CA Houses: Back to the Garden

Private Residence, Vancouver, British Columbia
James K.M. Cheng Architect

For some, a house can be a place to entertain, live and display art and artifacts of interest. A Vancouver client commissioned James Cheng to design a concrete house for a family of five inside the University of British Columbia Endowment Lands. The house sits on a site where there is a one-storey difference in grade from the street to the backyard. The many mature trees anchor the home’s position, including a specimen pine in the centre. The composition of the house is elegantly set off with an ingenious reflecting pond lined with black Mexican river rock along the southwest corner of the house. This illusory pond, with its sharply defined edges, takes on the appearance of a sheet of glass. The pond, and the detailing of the building’s connections to the site in general complement the expression of volumes and the expansive use of glazing throughout the home while blurring the boundary between inside and out: a phenomenon that finds precedents in the history of housing on the West Coast.

The residence uses horizontal and vertical layering as an ordering device in its program. The horizontal layering includes bedrooms on the top floor, living and entertaining areas on the ground level, and an office, guest area and exercise room on the lower level. The vertical layering pattern includes a central stair/atrium which splits the house in two, with the kitchen and family functions on one side, and the entertaining and visitor functions on the other. With the combination of large, horizontal extensions in combination with window frames that are set flush with the floors, the spaces created within the residence extend outward in all directions, thus making the home appear more expansive.

From both the front and back elevations, the residence carries a look of domesticity. But upon further examination, the extensive use of concrete makes this residence appear far more luxurious than its volumes had originally conveyed. A key aspect of the home’s success is its articulation of concrete detailing that is used to separate the layers of domesticity. A rigorously detailed central stair made of glass and steel forms a defining ordering principle and offers a delightful counterpoint to the muscular expression of concrete. The steel and glass staircase is designed to connect the various levels of the house and is built over a fishpond. The fishpond reflects light back up through the glass stair, and by extension, the home itself. Referencing a device found in many of Le Corbusier’s villas, Cheng isolates two washrooms inside a vertical, zinc-clad column that offsets the central stair.

The effect of simplicity is manifested as a series of strategies. The concrete was apportioned a high level of craft through the application of paper-faced forms along with ensuring careful vibration as the concrete was being cast. This enabled the exposed finish to be achieved even before the surfaces were honed by hand and then sealed. The use of sandwich insulation throughout the house enabled the concrete ceilings and walls to remain exposed. This technique of construction belies the simplicity of the final expression of concrete throughout. A flooring strategy was devised to include hot water radiant heating on top of the structural slabs and beneath limestone flooring. The limestone flooring is 3/4* thick and typically set flush against the window frames to ensure the minimum amount of mediation of materiality between the interior and exterior spaces. Limestone was chosen for its low maintenance and ability to withstand heavy traffic, despite its application in a residential context.

Some of the many interesting glazing applications include a front door made with panelized glass quartz crystals, a glass shower constructed with twin-sealed glass and held together with structural silicone and finally the use of double-glazed, frameless corner windows. The special corner windows were constructed by Garibaldi Glass and represent one of the first instances of this type of window assembly. The glass shower in the Master Bath is perhaps the most daring of the program elements, allowing the owners to enjoy the perception of showering outdoors while being shielded from the neighbours through the use of evergreens and screens.

It is interesting to note that while the house stands at just over 6,000 square feet, the rawness of its materiality ensures a reduction in the maintenance efforts. The exposed concrete, limestone, wood, zinc and glass are all represented in their natural state, and fastidiously detailed. Even the garage has exposed site-cast concrete and glazing which surpasses the usual treatment of what is generally perceived as a banal domestic space–garages are usually left with the raw aesthetic of unpainted drywall. With an unusually high level of craft in the detailing and composition of a concrete and glass building, James Cheng rose to the client’s challenge and presented an interesting addition to the tradition of housing in Vancouver. By engaging its interior spaces with the outdoors, the residence is neither inhibited, nor unappreciative of its surrounding landscape. IC

Client: name withheld by request

Architect team: James K.M. Cheng, Dominique Dumais, Jim Heinmiller, Marie Linehan, Aimee Lau

Structural: Jones Kwong Kishi Consulting Engineers

Mechanical: Broadway Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Co. Ltd.

Electrical: Arnold Nemetz Associates

Landscape: Phillips Farevaag Smallenberg

Interiors: Robert M. Ledingham Inc.

Contractor: Hickling Construction Co. Ltd.

Area: 6,310 sq. ft.

Budget: withheld by request

Completion: Spring 2003

Photography: Martin Tessler and James K.M. Cheng