For many architects, the humble house reno is not on their list of favourite projects.
But designer D’Arcy Jones, who estimates that half of his residential design projects are renovations, says he loves the challenge and the “creative potential” they offer.
“I like working within the confines of an existing structure,” explains the Vancouver-based designer. “Having parameters gives me a starting point in a way that a ‘blank canvas’ can not.”
While some architects approach the reno in the same way that alpha-male monkeys approach the take over of a tribe – total elimination of the offspring of their predecessor – Mr. Jones prefers an attitude of respect for what came before.
“There’s some bad design out there,” he contends, “but it’s usually the result of lack of forethought rather than actual intention.
There are few places that are not salvageable, that don’t have redeeming merits that can be revived rather than destroyed.”
His approach is not unlike an excavation – something more common in the world of heritage renos – but one, he says, can apply to all eras.
A soon to be completed seventies Vancouver Special, for example, has been designed so as “not to lose any of its Vancouver specialness,” but through a simple flip of programming to be reinvented in a way that still bears the original DNA of the building.
In a similar vein, one of his rare commercial projects – the new Monte Clark Gallery on the Great Northern Way Emily Carr campus – peels back layers of what was once an early-sixties bulldozer paint shop to reveal its industrial bones.
But what about the mid-ninties, that aesthetically awkward era of grandiose marble entrance ways, crown mouldings and fussy post-modernism.
Is it possible to salvage something from back then?
If Mr. Jones’s recent reno of a Yaletown condo is any indication, apparently the answer is an emphatic yes!
In the heady era of post-Expo 86 expansionism, Yaletown’s artsy edginess was gleefully rubbed out by enthusiastic developers and Concord Pacific helped reshape former industrial and railway lands into residential enclaves.
They were high density for a burgeoning Vancouver, but relatively suburban by today’s standards, with large two-car garages and often closed in, traditional interiors.
So when a 40-something professional couple came to Mr. Jones with a boxy, 2,050-square-foot condo still locked into its mid-ninties design DNA, he found a way to liberate the structure without wrecking it.
His modus operandi was to reveal the structure – so that “it became the palette.”
Reducing what had been a very nineties palette of maple, shaker-style cabinetry and thick carpeting down to concrete, walnut and drywall, he opened up two floors that had been imprisoned by dark, narrow spaces to a stunning view of False Creek.
His first step was to reveal the concrete structural columns, strip the carpets and uncover and resurface the concrete flooring.
He knew the James Cheng building – a typical Vancouverist tower and podium built on top of retail and commercial space – had some good bones. It just needed a little reprogramming.
Designed with the Asian investor market in mind, the traditional interior was at odds with the “brave new world” of Yaletown – even when it was completed in 1998.
While Mr. Jones left the existing bedroom and bath that face west toward a courtyard full of water elements and lush greenery in place, he streamlined them into chic, sleek spaces.
The bathroom floor and walls benefited from the same resurfaced concrete, while the bedroom was improved by a deep rectangular window box, designed to hide heating ducts and conceal new roller blinds that replaced vertical ones throughout the condo.
Everywhere the materiality of the structure is exposed through reveals, elevating even humble drywall into something special.
Just as the interplay between walnut, drywall and concrete offers texture, so does the designer’s dimensional interplay: Everywhere, dropped ceilings and unexpectedly extended walls create a custom jigsaw puzzle of elements that please the eye and elevate the aesthetic.
“Asymmetry and complexity are always more satisfying,” says Mr. Jones. “And, in a way, it meets that human need for detail that might have been met by fussy crown mouldings and decorative flourishes.” And so he offers up a design that avoids both brutal symmetry and ugly postmodernism in a neat architectural choreography that is syncopated rather than metronomic.
On the first floor, he has opened up what was an enclosed kitchen and separate dining room and reversed the programming; now the living-dining and kitchen area are all one space. As one enters the condo, a rectangular dining table offers a more formal social option, while a long island of walnut and quartz extends the kitchen into the view of False Creek and up to the edge of the patio.
En route to the lower floor, he has opened up the closed-in stairwell with sheets of custom bolted glass, and hollowed out storage space. An ensuite to a guest bedroom/office, previously only accessible via the bedroom, has been transformed into a more flexible powder room. And the pathway to the master bedroom, once encumbered by excessive and separate programming for the ensuite – with a row of sinks on one side and the bath and toilet on the other – as well as three doors that met with a clunk when opened simultaneously – has been streamlined.
While strata dictates made opening the bottom floor into a single space tricky, having a delineation made sense for the owners, who required separate spaces for acoustic privacy, home offices and differing work schedules.
“The whole idea of building new is so North American and so unsustainable,” contends Mr. Jones, who says that in other parts of the globe, it’s much more common to work within existing structures rather than practice the new world architectural equivalent of the slash-and-burn method.
“Renos,” says Mr. Jones, “are the way of the future.”
Editor's note: D'Arcy Jones is an Intern Architect with the Architectural Institute of British Columbia. Due to an editing error, an incorrect designation appeared in the original print and online versions of this story.