Wolfe At The Door

PROJECT Wolfe Avenue Residence
ARCHITECT Measured. Architecture. Inc.
TEXT Leslie Jen
PHOTOS Martin Tessler

It is every architect’s dream to build his own house, an endeavour usually fraught with the earnest gravitas of ideological convictions acquired during the course of an intensive architectural education and the years of practice that follow. This most personal building project is the ultimate reward for unwavering dedication to a sometimes thankless profession.

For Clinton Cuddington, principal of Measured. Architecture Inc., this is certainly the case. In his words, the design of his family home represented an “exorcism” of sorts, a freedom from the dictates of others. In the role of both client and designer, he could finally design exactly what he wanted, how he wanted, completely unfettered. Yet he is unequivocal about the great respect he holds for the mentors who have played an important part in his life trajectory thus far: from celebrated Prairie Modern architect Clifford Wiens–the father of a childhood friend who inspired Cuddington to pursue architecture as a career, to his former long-term employer Bing Thom, he acknowledges their influence and the valuable lessons he has learned from them.

This project is extraordinary for a number of reasons. Budget constraints that many architects must contend with were virtually absent here. Family circumstances enabled him to dream–and design–big. Backed by his father-in-law, this single-family home on Wolfe Avenue in Vancouver’s tony Shaughnessy neighbourhood was originally intended as a development project. But Cuddington and his wife Monica Berdin, who is trained as an interior designer, nonetheless conceived of the house with themselves and their two young children as the clients, in order to achieve in this project a sincere manifestation of their Modernist design ideals.

Though not unanticipated, the process of designing and building this house was burdened with an arduous approvals process, given the general conservatism of the neighbourhood community. Cuddington initially encountered a great deal of resistance from the First Shaughnessy Advisory Design Panel (FSADP), but buoyed by a sense of optimism and perhaps even navet, persevered, exercising due diligence in thoroughly mapping and researching the history of the neighbourhood in order to distill its essential character–which he hoped to interpret in a contemporary format. In his tenacity, Cuddington solicited support from neighbours and even went so far as to enlist the aid of the venerable Abraham Rogatnick, professor emeritus of architecture at the University of British Columbia and author, years ago, of the original First Shaughnessy Design Guidelines. Rogatnick wrote a letter of support, eloquently enumerating the ways in which the young architect’s contemporary design contributes to the positive and harmonious evolution of this century-old historic neighbourhood characterized by traditional Tudor details such as gabled roofs and deep eaves. Thus armed with a stack of meticulously prepared documents, Cuddington eventually won over the FSADP and the City of Vancouver, and successfully advanced to the development permit stage.

Replacing an unremarkable postwar house on the site, the new house acknowledges its predecessor by retaining the existing four-foot-high stone retaining wall that runs along Wolfe Avenue, an easily recognizable element that gives coherence to the neighbourhood. Cuddington takes this one step further via the split-face granite wall that runs through the house, forming the primary ordering device or spine which separates the house into two ever-so-slightly splayed volumes. The wall penetrates the house from the front entry sequence right through to the back garden, its rough tactility offering a pleasing contrast to the smooth and refined interior surfaces.

The process of building held some unexpected surprises. A master stonemason originally from Osaka was hired for his formidable skills in laying split-face mortarless stone, and he and his team spent an astonishing eight months on site. The team operated in a highly traditional and ritualistic manner: wearing traditional split-toe Tabi shoes and wielding old-world hickory-handled tools, they would work diligently, splitting and laying stones, taking occasional breaks to meditate. Some important lessons in ideology and technique were learned: the Japanese masons compose the spaces between the stones rather than the stones themselves, and they were observed methodically tracing the seams in between with their hands in order to establish the cadence, rhythm and positioning of the split granite. Remarkably, their single-minded focus and dedication set the emotional pitch for the project, causing the other trades to step up their collective game, the result of which is an impeccably crafted house.

A fairly significant slope runs up from the front of the house to the back, and as Wolfe Avenue is a relatively busy thoroughfare, the rear of the house becomes a verdant garden of refuge which enjoys a good amount of sun and all the privacy and peaceful serenity that the front does not. Landscape rooms in the form of patios, terraces and balconies create intermediary zones between interior and exterior space. The involvement of landscape architect Elizabeth Watts helped ensure the preservation of not only the classic Shaughnessy streetscape but the original landscape principles of the neighbourhood as defined by the guidelines.

What is most apparent about the house is its sophisticated sculptural quality. The massing and material contrast create a striking composition of interlocking and overlapping planes and volumes, solids and voids. A credible tripartite order is established from the heavy stone base, the screened wood faade elements in the middle, and the strong horizontal cap provided by the 35-foot cantilevered roof, a thoroughly modern interpretation of the deep eaves characteristic of the neighbourhood. Thanks to subtly executed landscaping, an L-shaped driveway, and a door skillfully positioned perpendicular to the street frontage, the garage is discreetly and cleverly tucked under the main level of the house, virtually invisible from Wolfe Avenue.

Sustainable features were incorporated into the design as a matter of course. A geothermal exchange system with a ground-source heat pump dramatically reduces energy requirements, and the presence of a green roof along with permeable site paving and native landscaping result in less than a 1% increase in stormwater runoff from the site. To reduce the amount of artificial lighting required, ample natural daylight is introduced through strategically placed openings like the central skylight running along the spine of the house. But no vast ill-defined expanses of glazing are present here: instead, subtle manipulations of view are achieved through a sequential ordering of experience through the spaces. From the main-floor dining room, the majestic mountain ridge to the north is just barely glimpsed, which is followed by an explosion of view through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the second-floor reading room. From this space, one can see all the way to Arthur Erickson’s campus for Simon Fraser University in Burnaby.

It has been suggested that this project leans toward the facile: after all, it’s a beautiful house in a beautiful neighbourhood in a beautiful city. But it is an admirable first effort for a young architect out on his own, and more importantly, represents a positive advancement in the evolution of the urban design panel process. This victory over the NIMBY confines of conservatism has an even more interesting twist: what initially could have erupted into a combative and adversarial relationship between architect and neighbourhood advisory panel has in fact been such a positive experience that Cuddington was invited to participate on the panel as a representative of the Architectural Institute of British Colu
mbia. His tenure in this capacity has since expired, but he is deliberating over whether or not to accept an invitation to rejoin the panel as a member at large. CA

Client Berdin/Cuddington Family
Architect Team Clinton Cuddington
Structural Fast + Epp Structural Engineers
Mechanical Yoneda and Associates
Electrical Stantec
Landscape Elizabeth Watts
General Contractor CX Contracting + Construction Ltd.
Landscape Contractor Racchi Landscape and Stonework
Area 5,695 ft2
Budget $3.6 M
Completion January 2008