When Nancy Saar's husband Grant first took her to the loft that would become their new family home, he warned her, "close your eyes."
She opened them and found herself inside a 2,000-square-foot space in Vancouver's Crosstown that was in dire need of an overhaul.
Its former owner was a skateboarding bohemian bachelor who had turned the loft in a 1907 heritage building on Beatty Street into a graffiti gallery/boarding venue/after hours party house. There were broken windows, spray-painted walls, cracked sinks, and ripped out baseboard heaters. Above an authentic red English phone booth on the lower level he had installed a rope swing that spanned the entire loft. The double height space near the spiral staircase was marred by the installation of a basketball hoop.
It took a bit of convincing from her husband that this party pad could become a baby makes three home in time for the birth of their first child, a mere six months away. "Picture it as an open, all-white space," he told me, relates a then somewhat skeptical Mrs. Saar. "It was a little hard to imagine."
But the young 30 something transplants from Toronto were keen to stay in the downtown core. They both worked in the area and did not want to repeat their Ontario experience of commuting from Thornhill to Front Street every day. They knew their 1,000-square-foot Yaletown condo would be too snug for a growing family, but they couldn't afford to move up in the neighbourhood. Luckily, Grant happened upon the unusual loft space a mere 12 blocks away in Crosstown – a neighbourhood that was then on the cusp of gentrification but is currently a sought after area.
He could see the potential of the space, which boasted a winding staircase that spanned three levels – including a generous 500-square-foot roof deck, and 2,000-square-feet of living space. And so could designers Michael Leckie and Javier Campos of Campos Leckie Studio – a Vancouver based interdisciplinary design office.
"I was excited when Grant first showed me the space," relates Michael Leckie, who became the project lead for the loft, a former warehouse that was one of Vancouver's first New York style open plan loft conversions, retrofitted in 1981. While lofts typically only have access to light and air at one end of an extremely deep floor plan, he could see that the two storeys of south facing glazing allowed for a penetration of light deep into the space, and that the double height and ventilation from the top level roof deck door created a "natural draw of air through the space."
But beyond the derelict state of the loft, there were other challenges, like the young couple's tight budget and the imminent arrival of their first-born.
By the time their daughter Chloe was born, the basics were in place – like heat, lighting, plumbing and sleeping areas. But the rest of the renovation was done in stages, as budget, and a growing family (Chloe's brother Max arrived on the scene two years into the reno) allowed.
The staircase in the middle that connected all three floors became the natural focal point for the renovation. The fact that the interior was so battered became a design "advantage," says Mr. Leckie, as it gave him a wide berth from which to "reconfigure the space."
In essence, his vision was to keep as much of the loft space as open as possible but to delineate individual areas through subtle shifts in elevation and a series of sliding panels in lieu of walls. Everywhere storage areas were designed as built in millwork and pushed up to the outer edges of the loft.
His first step was to reorient the kitchen and "turn it" at a 90 degree angle as a way to "layer" the space and create a buffer zone between the entrance way and the cooking area. The kitchen was also raised up so it could take in the south facing view through the double height window wall, which, before four new towers went up, originally encompassed Mount Baker. The three steps down into the living area, also offered a subtle spatial shift.
The lower floor of the loft was very much about a "convertible architecture," explains Mr. Leckie, that addressed "specific temporal requirements that changed throughout the day."
In essence this meant that the bedrooms on the lower floor were delineated by sliding panels that allowed for a covered area at night and an open scenario during the day. The flexi-space proved to be the perfect environment for children at play.
"Some of my friends would come here," explains Mrs. Saar, "and say 'is this a safe place for children?'" While their main concern was about the spiral staircase, which Mrs. Saar says "the children learned to navigate as they grew up with it," in fact the open areas and soft cork tiles were very child friendly.
In lieu of a suburban backyard, Chloe learned to ride her Skuut bike inside the loft. She also liked to drop her bouncy ball from the top floor, which boasted a cantilevered glass guardrail, so she could see it bounce back up again. And when Mr. Leckie created a raised platform at the base of the spiral staircase so that descending it one would arrive oriented towards the interior of the space rather than toward the back corner, Chloe discovered it was the perfect nook for her dollhouse.
All the open space also made it "ideal for easy wipe down cleaning" relates Mrs. Saar. And being able to see all levels of the loft from the stairwell as well as a clear view of interior spaces horizontally, meant it was "good for keeping an eye on the kids."
Raising kids downtown has some distinct advantages, relates Mrs Saar. Regular visits to art galleries, proximity to cafes and shops, community centre yoga classes for mums and tots, and the ability to walk to amenities without the need for a second car are only a few.
"When you live downtown," relates Mrs. Saar, "it's an enriching experience for your kids. They play in the parks, absorb the culture, the architecture, the ambience. It's like the whole city becomes their backyard."