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House beautiful: Little footprint, big views (with video)

Glass-and-concrete home creates small, spectacular perch on Saltspring Island


> Writer Grania Litwin teams up with award-winning 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.

They say people in glass houses shouldn't throw stones.

But what about larger projectiles - a trailer, say - rolling downhill at breakneck speed and heading straight for a brand new, shiny glass home?

That was the scenario for a Saltspring Island woman on the final day of construction, when a work trailer being towed off her property was about to cream her dream home.

"A chain connecting the trailer to a backhoe jumped off its hook and the trailer went flying down the hill," recalled builder Derek Sowden.

"I was standing on the low side, in the middle of the road, holding a compressor when I heard it come off and saw it careening down, like an Abrams tank storming through the desert, heading right for the house."

Suddenly, it hit a depression in the road, lurched sideways and crashed into a rock.

"That was a pretty special moment, because it would have been a total disaster. It would have wiped out the whole front of the house," recalled Sowden.

The home's owner, Scottish-born Nighean Anderson, said it was a sickening moment, but the house was a challenge from the start, because of its precision glass-and-concrete construction and the difficult terrain.

Her long, twisting driveway is unpaved and so steep, you want to hug the inside slope and never look over the precipitous edge.

But after navigating around sheer rock ledges and boulders wrapped in thick moss, a visitor is greeted by an amazing sight: a long, sparkling rectangle shining in the forest like a prism.

The 1,600-square-foot glass and concrete house, designed by Vancouver's D'Arcy Jones - who recently won the first Arthur Erickson Memorial Award - has maximum views and minimum footprint. Only one-third of the structure touches the ground.

Most of the walls are glass. Floors, doors and cabinets are white oak, while ceilings and soffits are fir and hemlock, and the rest of the house is concrete - mostly sandblasted to enhance the finish.

"I love the rough texture of concrete versus the smoothness of wood, and all the different finishes, from shiny to matte," said Anderson, 68, who even has concrete bedside tables. "This space is utterly serene. I am so content here, in harmony with nature."

She first met her bold and innovative designer in 2006. "D'Arcy was in his mid-30s, very eco-conscious and brilliant. I wanted everything he suggested. I had to beg him to stop!"

She enjoys the way her hardedged house slices through its mossy environment, creating a sharp counterpoint to curving arbutus trees and rolling ridges.

While a compact house always appealed to her, she originally wanted a separate guest cottage, too, but there was scant flat space in the rugged 2.5-acre parcel, so her designer suggested a novel alternative.

He located the "guest house" immediately behind the main building and attached it via a long, glass-walled corridor. The two buildings share a roof, so the first impression is of a single building, but the curtain wall slides back to reveal the separation and expand the patio.

After leaving Scotland, Anderson first moved to Winnipeg, then Vancouver, but soon realized neither was for her.

She had a "sudden notion" to go to Saltspring. When she saw the property, "a voice inside said, 'This is it.' Then I fell in love with the community and a man."

They're still together but live separately, because she likes having her own place, and so does he.

"This is my sanctuary," said Anderson, who is a keen reader, swimmer, hiker and sailor and volunteers at the local hospice.

"This place really is heaven on earth: the most wonderful, sophisticated community with a mixture of intelligent, creative, caring people from all walks of life who love nature."

She has always been drawn to nature and atypical homes, partly because her father, a joiner, worked on unique projects. Tradition doesn't appeal to her - "I grew up with it all around in Scotland and England. I'm much more interested in future things that push the envelope" - and she knows exactly what she wants.

"I didn't want a laundry room, because I don't like doing laundry." So she has a stacking washer-dryer, and a drying cupboard in a hallway. (She doesn't like dryers much either.)

"I'm also not a vacuum person. I've maybe vacuumed twice in two years. I Swiffer."

She loves to entertain in her spacious living room and patio, but doesn't like to cook fancy meals for herself, so all her appliances are small. "I like the compactness, the European flavour and the smaller scale suits the house. Besides, I don't like a kitchen that looks kitcheny" - which is why her fridge is behind cabinets and her dishwasher hides behind what look like drawers.

She likes showers, though, and all her bathrooms are wheelchair-accessible, thanks to her background in long-term-care management.

Jones said he enjoyed working for a client with such clear focus. "And the landscape is phenomenal, even without the view." He likes the way she built the house for herself alone, with no thought about resale. "It is uniquely her."

His favourite elements include the sloped steel roof, which has no gutter, so water and needles simply drop off. Its precise, razor-edge line is clean and elegant.

"We designed a seven-foot overhang so when the window slides back, you double the terrace area, and every time we had a wall of glass, we carried the soffit inside a few feet so the interiors feel warm."

The glass is custom-coated with a hint of yellow and red to give it warmth and the roof is the same shade, so the house doesn't look too austere.

Two-thirds of the home hangs over the ground. Areas that float have hardwood floors, while those rooted in rock have polished concrete. "It's sort of a trigger to your senses, something you become aware of acoustically," said Jones, who finds some West Coast modern architecture "almost oppressively woodsy and heavy."

Sowden of Strait Construction said the house's simple look belies its complex construction.

"It had to be built - right on the money. Most houses, if they are a little out here or there, you just slap a piece of trim on it, but not this house," he said.

"In a job like this, accuracy is paramount. Concrete will give a perfect impression, even a fingerprint, or a hammer mark on the forms will show up later."

He credits foreman Alan McMaster for the outcome. "He is a precise carpenter with a lot of experience in flush glazing, a critical skill in a house like this."

McMaster enjoyed the challenge: "It's a favourite of mine - a highly engineered building with a 26-foot-long hanging section supported by a single concrete column - so many details you'd only notice if they weren't done well."

Anderson said her designer is right that she gave no thought to resale value when building the house. Her dream was to create a space that suited her perfectly, without compromise. "I started this house when I was 64. It's never too late to do something for yourself - never stop dreaming."

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