Photos: Modern Design Meets Natural Beauty in an Island Retreat
A home on Bowen Island captures forest and ocean views—and the happiness of its residents within.
For this Vancouver couple, a passion for modern architecture was only part of the equation when setting out to build their perfect vacation home. They always knew it would follow the dictates of contemporary form and function, but deciding where it would be or whom they’d hire were secondary concerns. For them, it was first and foremost about finding a place where their daughter felt happy.
“Our youngest daughter is autistic and so we wanted to bring her wherever we were going to end up to see if she liked it,” says the homeowner. The couple set their sights on a 10-acre waterfront lot on Bowen Island (“We love island life but wanted ease of access for a quick day trip”) and promptly brought their daughter over on the ferry. “She loved it—she felt so at ease and so happy; it was the stamp of approval,” says the homeowner. “It was at this moment that we knew it was right and comfortable.”
Hiring an architect fell quickly into place: a friend of theirs had worked with Frits de Vries, and “It just felt right when we met their team,” says the homeowner. “We didn’t interview any other architects.” Along with setting out the practical considerations for the home—two bedrooms for their two children, guest quarters—the couple wanted the design of the home to hinge on an overall feeling of light, a place where they could feel like they’d escaped from the city and had firmly arrived on an island. “We didn’t want some manor home with an imposing presence,” says the homeowner. “Nothing big and bulky, but something light that could flow naturally and take advantage of the beautiful topography.”
That topography would turn out to be the guiding principle behind the design. “The first idea of the house had to come from nine acres of forest and one acre of waterfront,” says Patrick Warren, lead associate at Frits de Vries Architect. “Waterfront houses often tend to forget everything behind them—they stare out at the ocean. It was important for this house not to turn its back on what was behind it.” The structure would act as a bridge between the two competing outdoor experiences, so it needed to offer vantages of both sides. Instead of one big monolithic weekend house sheathed in glass, a collection of smaller houses or small cottages “scattered” across the landscape was conceived as a way to transition the experience and frame the beauty.
There’s no architectural vernacular to pigeonhole the home’s design—from different vantages, it could easily echo a beach shack, a traditional Cape Cod cottage or even a modern Japanese tatami room—but the leitmotif running through all of it is an ethereal lightness brought about by the interconnecting glass atriums that link the structures. The tactile materials, like shingles and siding, identify parts of the building that are meant to be more enclosed and cozy, cabin-like; the glass serves as invisible breezeways. “When you’re sailing by, you don’t realize it’s modern architecture,” says Warren. “You see it as three smaller buildings in a forested, natural environment.”
Each pod or cabin serves a different purpose and is sited in a different direction to best capture the outdoors. The kitchen, parallel to the shoreline, is in the main building and serves as the hub of the home; panoramic views of the water are on one side, while the other offers views onto the garden and forest. Another cabin—nestled on a rock precipice and turned at an angle to maximize vistas of the ocean—houses the master bedroom and children’s bedrooms. The guest quarters and garage are on the opposite side of the home but refer to the water as well. “The buildings are separated and meander, but there’s still always a full-bodied dialogue between house and forest,” says Warren. The linking glass sections bind all the different spaces together in pursuit of a common goal—intimate, cozy family time and full appreciation of the beauty of nature.
“We’re all looking at the same images on Pinterest and Houzz,” says Warren, “but if you feel like your space is specific to you, it becomes a part of you and its uniqueness should saturate all the experiences you have there.” Rather than a carbon copy of somewhere else, our homes should be meaningful backdrops to the lives lived within, and not just generic settings. “Our younger daughter’s favourite place is the glass breezeway between the main house and the upper floors—a large, open and airy space that looks out onto the garden, ocean and dense forest,” says the homeowner. “We couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.” Probably because there is nowhere else quite like it.