House beautiful: A bamboo forest

David Coulson's Duncan home is filled with the soft rustle of the

A CELEBRATION OF STYLE ON THE HOME FRONT> Writer Grania Litwin teams up with awardwinning photographer Debra Brash on a tour of homes beyond the Capital Regional District. They'll take us over the Malahat and to the Gulf Islands - and, as always, they'll talk to homeowners, interior designers, architects and artists who influence the way we live.

About 25 years ago, designer David Coulson bought a bucolic two-acre spread near Duncan with a charming heritage house on it.

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Over the past two decades, he has gradually added a rustic inlaw cottage, a woodworking shop for his business and a greenhouse - but what he really craved was a studio in the woods, and a tree fort.

He recently built the 890-square-foot studio at the back of his property, strategically located next to a cluster of tall trees. Now he's dreaming up plans for a "sophisticated" two-storey treehouse that will be 20 feet high and connect to his studio by a bridge.

"I've always loved treehouses and being in the trees," said Coulson, who says he may include a fireman's pole or rope "for quick exits."

"As a kid we had tree forts and I guess it never left me. I built a small one for our daughter years ago and recently updated it for our grandson. Then I got turned onto treehouses as an art form."

The fun-loving artist, whose turn-of-the-century home was built in the arts and crafts style, has created a very different ethos and environment around his live/work studio.

It's an elegant space where he can dream up future projects, entertain clients and have guests sleep over. "I love the solitude and quiet. Sometimes my wife and I go out there for the weekend. It's like going on holiday."

The most obvious influences come from Japan and Italy, and the result is a soothing Zen-like space with Barcelona-style seating and translucent sliding shoji screens defining the sleeping area.

'It is a marriage of ideas, a dream, an inspiration that began on my first trip to Japan," said Coulson, who runs a home design and building company. He recently transformed the old Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory store on lower Government Street into a high-end fashion and homedecor location for Michal Negrin. (The chocolate store moved down the block.) Other projects over the years have included the Wharfside Eatery and Hartwig Court, and restoration work on Emily Carr House and Point Ellice House. Coulson and his wife previously lived in the Wells Barkerville district,

where they owned a restaurant in the historic Cariboo Gold Rush town of Barkerville and started a vintage casino. He also made sets and custom components for movies shot there.

But they got tired of the snow and wanted a better education for their young daughters, so they moved to Duncan, where his company now has 20 employees.

His new studio was inspired by Witold Rybczynski's book The Perfect House, which praises the work of Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio as "both sophisticated and rustic, genteel and rude, cosmopolitan and vernacular."

The same could be said for Coulson's creation, which, ironically, he was finally motivated to build after visiting a Mexican resort: "I looked up and saw these huge cedar beams from B.C. and I thought, if they can drag them all the way to Mexico, I can do something in my own backyard," he said with a chuckle.

The design is loosely based on a Palladio-style Tuscan farmhouse with clearstory windows.

"It's a small version of the big haciendas with high timbered ceilings, a top floor for drying grain and two wings on the lower for bedrooms and dining." Of course, his version has a West Coast tang with lots of wood, windows and a "green" roof.

Walls are finished in a plaster made from crushed marble, commonly found in traditional Japanese roadside inns. (This version is from American Clay). The bedroom is straw-coloured, while the living room is a green-gray tone. In the bathroom, he used the raw colour with no pigment at all.

"It's a wonderful procedure, because you don't drywall, so there is no sanding or filling. No dust. You just apply this plaster right over plywood, and when it dries, it has a slightly burnished look."

The shower stall has a small bench - "I won't do a shower without a bench" - and tiny pedestal sink because the room is just five feet by nine feet.

Shower walls and floor are tiled in tumbled limestone, bigger on the walls, smaller on the floor, and large beams in the ceiling give it a spa-like feel.

"I am not a monochromatic designer by any means, but I like the effect in here."

Kitchen cabinets are made of bamboo - "It's solid-core ply, one of most stable plywood products I've ever worked with: tough, resilient, beautiful" - and the floor is "terrazzo" cement. "As it sets, they throw in shards of broken glass bottles. On a bright day, it's stunning, and it never has to be waxed."

Coulson's wife, Ulla, used to have her own studio in the new building, too. But these days, she says, she isn't much involved in landscape design anymore, "so we turned it into the bedroom it was always supposed to be, and have been using it for summer guests.

"I love this building. The space is so calm and removed, so relaxing. It has a very tranquil atmosphere, and I am waiting for the day we can move out there.

The best part is the size - it has everything you need," including a three-level roof garden, where she grows herbs and vegetables. "It is amazing. We've only had to water twice this year."

The Windsor, Ont.-born Dave Coulson explains the first seeds for the studio were planted on trips to Japan (one of his daughters majored in Japanese; the other taught there), where he made a study of roadside inns.

The old mountain town of Takayama had a profound effect on him, especially its beautifully preserved buildings dating from 1600, in the Edo period, when it was full of merchants and sake breweries.

"The buildings are rugged and delicate at the same time, and the wood has a natural patina. They don't use any finish: no oils, stains or pigments. Their tools are so sharp, they don't crush the wood cells, so it doesn't develop mildew or absorb water. It is the ultimate green technology, and the buildings have been there 400 and 500 years."

For his own studio, he used LifeTime Wood Treatment, made on Saltspring Island. "It's an organic, water-based preservative that does what 200 or 300 years of weathering does in Japan - gives it a antique patina."

Coulson plans to convert the studio to a rental suite when he retires and was careful to comply with residential setbacks and zoning bylaws, which allow for a maximum footprint of 913 feet for a secondary home.

Those who have seen the studio are so impressed, the designer has already sold plans to a Calgary couple building an exact replica at Cherry Point, another couple in Maple Bay who wanted a threestorey version, and a third couple in Nanoose.

housebeautiful@timescolonist.com

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