As the home popularly known as “the cube house” at Point Grey Road and Alma began to take shape last year, it inspired an unusually intense reaction from Vancouverites.
Both realtor and architect received angry e-mails and phone messages from people who complained it was boxy and lacked windows. Others extolled its minimalist virtues and hailed it a brave new look among a lot of repetitive house designs that have overtaken the city.
The black, galvanized steel-clad house at 3691 Point Grey Rd. is at last finished and hit the market this week. The realtor capitalized on the controversy by offering media tours Thursday, with architect Tony Robins on hand to explain his vision for the house.
Realtor Loren Dunsworth has been fielding questions from curious potential buyers since last summer. At the time, she expected to list it upon completion for $8.5-million to $10-million. But Vancouver prices have remained strong in the last year, so she listed the house this week at $14-million.
“I was shocked,” Mr. Robins says of his initial reaction to the price. “But now that I’ve looked around, I realize that it’s at a competitive [price] point.”
Ms. Dunsworth is showing the house by appointment over the weekend, with a realtor’s open house on Tuesday. She’s considering an open house later for local residents who are curious for a peak inside. They might be looky-loos, but they also might have friends who could afford the house, Mr. Robins points out.
“Oh, and boy do they look,” says Ms. Dunsworth says. “We were in here shooting [photographs] the other night, and everybody walking by had an opinion and they were all taking pictures. It’s pretty interesting. It really garners a lot of attention.”
Ms. Dunsworth will market the house internationally. She has another office in Los Angeles, a city that also attracts wealthy foreign buyers, but where the eyebrow-raising price tags are around $100-million. But she thinks the cube house will have more appeal to a local buyer, without small kids, considering the lack of a play area.
“Maybe an older couple, a single man or single woman, perhaps. Maybe a couple that has children that just come every second weekend. I could see something like that.”
As for the 29- to 39-per-cent price increase since last summer, she attributes that to the market, and the fact the house is finished.
“When you look at some of the stuff that has sold on this street in and around that [price], a lot of them aren’t anywhere near as special as this house.”
Inside, the 2,280 sq. ft., two-bedroom house with 3 1/2 bathrooms feels bigger than it appears from the outside – and it’s bright with natural light. The house is four stories, including a rooftop deck and basement garage, although it appears from the outside to be two storeys. There isn’t much space for a yard, but there is a view of boats and mountains, especially from the upper two levels.
Owner Ron Roadburg, a long-time property developer, has his Lamborghini, Bentley convertible and Range Rover in the four-car garage at the basement level.
Because the house is relatively small, every detail mattered, Mr. Robins says. There’s now a long reflection pool that runs along the west side of the house, and the landscaping is complete.
“That was the big difference,” he says of the finished look. “Nobody could see in my mind all the details.
“I’m really pleased,” he adds. “With every job, I don’t know what’s going to happen. Sometimes the clients are very prescriptive and I end up compromising. This time, I was very much respected. Ronnie just said, ‘do it,’ and he added a level to the budget that allowed these quality finishes to happen.”
Mr. Roadburg had purchased the property along with Mr. Robins’ plans, which he’d designed for the previous owner. Mr. Roadburg had originally considered living in the house, but decided to stay put in his other Point Grey Rd. house with better views. So, he gave Mr. Robins the creative freedom to design the entire house.
Mr. Roadburg, who owns Broadway Properties, says he has no concerns about the house selling.
He’s a fan of Mr. Robins’ work, and he “loved” that the house was different, with the combined elements of wood, metal, glass and stone.
“I see the house as something of an art piece,” he said in an e-mail. “Art provokes people. It is what it is supposed to do. It is meant to move people. Like any art, some people loved it and some did not. So was I surprised? No. It was a bit unfair that the handful of naysayers was judging it a year ago while it was still a construction site. What construction site is good looking?”
But most of the attention was positive, he adds.
“The more people that see the house, the better. We only need one person to fall in love with it. We only need one buyer.”
That buyer will want a lifestyle that combines an urban-feeling home with the surroundings of one of Vancouver’s most scenic neighbourhoods. The master bedroom on the third floor looks out onto a park and mountains. It has a wet bar and little fridge in the hallway. On the rooftop deck, there is a huge hot tub, outdoor kitchen and bathroom with shower.
From the outside it appears closed off, but inside, there is natural light in every room. Cutout squiggly shapes in a floor above the landing are patterned after a David Hockney pool painting. They emit light onto the landing below, and offer a floor detail above. A section of wall is origami shaped drywall.
The materials are clean, smooth and continuous throughout the house: four-foot grey porcelain tiles, edge-grain bleached oak, veined marble and walnut. There are quiet motorized blinds that roll down over the huge glass windows in the living area, creating instant privacy. The rooms are open and airy, the spaces wide. Even the elevator is glass.
Mr. Robins designed the interior kitchen island and built in cabinetry, and he staged the house with some of his own art. Many wealthy buyers purchase houses complete with art and furniture.
D’Arcy Jones is another successful designer of modern homes, and he says the cube house controversy stems from a conventional view of residential design. He says the house was designed as an inward-focused refuge on what used to be a busy road – before the city recently closed it off to car traffic. (That move generated a lot of blowback because so many of the houses are owned by well-connected, wealthy people, including developers.)
“Before Point Grey Road became a gated community, the road was an effective thoroughfare. I think on a highly visible corner on a busy street, its shape is a spare wrapper for bright interior spaces,” Mr. Jones says. “But simplicity and minimalism are not considered residential enough to many people.”
Instead, we tear down old houses to build replicas of the old ones.
“I think we are in a wacky era of eclecticism where a house should look like houses looked in 1920, but everyone has a super futuristic and minimal iPhone glued to their hand.”
Mr. Jones has built new houses and updated ugly ones. He undertook a major renovation design on an unremarkable 1980-circa house, and transformed a cookie-cutter 1990s condo. His ultra modern Friesen Wong House, on a steep lot in the middle of a suburban cul-de-sac, just won the Lieutenant Governor Medal of Excellence.
While more people throughout the city are appreciating original house design, there are challenges in a hot real estate market, he says. Most new house design is left up to builders and developers, and quality and design suffers.
“In Vancouver, the actual house or building is a tiny per cent of a property’s total value. If you isolate the house or the condo as a built object, Vancouver buyers generally settle for medium to mediocre quality construction. A boom is happening in an era when pretty flimsy construction is the norm. If old wood houses were being torn down and replaced with houses built to last 100-plus years, it would be harder to be critical of renewal.
“I think most buyers are just happy if a house is not gross or falling apart. Hopefully, over time, buyers will start expecting quality and good design.”
Also, a lot of building and zoning regulations stifle creativity, he says.
But the market for architect-designed modern houses is there. Mr. Robins says the majority of his clientele are long-time locals who know his work on residences and commercial buildings.
“People don’t come to me for two dimensions. They come to me because they’ve seen something like this,” he says, nodding toward the bright interior of the cube house.
His work isn’t over yet. Buyers at that price level often want changes.
“I’m very curious. I can’t wait, because I will have a new client. There will be things they want. They never buy it, and say, ‘that’s it.’ There are all kinds of things that can still be done.”