“I don’t get it,” said one passerby back in 2018 as he walked past this home in its near-completion stage and checked out the boldly colourful shingles installed in their angled, pixel-like pattern on the home’s exterior. The general contractor started to explain the vision—a study in contrasts, the layers that start outside and make their way inward, the exploration of materiality that’s in everything from the design of the cabinet pulls to the precise patterning of those shingles. “Oh no, you don’t understand,” said the man, smiling. “I don’t want to get it.”

Designed by the team at Measured Architecture led by Clinton Cuddington (and now completed and happily occupied by a family of four), It’s a home meant to challenge the everyday ideas of what a house is supposed to look like in this east side neighbourhood of Vancouver—but It’s also meant to delight, to surprise, to be a welcome and neighbourly addition to these streets, just as its owners hoped it would be. The double pitched roof on the building: that’s classic East Van. The pixelated front? That’s less so: at least not yet. But It’s meant to push the local narrative a few inches. “The most important thing is that the clients wanted and had the courage to do something interesting,” says Cuddington. “They wanted to play with a multitude of materials and colours, but they did not want it to be perceived as the mothership landing.”  It should be fresh and interesting—but not alien.

Shift House, as Cuddington came to call it, was so named for its modern take on the classic Vancouver Special design. The property descends 10 feet from street side to backyard: from the front door, there’s a main level pod of home office and a guest room. The sleeping quarters are up from that, along with a roof deck for hanging laundry and catching afternoon sun. And a full storey below that entranceway is the main living space: the kitchen and living area, both on-grade thanks to the sloped property. “You are able to get these incredible ceiling heights you wouldn’t typically get at a basement level,” says Cuddington.

The layout also flips the main orientation from front to back—the main living spaces look out onto the shingled, similarly pixelated exterior of a laneway home. “The rear is the new front, with the laneway and the house,” says Cuddington. “It’s much like you would see in Mexico, with an internal courtyard. All the facades are about the internal workings of the home, rather than what presents to the street.”

The playful exterior that stops people on the street is a teaser of what’s to come inside. Materials reign, and the coarse, unrefined and builderly is as celebrated as the elevated and refined. Throughout, both the homeowners and the team at Measured were keen to use rotary-cut plywood, a low-grade material for millwork that would typically be found in substrate floors or in a more practical setting like a garage. “It was exciting to take a lowbrow material and elevate it, the adjacency of low with high,” says Cuddington. He points to the Vancouver Art Gallery’s Cabin Fever exhibit of a few years ago, where Carrara marble was set on a step within a concrete surround, as inspiration to introduce low-brow materials detailed in a considered way. (In fact, Cuddington hired the same millworkers from the show to execute the design here. “We knew they knew how to coax these materials that are not traditionally used in millworking,” he says.)

“If you’ve going to use a material that is mundane, or builderly,” says Cuddington, “you need something special flanking it. It elevates one and diminishes the other, which is really important. Nothing reads as overly precious.” In the kitchen, for example, handmade tiles from Fireclay pair with both plywood cabinetry and exposed 2-by-6 nail-laminated timber. Ceramic sconces and pendant lighting made in collaboration with local artist Heather Dahl bring in the handmade, softening the more functional materials that make up the space.

The playful design translates into literal spaces for play, too. On the upper level, there is an opening in the walls for the kids to jump through, from one bedroom to the next. Another space requires a ladder to pop up to a meshed-in play area that peeks over the entranceway. Each “hole” is lined with soft felt for durability (and to prevent any knocked-out teeth, jokes Cuddington).

there’sa kind of magic that happens when client and architect are speaking the same language, as they did in this home. “The owners had the courage to make a family home for them, rather than for a perceived buyer,” says Cuddington. It’s a home that causes passersby to puzzle a little, but be satisfied with the questions it leaves them with—and that hopefully inspires more designers  and owners to be courageous in future builds, too.

Originally published March 18, 2020