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In Vancouver, a 'restrained' design yields a dramatic space

Home in the Fraser/Kingsway area of Vancouver renovated by architect Michel Laflamme. 'Restraint in terms of space, time and budget,' says Mr. Laflamme 'can bring out the best in a project.'

Waisman Photography/Waisman Photography

"Sometimes restraint produces great results," muses architect Michel Laflamme.

Over latte at Che Baba's, one of the latest hang-outs in the Fraser-meets-Kingsway area that is fast becoming Vancouver's new happening 'hood, he points to before and after pictures of a recent renovation he designed a few blocks away.

"Restraint in terms of space, time and budget can bring out the best in a project," says the 52-year-old Mr. Laflamme, who worked for Arthur Erickson for 13 years before striking out on his own.

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While Mr. Laflamme has seen his share of clients fall into the design pitfalls that emerge from "too much time and money on their hands," his experience redesigning a nearby Edwardian-era heritage house was quite the opposite.

With only four months, $150,000 and 900 square feet to work with, Mr. Laflamme transformed the two upper floors of the Kennedy residence into a light-filled aerie that his clients say is "a joy to come home to."

In many ways the renovation – a modernist space built on heritage bones – is a metaphor for the emerging neighbourhood. Both offer a certain cozy chic – and an openness to new ideas grounded in a traditional residential area. But for the mountain views and towering firs that surround it, the residence has a certain Montreal flair.

Mr. Laflamme, who arrived in Vancouver in 1983 from Quebec speaking no English and landing a job with Arthur Erickson within weeks, says he learned a lot from the renowned architect.

"He never let his ego get in the way of what was right for the project. He had an undeniable vision and great confidence, but in the end, there was a real simplicity to his ideas."

In designing a space for Claire and Blaine Kennedy, a middle-aged couple with two university-age daughters moving from a larger home in Kerrisdale, he had a straightforward mandate. "We wanted a space where we could live comfortably as a couple, but was also flexible enough to have a dozen people round for a dinner party," says Mrs. Kennedy, a landscape designer who loves to entertain.

With their two daughters occupying the main floor and basement, they also wanted a space that was separate, and yet connected so that their children could maintain a sense of independence while living at home, and so they could use the bottom floors as revenue generators once the girls moved out.

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The neighbourhood was a huge factor in choosing to buy the house last year, Mrs. Kennedy says. "After decades in Kerrisdale, we wanted to be in a livelier, more central area and Kitsilano was not affordable."

In a neat inter-generational twist, both the Kennedys – who enjoy the proximity to downtown – and their daughters (one of whom works at the popular new Matchstick Café in the block just west of Fraser and Kingsway) enjoy the area for similar reasons.

But transforming the upper floors presented some challenges for the architect. The relatively small space was broken up into several tiny rooms, and an earlier 1980s renovation had left it feeling dark and boxed in.

"Basically, I grouped the service and storage areas together and moved them to one side, opened up the rest of the space by removing doors and walls, and maximized incoming light," explains Mr. Laflamme.

He transformed a rather awkward space in front of the stairwell clearance into a modern take on the nook and cranny, complete with a fold-out day bed and a sound system cabinet/book shelf.

An eight-foot-long Appleply kitchen table designed by Mr. Laflamme now occupies the space once occupied by a bathroom that blocked all the available north-south light. "For this first time you can have sunlight and city-view," says a satisfied Mr. Laflamme.

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And while the kitchen and the dining room were once separated by a wall, they are now part of a singular entertainment zone that flows naturally from one delineated space to another and yet still offers a sense of public and private.

"Modern and minimal," says Mr. Laflamme, in a neat design mantra, "does not have to be unlivable."

He opted for a muted palette of white Corian and laminate and clear-stained salvaged fir flooring throughout to accent the couple's colourful art collection. Now the space is homey, but without the carefully selected furniture, it could easily double as an artist's studio.

In order to bring light deep into the space, Mr Laflamme used backpainted glass above the kitchen countertop, and took advantage of two existing skylights, adding clerestorey glazing along the base of one to illuminate the third floor bathroom.

For the upstairs bedroom, Mr. Laflamme designed the compact space "as if it were a ship," with custom cabinetry and built-in closets streamlining storage areas. The translucent glass doors in the master bathroom offer add reflected light and link the two north-facing windows with mountain and city views to the south-facing patio, which offers vistas of Burnaby Mountain to the northeast, and Little Mountain to the southwest.

For 900 square feet, it's a surprisingly open and uncluttered space. "We feel right at home here," says Mrs. Kennedy," we don't miss the old (2,000-square-foot) house at all. Moving here made us really focus on exactly what we needed, and on discarding the rest."

The same sense of focus is found in Mr. Laflamme's design, which manages to bring out the space's modernist best, while paying homage to its heritage roots.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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