Altered State





Since beginning his own practice in 1980, Peter Cardew has designed numerous modestly scaled buildings–each with its own internal language of form and spatial narrative, achieved through the intelligent juxtapositions of interior spaces and through contrasting a basic material palette. His recently completed LeBlanc House in West Vancouver is no exception.

For the renovation of this 1960s split-level home, Cardew chose to retain the memory of a housing type not often noted for its architectural merits but which is nonetheless part of our history–40 to 50 years ago–when buying a house in Vancouver was affordable. “We tend to value the very new and very old,” says Cardew, arguing that although the split-level home is considered one of the most common single-family postwar dwelling types in North America, it has not nearly achieved the same level of appreciation as other architectural styles, such as the coveted Victorian.

The client, Jean Claude LeBlanc, is a young, creative, hockey-playing curiosity-seeker in his early thirties who grew up in Saskatchewan before immigrating to Vancouver. Not formally trained in design, he represents the rare breed of client who understands the value of architecture. LeBlanc’s energy and creativity extends beyond his interests in building to other endeavours such as music and designing clothing. He recently flew to London to enroll in a cutting course with legendary avant-garde British fashion designer Vivienne Westwood. When it comes to architecture, LeBlanc has a deep appreciation for how things are made, “especially when it comes to understanding how two materials meet,” notes Cardew’s associate David Scott, a graduate of Dalhousie University.

The client-architect relationship began after a cold call was placed to Cardew’s office, with LeBlanc enquiring about a kitchen renovation. “You’ve got to learn how to read people who walk in the door,” Cardew notes, reminiscing about why he chose to work with LeBlanc on such an initially tiny commission. From their initial meetings about the kitchen renovation, they began to discuss other aspects of the house and the scope of work grew.

Much of the existing structure for the house was retained. Efficient windows, thicker insulation, a new high-efficiency boiler and hydronic slab heating system were all incorporated into the new design. The in-floor radiant heating and concrete floors made for an effective contrast to the richness of the natural materials found throughout the house. Most of the furniture was sourced but in some instances, Cardew and his team designed certain pieces such as the dining table (fashioned from an old piece of maple), the stereo cabinet, and a couple of coffee tables. By strategically reconfiguring the existing plan, more natural light was allowed to penetrate into the living spaces. For example, some of the walls were removed to form a continuous living-kitchen-dining area, thus creating greater visual coherence and openness. Because the original house was a split-level, there was a drop in the ceiling height and by pulling back the ceiling, inserting a skylight and a drop wall, an increased amount of daylight is reflected back into the interior spaces. The central stair remained in the same location, but was rebuilt to become a new focal point. One difficult design challenge to overcome was the 7′-11″ ceiling heights. To make the main living area feel more spacious, the ceiling height above the front entry was lowered to a mere seven feet so that LeBlanc (who himself is over six feet tall) and his guests could experience a compression of space before entering into the main living areas. To counteract the lowered headroom in the entrance foyer, an oversized front door was designed–which has itself become an important signifier for the residence. And because the area in front of the main entry was tight, the front steps were redesigned so that LeBlanc wouldn’t hit them when backing his car out of the garage. “You don’t need grand spaces for grand gestures,” remarks Cardew.

Modifications on the exterior were slight, but exacting. Cardew removed the dormers and multi-paned picture windows, and modified the bay window on the ground floor. Refinishing the home in black stucco and widening the front door gave the house its contemporary aesthetic. The back of the house was opened up with the help of 14-foot glass sliding doors. It seems that no West Coast home can be discussed without some mention of the blurring of indoor and outdoor space. Once a new concrete slab was poured where the patio previously existed, a new north-facing terrace extended the kitchen, creating a dynamic illusion of space. Because the owner had lived in the house already for a few years, he knew what areas enjoyed sun and shade, which facilitated the design of the terrace leading to an existing kidney-shaped pool.

As far as using skilled trades for his projects, Cardew’s process for the LeBlanc House is no exception. After having heard about the skills of builder John Mason for many years, Cardew was finally able to collaborate with this London-trained architectural graduate. For Cardew, this was one of his first experiences of working with a contractor as exacting as himself. The project began in July 2004 and was finished around Christmas 2006, taking much longer than normal to complete because the level of workmanship required more time, and the client felt comfortable in paying a premium for quality. Work on the house is still ongoing, with more landscaping required and more furniture needing to be designed. Since LeBlanc enjoyed his first experience of working with an architect so much, he recently bought an old tear-down in Kelowna and hired Cardew’s office to engage in a similar design process as was applied to his West Vancouver home.

Stories pertaining to client-architect relationships are often somewhat anecdotal. For Cardew, it was establishing a connection with a young client who wanted a new kitchen and who happened to like the design process. While several Vancouver architects expressed no interest in LeBlanc’s inquiries, Cardew answered the call. The result is a clear design statement that purposefully and quietly retains an existing piece of our built heritage. Even though the original house carried little architectural merit, the renovated house conveys a sense of style befitting a contemporary residence in a wealthy neighbourhood.

The LeBlanc House was the recipient of a 2007 Special Jury Award from the Architectural Institute of British Columbia.

CLIENT Jean Claude LeBlanc

ARCHITECT TEAM Peter Cardew, David Scott, Angie Jim


CONTRACTOR John Mason and Associates; Peter Montgomery, Highliner Construction


BUDGET withheld

COMPLETION December 2006