Far And Away

PROJECT Mayne Island House, Gulf Islands, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Matthew Woodruff
TEXT Adele Weder
PHOTOS Matthew Woodruff

The project statement, as written by the architect, sounds almost defiant: “This is a project with a normal program, a normal budget, and a normal site for a normal family.” Malleable as the concept may be, the emphasis on “normalcy” is not accidental. While this weekend house off the British Columbia coast has been variously categorized as “low-cost,” “sustainable” or “site-specific,” architect Matthew Woodruff himself is the first to dismiss any prima facie categorization. Environmentalism and economy are the natural result of a design that embraces logic and simplicity.

After an eight-year tenure at Bing Thom Architects (BTA), Woodruff and BTA colleague Clinton Cuddington left the firm to establish Measured Architecture, at which time they designed and built the house on Mayne Island, about a two-hour ferry ride from the Vancouver area. Woodruff has recently left Measured to head up a solo practice, but declines to elaborate on his departure beyond his wish to pursue a “different direction.” It’s easy to sense what the difference might involve when one compares Woodruff’s Mayne Island House next to Cuddington’s Shaughnessy House (see page 32)–a highly refined and luxuriously clad Modernist mansion designed to be his erstwhile partner’s main residence. Woodruff’s much smaller and more rustic weekend home on Mayne Island embodies a mere two bedrooms and 1,100 square feet.

The Mayne Island house resurrects the original West Coast Modernist principles, which are nominally applied to huge, high-budget homes in the Vancouver area but in reality, are now half-forgotten. These principles include taking advantage of local climate and geography resulting in poetically framed views of the surroundings; naturally lit interiors; and a compact, open plan that was just large enough for the needs of the occupants. That was 50 years ago and long before our collective obsession with the now largely meaningless term “green” architecture.

These original “West Coast” principles usually translated into extensively glazed front faades that brought in panoramic ocean views. In post-millennium southern British Columbia, however, ocean-view lots for less than a million bucks are virtually extinct. These days, the viable alternative for adventurous architects is the richly foliaged lots of the nearby Gulf Islands–just the sort of site on which Woodruff and many of his peers are now building. Instead of the proverbial vista of water, the sight lines of the Mayne Island house are geared solely to the sky and vegetation where a panoply of coniferous treetops runs along the base of the front clerestory window; an artfully straggly pair of apple trees stands in as a sculpture garden visible through the rear double-leaf door. In summer, the shadows generated outside and inside animate the main space, in line with Woodruff’s consideration of architecture as a “receiver of ephemeral experience,” as he terms it.

The Mayne Island house is defined by simple, strong gestures: heavy timber framing, knife-plate connections, dark cedar cladding outside, white drywall inside, identical factory-issue doors. In fact, there are no conventional windows. The plan itself is largely predicated on climate control: its fenestration pattern allows cooling cross-breezes in high summer, warmth on its south-end living/dining/kitchen area, and natural daylighting, through the glazed doors and clerestory, from dawn to dusk. Despite the Gulf Islands’ searingly hot summers, there is no air-conditioning unit in the house, and the only heating system is a small wood stove. “We have become so machine-obsessed, and it’s totally unnecessary,” asserts Woodruff. On the day of my site visit–a bracingly cold March day–the streaming sun gently warmed and illuminated the entire living/dining area. Aided by the heat-absorbing qualities of the cedar cladding’s black stain, this is natural, off-the-grid climate control. To bring daylighting all the way into the central core, though, the interior walls are also glazed at the top, so no walls extend all the way to the ceiling. This presented its own structural challenges, as the interior-spanning beams had to be extensively reinforced with metal plates in deference to the house’s location in an earthquake zone. The spanning beams meet roughly and imperfectly, so as to not always align or sit flush with intersecting elements. The walls meet the floor with ordinary baseboards instead of reveals. This roughness of detailing is a result of pragmatics, allows Woodruff. But the gestural nature of its articulation brings the Mayne Island house truer to the original ideals of West Coast Modernism. Woodruff argues for a deferential architecture based on a practical understanding and execution of technique. In the waning days of an era ruled by intellectual and aesthetic fashion, how apropos that we return to time-honoured solutions. CA

Adele Weder is an architectural critic and curator based in British Columbia.

Client Matthew Woodruff/Claudia Schulenburg
Architect Team Matthew Woodruff, Claudia Schulenburg
Structural Jones Kwong Kishi Consulting Engineers
Contractor Owner-built
Area 1,100 ft2
Budget $200,000
Completion Summer 2007