CA Houses

Siple House/Croydon Project, North Vancouver, British Columbia
Acton Ostry Architects

Partially paralyzed as the result of an accident, Vancouver filmmaker Murray Siple now pursues his art from a wheelchair. He says that while most people with his level of injury need about four hours of outside help every day, in this house he manages with someone doing errands once or twice a week.

For many who suffer a life-altering disability, it is not so much the fundamental adaptation to new circumstances that proves most frustrating, but rather the struggle to master the minutiae of daily life. Murray Siple has been assisted in this effort by the meticulous work of Acton Ostry Architects, who have crafted a uniquely supportive environment in which he can now live and work with almost complete independence.

Unprepossessing though it may have been from the outside, but from the perspective of a wheelchair, a 1950s spec-built rancher on a wooded lot in North Vancouver seemed the ideal point of departure for this endeavor. Many of the adaptations that were required have been woven seamlessly into the architecture. The result is a unified and coherent composition that has none of the institutional overtones commonly associated with universal design.

Located on a triangular lot overlooking a creek at the end of a cul-de-sac, the house’s L-shaped plan embraces a distant view of the city and ocean. The basic organization of the house remains unchanged with one wing containing bedrooms and bathrooms, the other an open plan living, dining and kitchen area. To this have been added a double garage, entrance foyer and utility room at the junction of the two wings, and a studio which encloses a former covered cabana area beyond the living room.

The approach from the street is dominated by the double garage, its prominence an unavoidable consequence of the tight site geometry. The bold use of colour helps to break down its mass, with garage doors finished in rich red, face-fixed mahogany panels, and warm yellow on the clear finished Douglas fir fascia and canopy. Vertical channel siding, chosen to match the original, is painted black to provide a neutral background that accentuates a simple but effective vocabulary of architectural details.

This vocabulary is developed from the robust and unselfconscious character of the original structure, with its planar surfaces, punched openings and horizontal wood-frame canopies. Undoubtedly built from a plan book, the existing house did little to respond to its site except for its primary orientation to the south with picture windows framing the distant ocean view. Otherwise, it was poorly lit, and what windows it had seemed arbitrary in their placement. As a result many new windows were added, most having deep projecting box-like frames that bring relief to the long elevations, and delineate views in a way that is both client- and site-specific.

The interior uses the same architectural devices to order space and create a consistent architectural character. In the living room, a portion of the drywall ceiling is peeled back to reveal the roof joists. With the timbers clear-finished to match the exterior Douglas fir canopies, the device defines the central seating area. The same effect is replicated at a smaller scale with framing timbers used to create baffles that modulate the light from an existing skylight in the entrance hall.

A series of horizontal windows forms an almost continuous clerestorey along the corridor of the bedroom wing, offering a view of mountain tops and sky from the vantage point of a wheelchair. In the living room, a horizontal box-frame window at floor level focuses attention on the ferns that grow along the north side of the building. In the northwest corner of the living room, a glass-enclosed nook is pushed out almost into the adjacent trees, and overlooks the ravine that borders the property.

The horizontal lines of the window frames are echoed in the projecting baseboard detail, and in a series of millwork elements that runs along the wall at wheelchair height. These surfaces allow Siple, who has only limited use of his hands, to push rather than carry things from place to place within an activity area or to perform tasks such as collecting and opening mail, or putting on his wristwatch. These and other details, such as the placement of pull handles low on every door, are the result of a visual and verbal dialogue between client and architect. Throughout the design process, Siple would respond to Acton’s plan and elevation drawings with perspective sketches of his own, that depicted in detail the placements and relationships that would make performance of particular tasks and manoeuvers possible for him.

Consequently, the kitchen and laundry appliances are all installed at a height that facilitates loading and unloading from the wheelchair. Kitchen counters are lowered and in places recessed to provide better access to small appliances or faucets. Storage cupboards that roll out like drawers and can be accessed from the side enable Siple to utilize their full depth.

To carry items from one part of the house to another, Siple uses a small board that he places on his lap while propelling his wheelchair. To minimize the risk of dropping or spilling, this requires that all floor surfaces within the house be smooth and level. Cherry wood flooring is used throughout for ease of movement, with squares of carpet sunk into mat wells where better traction is required. These areas include the entrance hall, where Siple can spin his chair to dry the wheels on rainy days, and in the living room where he needs to transfer from his chair to the sofa. The carpet in this latter area corresponds to exposed rafters of the ceiling above, further reinforcing the spatial delineation.

At the new extra wide patio doors (in fact a commercial storefront system) the threshold has been designed to be completely flush. The concrete patio is finished level with the interior floor, and issues of weatherproofing addressed with a water bar detail and the substantial overhang of the patio roof. A continuous apron of concrete paths and patios will ultimately allow Siple to circumnavigate the exterior of the house.

For Murray Siple, recovery has been a six-year struggle, but finally, through an intimate dialogue with architecture, much of what he used to take for granted is once again within his grasp.

Client: Murray Siple

Architect team: Russell Acton, Javier Campos, Mark Ostry

Structural: Fast + Epp

Mechanical: R & B Plumbing & Heating

Electrical: Eurotech Communication and Electrical

Area: 3,570 sq. ft. (includes garage)

Budget: withheld

Completion: January 2004

Photography: Ivan Hunter Photography

Jim Taggart is a Contributing Editor at Canadian Architect. See the making of the Croydon Project at www.murraysiple.com

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