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The owners of the Ernst house in Whistler, B.C. make the most of its 2,340 square feet by using rooms for multiple purposes. -Ernst-Ongman (D'Arcy Jones Design Inc.)
The owners of the Ernst house in Whistler, B.C. make the most of its 2,340 square feet by using rooms for multiple purposes. -Ernst-Ongman (D'Arcy Jones Design Inc.)


Good things, small packages Add to ...

For the past 20 years, North American house sizes have been ballooning to the point where, in the luxury market, 8,000 square feet is considered average and 4,000 square feet a pied-à-terre. But a Vancouver architect is tapping into what he sees as an underserved niche market: moneyed clients who want to live in a normal-sized house.

D'Arcy Jones is focusing his young Vancouver practice on maxing out the quality and efficiency of homes of about 2,000 square feet. "It's easy to get numb to the request that you have to think about resale, to the point that no one is building a house for their own function and enjoyment, but for the 'imagined buyer.'" And the imagined buyer, Mr. Jones says, is likely going to be someone pretty much like you. So he advises: "Quit being so timid and think about what you really need."

Mr. Jones walks the talk. He has renovated his Vancouver office, in a South Main heritage building, into a compact 100-square-feet gem. He's also currently renovating his house to accommodate a spouse and three kids in 1,200 square feet of living space. In a similar vein, he's developing a client base that's keenly supportive of using design, rather than brute size, to generate impressive living quarters.

During a recent site tour on Point Grey Road, Mr. Jones explained a strategic layout. The main rooms will pinwheel around a glass-walled courtyard filled with lush green plants. Instead of a space-wasting, privacy-deficient outside decks, the interior space will creep right up to the precipitous sandstone bank face, and its glass panels, which open, will transform the inside into a kind of giant covered deck over the ocean. The profusion of glass walls and openness will generate sky, foliage and water views from so many vantage points, the house will feel more expansive than the typical monster house.

Clients Andy and Jean Lynch are a couple who capitalized over the years on successive real estate transactions, and wanted to make a final move into a compact, custom, ecological-minded home designed just for them, with room for weeklong visits from two grown-up daughters and four grandchildren. A stunning 33-foot-wide oceanfront lot close to downtown, bought last year for $4.8-million, plus a million-dollar construction budget resulted in a new 1,984-square-foot two bedroom plus den home.

On this stretch of ocean frontage, the allowable square footage usually maxes out at 1,990 square feet. But anyone who has almost $6-million to drop on a house can afford to build a 12,000-square-foot McMansion somewhere in Vancouver. The Lynches refused to buy into that game. "I just like a house where you can live in all of it," Mr. Lynch says, "not one of those houses where you end up wandering into strange rooms." Plus, as ecologically minded citizens - he is a former environmental laboratory director for the B.C. government - they felt a responsibility to have a home "on the green side of normal," Ms. Lynch says.

Re/Max Crest Realty agent Gregg Close, who sold the lot last year to the Lynches, has noticed a slight contracting of the supersizing obsession. "It's not quite as insane as it used to be," he says. "They're putting down a modest 7,000 or 8,000 square feet when they could be building double that size."

Eight thousand square feet for a single-family home, modest? It's all relative, Mr. Close says. "When I started out 20 years ago, 2,500 square feet was all you needed." Then came new spaces such as the "media room," along with the international discovery of Vancouver. "There came a time when you had to max it out, because of the foreign investment. You'd have the same number of rooms, just much bigger."

But these days, Mr. Close says, buyers are building for themselves rather than for resale. What's more, even investor-buyers are finding that the offshore crowd is becoming more accepting of the idea that bigger doesn't always mean better. Despite working in the epicentre of high-end, high-square-footage real estate, Mr. Close concludes: "People just basically live in three rooms. Anything over 5,000 square feet is nutty."

Two other of Mr. Jones's clients have chosen to keep it compact on the architect's recommendation. The Ernst-Ongman house in Whistler and the Anderson house on Saltspring Island clock in at 2,340 and 1,585 square feet respectively - roughly half of their allowable square footage. The compactness is not financially driven - both projects have healthy per-square-foot budgets of $375 - but one of ideology. Like the Lynches, these clients know their own minds and are confident in their own tastes. Both primary residences with ambitious programs, the houses have been kept small in part by multipurposing much of the interior space. The Anderson house features an office that also serves as a guest room; the Ernst-Ongman house triple-purposes one space as a tatami room (for traditional tea service and quiet meditation), media room and secondary guest room.

On a broader scale, it's hard to shift the paradigm now: The system has a built-in incentive toward architectural supersizing in the form of percentage-based fee schedules - the design fees tend to rise in tandem with the square footage. Mr. Jones compensates by combining a base fee with an hourly rate for construction drawings. Even so, he knows he's giving up a sizable commission by emphasizing design over square footage. "It's a matter of doing what you like every day," he shrugs. "I'm just personally not interested in detailing a behemoth."

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