When Barbara Edwards and Jim Burrows encountered a bald eagle, orca whales and hummingbirds while house hunting on British Columbia's Pender Island, it was almost as if the day had been staged.
"We were oohing and aahing," Ms. Edwards recalls of the movie-like scene four years ago. "It was so perfect … We asked our agent, 'What are you going to come up with next?'"
In the end, it was a house, hidden from the road and nestled into a narrow sandstone bluff, that really wowed the couple, now in their late 50s.
Ms. Edwards, a visual artist who paints abstract rain forests, says she and her husband, who recently sold his Toronto-based e-commerce business to retire and write a book, play guitar and restore his 1962 Corvette, knew they had stumbled upon something extraordinary.
With its lofty, swooping cedar ceilings, exposed fir posts and beams and walls of windows overlooking the Olympic Mountains and the Strait of Georgia 250 feet below, the 2,200-square-foot, two-bedroom custom contemporary residence and companion 600-square-foot guest cottage on the southern Gulf Island stood worlds apart from the couple's monster home in rural Mansfield, an hour and a half northwest of Toronto.
"It's not gargantuan and yet there's amazing space," she says, unable to pick her favourite room. Like children, she loves all of them. "It's terrible," she laughs, "they all have this view. So I can be cooking up this great meal and I'm watching the sailboats go by. It's hard to get the day going sometimes."
The island home wasn't picture-perfect when they bought it, however. Its cedar exterior had turned black from regular run-ins with ocean salt spray. And inside the main house, the kitchen and bathroom were dated with builder-grade, white melamine slab and oak cabinetry, basic laminate countertops and pink tiled floors.
The finishes didn't match the architectural integrity of the dwelling, according to Ines Hanl of Victoria-based the Sky Is the Limit Interior Design Concepts, hired to update the kitchens and bathrooms after the cedar cladding was cleaned and restrained.
Then again, the architect, West Coast modernist Bo Helliwell, principal of West Vancouver's award-winning Helliwell + Smith Blue Sky Architecture, whose first job almost 40 years ago was with icon Arthur Erickson, was not involved in the creation of the house beyond finalizing the construction drawings in 1990.
"I've never seen the completed house in person," he says after recently seeing photos of the renovation. "It's entirely invisible from the road but it doesn't sit quite as low as I imagined it," he says. "The interior space looks exactly as original planned … It's a spectacular viewpoint."
He describes how he modelled the sculptural rooflines to echo the property's rolling sandstone (he's used ocean waves as inspiration for other projects), and how he serviced the site and designed the guest house five years earlier, blasting through sandstone to build a road away from the house and hide the water, electricity and other service lines to eliminate any "visual pollution."
Ms. Hanl says she redesigned the interior space to reflect both the architecture and Ms. Edwards' artistic expression, pointing to one of her rain forest paintings hung by the kitchen. "That is what I tried to emulate - warm colours, strong textures, orderly but flowing forms."
Healthy living also played in the renovation, as they opted for natural, renewable materials, products and paints low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and "as little plastic as possible," she adds.
To that end, new oyster slate floors were laid throughout the home. For the main kitchen, open to clerestory windows above in the background, Ms. Hanl designed U-shaped cabinetry crafted from quarter-sawn oak "for its strong but linear grain. [It]supported the personality of the [interior]fir beams but didn't try to compete with it," she says.
She also introduced an egg-shaped peninsula that extends from one end of the U at the same angle as a window across the room. Topped in granite, the base is made from rusted raw steel to give off a marine-like look and feel. "It looks like it came from a ship," Ms. Hanl says.
Behind the peninsula near the rain forest painting, there's a concrete bar that's six-inches thick and called "the juice bar in the morning and the wine bar at 5 o'clock," Ms. Edwards says.
As beautifully as the kitchen design came together, it wasn't without challenges. To keep the look seamless, Ms. Hanl's plans called for a downdraft fan instead of a hood vented from the ceiling.
However, an inopportunely placed floor joist meant having to move the vent and run ductwork through the back of the base cabinets, made deeper to accommodate the ductwork. What's more, getting tradesmen and goods from Vancouver to the island by ferry (a 21/2-hour sail) took extra co-ordination and patience.
Ms. Hanl designed cabinetry for both bathrooms incorporating bamboo plywood in two tones, finished with waterborne clear lacquer. The backsplashes feature a combination of recycled mosaic glass and porcelain tile that resembles rusted copper and works with the slate flooring.
In the guest cottage specifically, she took inspiration from the striking cliff-side arbutus trees and designed a five-foot-tall recycled glass mosaic kitchen backsplash stylized like tree trunks. She also amalgamated the small powder room and tiny bathroom to create "a good-sized guest bath" and make way for a mudroom at the back entrance, complete with dog shower, laundry area and additional pantry and linen cabinets.
After purchasing the property, the couple had an artist's studio and workshop/garage with hydraulic lift, heated floors "and all the things that car nuts love," Ms. Edwards says affectionately, her husband sitting beside her.
They say they love the slower pace of island life, though Mr. Burrows is quick to admit he's "busier than ever. I've got so many things pent up over the years to do. Things I want to do for me."