A pair of architects gives an Arthur Erickson-designed loft a new lease on life€”and whole lot of love.

Architect Jeremy Sturgess’s stepmother is notoriously hard to buy gifts for. So when the Alberta-based creative discovered the perfect tea towel while visiting Granville Island’s Circle Craft Gallery, he snapped it up to give her at Christmas. It depicted a survey drawing of downtown Vancouver circa 1891—a nod to Sturgess’s own city drawings from the Calgary practice he shares with his architect wife, Lesley Beale.

But he couldn’t have known just how perfect it would be: it turned out that the tea towel print was actually a drawing by Sturgess’s grandfather, Robert Palmer, who had also been an assistant engineer with the City of Vancouver. “No one in our family knew this history and the connection to this city—stumbling onto that opened up a door to our past,” says Sturgess.

Just four years earlier, Sturgess and Beale had begun casually looking for property in Vancouver while on Christmas break. And though they had hopes of finding something larger to develop, it was a compact condo for sale in the Arthur Erickson–designed Waterfall Building near Granville Island that ultimately won them over.

“We already knew about this building and had a huge respect for Arthur Erickson and Nick Milkovich,” says Beale. “It’s sometimes hard for architects to live in other people’s designs. But not Arthur’s—it speaks to the quality of the design.” This little piece of Vancouver’s architectural history was originally constructed as artist lofts and studios with live/work zoning. As such, the space was spartan, with the walls, ceiling and stairs cast in concrete; one small bathroom on the second floor; and a tiny but serviceable kitchen. “It was deliberately done without closets so it was kept affordable for artists,” adds Sturgess. “It was meant to be bare bones.”

The pair phoned Nick Milkovich, who worked with Erickson and was only too happy to share the original drawings so they could put their stamp on the new home. “It’s extremely well built and robust,” says Beale. “It’s not prissy—it’s more industrial, and all the concrete and painted steel details on the exterior are the same gridded detail as the inside. It’s a strong, consistent language throughout.” Working with good bones meant the architects had to address only small-space and storage issues.

Whatever changes were to come, the architects wanted to remain faithful to the integrity of the design. “The details are so well done that the challenge for us was how best to channel Arthur,” says Beale. “What would he do…and then you don’t want to screw it up!” The couple wanted the space to still function as if it were an open artist’s studio (Murphy beds, one bathroom), but it needed tweaking. The kitchen, for one, was outfitted with oversized appliances that left only three feet of useable counter space. “Just about everyone in this building has redone their kitchens,” says Sturgess. “But everyone who owns a place here loves Arthur—they speak passionately about architecture and are respectful of any changes they make . . . it’s a culture of Arthur Erickson.” Beale sketched out how the kitchen millwork would look (Nik Andrishak of Cube Architectural Millwork made it all come together), and a new kitchen wall with appliances and a peninsula clad in white Corian were added. The original cabinets were dark wood, but the white helps lighten the space. “Coming from Calgary, we wanted to exploit the light as much as possible,” says Sturgess.

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Making the compact 920-square-foot space more efficient was also a priority. Storage was added under the stairs, and a cabinet for records. (“This apartment is allowing me to use my turntable and records,” says Sturgess. “It’s so appropriate!”) With a small space, the couple had to choose furniture carefully: comfortable, appropriately sized and, above all, flexible. The chairs, for example, are lightweight and can stack for more room. Colour was another key addition: “The red and yellow are primary colours that are a nice foil to all that white cabinetry and grey concrete,” says Beale. Meanwhile, the bathroom was extended to accommodate two people rather than just one, and walls were extended around Murphy beds to add closet space as well as to act as room dividers. When the kids are visiting, one wall rolls out to separate the loft level into two distinct bedrooms.

“The space is never indulgent or extravagant—it’s everything we need,” says Sturgess. “After the reno, it does really well at being 30 percent smaller than we thought we could survive in.” In keeping with the smaller-is-better ethos, there’s a table for two in front of the main-floor window, but the couple has yet to spend any time there. “If we could ever enjoy this place on our own, we’d sit there,” laughs Beale. “But the kids are always here!”

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