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A retreat in Vernon, B.C., serves as respite for a pair of E.R. practitioners looking to make the Okanagan home.
The storage over the fireplace is actually multi-purpose in design. It’s quite deep, protruding from the face of the building—so not only is it perfect for stashing off-season clothing and less-used items, it acts as an overhang, allowing the main space to stay cool and shaded. (The house functions without air conditioning.)Architect D’Arcy Jones says that he carves out houses from the inside, with human dimensions and utility as the starting points. In the case of this house overlooking Kalamalka Lake in the North Okanagan, the human dimension is Jon Friesen and Silping Wong, a couple who work as doctor and nurse and have a daughter, Neko. Originally from Saskatchewan, they chose both their hospital and their specialization—emergency room practitioners—to allow them as much time as possible in the great outdoors.
They insisted that their residence do likewise, which presented the architect with several challenges. The new house would have to preserve the site in a pristine, natural condition, while framing the most appealing views and hiding the least desired. It would have to be built of wood, concrete, steel and other materials that are robust and have a natural feel. And it couldn’t cost a lot, since every hour spent working to pay off the house would be an hour not spent outside.
A cantilever effect allows for this home to highlight views to the rocky ridge it sits upon. Homeowners Jon Friesen and Silping Wong, with daughter Neko, take in the view.
The residence that resulted takes its place in a line of remarkable Jones designs that launched less than a decade and a half ago, immediately after he finished architectural school. That first house was commissioned by his parents for a suburb of Kamloops, and proved so impressive it landed in these pages, as have others. He’s far from the only contemporary designer with a dogged commitment to making homes work better for the people who live in them, but few are doing it as thoughtfully and even fewer as cost-effectively. And while his practice is based in Vancouver, Jones grew up in the Interior and has a deep understanding of an environment that is far harsher than it sometimes seems.
At first glance the house appears to have been influenced by Brutalism, the design movement associated with fortress-like government buildings and university libraries from the 1960s. Well, why not? Another of Jones’s houses employed a palette of concrete and timber similar to that favoured by the slightly earlier West Coast school, and Brutalism, once disparaged, is in fact rather trendy just now.
But nope, says Jones, there was no such intent. Rather, the house looks the way it does for a series of purely practical reasons. There was a desire to highlight the rocky ridge it sits upon, and the way the house is perched there helps contribute to a cantilever effect, a common Brutalist feature. Then there was the problem of getting people up a steep slope from the driveway to the home. Solution: a carport below, with stairs heading up to a studio, then a short walk along a sheltered breezeway, the walls of which happen to hide an unwanted view. (It’s hard to believe, but the house is situated on a fairly standard cul-de-sac.)
Meanwhile, the house is insulated far above code using structural insulated panels, which are sustainable and easy to use but made for thick walls, another Brutalist commonplace. And why are there protrusions above some of the windows? Not for effect but, again, for very practical reasons. First, big panes of industrial-strength glazing are expensive, and shaving some height off the windows saved money. Second, the saddlebags, as Jones calls them, are in spots such as bedrooms, where the views are mostly taken from a reclining position and endless sky is neither necessary nor desirable. Third, the house, which uses radiant heat, was designed to function without air conditioning (a savings of some $25,000), and the blocky overhangs supply shade. And fourth, there’s no basement, so the saddlebags serve an additional practical purpose as handy storage cupboards. “Some of the moves that might seem heroic or show-offy, really they were to save money or preserve privacy,” Jones says.
The materials used add to the illusion that the house might have been built a half-century ago. Japanese-style charred-wood siding (painstakingly scorched by Friesen and his father) will last for centuries without the need for stain or paint. Inside, floors are lightly finished concrete, and, in places, the surface of the insulated panels was bleached white and revealed. “It seemed like some free texture in a space with white millwork and concrete floors, so we exposed it,” Jones offers, as if displaying the humblest of building materials right above the fireplace is something that happens every day.
A Bensen sectional, Eames rocking chair and custom dining table (note the slot that allows the bench to cleverly slide in) outfit the main floor.
That’s not the only convention that has been critically examined. The house is U-shaped to isolate sleeping areas from living areas and enhance light penetration, not uncommon in architect-designed homes. But few others would deploy a wall of glass looking straight out at an exterior wall. True, the charred Douglas fir makes for a particularly beautiful exterior wall, but there’s more to it than that. “It might seem perverse,” Jones says. “But we wanted to get away from the obsession with an outward-looking box.”
Well, mission accomplished. This house is highly personal and perhaps not the precise template for a new wave of Okanagan architecture. Still, it’s one for the ages, and the design philosophy behind it would lead to better homes of every shape and type.
In the bedroom, a milled piece of fir becomes a nightstand, and a perch for a Foscarini Anisha Grande lamp. Custom storage in the office (right) keeps the footprint small but useful.