The word downsizer typically refers to a retired senior citizen who moves into more diminutive digs after their kids have grown and gone, leaving too many empty bedrooms to clean. It rarely refers to someone such as Vancouver architect Michael Green, a fifty-something with two teenagers – son, Makalu, and daughter, Elsa – and a thriving career – in 2018, Katerra, a Silicon Valley company worth $3-billion bought Green’s eponymous firm but retained him as chief executive editor.
In 2017, however, Green, decided to downsize. His decision had nothing to do with suddenly struggling to climb a set of stairs or a secret plan to retire early.
Instead, “I didn’t want to have to commute by car any more,” he says. “I wanted to be able to bike everywhere. I also wanted my kids to be able to bike everywhere. I wanted them to develop a sense of freedom, to have mobility, something too many kids don’t get these days.”
So he and interior designer Sahra Samnani (his partner at the time, though the two have since parted ways) traded-in a sprawling, 3,500-square-foot place in a North Shore suburb for a 1,500-square-foot semi in Kits Point, a dense, beach-side neighbourhood close to downtown. “The house is only 13-feet wide on a 15-foot wide lot,” Mr. Green says. “But it’s in a flat, compact part of the city near a lot of amenities and without a lot of hills – great for cycling.”
In shrinking their space, he and Ms. Samnani (who Mr. Green credits with much of the design, especially the interiors), also committed to purging unnecessary possessions. The house has almost no decor, save for a few pieces of Inuit art, a simple collection of furniture and the odd potted plant. “It was like designing a boat,” Mr. Green says. “We had to maximize every square inch. We built a lot of storage into the walls and otherwise embraced calming, quiet interiors.”
In a way, Mr. Green’s mid-life purge is a return to his roots. “I was born in Baker Lake and lived for a long time in what is now Nunavut,” he says. “A few things about the experience had a deep impact on me. It taught me that materials are scarce and should be treasured, and that there is a beauty to living close to nature.”
As such, the overall palette is spare – concrete, steel and glass on the exterior, white walls inside. Throughout, it’s hard to escape natural light or a direct connection to the outdoors. Visitors enter through a lush, ground-floor garden, passing by the childrens’ rooms on their way up to a second-floor living/dining area that is book ended with twin terraces. The third-floor, sky-lit master suite has a similar outdoor lounge area (facing west for sunset views).
As an architect, Mr. Green is best known for pioneering tall buildings fabricated from wood. In 2016, he completed the tallest, all-timber structure in the United States – a seven-storey office in Minneapolis. One day, he dreams of erecting timber-framed skyscrapers (in 2015, he released plans to rebuild the Empire State building out of lumber; his TED Talk on wood skyscrapers has been viewed more than 1.3 million times). “I have a hard time with the concept that something can’t be done,” he says.
Although Mr. Green’s own residence sits squat, many of the most distinguishing, enriching details are wood. Beech cabinetry adds warmth to just about every room. A grand, Douglas fir staircase showcases how wood can be both strong and delicate at the same time: each step floats off a single, hefty lumber plank, slotted into place with elegant Japanese joinery to appear as though it’s cantilevering on its edge.
As pretty as they are, the stairs are also practical, constructed in such a way that avoid relying on the adjacent wall for structural support. “My place is a semi,” Mr. Green says. “I didn’t want the stairs to vibrate the walls every time someone walked up and down, annoying the neighbours.”
The consideration is likely appreciated as the neighbours probably had to put up with enough vibratory fuss during the renovation. The semi was originally built in the early 1980s, and “was strange inside,” Mr. Green says. “There were a lot of narrow stairs, lots of unnecessary levels and wasted floor space. Shag carpeting.” Virtually everything inside was ripped out and replaced, save for the studs holding up the side walls (though even those were updated with new seismic bracing).
Gutting a house of valuable building materials isn’t something a sustainability-minded designer such as Mr. Green takes for granted. That’s why he invested heavily in the remake (he would not discuss his budget, though he admits to spending more than he expected), and why he and Ms. Samnani took pains to envision an aesthetic that wouldn’t feel dated within a generation.
“On a philosophical level, as an architect, I wasn’t thinking of making a house for the next five years,” Mr. Green says. “I was thinking about something that would last for the next 50 years, the next 500 years. I always try to design thinking of my great grandchildren. They don’t exist yet, but one day I imagine that they will benefit from inheriting something well-made – something of quality.”
As far as Mr. Green feels about the downsize a couple of years later, “I love it,” he says. “Something else I learned in Baker Lake is that it’s important to have a sense of adventure. I grew up dog sledding, hiking, having fun. I like to try new things.”
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