Building With Words

Project Bryant House, Vancouver, British Columbia

Architect Hotson Bakker Boniface Haden Architects + Urbanistes

Text Trevor Boddy

Photos Alan Boniface, Shannon Mendes

Bob and Nancy Bryant’s first attempt to line up a house designer for a west side Vancouver corner lot did not work out. Determined to make his second search for an architect click, Bob Bryant employed some of the skills he had honed over a career as an advertising executive. The couple conferred with friends and associates, produced a long list of a half-dozen Vancouver architects who might be up to the task, then honed it down to three finalists.

The ad man then had each architect answer three questions in writing and in writing alone–no chummy interviews, no portfolios, no plans, no sketches. Bryant had used this technique when his large agency wanted a creative shop on contract for ad illustrations or copywriting. “I thought to myself that looking for an architect is not that different from seeking other creative professionals,” said a genuflecting Bryant, clearly at ease in his new living room, “and that once a bond of trust was established from what they wrote, it would pay off in degrees of freedom later for the designer.”

These degrees of freedom are quite evident in the detailing of this gracious and characterful house. The questions Bryant asked of his prospective designers are a very useful template for clients seeking an architect for any building not large enough to warrant a design competition, and is worth listing here:

1. Based on our vision and requirements1, how would you approach our project?

2. Given our requirements and our wish list of features, is our stated budget realistic?

3. How would you define your scope of work, and what is your fee proposal?

Given his extensive career as a design writer in this magazine and others, it is perhaps not surprising that it was Bruce Haden’s text that won the day. To say this is not to slight Haden’s design skills nor that of his two associate designers on the project, Alan Boniface and Andrew Larigakis. My own impressions after a dozen years of teaching design studio is that verbal acumen and originality is a better predictor of career success as a designer than innate graphic skill. An AIA survey of its members in the mid-1990s concurs, with practitioners listing graduates’ low skills in verbal and written tasks as the biggest failing of their architectural educations.

Tipping my hat to Ruth Cawker’s still unsurpassed collection of texts by Canadian architects published 20 years ago, Building With Words clearly worked for the Bryants, and could work for others. Here is a tour of the ambitious house that resulted from Haden’s written intentions, extracts of which follow my review–so you can form your own opinions about how the written manifesto measures up to the built result.

Evident in both the plan and axonometric drawings, the house is organized around low concrete walls that extend from the main entrance forecourt, though the house, then out through the rear garden to the freestanding studio pavilion. Highlighted in red in both drawings are a sequence of custom wooden walls and doors aligned in plan and set at right angles to the through-walls, imparting a sense of rhythm and a warming note to the sequence of spaces.

There is a diagonal dynamic to the Great Room, with garden views, pool and afternoon light all beckoning from the southwest. This is a multi-functional room that combines living space with moveable furniture permitting formal dining (the house has no dedicated dining room) or a meeting space for Donna Bryant’s high-level volunteer work.

This key space is dominated by two vertical elements: a steel column covered with the silk-screened names of all who worked on the project extending down into the showpiece garage below, and a steel stair with cherrywood treads and landings hung off one of the concrete through-walls.

As with the wood wall/concrete wall dyad animating the plan, the house’s section and elevation are also composed around a dynamic interplay of disparate elements. From the southwest, the house is a rather standard West Coaster, with horizontal cedar siding and the master bedroom corner deck framing the Great Room’s openable window-wall. Views from the northeast and approaching the front door are very different, with the West Coast box forms nestled into the finely proportioned and detailed (by Alan Boniface) extended concrete walls, and a maternal angled north wall, with its supporting segmented parallam columns much in evidence on the inside.

The house’s double dyad strategy (concrete through-walls versus the six aligned wooden walls, free-form parallam-beamed north wall counterpoised over the box-like West Coast main house pavilion) has the advantage of animating nearly every space, its material differences as evident as its spatial interconnections. The disadvantage of these formal strategies is a certain restlessness in the house, a kind of promotional zeal that only finds relief in the sanctum sanctorum of Bob Bryant’s smoking room at mid-plan on the garage level.

1 In their entirety, these requirements consisted of the Bryants’ request for a modern house with some use of concrete having “lots of natural light, an open plan with seamless integration of outside and inside, several ‘signature’ architectural elements, and a dramatic staircase, entry hall and fireplace.”

Vancouver architecture critic Trevor Boddy is convening a global gathering of architectural and urban writers for A Dialogue of Cities from June 1-3, 2006, which he is curating for UBC’s Museum of Anthropology.

Client Bob and Donna Bryant

Architect Team Alan Boniface, Bruce Haden, Andrew Larigakis

Landscape Paul Sangha Ltd.

Structural Equilibrium Consulting Inc.

Formwork and Concrete Van Construction and Sutherland Concrete

Steel Eagle Iron

Glass and Glazing Glastech

Millwork Intempo Interiors, Boelling Smith Design

Front Doors Kurt Sander

Area 5,717 Ft2

Budget $2 Million

Completion September 2004

The following three paragraphs are excerpts from Bruce Haden’s response to his client. Note the strategic use of budgets and explanation of program requirements used by the architect.

Approach to Design

* A variety of spaces can enhance one another through contrast, and promote both a sense of intimacy and a sense of exuberance. The Great Room would want to be voluminous, but some of the smaller spaces may be specific to an individual’s needs, and more quirky. For example, we can imagine a smoking room for Bob that has the qualities of a hidden retreat, with an architectural language distinct from the rest of the house.

* At least one major aspect of the house should be strikingly original. A stair perhaps, or an interior bridge. But a house that is full of elements shouting for attention would not work. We imagine subtlety coexisting with the stunning.

Design Features and Costs

* With respect to your desire for concrete design, there are a number of things to keep in mind. Typically, the concrete component of a house runs from $50-60/ft2. Exposed areas of concrete requiring a finer finish are normally about $10/ft2 more. Conventional wood frame construction costs approximately $10-12/ft2. Given the substantial cost difference, one needs to consider carefully which walls are to be concrete and which can be built in a more conventional way.

* It is also important to remember that, at a detail level, modern houses are usually more expensive to build than traditional ones. The reason
lies primarily in the methods of detailing and the labour costs associated with them.

Scope of Work/Fees

* In courageous creative endeavours, a willingness to trust the contributions of all is important. Creative conflict amongst passionate people is common, and should be seen as the chance to create something better than any individual would have done.

* The form of building contract can have significant cost implications. The least expensive way to build, in our experience, is to put the whole project out to competitive tendering using some form of Stipulated Sum Contract. With the advantages in cost come other disadvantages, including an often somewhat adversarial relationship with the builder (the low bidder) as he attempts to claw back profits through extras.