Designers at Home—Michael Green
Vancouver architect Michael Green creates a home that’s made for the modern family.
Just because he loved it didn’t mean there wouldn’t be problems. The low upstairs roofline meant the six-foot-two Green could only stand upright in the middle of his bedroom (and not at all in the adjoining bathroom). A dormer addition for the bathroom became Green’s first project—one he built himself, in part due to budget constraints, but also to use his own home as a learning laboratory. “I don’t think there’s any point in your career when you should stop making things,” he says. “I think, as a designer, if you don’t make things with your own hands, you’re at a deficit.”
At the same time he was working on the dormer, a heritage home down the street was razed. Green spotted beautiful old beams that were headed for the landfill, and so he grabbed his (now recovered) Honda Civic. “It was like The Beachcombers,” he laughs. “I dragged them down the road with a chain on the back of the car.” The beams became frames for windows that he designed for the dormer, as well as a step leading into the new bathtub.
Five years later, Green partnered with Steve McFarlane to launch a new firm, MG Architecture. For the first year, their head office was his own backyard, thanks to a studio Green designed—one that won the firm its first Lieutenant-Governor award. The studio allowed him to stay close to home and, despite his long hours, spend more time with his kids. (His son Makalu was just two, his daughter Elsa a newborn.) “I thought it would be four people in the studio forever, and we would be doing garage additions,” says Green. “But within no time we were designing Chicago’s third airport, the biggest airport in the world, and getting these amazing commissions.” Soon, Green’s team was no longer able fit in the studio (in fact, six people were already working in the main house).When architect Michael Green first moved to Vancouver 16 years ago, he had a lot of time on his hands. He’d left his position with César Pelli’s architecture firm in Connecticut, and when he first arrived, he had little to do to pass the time except walk around the North Shore. “Our house was broken into right before Christmas, and two days later they stole our car,” he says. “I’m stranded in North Vancouver without a job, they stole my computer that had my resumé on it, and it was raining. It was a little depressing.” But those long walks eventually led Green to stumble onto a neighbourhood, and a house, that he loved. Coming from Connecticut, where homes were 150 years old, solidly built and full of architectural character, he was drawn to the 1926 home with solid bones and the potential to be the family place he’d wanted. “It became, over 16 years, this constant work of love.”
Back at the house, Green started knocking down walls and opening up spaces, making it easier to be with the kids while he cooks in the kitchen (itself a renovation, with Ikea cabinets paired with custom fronts). After he and Makalu travelled to Japan, they decided to build a koi pond in the backyard—its careful construction features straight walls and a hiding place under the deck to protect the fish from predators. His regular travels became a part of how the home itself evolved. “I built the mudroom because I realized I could go back to the adventurous life I loved: taking the kids out on huge kayaking and hiking and biking adventures.” A chalkboard “trip board” hangs on one wall in the mudroom, listing what each kid is doing next with dad.
In early 2012 Green left his old company and created Michael Green Architecture, now a bustling firm with more than 20 staff—still too much for the backyard studio, which he now uses to write children’s books. (He’s just finished Alpenglow for Vancouver’s Ronald McDonald House, the latter one of his latest projects.) Storytelling, says Green, is his ultimate goal in the work he does—whether it’s on the page or in his architectural designs. “That connection from story to building is in everything we do at my practice,” says Green. “My house is a story that I tell my kids.” The dining room table, for example, is one he built 20 years ago, long before he had his children. “But one of the most important things to me was that the underside of the table would have the most beautiful details,” he explains. “I remember as a child lying on my back under the furniture and staring up. Anything I build, I want my kids to see the quality, whether anyone else sees it or not. Your house becomes this storytelling opportunity, about who you are and who you want your kids to be.”
How would you describe your personal style?
Simplicity. Mother Nature is my design role model—I applied to her studio in college and still drop in any chance I get. I love the idea that nature never wastes. To me, beauty is found in things with meaning: the natural world evolves to find efficiency, endurance and purpose. Of course, if we’re talking personal clothing or hairstyle, it’s somewhere between lumberjack and high-school kid heading out on a first date. Not so good.
Name an up-and-coming design trend you’re most excited about.
Naturally my answer is wood and other rapidly renewable materials: hemp, bamboo, wheat, algae, walnuts, ostrich feathers. I also like the sun. I think design is ready to really understand what the sun is up to by moving to passive solutions to energy usage.
What are the key ingredients for your perfect night in?
Dancing with my kids, cooking with my kids, games with my kids, movies with my kids, and my dog at my feet the whole time. The key ingredient is being present with the people we love.
What’s your favourite piece in the house?
Tough call. The light above the dining room table was inspired by a book I wrote for my son. I love it. I have a large, century-old toy train from my grandparents and a U.S. post office wall with mail cubbies. Can I say my 1986 Land Rover Defender that runs on bio diesel? Is that a piece from my house? It feels like it. It represents adventure. There are many things in my house that represent adventure; I live for it.
What’s one design trick you often come back to?
I’m an Ikea fan. But I like to trim, finish or somehow change the standard Ikea into something unique. Their kitchens are solid and use much of the same hardware as higher-end brands that frankly I can’t quite afford.
What three things are always in your fridge?
Maple syrup, olives, rutabaga. (Okay, not really rutabaga. I just like saying the word.)
What are three of your favourite design stores in Vancouver?
Molo. (Whatever Todd and Stephanie do, I like.) 18 Karat. (I have a vase and flower addiction.) Inform. (A Vancouver icon—the furniture is modern and diverse and, more importantly, they support design and have great design books.)
What do you like most about living and working in the West?
Freedom. Our design community is open and accepting. We embrace modernism and can do it without always wearing black. I fundamentally live here for the wilderness. We are some of the luckiest people on earth.