Photography by Ema Peter.
This home’s meticulous planning comes as no surprise: architect and homeowner Rafael Santa Ana had a decade to think about it.
Santa Ana and his partner, Megan Paris-Griffiths, are both longtime city dwellers—they made the leap to North Vancouver 10 years back. Frustrated with getting outbid for every starter home they went for in Vancouver proper, they saw a light at the end of the tunnel when a friend pointed them to a post-and-beam on the North Shore that had been on the market for three long months. A recent landslide in the neighbourhood had scared off the market... and opened up an opportunity for the young couple to get their foot in the door for home ownership.
Before the renovation.
It felt, says Santa Ana, like they’d won the lottery. “We couldn’t believe we could squeeze into the market,” he says. “We had trees! Never mind a roof—it was the trees that made it magical.”
They rented out the basement, and contemplated doing some quick renos to the upper floor where they lived, but ultimately decided they’d be better served by biding their time and fully investing in their dream home down the line. “We just thought, let’s do it right,” recalls Santa Ana. “Let’s ride it out until we can afford to do exactly what we want.”
Because the original fireplace was doing some of the structural work, the monolithic hearth stayed put. Santa Ana gave it a coat of white paint and installed steel shelves on either side to modernize it.
And so, it wasn’t until last year that they were ready to officially take the leap. The couple who rented the basement—who had become great family friends over the years—moved on, allowing Santa Ana (principal of the eponymous Rafael Santa Ana Architect Workshop) to open his home up into the basement for the first time.
The 50-plus-year-old house had good bones, so instead of knocking it down, Santa Ana reinsulated it top to bottom and “made the best of it by respecting what was already there,” he says. As a result, the exterior looks pretty much the same as when they bought it back in 2009—though they did tone down the beige and brown palette and pump up the monochromatic black and white. That colour story is echoed inside the home, where white oak throughout and white walls offer a neutral backdrop for the family’s art collection and colourful furniture.
Natural light pours in through six skylights dotted across the home (well, seven if you count the port in the attic); every window is triple-glazed for maximum energy efficiency. (“We know better than to be nonchalant about the environment,” says Santa Ana.)
The bright-and-airy feeling is enhanced by the vaulted ceiling, which peaks at the top of the two-and-a-half-storey bank of shelves that forms the spine of the house. The cubby-filled structure creates space for a towering library, showcasing floor-to-ceiling books.
In the attic playroom, a small peekaboo window visually connects private spaces with public ones. “Those little moments, every house can have one,” says Santa Ana. “Every house can allow itself to be pierced through to have those visual connections.”
The former galley kitchen has been totally reimagined, from a tiny linoleum afterthought into the crown jewel of the home. “This is my mid-life crisis red convertible,” laughs Santa Ana. He also likens it to an airplane, filled with stealthy hidden compartments that hide the hood vent, plug-ins and coffee makers for a true sense of visual peace. A sleek pantry
cabinet slides out to allow easy access to both sides.
Before renovations even started on the main house, Santa Ana got to work on the matching treehouse in the backyard, conscious of building it in time for his growing kids—Carmen and Sebbie—to actually enjoy. The resulting structure is a sleek, asymmetrical box, with a corner window that mirrors the real house.
Now, the sink is paired with a ribbon window, and the ultra clean and sleek cabinetry and countertops hide everything neatly out of sight: maximum function with minimal design. “It doesn’t look like a kitchen; it feels like an extension of the living room,” says Santa Ana. “Everything just disappears.” Indeed, the space melds seamlessly with the dining area—which often turns into a de facto office space, as it’s the preferred spot for the kids to do homework and for Santa Ana to answer after-hours emails. “We all want to hang out here,” he says. “Anyone who walks in goes straight to the kitchen.”
“I’m not going to say the treehouse dictated the aesthetic, but if you think about it, there’s a bit of an echo,” he says. “It’s almost like a first draft of the house.” The structure is built right around the trunk, hugging the tree—a cleverly engineered supporting post will actually spin to level as the tree grows.
A dream home 10 years in the making allows for every detail to be meticulously selected to inspire joy, from the sleek kitchen to the tower of books to the dark-and-cozy spa-like bathroom. To Santa Ana, it was all worth the wait. “Every piece of hardware is something that makes you happy,” he says. “At this point in my life, there’s something to be said for opening a door and hearing how that hardware sounds, or when you feel the vacuum of air transiting.” The quality of light as it bounces off the wall, the clean lines of the handle-free cabinets: these are all quiet moments of light and peace that open up a world of possibilities. “With a lack of the stuff, you think: what else could this be if not that?”
More photos of this beautiful space below!
Carmen’s bedroom features a passageway to the attic. “I’ve always been a fan of houses with secret doors, where you could sneak into a different room,” says Santa Ana.
The stairs along the bookcase transition to a bench at its base; Carmen (12) perches here to dive into a book, while Sebbie (9) cozies up in an Eames chair at the bottom of the shelves. The white oak veneer boxes were custom-made by Precisionwerkz.
Bedrooms were kept at a small footprint to save more square footage for the common spaces. “These just need to be a little chamber to sleep; you don’t hang out there,” says Santa Ana.
In the bathroom, cream-coloured ceramic tiles on the floors and ceiling create a serene, luxurious feeling, though the materials themselves are “nothing fancy,” says Santa Ana. “High-end design doesn’t need to be expensive.”
The second bathroom is a swerve, decked out in blacks and charcoals for a “Darth Vader chamber” effect. “It’s the coziest place,” says the architect. “It deprives you of light but awakens your senses.”