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A look at how to breathe new life into postwar modernist houses

Edgemont Village, an idyllic community in North Vancouver, still embodies the postwar optimism and innocence that spawned its genesis. Although the first residential development began there in the late thirties, after the completion of the Lions Gate Bridge, its commercial heart still bears its initial mid-century imprint. Big-box-store free, its village feel with single-storey, mom-and-pop-style businesses is facing the challenge of growing densification.

Area resident and architect Steve McFarlane of OMB (Office of McFarlane Biggar) sees a well-designed solution in the rediscovery of the area’s mid-century roots. In his renovation of two 1950s "builder's houses" he demonstrates a pragmatic way forward, both in terms of modernist heritage preservation and as a way to respect the North Shore’s natural environment through small-footprint residential design.

The typical mid-century builder’s house, says Mr. McFarlane, “demonstrates the best tenets of modernism – clean, simple, honest lines and above all a sense of modesty.” He also notes that the quality of the wood in these mid-century residences – much of it old-growth – would cost a fortune to acquire today.

Glenview house/Photos by Ema Peter

Sadly, the less-is-more ethos that inspired their design, when hundreds of young families moved to the North Shore after the war, has been supplanted by the onset of the monster home. Dozens of modernist heritage houses, as catalogued by Donald Luxton in his book The Modern Architecture of North Vancouver, 1930-1965 – including Arthur Erickson, Ron Thom and Fred Hollingsworth originals – are now at risk.

In part Mr. McFarlane blames the District of North Vancouver’s unbending regulations around subdivision of the area’s large lots (typically 66-by-120 feet) and the concomitant building of 6,000-square-foot homes to maximize price per square foot. His renovations show how the mid-century post-and-beam tradition can be reinvigorated while respecting both site and scale.

Unlike West Vancouver, where modernist heritage homes were often built close to the ocean, North Vancouver’s industrial waterfront engendered sites that engaged more with creeks, rivers and canyons. North Van’s working-class roots and strong shipbuilding industry created what Mr. McFarlane calls a “blue-collar modernism” – with a certain humility and straightforwardness.

In a home on Glenview Crescent that backs onto Mosquito Creek, Paul Hartley and his young family can relive the same West Coast dream that brought his and his wife, Holly Purvis’s, parents to the North Shore in the 1960s. When the couple’s Burnaby condo began to burst at the seams with their second child on the way, they sought out a home in North Vancouver, where their children could enjoy the luxury of a real backyard. When they found the mid-century house perched on the edge of a lush ravine, they fell in love with the site. But the home needed some updates.

Like many houses of the era, whose original trees now tower over sites, blocking sunlight, its boxy interiors felt dark and claustrophobic. The key to liberating the structure and revealing its “good bones” was to open up the space by removing walls, allow light to penetrate more deeply into the interiors and reconnect the outside with the inside.

Mr. McFarlane’s first move (working with his previous firm McFarlane Green Biggar) was to remove the existing garage that blocked south light and place it on the north side of the house. Next, he removed a bearing wall on the ground floor and replaced it with steel columns – echoed by galvanized steel poles that line the newly designed entranceway to the house, reinvigorating the original indoor/outdoor aesthetic.

He removed the dark cedar walls and painted new ones white to allow for more reflective surfaces, and opened up the eastern side of the house to the backyard and creek by installing floor-to-ceiling glazing. Everywhere else, window sills were lowered by at least six inches.

Eliminating walls that boxed-off the ground floor into six separated rooms, he replaced them with discreet but ample storage units that have a pragmatic decluttering effect, yet an almost sculptural feel.

Two new bathrooms were added (how did families ever exist with a single bathroom, one wonders in the 21st century), fire codes were brought up to grade, and radiant floor heating was introduced. The brick fireplace – painted white – still lends a mid-century coziness, but the real hearth and heart of the home is the new open-space kitchen, whose long island bridges the view to the creek with that of the neighbouring homes – some of which, while newer, seem much older and more conservative in their design.

While the square footage remains the same, the place feels much roomier than it did before, thanks to a few simple design moves that helped amplify space.

Architect's house

Mr. McFarlane’s own family home, anchored to a sloping wooded ravine site that backs onto Mackay Creek, evokes a similar transformation. The A-frame house – slightly ahead of its time for 1959 – had an existing post-and-beam structure that allowed it to remain more intact than the Mosquito Creek house. But it also had a dark and cramped feel and a disconnect from its natural surroundings that cried out for a design liberation.

A long-suffering white shag carpet was removed and replaced with new maple flooring, as was a wall that cut off the kitchen from the living area. A new bathroom was added upstairs, along with radiant floor heating throughout. And the bottom floor was reprogrammed from frumpy basement rec room to a light-filled space for Mr. McFarlane’s teenage son, with a new bathroom extending the post-and-beam effect by adding original cedar to the ceiling.

In the backyard, Japanese-inspired landscaping and a sustainably harvested wood deck backed by a board-formed concrete retaining wall articulate space and extend the indoor/outdoor aesthetic.

While the hardest thing to part with, says Mr. McFarlane’s wife, artist Mary Hay, were the dark mahogany walls, their red hue cancelled out the effect of the cedars that surround the home. Now, with reflective white painted walls as a bare canvas, the home is imbued with a soft green glow. “It’s like inhabiting the forest,” she says.

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