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A new skin for a Vancouver home with ‘good bones’

Flooring throughout is a mottled marble from Iran, its patterns and textures revealed by the shifting illumination from the skylight and glazing. Millwork is consistently anigre, an African hardwood, while countertops are Caesarstone.

Hadani Ditmars

In many ways, the bungalow has become an anachronism on Vancouver's West Side.

The mid-century housing type is a rare breed these days – except for a few lone gunslingers on the North Shore – as rising land value means many end up purchased as teardowns. All too often they're replaced by monster homes that don't respect their normally small, and proportionate footprint.

For lawyer and art collector Stephen Fitterman, who together with architect Stuart Howard, transformed a boxy 1957 bungalow in to a sleek modernist villa, tearing down was never an option.

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"I agree with [architect] Richard Henriquez, who always questions why we're so quick to destroy and rebuild," says Mr. Fitterman, whose keen aesthetic sensibilities were honed by friendships with many of the city's leading architects as well as by living in his Dan White-designed parental home in Vancouver's Point Grey.

Despite its overgrown lawn and general state of disrepair, he saw the potential of the run-down 1957 original in bucolic Kerrisdale, noting that "it had great bones." It also had a double lot, a swimming pool, and an adjoining cabana room.

While other buyers might have simply destroyed it, started from scratch and built "up," Mr. Fitterman chose to keep the original in place, seeing the "living all on one floor" bungalow style as an advantageous feature.

After renting for years in Point Grey, the first real estate purchase for the 51-year-old bachelor was intended as a place where he could live for decades, and welcome family and friends, "not a place to buy and flip."

"With the bungalow, I envisioned a place where my parents could live if needed and where I could stay well into my senior years." But in addition to stair-free living, he realized that renovating the original bungalow meant that he could enjoy 2,200 square feet of living space on a single floor, and that new building codes would make it difficult and expensive to replicate that with a second floor.

Despite his camaraderie with leading city architects, Mr. Fitterman decided not to work with friends. "I wanted someone who would not let the design interfere with the comfort level I need in my home." He also wanted someone low-key, who would let Mr. Fitterman's personality shine through, rather than impose his or her own.

When he met Stuart Howard, an architect who specializes in heritage renovations, he knew he'd found his man. "Stuart was very thoughtful," recalls Mr. Fitterman. "He listened, was flexible and we were on the same page conceptually."

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Mr. Fitterman's directions were often quite specific, from the numbers of drawers he wanted in the new kitchen, down to the location of the mail slot.

But luckily the overall design concept was a simple one: peel back the layers to reveal the home's mid-century bones, and open up the space. At the same time, and to Mr. Howard's credit, there is a subtle yet successful interplay between the public and the private, and between solidity and transparency.

While the Kerrisdale neighbourhood is somewhat design-conservative ("One couple in the area," recalls Mr. Fitterman, "stopped by to say how happy there were that someone else had a modernist vision and now they weren't the only ones with a concrete and glass home") most neighbours were happy to see the rundown rental home find a stable resident, although a few were confused about just what was happening on the big double lot.

"Is this a new community centre?" asked one neighbour, midway through the two-and-a-half-year renovation process.

In a way, it is, as Mr. Fitterman has an open house policy for friends and family (his twin sister and nieces and nephews live five minutes away in Southlands) especially in the warmer months when the pool is a popular hang out.

But a row of yew hedges protects the house from both the east-facing Macdonald Street it sits on, as well as neighbourhood eyes, that might otherwise peer through to the west-facing pool. Flanked by a mildly "monstrous" home on the south, and a more traditional arts and crafts style one to the north, this is modernism by stealth.

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It's not until you get past the modest gate and protective hedges that hug a two-metre high concrete wall, and past the West Coast meets Japanese style landscaping and pond, that you catch a glimpse of the home's modernist mantle.

Where there was once a solid wall with tiny windows, Mr. Howard has inserted eight-foot tall mullioned glazing that lets in the morning light. As you walk through the front door – painted Chinese temple red – the axis of the house is revealed: a 48-foot-long north-south skylight is the spine, while the L-shaped pool oriented sight lines branch out into a master bedroom and bath on the southwest side, and a second bed and bath on the northwest.

The original fir post and beam structure has been preserved everywhere – even in places where the wood has warped slightly over the years, while a simple, yet elegant palette of materials and extensive glazing has opened up and contemporized the space.

Flooring throughout is a mottled marble from Iran, its patterns and textures revealed by the shifting illumination from the skylight and glazing. Millwork is consistently anigre, an African hardwood, while countertops are Caesarstone. The house has been clad in Super Panel, a green building material known for its durability and insulation, that also gives the exterior a clean, streamlined appearance.

To the northwest, the original cabana room has been conjoined to the rest of the house by a glass walled hallway, and turned into a lovely spare room, overlooking the pool. Mr. Fitterman's contemporary art collection – a recent Roy Arden collage flanks a Graham Gillmore text-based tableau in the dining area and an early Beau Dick mask hangs in the masterbath – is accented by Persian carpets that warm the cool marble tiles.

While Mr. Fitterman admits it might have been easier to opt for a downtown condominium, "what I have here is like a luxury condo – with all its conveniences but none of its hassles." Instead of strata councils and traffic, his residence is enveloped by towering fir trees, and big open skies.

And only a few blocks from where he grew up, and where most of his family still resides, his re-embracing of a house that was born only a few years before he was, is a homecoming in more ways than one.

"As a youngster," he recalls, "I often overlooked the qualities of this neighbourhood. But now it feels just right."

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