Reimagining a “Vancouver Special”: 430 House

D’Arcy Jones is the award-winning founder of D’Arcy Jones Architecture, a Vancouver firm renowned for its work on art galleries, modern residences, landscaping, and interiors throughout British Columbia. His work can sometimes appear to be as geometric and organized as fine origami, with angular spaces that seem to function as a distant epilogue to Brutalism; a chapter of the same story, but wonderfully refined and reimagined, honoring the landscape instead of simply occupying it.

Jones’ firm was the recipient of Vancouver’s 2016 Urban Design Award for his work on 430 House, a sleek residence filled with natural light and open, airy spaces. We recently had the opportunity to speak with Jones about the work and inspiration behind 430.

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How do you work with a client to settle upon a project vision?

With the 430 House, we started working with an awkward and poorly maintained “Vancouver Special”, a housing type from the 1970s and early 1980s that is not well loved, since they are dark, completely engulf the lot, and have their living areas on the upper level. So on this house and all other projects, we always work from the inside out. We start with placing spaces where they suit the client and site. For example, if someone is a light sleeper, morning light beaming in will be annoying. If a client is an early riser, a dining and living area that faces east will be cheery. If a client’s life is more focused on the evening meal and cocktail hour, a dining and living area facing west to enjoy the later part of the day will be preferred. The exterior design that creates a building’s form and shape first comes from inside. Materials that suit the client and site are paired with an exterior design process where we play with sculptural and expressive forms and shapes.

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What is your personal design process — from what or where do you draw inspiration?

I am inspired by everything that is not trendy. Buildings and shelter are thousands of years old, so the most enduring and timeless ways of making people feel good inside their architecture has most likely been done before. So I am drawn to ancient ways of creating space, combined with the best of modern technology and energy efficiency.

What was the inspiration for the house’s exterior?

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The exterior already had that shape, but we tidied up the windows, so they feel like one meandering and continuous window that moves around the front facade to bring in light and create exterior views finely tuned to the family room, exercise room, and living room at the interior. At the back of the house, the client wanted max solar shading and privacy to block view of an unsightly urban lane. So we used commercial exhaust grills used in restaurants and parkades to make a wall of louvers.

What were the client’s main requirements of the kitchen — hosting, cooking, easy cleaning, etc.? How did you achieve this?

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One client has Italian heritage, so we were asked to bring in a slab of Cararra marble as a feature. We used it as a sculpture, with durable quartz countertops everywhere else. The client is an avid and talented chef, but likes the kitchen to clean up very easily, with ample storage for everything. At one end of the kitchen is the TV area for adults, completely hidden behind doors so the technology is hidden. We think technology is tacky to see, so we always make a big effort to hide it.

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In the living room, how did you land upon this particular fireplace?

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It was there already as a wood burning unit. Wood burning fireplaces are not allowed with new building codes, but existing ones are permitted. We re-built it to draw smoke better, and have a longer and lower proportion. We custom designed a hearth and firewood storage unit out of one continuous sheet of raw steel.

Was the furniture newly selected for this house or are these pieces the clients had accumulated over time?

We helped them buy a sofa, but otherwise the clients already owned all of the furniture.

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What made you choose to forgo storage under the staircase, leaving that space open?

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We wanted the space to be more open, since Vancouver Specials tend to narrowness. So leaving it open makes the centre of the house feel less pinched, less hall-like.

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What materials were used in the flooring and finishes throughout?

The floors are ground concrete, exposing the rocks of the concrete mix. The top floor has white oak flooring. The cabinets are white lacquer or white oak veneer. Across the stair opening, to leave more headroom we installed a raw steel bridge to the laundry room, matched to the fireplace hearth and matched to a backyard gate.

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Many of the tones throughout the house are neutral. How did you land on the beautiful green colour of the washroom tile?

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We used natural glass tile here, so the green tinge is just the natural hue of glass. We did not add colour to the house in any form; we just let the colours come from the materials in their raw form.

Finally, what was your vision for the landscaping of the backyard?

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We didn’t want a lawn to mow, so we worked with Botanica Design to come up with a serene and almost wild landscape, full of waving grasses, junipers from the 1970s, and Sarcococca, giving a nod to the house’s 1970s vintage, but creating texture and seasonal colour that is minimal and classic.

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All photos courtesy of D’Arcy Jones Architecture.