Float Planes

PROJECT Gulf Islands Residence, Salt Spring Island, British Columbia
DESIGNERS Rural/Urban/Fantasy Project (RUF)
TEXT Tanya Southcott
PHOTOS Ivan Hunter

When West Vancouver’s City Council approved the demolition of Arthur Erickson’s famed Graham House, the loss of this West Coast Modern gem resonated among the architectural community across the country and beyond. Arguably one of the few times and places in Canadian architectural history revered internationally for its sense of place and unique approach to climate, building materials and lifestyle, the legacy of architectural design in British Columbia from the 1950s and ’60s is increasingly threatened by the expense of upkeep in a strong developer-driven market. Fortunately, a new generation of designers is attempting to address this cultural amnesia head-on through a reinterpretation of the fundamentals of this venerable style. The Gulf Islands Residence, the inaugural project of local design collaborative Rural/Urban/Fantasy Project–or RUF for short–is an elegant example of this continuum.

Just under 100 kilometres across the Strait of Georgia from mainland British Columbia’s lower west coast, Salt Spring Island is the largest of the South Gulf Islands. Accessible from both the mainland and Vancouver Island by float plane and ferry service, its population can easily triple during the summer. The road from Ganges, the largest island village, to this waterfront retreat winds through dense stretches of forest scattered with an eclectic mix of wooden cabins and modern homes until finally opening up onto a moss-covered rocky outcrop sloping gently down to an even rockier shore. Set back from the road, the house appears to float like a glass bridge spanning the rocky crest, framing panoramic views of the Strait and the islands beyond. The strong horizontals of the golden-coloured heavy timber roof hold the gaze low to the ground, identifying immediately the duality of this Modernist object in the landscape–the desire to blend into its natural setting while simultaneously standing out.

Located on a former apple orchard, the Gulf Islands Residence is the second generation of waterfront homes to be built on this three-acre site. When architectural graduate Sean Pearson and landscape architect Alyssa Schwann first set foot on the plot, they found a rotting wood-frame house complete with tennis court, palm trees and a quaint 1911 timber guest cabin. Unsalvageable even with a major renovation, the house quickly came down, but not before Pearson and Schwann temporarily reclaimed the cabin in which to set up their live-work studio as the basis for their RUF partnership for the duration of design and construction.

Both graduates from the University of Manitoba, the two had been working in and around design across Europe for several years. After gaining experience with a number of prestigious architectural firms including London-based Hopkins Architects and Jump Studio, Pearson was working in the Netherlands as Design Director for Nike, developing projects ranging from branding and product work to retail design. Unlike more traditional timelines of architecture and landscape architecture graduates, the two moved quickly from office to office, constantly pushing forward the boundaries of design. Schwann was also busy building a portfolio of internationally acclaimed pieces while working with West 8 in Rotterdam. When the possibility to return to Canada presented itself with the Gulf Islands Residence, the duo seized the opportunity to launch their design collaborative and reconnect with North American industry.

The design brief was loose, allowing RUF the freedom to develop a narrative for the site that drew from a number of contexts. Torn between the idea of a modern villa and a rustic cabin in the woods, the clients believed strongly in making the house “belong” to a particular place, favouring the approach of the West Coast Modernists. The final design was ultimately driven by the flow of spaces, the relationship between interior and exterior, and framing views out to the landscape. The clients wanted a home that would accommodate but not overwhelm two permanent residents, and also comfortably house visiting family and guests throughout the year. At 5,600 square feet, the Gulf Islands Residence is far from a modest country cabin. Yet a large part of the building’s success is the intimate scale of individual spaces and their inherent flexibility. 

The house is clearly divided into two parts. The main floor, a transparent glass box framed by timber wings, contains the traditional elements of the home in one continuous space. Kitchen, living room and study soar over the landscape, inviting sweeping views as the backdrop to domestic activities. The master suite is less permeable, framed by oak-clad walls that create a sense of privacy directing views to the boathouse and shoreline and away from the adjacent property. Built-in furniture and sliding walls throughout the building bring spatial definition and a sense of enclosure to individual spaces. The dining room walls slide away to connect the room to the rest of the house, but can also close to create an intimate space for entertaining. Sliding glass walls in the kitchen and master bedroom open onto outdoor terraces, creating a seamless transition between interior and exterior space.

In contrast to the transparency of the upper level, the lower floor is submerged into the site and clad in custom-cut limestone pavers to look like a man-made version of the natural topography. Built on the foundations of the original house, this guest wing is the most private part of the home and features a series of modest, trapezoid-shaped rooms staggered in a sawtooth plan to frame views out towards the shore.

The house showcases an honesty of materials and elegant simplicity in their detailing that marries both design and craft. Minimal interior finishes feature inexpensive, local materials detailed in very precise ways. Walls and ceiling are predominantly finished in wood that was hand-selected for its colour and cut, and detailed according to the direction of the grain and inherent patterning. At 10 feet and higher, the golden hemlock ceiling sets a continuous datum throughout the house, while subtle variations of the wall treatment are tailored to individual spaces. Large panels of oak are used in public spaces, and thin verticals of fir bring texture and scale to the private bedrooms. 

Having the right crew was paramount to the success of the project. Pearson and Schwann quickly realized the advantage of working with a local contractor who was committed to their vision when they were first introduced to H. Hazenboom Construction by their client. A resident of Salt Spring Island for over 40 years, Hazenboom had built a reputation on the careful and meticulous craftsmanship necessary in realizing the simplicity and elegance of RUF’s detailing. With few exceptions, crews were selected locally which proved an asset in choosing materials that would be accessible from the site. Sourced from mainland British Columbia, the yellow cedar glulam roof beams were designed to within a quarter-inch tolerance of 108 feet–BC Ferries’ maximum allowable length under special permit–and navigated by logging truck along the narrow meandering island roads. Like the beams, the bulk of the materials were designed as components, manufactured elsewhere and assembled on site where they had to be sized by hand to fit together seamlessly.

After two years of construction, the Gulf Islands Residence was finally completed in the fall of 2011. While Schwann has moved on to found Atelier Anonymous, Pearson maintains a small core team that swells and shrinks as the workload demands, absorbing freelance designers and specialty consultants as projects necessitate specific skills and focus. Now located in a c
onverted warehouse in East Vancouver, Rural/Urban/Fantasy has turned the spirit of collaboration that fuelled the design and construction of the Gulf Islands Residence into the core of its business model. CA

Tanya Southcott is a Vancouver-based architect.

Client Withheld
Design Team Sean Pearson, Alyssa Schwann
Structural Parallel Consulting Structural Engineers Ltd.
Mechanical Jade West Engineering Co. Ltd.
Geotechnical Braun Geotechnical Ltd.
Contractor H. Hazenboom Construction Ltd.
Building envelope Richard Kadulski, Architect
Area 5,600 ft2
Budget Withheld
Completion August 2011