“The job of the architect today is to create beautiful buildings. That’s all,” said modernist Glass House architect Philip Johnson in 1965. But Vancouver designer Sean Pearson thinks that’s not the whole picture. The job of the designer today should also factor in budget. “Everyone deserves good design,” says the director of RUFproject. “As designers, we often work for people who have a lot of money, but we also take on work for people who simply love design yet maybe have more down-to-earth budgets."
Enter this 824-square-foot Dunbar laneway house, which was built all-in for $390,000—no small feat when the average Vancouver laneway build runs anywhere from $500,000-$700,000. "I know in my gut, it was an incredible result for that money in our Vancouver market," says the designer.
Perhaps Pearson’s unconventional thinking is, in part, due to his unconventional background. After receiving his Masters of Architecture in Winnipeg, he went on to work at the award-winning Hopkins Architects in the UK followed by Jump Studios, a collective of architects, designers and makers redefining the built environment to break down barriers. That experience brought him to Nike for four years where he led the environmental brand design team as Design Director in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. Eventually, he returned to Canada and settled in Vancouver where he’s headed up his firm for close to a decade and a half.
“But affordability is a big issue in Vancouver,” says Pearson. “For good or bad, the traditional single family house is fading away.” As such, the future of housing now lies in varied approaches: “the City has already implemented the duplex policy, the laneway policy and now multi-unit builds—we have to come up with clever solutions that don’t lose the character of a building or alienate neighbours, but still push forward design-wise and push into the modern era.” Pearson insists that good design can and should be within reach of normal families.
The normal family of this laneway wanted something simple yet stunning, but also couldn’t deviate from their budget. Adding a laneway to their property would help with income and had the added benefit of possibly inspiring design improvements to their main house in the future. “Their house is maybe not the greatest and so we wanted to nudge them with something ‘quiet’ and ‘beautiful’,” says Pearson. “If we built something that inspired them, they could renovate their house to sync with the laneway.”
Pearson didn’t want to build a ‘spaceship’ that wasn’t sympathetic to its surroundings, however. It needed to have a relationship with the lane and the existing house in mass, scale, materials and proportions. And "it’s about using the space efficiently,” says Pearson of the laneway’s overall 824 square feet over two floors. “It feels really big even though it’s small.” RUFproject doesn’t normally design pitched roofs, but it made sense here in order to carve out more space. The 12’ vaulted ceiling with central beam drops to just 5 feet on the sides: the City doesn’t count square footage under 7 feet so Pearson was able to make the room feel more spacious without sacrificing space elsewhere.
The vaulted ceiling allowed for a massive 8’ window oriented to the lane; its large scale creates a constant sense of daylight and engagement with the outdoors—as well as takes advantage of a sliver of mountain view. Windows for the entire home cost $7,500 instead of much more for higher-end systems that are typically used in luxury houses. “It takes hard work to find deals on things, but it’s also about ongoing, open dialogue collaborative decisions that save money in the construction process,” says Pearson.
Other areas where budgets were taken into consideration: LED lighting can drive costs up, so smaller overhead electric lights were installed. Baseboard heat worked for the small space. (“In an ideal world, we’d use in-floor radiant heat, but in this case you have to compromise,” says Pearson.)
Navigating the City, operating on a tight budget and working with clients and builders isn’t always easy. “That’s where our relationship with the contractor is also crucial,” says Pearson. “Toby of Visionbuilt Homes was really clever and he was up for the task.” The project was very much a partnership with everyone on board working to achieve a "really beautiful design for a good price,” says Pearson. “That requires some legwork, but if you’re a good designer, you can spend the money wisely and you can come up with creative solutions.” In the end, the clients were thrilled and their funds weren't depleted: “It’s exactly what we wanted—we just didn’t know it,” they said.
Big Windows Create Big Effect
Because the lot was sloped, Pearson had to think out-of-the-box. The living space now sits on the top floor while two bedrooms and a bathroom sit at ground level, but still open full-height to the backyard. “It makes a lot of sense in Vancouver to do this,” explains Pearson. “You spend most of your life in your living space, which is where you want the best views and best light.” Using a local window supplier, Westcoast Windows, helped saved tens of thousands of dollars.
Modify Ikea Cabinets to Save Money
To help keep costs down, RUFproject used Ikea components and modified them in the kitchen (as well as the bathroom vanity). “Millwork boxes are quite expensive, but Ikea has them down to a science at about $30 a box,” explains Pearson. “You just put on your own door and counter it and it looks integrated and premium—it’s a good trick we do a lot.” The custom Corian counter features a ½” thin edge for a modern profile.
Spend Big on Small Details
On the backside of the kitchen (“the back of Ikea cabinets aren’t all that pretty,” says Pearson), RUFproject built a custom slatted relief wall, which they would typically build in their high-end projects. In here, it’s a small area, but offers dramatic impact.
Get The Look of Premium Design with This Trick
The no-baseboard design comes courtesy of a drywall channel that separates the wall from the ground (it gives the drywaller a sharp line to mud to). “It’s a sneaky way of creating a similar integrated hard edge design from a premium project,” explains Pearson. And “we always use Snowfall White from Benjamin Moore,” says Pearson. “It’s low VOC, looks great in ultra matte and is fully washable.”
Pay Attention to the Outside
“From that street, you wouldn’t even know there’s another level below,” says the designer of the unobtrusive and discreet laneway. Minimal overhangs, custom ease troughs and shingle siding give the structure a cottage-y feel. On a premium project, RUF might mitre the shingles; in this case, there’s a trim instead. “We wanted the roof to be flush with the siding, but it comes out an inch—ultimately it still looks good and modern.”
Swap Out the Stainless Sink for Durable Granite Composite
The white Blanco tap is one of the designer's favourite go-tos. Also, “I’ve moved away from stainless steel sinks because they scratch,” he says. Instead, he prefers SILGRANIT sinks from Blanco—they’re a durable granite composite that won’t scratch or stain and can be made to match your countertop, including this white on white pairing. They also come in a better price point than stainless steel. The white oak engineered flooring came from a local supplier and cost between $5-$7/sq ft instead of the typical $12-$20 sq ft. And while ANDlight's Spotlight Volumes series pendant by Lucas Peet isn't the cheapest the designer could find, “we love supporting local as much as we can." Pearson has used that same light in other high-end projects, which shows you don't have to sacrifice good design when you're on a budget.