House Beautiful: Designed for a niche market — small, elegant houses

Harvard Business School graduate Nanon de Gaspé Beaubien-Mattrick has lived in Montreal, Vancouver, Silicon Valley, Toronto, San Francisco, New York, Boston and Palm Beach.

She has worked in sales and marketing for Playtex International, set up a telemarketing operation and was senior vice-president of Telemedia Corporation for 10 years and sits on numerous boards, including her own family’s mega foundation.

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Being fluent in English, French and Spanish, she could live anywhere in the world, but she decided to live in Victoria — and is building houses here, including one on Chaucer Street.

At least, that’s what she does when not offering keynote addresses at conferences, mentoring university students, helping young women in business or encouraging small start up companies through her angel fund Beehive Holdings.

Soon after moving here 2 1/2 years ago with her two children and husband, tech mogul Don Mattrick, she spotted a need and a market niche.

“Wherever I live I need to be passionate, to have something that gets my heart going pitter-patter. And when I saw all these beautiful older homes on large properties, I wondered if people were enjoying them. I learned that many elderly owners want to downsize, but where to? I thought, wow, there is an opportunity.”

Nanon believes many of these people want to live more compactly, but still want their independence and an elegant home in a familiar neighbourhood. Which is why the Chaucer property was her first choice, just a short walk to Oak Bay village.

She started interviewing builders, designers, contractors and architects and soon met Melanie Smith, who has 20 years of experience in building and development.

They connected immediately — “I really like Melanie’s can-do attitude” — and co-founded a boutique building company called Maison.

“Our goal is to offer unique, attractive, smaller homes in the best neighbourhoods,” said Nanon who, along with her husband, sold their last house, a mansion in Vancouver’s Point Grey area, for $51.8 million.

She aims to build high-quality houses. “Not what you think of as spec houses, more like custom homes. Melanie and I choose everything from wall colours and light fixtures to exterior features and sinks.”

Each house is unique and individually styled. The company has finished two already, has three more under construction and a sixth on the drawing board. She stresses her designs are also aimed at stylish young families who seek to shrink their eco footprints, trim chores, and live small so they can enjoy a big life.

Maison is building homes with master suites on the main, or the potential to add elevators. Fixtures, appliances, building materials and finishing are high end and each comes with a file of carefully selected trades people to look after maintenance.

“Our idea is to build so well, like the Maytag repairman, that there is no need to redo anything,” said Nanon.

Each Oak Bay property has been chosen for its proximity to a village, a short walk to schools, stores, coffee shops and most importantly, places where there are opportunities for social interaction.

“It is critical to keep meeting people as you age, to keep the dendrites going, the brain healthy,” said the businesswoman, who is very close to her parents, now aged 83 and 90.

“If you pull-in and get lonely, that's the worst thing,” a fact she learned from her mother who has a doctorate in psychology. “We all age, so this is vital for everyone.”

Since moving her she has discovered “Victoria is one of the best kept secrets, the air is so delicious and fresh. And research shows living by the ocean is unbelievable for creativity.”

She admits being bemused initially when her husband suggested they settle here rather than a big city like New York or Paris, but she was quickly captivated by Victoria's soft climate, healthy lifestyle, “and the coffee that's so much better than in Montreal or Silicon Valley.”

The move was natural for Vancouver-born Don, but Nanon's roots stretch back 14 generations in eastern Canada. Her ancestors were traders in the early 1600s, then business leaders, politicians, and now, media entrepreneurs and philanthropists. The de Gaspé Beaubien family's worth has been estimated at $740 million.

Smith said working with Nanon is exciting because they have similar values and ethics, and Nanon is so switched-on and research-aware.

“We have fun together, but also challenge each other and work crazy hard. I have more of a Zen taste that Nanon, but she is not scared of colour so she gives our homes the zing.

“And we both want to be environmentally friendly,” so they use energy wise appliances, windows, non-off gassing paint and carpets - and install metal vents that rodents can't chew through.

Water is a big concern for Nanon's family foundation: “And Oak Bay sewers are not deep, so we also have backup sump pumps tied into alarm systems in every house.”

Long-time builder Ian Shipley is their construction manager and Maison is working with local experts such as Rus Collins of Zebra Design, Alex Glegg of Vancouver and Adapt Design.

Former New York architect James Gauer, who wrote The New American Dream: Living Well in Small Spaces is also part of the team. (See sidebar)

Nanon feels very lucky to have been born into a family that gave her tremendous support and encouragement, so she wants to “pay it forward.”

“It's why I invest in training and helping grow the next level of women entrepreneurs.”

Her Beehive fund has invested in dozens of businesses and handed out cheques ranging from $25,000 to $1.5 million. But before giving her money away, Nanon wants to know if the business is solving a problem, can scale up, is sustainable and has sound financials.

Beyond that, she seeks to build bridges that help people exchange and share ideas. “We can always learn from others. That's why I partnered up with Melanie.”

Smith agrees, saying they work well together they bring different experiences, knowledge and qualities to the venture.

“And Nanon is incredible. When you meet her you can feel her energy.”

Architect sees potential in small, elegant houses

Architect Jim Gauer, author of The New American Dream: Living Well in Small Houses, is excited to be designing small homes for Manon de Gaspé Beaubien-Mattrick and Melanie Smith, and their new company, Maison.

“They have really tapped into something here… so many aging or retired people find their options are limited. They still want a single family home but only really need about 2,000 square feet, with a master on the main and a couple of bedrooms upstairs for visiting children or grand kids.

“I was happily retired and enjoying life before I met this beautiful, very energetic woman at a party recently. I found her projects interesting because they feature small to medium houses on small rectangular lots. Something I've been working on for years.”

After moving here from New York, Gauer (who also has homes in San Miguel de Allende and Chicago) thought of buying a little cottage in Oak Bay, “but while generally very cute on the outside, they have awkward floor plans, and even worse, terrible relations to the site. It's as if the yards are leftover space.

“There is no excuse for a house of any size not to have a living room with French doors, opening onto a garden,” he said flatly.

“Nanon has a very savvy, terrific partner in Melanie too, and they made it attractive for this cranky old man to come out of retirement.” Cranky at only age 65? “It was all those years in New York,” he quipped.

Gauer said smaller homes and apartments have the potential to be much more elegant than, “the elephantine inelegance we see in monster homes here, the McMansions.

“You can live beautifully in a modest amount of square footage but it has to be well laid out with a good relationship to the outdoors.”

Most people don't have the resources to buy or build a huge house, “but we live in a culture that sort of suggests it's not possible to live well and show success unless you do... when actually the opposite is true.”

Why have a gigantic kitchen that only a professional chef can really use? he asks. “People typically end sitting at a giant counter eating takeout.”

He quoted Edith Wharton's seminal 1898 book, The Decoration of Houses, in which she called proportion “the good breeding of architecture.”

Gauer believes in a good-sized entry hall on the main, and good-sized stair hall on the second floor, with the ability to move into all areas from those spaces.

He likes the idea of one big, graciously proportioned room with French doors into a garden, and everything else deferentially smaller.

He appreciates the fact the Maison partners are genuinely interested in architecture: “A lot of developers see architecture as a thin level of icing on a cake of no particular distinction.”

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