This low-slung house is located on a 14-acre farm in British Columbia’s Fraser River Valley. The region is not protected with dikes, so bylaws require any new structure’s first floor to be six feet above the existing ground. In addition, an active railway runs parallel to the site. The area is further battered from above, as storms with fierce winds funnel through the valley.
Despite these challenges, the site is naturally stunning, with panoramic views of a hazelnut orchard, Mount Baker, Mount Cheam and hills that cradle thermal hot springs. In fact, the hurdles of the site are transformed into assets in this home for an extended family that runs an organic sheep husbandry.
Depending on how one approaches it, the building’s massing is either muscularly hovering above or heavily embedded into the ground, articulating the duality of the temporary and the permanent that characterizes farming in a harsh landscape. Similar to traditional family farm compounds, three generations live under one roof in two adjoining houses. One family member uses a wheelchair, so the creation of a single stair-free plane allows her full access to the house.
The requirement to build the house on six feet of structural fill created an opportunity. To avoid unsightly fences between the yard and the sheep pasture, cost-effective concrete lock-block walls encircle the house. This is a modern reinterpretation of the ha-ha wall. Sheep are so friendly they will walk inside open doors and defecate on terraces and lawns. With a simple plane change, they can be near and far simultaneously. They are extra near in the main office, where a hole in the floating floor allows close views of the herd as they gather under the house to avoid the sun or rain.
At night, the sheep sleep in a space inspired by medieval farms, where the barn and house were one single structure. A green roof’s soil protects them from train noise to the north. This intentionally blank elevation also provides visual privacy from the road.
Inside, single-loaded corridors enable long one-point perspectives, each aimed at a particular natural feature or at an internal courtyard. In the main living area, roof beams exaggerate the space’s long dimension. The result is a feeling of expansiveness and solitude.
The site’s high water table provides optimal conditions for a shallow loop geothermal system; heat transfer is more effective when pipes are within saturated soil. Exterior finishes are robust: the north berm is ‘clad’ in a wild grass pasture, exterior walls are made of untreated concrete, overhangs and fascias of untreated cedar, and infill panels of weathering steel. Since the client is a civil contractor, all insulation, cladding and earthwork materials consist of recycled construction waste from other sites.
Core-insulated concrete slabs that cantilever over the sheep pasture rest on twin columns, identical to common highway overpasses. Sandwich panel construction provides strong acoustic separation for interior spaces. Triple-glazed laminated glass blocks train noise that makes it past the sloped acoustic berm. All interior partitions are built with concrete block, adding a third layer of noise protection for a good night’s sleep.
MF: This is a multi-generational, multi-legged house that is clearly different from what we have been used to seeing. It creates visual dialogue between its wings. The various strategies used to bring in light—whether from the ceiling, skylights, or the bottom of walls—gives a dramatic sense to the promenade. It’s a house with a spiritual aspect.
PH: Essentially, it’s a farmyard—a large part of the house is actually a barn for the sheep. There’s a sensitive analysis of the ha-ha strategy to keep the sheep penned in, and to allow for observing them from inside.
JH: The house takes cues from the train track in its siting. There’s a provocative contrast between being sensitive to the site and then also occupying so much of it, all while covering itself with ground. Inside, it’s a house of boundaries—it’s an interesting typology.