April 22, 2013

Island home connects with its setting

Custom builder brings warmth to every room through design and geothermal heating

Victoria Times Colonist

Atmosphere, ambience and mood are elements found to some degree in every home, and they are as important as bricks, beams, mortar and granite, says Kevin Fraser. They are subtle aspects that the Cowichan Valley custom home builder takes time to consider in all his buildings.

“I am by no means an expert in feng shui, but I have been using it recently and like the outcome,” he said, adding it was a starting point for the layout of his new home in Maple Bay on Vancouver Island. It was an influence when he and his wife began to choose colours, textures and materials. The Chinese art of auspicious architecture and placement stretches back more than 3,000 years, and is said to balance energies while bringing good health and fortune.

“I started learning about feng shui back in 2005 and we used some of the basic concepts of room placement and materials in our previous house,” Kevin said. “We found that we were very happy and prosperous while living there, so we decided to use those design principles again in this house.” For instance, they placed their bedroom in the northern side of the house, where they have found it very calming and restful. The kitchen is in the southeast, as is the deck where they barbecue.

“There must be something to it if the Chinese have used it for thousands of years.” Their last home was one level, so they were limited when it came to dedicating certain rooms in specific corners, but this house has two storeys and a huge rooftop garden. “In our last house, we had only one southeast corner to play with. … This house has twice as many chances,” he said with a grin, stressing he has shallow knowledge of the deep and ancient science, but enjoys applying it.

On a more North American consciousness level, he was pleased to explain the home has achieved BuiltGreen platinum status, which is the program’s highest level for maximum energy efficiency and minimum ecological footprint. “We made use of many local materials; for instance, we used concrete countertops instead of imported granite, and sustainable materials such as cork flooring,” considered an ecological choice because only the outer skin of a cork tree is harvested and the plant regenerates and continues to grow.

All the Douglas fir woodwork in the 2,900-square-foot home is from recycled bridge timbers, salvaged from logging roads in the Nanaimo lakes area. It was given a clear, water-based finish so it will colour and age naturally. “I’m a closet architect,” admitted Kevin, who says he has little opportunity when building homes for others, but enjoys giving his imagination full rein at home.

His wife Liz is an expert in Japanese shiatsu massage, “very grounded and connected to nature,” as well as the art of simplicity and bringing the outdoors in. “We liked our previous house very much, but wanted to be nearer the water,” she said, adding they have been “migrating” closer and closer with every move. “This property was for sale for a little while because it is very steep and a difficult site, but my husband is very good at working around that and this design is perfect for us.

“Every room feels so comfortable.” One of the reasons for that comfortable feeling is their geothermal heating system that feeds into water-heated radiant floors. “We drilled a 400-foot well and put geothermal loops down,” said Kevin, and while an air-source heat pump is usually the most practical choice, he wanted a state-of-the-art system. “I’m just inclined that way.”

It cost twice as much as a conventional air-source system and payback will take 12 years, “but what we get in the winter is super comfortable, warm floors and furnishings, and in the summer we have forced-air cooling. It’s the ultimate comfort system.” The steep, rocky lot was a challenge to build on and required not only significant blasting, but also an engineered sewage-treatment plant.

There are few gardening opportunities on this difficult site, and that suits this couple just fine. They created a “green” roof with a large area for planting vegetables and flowers. “We built it to take 14 inches of soil so it had to be twice as strong as the typical roof. “I think people should get into roof gardening more; there is a lot of unused roof around here,” said Kevin, who explained their previous home was surrounded by 1.5 acres.

“We enjoyed the large property very much, but we are action oriented. We like to mountain-bike, ski, go boating — and gardening cut into our recreation time. We decided to downsize and create a much smaller, more efficient landscape. “We both also have a strong affinity for the sea and wanted to be where we could see it and smell it, and watch the moonlight reflecting on the water (and) the sunrise.” Their home, which faces Salt Spring Island and right into Burgoyne Bay, has plenty of large picture windows. They have generous, sheltering overhangs with Douglas fir soffits, which lend a feeling of protection and warmth to the interiors.

The sloping ceiling in the living room rises up and out toward the view, while the streetscape is deleted by carefully planned sightlines that allow the eyes to skim over other rooftops and straight out to the water. Opaque film, partway up the glass balcony railings, ensures privacy and eliminates unsightly views, too. Upstairs, two “secret decks” off the main bedrooms feature paving stones outlined in gravel that seem to fade into the distance, blending discreetly with the far shoreline.

“We moved from a rural acreage into a village, so wanted to be very, very careful about sightlines and privacy,” he said, adding the master bedroom is sited well back from the street and a large sloping roof below its window acts as a baffle to help deflect any street noise. He was also conscious of capturing light, even on a dull day, so most rooms have windows on two sides, bringing light from various sources. The result is a home with a serene mood, a feeling of welcoming warmth and connection with nature from every window.

One of its most attractive elements is a water feature by the front door, while another is the use of pebbles covering the entire master-bathroom floor, so it looks like a beach and offers a gentle foot massage at every step. “It’s been a very rewarding experience, building homes in the Cowichan Valley for 24 years,” said Kevin. “I have had the benefit of learning many lessons from clients and other builders over the years.”

This house was built in 2010 and construction lasted seven months. Kevin was too busy with other clients to submit it for any awards, but his last home won a gold CARE award for best single family under 2,500 square feet, as well as a silver for best outdoor living space, and a community design award from North Cowichan.

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