Canadian Architect

Feature

Down by the Water

Gambier Island House, commenced by McFarlane Green Biggar and completed by successor firm Office of McFarlane Biggar (OMB), is located in Brigade Bay on the remote eastern edge of Gambier Island.

April 1, 2015
by Courtney Healey

gambier island house

Perched on a cliff edge, the house was constructed with minimal disturbance to the rock below.

PROJECT Gambier Island House, Gambier Island, British Columbia
ARCHITECT Project commenced by McFarlane Green Biggar Architecture + Design; completed by Office of McFarlane Biggar Architects + Designers
TEXT Courtney Healey
PHOTOS Jean Philippe Delage

As long as there have been cities there has been the desire to escape them—to get away from it all. Nowhere does this escape beckon so insistently than Vancouver, where mountains and ocean form the backdrop to daily urban life. And perhaps no destination offers up remote seclusion in such close proximity to the city than Gambier Island, the largest of the Gulf Islands. On a clear day, it can be reached by boat in less than 45 minutes from downtown.

Despite its immediacy, Gambier remains sparsely populated, wildly forested, and largely unserviced. To build on Gambier presents a unique set of challenges: materials must be brought in on a barge, construction takes place only in summer months. Building a house often happens over several seasons, which can make it difficult to achieve a consistently high level of craftsmanship. But surmounting these practical challenges offers the reward of inhabiting that rarefied space between cliff face and water’s edge.

The family enjoys an expansive view of ocean, forest and mountain from their island retreat.

The family enjoys an expansive view of ocean, forest and mountain from their island retreat.

Gambier Island House, commenced by McFarlane Green Biggar and completed by successor firm Office of McFarlane Biggar (OMB), is located in Brigade Bay on the remote eastern edge of the island. After a short journey over the choppy waves of Howe Sound, the house reveals itself first from the water. Large rectangular panes of glass are held between thin bands of white steel and reflect the surrounding landscape. On first glance, the house bears an uncanny resemblance to the Farnsworth House, that seminal example of the International Style. The house might be more accurately described as a pair of Farnsworths stacked perpendicularly on top of one another. Rather than hovering above a flat open meadow, the assemblage cantilevers from the side of a boulder and steps down toward the water. In this moment, the Gambier Island House simultaneously evokes that other icon of early North American Modernism, Fallingwater. OMB overwrites these references with concerns for site specificity and regional context, placing the Gambier Island House squarely within a long tradition of West Coast Modern architecture.

Approaching overland from the neighbourhood dock, the house presents a decidedly different face and sheds some of its High Modern associations. A slim grey bar of fibre-cement panel and ribbon window emerges downslope from the gravel access road. Wide wooden steps terrace down to a glazed front door that gives a glimpse through the house to the water. This narrow view is held between rough bevelled cedar on one side and stone tile on the other, perhaps a nod to the forest and the moss-covered hillside that bookend the elevation. The ubiquitous reg-ional landscape of water, forest and mountains is symbolized in the interior and exterior materiality, where glass, wood and stone are employed throughout in long homogeneous planes. Full-height windows float between smooth cedar floors and ceilings; large-scale grey-green tile and flat white surfaces wrap the stair and walls.

The living area offers generous views of the breathtaking natural landscape.

The living area offers generous views of the breathtaking natural landscape.

The 1,700-square-foot house is positioned as close to the water as possible, leaving the majority of the narrow 7.4-acre site densely forested. The house presses itself into an imaginary corner created by two intersecting setback lines: the 50-metre-high tide setback to the east and a 9-metre setback from a protected watershed to the north. Once the location was decided, OMB made short work of the simple domestic cabin program. Kitchen, living area and a small office comprise the first level with bedrooms, bathroom and a large terrace on the second. The plan is logical and efficient; it lays out a series of modestly sized spaces that balance outward views with internal family-focused living. The provision of open and enclosed spaces gives the clients, a professional couple with two small children, space for both the togetherness and alone time they need.

Upper-level rooms are tucked along the back of the house, giving over the view to a wide corridor that opens onto a large sunny terrace overlooking the water. The choice to use a mix of single and double glazing (given the mild climate and the cabin’s seasonal use) recalls the dematerializing effect found in many Mid-Century Modern houses, where large panes of glass promise an unmediated relationship to the outdoors. Full-height operable windows and sliding doors throughout allow for plenty of natural ventilation and intimate views into the surrounding landscape.

The master bedroom catilevers out over the entryway, while floor-to-ceiling windows and glass guards allow for unobstructed views.

The master bedroom catilevers out over the entryway, while floor-to-ceiling windows and glass guards allow for unobstructed views.

The early decision to minimize blasting and concrete footings, mixed with a desire for water views, means that the house retains a tenuous relationship to the natural ground. Cantilevered floor plates project into the sky and tree canopy, while disembarking at the base of the exterior stair feels like taking that tentative first step off a jet bridge or gangway onto firm dry land. There is just time to regain one’s footing before alighting on the next flight of stairs, down to a private inlet beach strewn with log debris let loose from passing booms. The view on the ascent from the beach is of the house’s undercarriage, a rugged blasted rockscape intended for future kayak storage.

View of forest and ground are framed in the two-storey stairway, while white walls capture the flicker of sunlight through the foliage.

View of forest and ground are framed in the two-storey stairway, while white walls capture the flicker of sunlight through the foliage.

OMB is not generally known for its residential work, but has been widely recognized for award-winning civic and institutional projects, commercial interiors and airports. While an airport and a cabin may seem like strange bedfellows, it is possible to trace similarities through the office’s attention to site, solar orientation, passive design strategies and the blend of modern forms and regional materials. The Gambier Island House fulfills the modern desire for escape, and by offering its own take on Modernist traditions, displays a timeless quality. What could be more modern, ultimately, than staking out a sliver of wilderness to establish a new ground for contemporary domestic bliss?

Courtney Healey is the Director of Lodge Think Tank and an intern architect at PUBLIC in Vancouver.

Client Withheld | Architect Team Steve McFarlane, Michelle Biggar, Josie Grant, Michael Green, Tomas Machnikoski, Daniel Marcotte, Lydia Robinson | Structural Equilibrium Consulting Inc. | Interiors Office of McFarlane Biggar | Contractor Westcoast Turnkey + Somerset Homes | Area 1,700 m2 | Budget Withheld | Completion Summer 2013


gambier island house
Perched on a cliff edge, the house was constructed with minimal disturbance to the rock below.