Don’t worry if you don’t immediately recognize the name Simon Montgomery. The eponymous design studio of this year’s newly crowned Architectural Designer of the Year is barely five years old, and only one of Montgomery’s projects has featured previously in our pages. Yet, as it turns out, there’s quite a lot of work that goes into becoming an overnight sensation.

Simon Montgomery of SMStudio. (Photo by Kyoko Fierro)

For Montgomery, it all began while he was still studying for his master’s in architecture at UBC. He managed to parlay a background in construction into a summer job at the studio of the legendary Peter Cardew, where his hands-on experience endeared him to the meticulous architect (a man who was known to do up to 100 sketches of a particular detail before he was happy with the result). Upon graduation, Montgomery joined Cardew’s office with a challenging apprenticeship in the exacting pursuit of, well, design perfection. “Peter was the first to show me just how much complexity goes into minimalist design,” recalls Montgomery.

Simon Montgomery of SMStudio is open to using non-traditional methods to solve traditional problems. In this East Vancouver house, he moved the main living area to the top floor to take advantage of the views, and then used industrial grade, fire-retardant HardiePanel cladding to deal with setback issues. (Photo by Ema Peter)
Photo by Ema Peter

But sometimes working for a legend means there’s limited opportunity to claw out some creative control, so, after four years, it was time to move on: to the office of Vancouver’s Evoke International Design, the multidisciplinary practice (and two-time DOTY winner, in 2008 and 2019). Here, under the tutelage of principal David Nicolay, Montgomery was exposed to a whole new slew of opportunities: restaurant design, single-family dwellings and serving as local liaison for a famous international architect who was designing a masterpiece in Whistler. “My time there was very much a collaborative, best-idea-wins environment,” says Montgomery, who recalls finding himself as design lead on numerous vibrant projects. It was the type of rewarding, supportive environment that most young designers can only dream of. Eventually, however, he left to start his own firm and to finally “chase the allure of pure creative freedom,” a sentiment he now chuckles at with the perspective of someone with a half-decade of experience in the grinding realities of running your own firm.

Design Brief A love of clean lines and a spare palette have Montgomery firmly in the minimalism camp, but he’s always open to being playful in his work—like taking the opportunity to feature a subterranean viewing window in the backyard pool. (Photo by Ema Peter)

The two valuable but disparate apprenticeships helped hone the vision of a residential designer who is deeply committed to the rigours of minimalism while simultaneously embracing his clients’ visions. The result of these two seeming solitudes is a body of work that absolutely wowed our judges. There’s a “gorgeous use of materials, fearless statements, but restrained realization… a hard combination to do well,” lavished judge Balazs Bogner, partner at Kengo Kuma and Associates. “Warmth of materials, dark colours deferential to surrounding forest, subtle manipulation of traditional techniques in fresh ways.”

Forest House. Much of Montgomery’s work can be found around Howe Sound and his designs—like this Bowen Island cabin (pictured here and below)—seamlessly integrate nature and building. (Photo by Luis Valdizon)
Forest House. Photo by Luis Valdizon

Take the design for Forest House, a thoughtful treatise on minimalism on Bowen Island. Montgomery spent much of his youth on the island, so when he took the dirt road to the site, he already knew there would be great potential. Both he and the clients shared a great reverence for the natural beauty of the siting, so, where some designers might have blasted the lot to carve out a flat site suitable for a textbook “modern” house, Montgomery chose to meticulously study the lot—elevations, light, wind—in order to work with the existing topography. The result is a house, literally perched atop the rocky lot, that comprises two buildings—one a carport and studio, one for living—floating above the natural bedrock. Inside, a warm palette of Douglas fir brings softness to the rigour of clean lines, while substantial glazing allows in abundant light and frames the superlative views.

Not all projects starts with a blank page: in his Island Cabin project, Montgomery had to create some modern unity in a beloved family cabin that had been relentlessly renoed in the preceding decades. Photo by Luis Valdizon

But for a young designer, not everything is tabula rasa. Not far from Forest House is Island Cabin, a careful stewardship of a family cabin that had been Frankensteined by three previous renos and that was sporting an interior bridge as a design feature. This was design surgery aimed at harmonizing the disjointed result into a common ethos. What was cluttered and confusing is now airy and bright, but with its 1950s DNA still very much intact. The space is vibrant and contemporary, and it was all accomplished without the advantage of unlimited funds.

Island Cabin. Photo by Luis Valdizon

And when faced with the 33-by-125 strictures of an urban city lot, the firm achieves results that are just as spectacular, as the unconventional East Van Residence illustrates. An inverted floor plan sees the bedrooms on the entry level with a second storey maximized to take in the light and views thanks to the creative use of LVL beams that span the space. Montgomery further harnesses technology by using non-traditional (and non-combustible) HardiePanel cladding to meet strict building codes. But ask any 10-year-old architectural critic in the neighbourhood what their fave feature of the house is and you’ll no doubt hear about the ultra-cool subterranean viewing window into the family’s backyard pool—a not-insignificant challenge for Montgomery to add to the project. It’s a small moment that underscores work that judge Clinton Cuddington of Measured Architecture called “stunningly playful” and “a perfect balance of levity and gravity.

It all adds up to a wide-ranging practice that seems wise beyond its modest years—a stunning debut decades in the making.

Q&A with Western Living’s 2023 Architect of the Year Simon Montgomery of SMStudio

What’s your go-to material of choice?

Douglas fir, for its inherent natural beauty, strength and durability. Further, it is a local and sustainable material.

What books are on your nightstand?

Architecture, Culture and Spirituality by Thomas Barrie and Julio Bermudez. Shoe Dog: A Memoir by Phil Knight.

Any podcasts you follow?

Smartless is fun.

Was there a childhood moment that hinted design was in your future?

I recently re-discovered childhood sketches of a primitive floor plan of a house, complete with secret cave and moat. Maybe that was the beginning?

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READ MORE: Meet the Winners of Western Living’s 2023 Designers of the Year Awards