House Beautiful: Stairway to waterfront heaven

It’s hard not to stare at the stairs when visiting this home.

The cognac-coloured structure spins hypnotically through three storeys in a helix pattern, which means unlike a spiral, it is not a circular design linked into a central pole, as commonly seen in old towers or corners where space is at a premium.

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This curving staircase looks more like a glowing strand of DNA.

With handrails on each side, it is more practical than a spiral because it has more useable tread on each step. The stairs don’t narrow down to a point in the middle, so they are easier to climb, especially when carrying something.

It’s an exceptional focal point in the new waterfront home of Fernando and Tami dos Santos, on Salt Spring Island.

“The staircase is literally the heart of this house, both beautiful and functional and a work of art,” said Fernando, adding it was created by Loren Mazereeuew of Nelson, who not only built it but helped design it.

“Our objective in building this home was to make something that would fit into the environment, on a very small lot, just .29 of an acre, and to use as many low-maintenance, innovative and green materials as possible,” said Fernando.

The retired lawyer and his wife designed and managed the project themselves with the help of a large and “incredible” team of companies and individuals. It started with Purcell Timberframes of Nelson and that company’s “timber whisperers:” Geordie, Hart and Al.

“Purcell was invaluable during the design process and provided us with incredible timbers that hearken back to the past, that are not generally seen in this day and age,” said Fernando.

After Purcell framed the home, Alain Grange of Green Island Construction took over construction.

“Alain was unflappable and worked with us to marry a plethora of ideas and myriad of products seamlessly,” said Tami, who is a pianist involved in choir, chamber music and a madrigal group on the island.

The 3,800-square-foot home has many special features, including a large pool under the kitchen — not to swim in, but to store water. The 55,000-litre cistern collects rainwater from the 4,400-square-foot roof. When the cistern is full, it lasts six months to a year, depending on use. In an average year, they collect up to320,000 litres.

“We can collect far more water than we need, and during a heavy rain, it fills up very quickly,” said Fernando.

A filtration system provides potable water throughout the house, and the cistern can be hooked up to a fire truck if necessary.

Fernando explained that the main concern with using rainwater is pH balance — as it falls, it becomes slightly acidic, because it absorbs atmospheric CO2. “And if you have needles on the roof, that number can go down even more.”

Fernando installed a column filled with marble chips that the rain passes through. This simple, green technology washes and balances the water.

The house also has a geothermal heating system that features a large ocean loop on the sea floor in front of their property. “It’s like a giant slinky in the water,” said Fernando, who praised the work of Matt Beck of Salish Sea Heating on the design and installation.

The $25,000 system provides both in-floor heating and cooling.

Beck, who likes to avoid fossil fuels whenever possible, fabricated an eight-metre-square geothermal mat on the beach, sandwiching numerous coils of pipe between two layers of heavy-gauge chain-link fencing. “We then sank it in about 40 feet of water, where the temperature is a steady [7 degrees Celsius]. It’s not unusual for this kind of geothermal system to pay back the owners in savings within eight to 12 years, even less with rising hydro rates.”

He called Tami and Fernando “remarkable, very interesting people” to work with, as they have meticulously studied all their home’s systems.

The owners also complimented Paul Smith and Ken Byron of Ken Byron Excavating for the site preparation, excavation and septic installation, and for envisioning and building all the rock walls, terraces and pathways.

“Paul Smith is a true artist,” said Tami, who noted the property had some slope challenges.

The owners decided to cut into the bank to build their large house, as that would minimize visual impact and ensure it stood only two metres above the original grade.

“We had to take out 89 loads of clay and non-compactible soil,” said Fernando. Seventy-nine loads of compactible material and rocks were brought in to create terraces and support a tertiary septic field.

“We also used 200 yards of concrete — so the house is well anchored,” he said with a chuckle.

Beams spanning the great room are 15 cm by 46 cm thick and all are heartwood, which means they will develop small cracks and checks. “Some love the look and some hate it, but we wanted the effect,” said Fernando.

The kitchen counters are deep green soapstone, which is 30 per cent heavier and denser than granite. The island slab weighs 320 kilograms and has a dramatic seam of quartz darting across one corner like an iridescent lizard.

The stained-glass window frames, metal roof system and a custom front door “that is something to behold” were designed and installed by Micah Booy of Square and Level Construction, Fernando said.

While the roofline soars over the staircase, most of the main-floor ceilings are four metres.

“I read that anything over 14 feet makes you feel inconspicuous,” said Fernando, who was born in Portugal but has built and renovated several homes in Vancouver and on Bowen Island.

After their children left home, the couple spent two and a half years travelling through Central America, pondering the prospect of retirement there. A visit to Salt Spring changed their minds.

They adore their new home, and Tami especially loves its acoustics.

She has a baby grand piano and two baroque instruments — a harpsichord and clavichord. While there is a stunning concert sound in the great room, visitors equally enjoy the softer resonance of these instruments while sitting in an alcove off the living room.

The owners enjoy their home’s spaces, large and small, and also learned how to save big on construction.

“If you are willing to travel, you can save a lot,” said Fernando, who made 19 trips to the U.S. to pick up items. Most ambitious was his sortie to save on windows. He rented the biggest van available on the island and returned with 5,900 kilograms of them.

“Fernando is a super planner and online researcher,” said Tami, who does all the paperwork. They estimate they saved $15,000 in general contractor fees, the same in architect’s fees and a tremendous amount on south-of-the-border light fixtures, pre-cut slate tiles and more.

On the other hand, the staircase was a bit of a splurge at $40,000.

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