Inside a Vibrant, Dramatic West Vancouver Home
This McLeod Bovell project embraces hard-working materials—and colour.
Heading up an undulating, roller coaster-like strip of road deep in West Vancouver, there’s a sudden flash of watermelon red. It emerges from a rectangular section of a modern house’s facade like a paragraph of boldface text or a cut-out shape in a John Baldessari collage. In the foreground, the red trunks and branches of several young Japanese maples disappear against the backdrop, their bright yellow foliage seemingly suspended in mid-air.
Such pure, unabashed colour isn’t typical of West Coast modernist architecture. But here it’s cleverly employed by Matt McLeod and Lisa Bovell of McLeod Bovell Modern Homes to address the homeowners’ desire for a vibrant, lively space and to highlight the structural form and materiality of the building itself. “There’s a shipping container-box language to this house,” says Bovell of its exterior layers of concrete, wood, grey Swisspearl and red aluminum. “That red is a colour reminiscent of those containers and became a recurring element throughout the house.”
The homeowners, a couple with three grown children, had lived in North Vancouver for 22 years before venturing west in search of views and an aesthetic departure from their serially renovated, family-friendly 1950s rancher. Eyeing retirement, they also sought flat-level living: a place with the ease of a condo but the benefit of private grounds. “They prioritized a really inviting outdoor space,” says Bovell. “Not in a glen of trees, as their previous house was, but something high out of the ground.”
Critically, the house didn’t need to include the multiple living spaces, bathrooms and storage dictated by modern family life. “We wanted something that was really just for us,” says one of the couple. By not using up the entire allowable building size permitted on the 8,400-square-foot lot, the designers were able to create one large floor plate that maximized volume over two storeys instead of three. The couple’s day-to-day living happens on the upper level; space for visiting children and guests is on the lower level. Under-building also made it easier to deal with the challenges of the site itself: not only does the land slope southward from the street level, but it also features a steep cross-slope pitch from east to west.
To counter that, the structure takes the form of an L shape, with a cantilevered section acting as a privacy screen to the neighbour on the high western side, and the upper and lower floors are stacked on the east-west orientation. Consequentially, the area’s prized western views of endless water and sky are edited out, replaced with vistas of the south and east. “It’s a view no one thinks of,” says McLeod. “And it’s just as engaging.” Burrard Inlet is still in sight, but so are cascading mountains covered in coniferous trees, tiers of houses, the graceful arc of the Lions Gate Bridge, and the glass-tower forests of downtown Vancouver and Burnaby beyond. Farther still, Mount Baker looms. On clear mornings, say the homeowners, the sunrise makes the mountain’s dramatic peak appear to glow from within, a piece of resin resting on the horizon.
“There was an effort at simplifying,” says Bovell. “Putting the dining room at the front corner where the walls open up meant we didn’t have to duplicate a dining room outside. The linear firebox has the same idea, continuing from the outside and running all the way in.” Adds McLeod: “As you stand in the dining area looking out, there’s a point of confusion. Where were the walls?”
Material finishes were similarly selected with that interior-exterior continuity in mind. The exterior fencing, the recessed conversation pit and the soffit above it all use accoya wood, chosen for its tonal similarity to the European oak installed in the interior millwork and the elevated living area. In the master bathroom, two walls of dark, shimmering mosaic tiles were carefully matched to the tiles used in the pool tucked beneath the cantilever directly below. And anchoring the entire upper floor is large-format basalt tile that is strong enough to withstand both winter rain and long dinner parties alike. “We are always trying to find materials that have that transitional quality,” says Bovell. “They’re not easy to find, but we gravitate toward them.”
Rigorous though the design may be, it’s not austere. Colour finds its way in via bold, large-scale paintings and back-painted glass walls (chartreuse in the laundry room, watermelon red in the powder room). Down a floating staircase to the backyard, more colour, this time in the form of a fruit and vegetable garden, a putting green, and hedging rubbed bare in sections by the couple’s pair of mild-mannered, flat-coated retrievers. And, grounding it all, that dramatic pool, its dark surface reflecting off the cladding above and mirroring its shipping container–box form. A design vision and life in full.