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This collaboration between designer Andrea McLean and architect Howard Airey is what happens when beach house dreams come true.
Sometimes, the person is right, and the timing is wrong. This is the moral of 50 percent of rom-coms, but also for one spectacular design project in the Kits Point neighbourhood of Vancouver.
Interior designer Andrea McLean was not particularly surprised when several years ago a design-industry acquaintance met with her about a potential project and then nothing came of it. Such is the life of interior designers: most consultation calls are just exploratory. But a few years later, she got another call from that same acquaintance—he had kept McLean’s name in his back pocket, and was now ready to commit to building his once-in-a-lifetime home with her help.
“This house was a dream for him and his wife—something they’d been planning a long, long time,” says McLean. The couple had been plotting and saving to tackle this project with zero compromises, and McLean was a key part of the plan. So too was storied architect Howard Airey and his firm the Airey Group.
This is where we leave the rom-com analogy and move into an “assemble the dream team” sort of montage. While Airey and McLean made a wonderful pair, the homeowners were vital collaborators, too. And the fact that they were involved in the design world made them more patient in that collaboration than most clients are, with a first-hand understanding of just how much construction can cost (in time and money). “Clients new to the custom residential process can be shocked,” says McLean. “Sometimes, as a designer, you have to be the bearer of bad news. It can be disheartening to have to share how much projects can cost and how long it’s going to take. But with these clients, we didn’t have to cushion the blow. We could just focus on design.”
Their guiding star for that design was the idea of an Australian beach house. “We ran every decision through that filter,” says McLean. Conceptual images from the homeowners included many Aussie projects, all ones that felt comfortable, natural and forgiving. So McLean and Airey set out to create a space that was open and airy, yet connected to the ground: embracing the sunshine and wind, and making the most out of a proximity to the beach and ocean air.
“Kits Point has a very specific sense of place,” says Airey. “You sense the beach, even though you’re not exactly there.” No wonder, then, that the home wound up with the nickname “Big Sky Beach House.”
The three-storey, 2,400-square-foot home was spacious, but the site offered some challenges in terms of achieving the floor plan they wanted. The standard 33-foot lot sat at the bottom of a T-shaped intersection, which sparked some concerns about privacy and on-coming headlights. The magic fix was a clever decision to swap the programming of the levels: bedrooms are now on the ground floor, hugged by a protective garden. Perched above it is a spacious second-storey living area that takes advantage of sweeping views—to the north, the sea; to the west, Kits Beach. “With this reserve plan, the open second floor isn’t impacted by an entry and mud room. It gets you off the street to pick up some views,” notes Airey. “You might’ve been able to get in a third bedroom with a different plan, but with this layout, the livability is way, way higher.”
Natural wood screens on the south-facing facade provide an additional layer of security and privacy (and give the home a distinctive street presence). “You can look at the narrowness as a challenge or an opportunity,” says Airey. “If you start considering it as a wide townhouse, it changes your whole perspective.” Pop a few windows on the side, create a courtyard to let the light into the main floor, and suddenly things don’t feel quite so cramped.
At the very top of the house is a smaller third floor, with roof decks on either side. The north-facing patio is designed with dining in mind, while the south-facing deck is ideal for taking in the late-day sun. The room between is what the homeowners call “the lookout,” outfitted with a linen Montauk sofa, linen wrap-around drapery and a television.
To achieve a casual feeling in Big Sky, the design team had to work within some surprisingly strict parameters. “One of the guidelines that the homeowner was very particular about was that all the plumbing had to be white: taps, showerheads,” says McLean. Appliances, too, were designated to be white or hidden.
“For me, in modern design, restraint is what you’re after, which is different from austere,” explains McLean. “If you could do a home in one material, that would be the ultimate exercise in restraint.” This can be hard to achieve, though, when you’re designing a kitchen, where necessity calls for many different products and materials. They got as close as possible, with a consistent language of flat-cut walnut millwork throughout the home: everything matches, from the bathroom vanity to the front door.
McLean and the homeowners were looking for a handmade look: Lauten Woodworking sourced extra-thick veneer and then wire-brushed the face so it looked and felt more like a textured piece of wood. “We were looking for a tactile experience; we didn’t want consistency in colour and tone, we wanted a one-of-a-kind look from board to board,” she says. All that warm millwork contrasts beautifully against crisp whites everywhere else. (The Corian countertop is white; ditto the integrated Corian sinks.)
The flooring has a unique texture, too. They poured a concrete floor, then ground off a deep layer to expose the aggregate inside. “There are little stones in there that give it a beach look,” says McLean.
The window coverings in Big Sky might seem like a finishing touch, but McLean actually sees the linen drapes from Cloth Studio as pivotal to the project. “They’re that fifth element,” she says. When all the sliding doors are open, the linens blow in the breeze. “Being able to see the wind just makes you feel cool; it gives it a sensibility of a coastal location.” The homeowners can adapt the windows as needed, opening the drapery or screens in mix-and-match configurations.
It’s a house that was years in the making—first, in the homeowners’ minds and hearts, and then through the inevitable construction slog—but today it invites anyone who steps through its doors to be fully present. After nearly a decade of will-they-won’t-they, these Vancouverites have found the One.
This story was originally published in the January/February 2024 issue of Western Living magazine.
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