How West Coast Modern Made it to the Edge of Palgrave

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At Home in the Hills, Departments, The Current Issue

March 20, 2017

Amid farmhouses and Victorian gothic, this sleek West Coast Modern design stands out in style.

West Coast Modern finds a home in the hills. A private balcony off the master bedroom is ideal for morning coffee. Photo by Pam Purves.

For many people, home is an anchor. It is the magnet for a grown family. It is the one steady place in an unsteady world. And when you love home, you are possibly more appreciative of what makes it a place you really want to be. It is a built biography, a place that reflects you, your interests, your values and standards. So when Larry and Barbara decided to build a house, it was worth thinking beyond its practical requirements to the ideas they wanted their home to express.

The house south of Palgrave was years in the planning and a year in the making. One of its philosophical cornerstones is an appreciation of nature and a desire to blend into the environment. Another is a love of friends and family and the desire to create a place that makes them welcome. The third is to be in harmony with the seasons, both practically and aesthetically.

The massive front door has been designed to swing on a central pivot. The lightest touch opens and closes it. Photo by Pam Purves.

The massive front door has been designed to swing on a central pivot. The lightest touch opens and closes it. Photo by Pam Purves.

The nine-acre property includes a small creek and ravine. Although it is located in an executive subdivision, it is entirely private – away from outside eyes, with views only of garden, forest and rolling contours.

This is truly a “dream house.” Larry and Barbara spent years looking at architectural styles and properties and put together a wish book. It became their guide as they interviewed architects for the project. In their chosen architect, John Hix of John Hix Studios in Tottenham and Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, they found a likeminded partner.

West Coast Modern finds a home in the hills

Consistent with Hix’s principle of respecting the environment, the home was designed to conserve energy by using materials that take the climate into account. Hix and the owners collaborated to create an open-concept plan and they designed a roof that helps reduce the use of heating and air conditioning by drawing as much heat as possible from the winter sun while protecting rooms from the sun’s heat in summer. Using three basic materials – stone, glass and wood – Hix created a home that owes much to West Coast styles and Frank Lloyd Wright. The ceilings are high. Some walls are almost entirely glass.

Much more complex than a conventional structure, the construction posed considerable challenges in the search for the right contractor. In fact, it was too much for the first contractor who thoughtfully resigned when he felt the project had beaten him. Larry and Barbara then hired a project manager, and worked with him to hire each trade. The project manager was on-site every day, and Hix visited every Friday.

Nothing is standard in this home. Each panel of the complex copper roof was painstakingly fabricated at the site. The exterior of the home is clad in stone and Spanish cedar, a wood that resists moisture and rot but is expensive. Spanish cedar was also used for the window frames and to panel the wine cellar – and every piece was milled on-site. This wood for the wine cellar was selected because it does not off-gas a fragrance that could affect the wine.

Such demands required everyone on the team to think creatively. Hix was their Friday taskmaster. Anything slightly off was redone. The owners say all the trades rose to the challenge. They took great pride in their work, and many brought their families to show off the results.

The home is roughly T-shaped, with the living, dining and kitchen spaces at the junction of two wings. The generous foyer is reached through an enormous pivoting main door and leads to a wide set of stairs that rise to the living and dining areas. A narrower hallway off one side leads to the west wing, which includes an office-den, as well as the master bedroom with ensuite bath and balcony. Another hall leads off the dining room to two guest bedrooms in the south wing. A wide hanging stairway sweeps down to the recreation area and wine cellar on the lower level, which opens to a generous terrace.

The house is essentially a T-shape. This side shows how a courtyard is created with walls on one side and plantings on the other. Photo by Pam Purves.

The house is essentially a T-shape. This side shows how a courtyard is created with walls on one side and plantings on the other. Photo by Pam Purves.

The interior, designed by Norma King Design, features maple floors and cabinets. King also designed much of the furniture, using Frank Lloyd Wright designs as her template. Her son Robert and daughters Karen and Jasmine worked on the interior colour palette: soft oatmeals and creams. Hix and his associate Mike Poitras designed the lighting.

It is an elegant house. The lines are clean. The sightlines are long. The materials echo what is visible outdoors through the many windows.

To settle the house firmly into its woodland setting, landscape architect Robert Hosler and master gardener Paul Ehnes, both now retired, joined forces to create a meandering landscape of flowering and green shrubs and perennials. These drift around the house, creating an undulating landscape that resolves seamlessly into the woodland.

Hosler recommended ‘Sunburst’ honey locust trees to provide shade on the terrace throughout the summer and fall. Flowering perennials bloom successively from the end of one winter to the beginning of the next. On a south-facing bank, a small vineyard and fruit-bearing shrubs provide a buffet for local critters. The gardens are immaculately maintained by Sheilagh Crandall, owner of MsPlants, and senior staffer Gail Morrison. This is a home that offers visual joys in all seasons.

Larry and Barbara took advantage of a Peel Region program, Water Smart Peel, which provided an analysis of how much water was needed in various areas of the garden – enabling them to adjust the sprinkler system to provide just the right amount. During last summer’s drought, the garden stayed lush with very little water use. Part of the genius of this house is that there are no rain gutters. Instead, the roof has openings fitted with chains that hang to the ground. Rainwater runs down the chains into catch basins and then disperses to the grounds.

Although the house is a modernist gem that could easily be found in the pages of architectural magazines, it is also rugged and easy to maintain. Kids, dogs and friends can enjoy it with no fear of causing damage.

In a note about what their home means to them, Larry and Barbara write, “It successfully captures the essence of what we wanted to achieve. A design that is open, has great views, is welcoming and blends well with nature and its natural setting. Cool in the summer and warm in the winter, our place is a very happy place, comforting and satisfying and a great retreat for our family.”

Freelance photographer and writer Pam Purves lives in Caledon.

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