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The Pearson residence, Bowen Island, British Columbia, designed by James Tuer. (Photo by Hadani Ditmars for The Globe and Mail)
The Pearson residence, Bowen Island, British Columbia, designed by James Tuer. (Photo by Hadani Ditmars for The Globe and Mail)

On Bowen Island, a house that hugs the ground and shares the landscape Add to ...

“I'm always very sensitive to the environment that surrounds my architecture,” says James Tuer, who is also a landscape architect, “But this is the first time that I've designed a house so literally around a landscape.”

In fact, for the Pearson residence on the remote West end of bucolic Bowen Island, it was a case of designing a house around a garden.

Mr. Tuer's clients – an anthropologist with a specialty in East Asian archeology, and his Japanese born librarian wife – are avid gardeners and amateur botanists. They purchased the two-acre sloped site surrounded by bedrock and forest almost two decades ago, mainly for the purpose of planting different gardens – including a Japanese- influenced West Coast and alpine gardens and an English style meadow. Over 15 years, they transformed what was once a disturbed clear-cut into a haven for their collection of ornamental plants from around the world.

The built environment was almost an afterthought. First came a Japanese-style gazebo nestled into the exposed bedrock and then a simple day house/garden shed close by. Eventually, the couple asked Mr. Tuer to design a residence for them, which they primarily use as a second home, and as a showcase of sorts for their gardens.

They wanted something simple, modernist and with a small footprint – qualities that make the residence somewhat unique on an island increasingly burdened by monster homes. They needed a two-bedroom abode with a home office that they could also use for indoor and outdoor entertaining, but requested that the floor area be kept to a modest 190 square metres and banished energy wasting appliances like dishwashers.

Placing the house within the context of the existing landscape and built environment was Mr. Tuer's first challenge. He intuitively placed it between the gazebo and the day house on an east-west axis, which meant significant blasting of bedrock – recycled by Mr. Pearson into a stone garden fence – and some stump removal, but the effect was worthwhile. The east side of the house is now protected by bedrock, while the west side opens up to the garden areas. And the relationship between the three buildings is a graceful one.

As you move up the steeply graded site from the road, all you see is exposed granite outcroppings, flanked by a stream that runs through the site. Gradually, the tip of the gazebo is revealed and then the shed roof of the main residence, both appearing to spring organically from the bedrock. As you turn the corner, the three structures are revealed as a trio of sister dwellings that encircle the landscape with a curvilinear embrace.

The main residence is L- shaped, and plays effectively with the tension between solidity and transparency. The east-facing side is earth sheltered by insulating bedrock, but its 18 metres of clerestory glazing allow light to penetrate deep into the residential space. On the west side of the house, shoji screen-like wood framed glazing opens up into a verandah that overlooks the garden, as well as distant views of snow-capped Vancouver Island mountains.

While the house of cedar, concrete, glass and steel has a deceptively simple plan, its detailing is exact, and Mr. Tuer's use of layering adds depth and texture. Viewed from the west side, the house offers a series of terraced levels and rich interplay of materials. The first layer is the expansive porch, sloping down to the English-style garden and then framed by the stone wall of native granite.

There is also an interesting geometry at work – and one that marries form with function – with two different shed roofs angled upwards to the north in harmony with the slope of the site, and a third flatter roof that extends Southwards to drain into a rain garden.

Everywhere, Mr. Tuer employs techniques that elongate the small footprint of the house – like the Italian renaissance technique of “forced perspective”– and amplify space. The interior is anchored by a concrete wall that also offers passive cooling and the outside comes in through the clerestory on the east side – as well as via the framed views offered by small windows reminiscent of Chinese walled gardens. Materials are articulated by reveals between the fir post and beam structure and the concrete walls and flooring, and on a grander scale, floating walls are used to maximize space in the bedrooms. Skylights in the high-ceilingedbathrooms suggest a bathhouse canopied by forest.

The east-meets-west theme of the gardens continues throughout the house, which feels like a Japanese barn, or, at times, like a country and eastern pavilion. Large, solid wood doors reveal Zen-like spaces. A great-hall-style central area fuses kitchen, dining and living areas, creating an oriental ambiguity of space. And the big reveal of shoji-style, wood-framed glazing that opens up onto a verandah and garden feels very Shinto meets Ponderosa.

This is a place where Hoss Cartwright could sip green tea and contemplate the surrounding wilderness.

At night the house becomes a Japanese lantern, illuminating the forest, gardens and bedrock. But as you turn out the lights and head back down the dirt road, you remember that there are still cougars and bears living in the woods here.

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