A typical architect profile might take an interesting tidbit from the subject’s past—say, they worked at Dairy Queen growing up—and extrapolate it into an ongoing thread in the story. For example: “As a young man crafting Blizzards, so-and-so learned the importance of both customization and stability...”
But what to make of Kevin Vallely, who, when asked about his extracurricular interests, reluctantly offers that he’s an internationally recognized explorer who once set a record for the fastest trek across Antarctica. He doesn’t include that he’s also part of the first team to ski the Iditarod Trail or that he has written a book about rowing through the Northwest Passage. It’s abundantly clear we’re not in Peanut Buster Parfait territory here.
The staircase in the Bridge House acts as a visual spine: an extension of the bridge that connects the upper level with the backyard on the sloped site.
But a flip through the portfolio of this year’s Arthur Erickson Memorial Award winner illustrates that this is a body of work stemming from an individual who definitely marches (or skis, or rows, or drafts) to the beat of his own drum. The Montreal native graduated at the top of his class at McGill’s School of Architecture and, after a semester at Cambridge and a series of jobs at architectural firms in Quebec, a vacation out in B.C. changed everything. “I recall hiking up Black Tusk and just looking around and thinking, ‘Oh my god, I have to move here,’” he says.
Whereas many would hem and haw and fret about giving up a steady architect’s job, Vallely simply made the change—a decisiveness that threads through all of his work and, for that matter, his life. He worked with a number of firms but early on knew that it was always with an eye to going out on his own: “I’ve always wanted to chart my own course,” he says.
Vallely’s Bridge House features many of the architect’s favourite motifs: a love of steel tempered with the warmth of wood, a design that emphasizes the natural surroundings and a close relationship with the owners, who put their faith in him to pull off such an ambitious design.
There are sacrifices that flow from this sort of focus, of course. For starters, he acknowledges with a laugh, he’s an architect in his 50s who is winning an award for emerging talent. But the road bumps have been a small price to pay for someone who candidly rejects the idea that practicing architecture with a combination of single-minded focus and crazy hours is what results in the best environment for tapping into creativity. For Vallely, nothing compares to the clear mind and inspiration he feels when he returns to the office after one of his challenging explorations.
The Bridge House
It’s the sort of passion that birthed Wingspan, a low-budget, high-concept wonder that Vallely designed for a pair of close friends. The challenges of the site were many, chief among them an odd reverse-pie shape that was closely flanked by the neighbouring houses in a setting where the homeowners were wanting to feel alone and to capture the beautiful lake views. Vallely hit upon both by narrowing and highlighting the view ahead.
But while the concept (and execution) may be high-level, Vallely prides himself on flexibility as well: here, budget meant that the ceilings are made of simple plywood, stained and wearing the utility proudly. The homeowners got involved in staining the siding themselves, using a unique mixture of steel wool dissolved in vinegar to help achieve a beautiful patina right out of the gate. It’s a high-low symphony that impressed judge Omar Gandhi of Omar Gandhi Architect: “The Wingspan project is a brilliant composition of natural light, materiality and texture through both the architecture and landscape.”
The Bridge House
His Deep Cove House was also an exercise in intense co-operation with the owner, who was the builder as well. Here, the project started with a meditation on the rainforest: what were its strengths, weaknesses; what materials were well-suited for thriving in such an environment. As with Wingspan, Vallely began with siting, in this instance crafting an L-shaped design that embraces the surrounding forest and makes the residence feel like “it’s a million miles away from civilization.”
For rainforest-durable material, Vallely hit upon corrugated metal, which envelops the entire structure in a protective embrace. But what could be an exercise in utility is transformed by the little touches that are sprinkled throughout—beautiful wooden windows set off by the industrial nature of the metal, unexpected canting of walls, a showstopping spiral staircase that anchors the two floors.
The companion ”arms” of the Wingspan House create an ultra-private courtyard, but also serve to highlight the stunning view over Skaha Lake.
The Wingspan house itself channels an easygoing vibe, with raw steel and plywood being used in their natural forms.
That love affair with steel is expanded with the Bridge House, an engineering marvel in North Vancouver’s Pemberton Heights. Again, the explorer was presented with a challenge to conquer: a steep slope that was causing the two levels to feel disconnected from each other. The solution: a bridge that both physically and visually connects the upper level of the house with the rear yard.
But Vallely wasn’t finished—he continued the bridge inside the house, where it transforms into the central staircase, creating a spine that runs through and supports the entire building. And while visually disparate, all three homes share some Vallely hallmarks: a mix of hard and soft materials, a purpose-driven set of compelling moments and a deep collaboration with the homeowners. It’s the last of those that drives the architect: “If you convince the client to align with your visions, there’s nothing holding you back in residential architecture.”
It’s a view that Gandhi sees paying dividends in the future of the one-man firm: “The architectural accolades and accomplishments will come—I have absolutely no doubt.”
The Wingspan House
Architect Kevin Vallely