signatures is the use of sunlight — and he gave them skylights everywhere: down a central hallway, beside the fireplace, in bathrooms, inside and outside the entry and over an outdoor seating area. The owners had read The Not So Big House by Sarah Susanka, so their home speaks to that in spades. “Excess space costs money and is a waste,” Morris said.

He was lavish in his use of columns and beams, one of which runs down both sides of the central axis hallway, a unifying element that brings warmth into the home. Wood was also used extensively for storage, through built-in cabinetry and window seats.  In this house, windows seats provide storage in the dining room (for deck furniture cushions), in the master bedroom (for out of season clothing), in the living room (for TV and stereo speakers and the Christmas tree stand) and in the kitchen (for files).  Now nearing 70, the owners live mostly on the 1,700 square-foot main floor, even though they are both still fit.  A lower level was added because it was a natural for the site, and Morris ensured all the doors and hallways are wide enough for a wheelchair, just in case.

Victoria Times Columist

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