May 6, 2013
Island residence brings the outside in
Victoria Times Colonist
This Vancouver Island home makes a bold, artistic West Coast statement with its weathered logs under kitchen counters, beach rocks embedded in the shower floor in the shape of a killer whale and stylized eagle beaks cut into overhead beams. “We always wanted a home that would have a seamless transition to the outside,” said Brenda de Roos. She and her husband Bob spent the last decade building it on the Cordova Bay waterfront, with help from their three children.
“It has been a family affair and I’ve loved the process, appreciated every new step. It was wonderful watching all of us doing something so beautiful together and really honouring the property.” They are delighted with the result. She and Bob, a retired house renovator from Vancouver, wanted their retirement home here to be child-friendly, a place where pets and grandchildren can roam freely, running in and out of the garden and up from the beach.
So they installed “bulletproof floors,” a porcelain tile in earthy brown, like a forest floor, and created generous patios around the property. Bob always dreamed of building his own home and living in a kind of native-style long house. When Bob first saw this property, with its small grove of evergreens, he knew he’d come home. “We didn’t take a single tree down and we built the house around an eagle theme because there were so many on the property. Look, there’s one sitting on that tree right now,” Bob said.
Touring the garden, he described how his house came into being. “We had all these trees, you see, and in the trees lived all these eagles. So the idea was to create a home where we could live under the protection of the eagles. We have a living forest as you approach the house, and then a transition to peeled logs at the front door, and slowly another transformation as you step inside, and the trees become square beams, with big scallops in them to represent beaks of eagles. We feel the wings of an eagle are our roof.”
They also made a series of nine copper lights to illuminate the home’s exterior, and pierced them with holes in patterns that depict eagles and other wildlife. Their biologist son, Mike de Roos, carved an eagle in the front door and enhanced the home’s waterfront vibe with some of his marine mammal collection. “We have lots of skeletons in our closets,” joked Brenda, who noted her son has been an avid collector since he was a small boy. Mike gained national acclaim recently as project manager and master skeleton articulator for a giant 26-metre whale skeleton now at the University of B.C.’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum. The giant mammal’s carcass washed up on the shores of P.E.I. in 1987 and was buried for 20 years, then uncovered and reassembled under Mike’s experienced eye.
Among other things, Mike also created a whale mosaic in one of the showers at his parents’ home. It’s invisible when the floor is dry, but when water splashes on it, the stones turn dark and the leaping orca’s outline jumps out. Finding the property in 1999 was a stroke of luck for these nature lovers. They had been driving up and down this waterfront road one day when a local approached them, wondering if he could help them find what they were looking for.
Bob explained they wanted to buy a house and the resident pointed out a little bungalow that was about to go on the market. The owners were ready to sell and the de Roos family began gearing up for a major project. They lived on the site all through demolition of the original bungalow and new construction. “When it got really brutal, we lived in a camper on the property,” said Brenda. “The last thing to go was the bathtub. It was quite a challenge … there were many mornings when I awoke to find the dishcloth frozen to the kitchen tap.
“But I have a lot of patience,” she said with a grin. “And I enjoy everything my husband finishes.” Construction began more than a decade ago and continues to this day. Last year, Bob built a Dutch door for the kitchen. He is creating new garage doors to replace temporary plywood ones this year and Brenda hopes he will build her a gas fire pit next year. Bob has also been rebuilding his daughter’s 100-year-old house for the past five years.
Bob built almost every aspect of this home himself. He hand milled most of the wood, built all the doors and window frames, even crafted all the concrete counter tops. Brenda kept working part-time in the early years of construction, commuting to Vancouver a couple of days a week to her teaching job at the Canuck Place children’s hospice. “It was crazy for a couple of years and we wore a lot of long underwear in the winter, but it was the only way we could afford to have a house like this,” she said.
Bob did most of the electrical work and plumbing himself, and installed in-floor radiant heat. “I was winding down my business in Vancouver back at the beginning, and we wanted to downsize from our 5,000-square-foot home over there,” he said. Their current home covers about 2,600 square feet, but feels much larger thanks to the high ceilings, large windows and skylights. “I once heard from an architect friend that as you get older, to see at the same level as a younger person, you need 30 per cent more light. So I put in lots of skylights and we hardly ever have to turn lights on during the day.”
When he had the plans drawn up by Vancouver architect Stefan Wiedemann and priced everything out, he admits it was a shock. “The prices for things like windows were way out of line. I said no way. I’ll build them myself. It’s not rocket science if you have a table saw. So I fabricated all the windows and doors in my shop.” It was the same with kitchen cabinets. “To have had them made would have been ridiculous.” So he made all the cabinets and also the countertops, adding pebbles and stones from the beach in a variety of textures, colours and patterns. “They take forever to make and when you polish them, you have to put on your wet-weather gear because it makes such a mess.”
He recycled everything he could, including all the rock from the former fireplace, which he used to build the new one. One thing Bob doesn’t do is build model boats, but he collects them and displays several built by his father and grandfather, on the beams that span their welcoming kitchen. “We spaced this project out over many, many years but it was worth the wait. I’m glad we took our time.”