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A temple framed by nature and rock 'n roll

The amazing Gambier Island home of Bruce Ramus, former U2 show manager. A Japanese pagoda crossed with a native longhouse, it's made almost entirely from cedar off the lot on which it sits. All the walls of the house are solid wood, 6" thick. There is no insulation.

Ron Thomas/All photos by Ron Thomas

Gambier Island homeowner Bruce Ramus says the design inspiration for his elaborate house came from a few icons: the Japanese temple, the native longhouse - and rock band U2.

To look at the house, which sits on 1.25 acres on Gambier Island in Howe Sound, the Japanese temple design is obvious. There are even peace bells hanging beneath the steep roofline. Inside, the giant vertical pillars create a feeling of cathedral-like height and light, and speak of the longhouse tradition. But other than a giant replica of a green olive lying out back - a leftover prop from U2's PopMart tour - Bono and the boys' influence is less overt.

Mr. Ramus, born in Squamish, B.C., worked with the Irish rockers for 16 years on 850 shows, first as their chief lighting director, then as show director. He's also worked on shows for the Rolling Stones, R.E.M. and David Bowie, but it's his work with U2 that shaped his life and his philosophy. The house, which took four years to build and a budget of more than $500,000 because of its complex construction, is the culmination of that experience, says Mr. Ramus.

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It was the band's painstaking approach to detail that inspired him, he says, standing in the house on a recent sunny Saturday afternoon. With solid cedar walls 6-inches thick, it truly has the hushed solemnity of a church. Mr. Ramus, wearing a brimmed hat and goatee, still looks the part of a concert techie.

The house is the antithesis to his experience working with U2, which was an exhausting pace. Immediately after a U2 show, they'd spend hours examining five videos that had been shot of every song and segue, and they'd deliberate on what worked and what didn't. Their work ethic made him look at his life holistically.

"It was really their approach that made me pay attention - not specifically the lighting or sound or where they were standing on stage, but the exchange. That's kind of what I learned on U2, to pay attention to how the exchange affects us on a profound level, whether it's music or art, or architecture. That kind of opened the door for me."

On a more physical level, his work with U2 helped in other ways. The house was finished in 2002, around the same time as U2's Elevation tour.

"That paid for this," says Mr. Ramus, with a laugh.

The 1,900 sq. ft. house has the feel of a sanctuary, with windows strategically placed so the occupants feel as if they are alone with only the trees and an ocean view.

"It can make many people quite uncomfortable," he says. "Because you feel like you're in church."

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Mr. Ramus boasts that his house is almost entirely devoid of man-made materials such as paint, drywall, engineered wood, plastic, adhesives and carpet. The house is constructed almost entirely from giant old growth cedar trees that once stood on the empty lot and were milled on-site. Another bit of show biz trivia: Mr. Ramus purchased the lot from American actor Carl Weathers, who played Apollo Creed in the Rocky films.

The floors are made of fir, which means it is a symphony of stained wood and exposed bolts, brackets and buttresses that connect the house into the rock bed underneath. Most of the building cost went into the outer walls, which are so thick that the standard insulation is unnecessary. At the house's centre, there is a vertical log four-feet in diameter, around which a circular staircase twists to an open concept bedroom above. Mr. Ramus barged the 14-feet-high log over from the island's main wharf at New Brighton. The front door is two heavy sliding concrete panels with circular blue glass lights. The back entrance is a sliding door that comes together to form a giant circular window, Japanese style. Each room on the main floor is at a slightly different level from the other, and separated by vertical logs or a brick fireplace that serves to provide most of the heat. The fireplace contains a small pizza oven.

It has the overall feel of a tree fort, except it isn't dark.

"I wanted to create a work of art that I could live in," says Mr. Ramus. "I've been wanting to build a place like this since I was 14."

To make that dream come true, Mr. Ramus had to rent a house for two years to serve as lodging for the house's builders. For his own lodging, he built a small cabin that today serves as his workshop. He even slept inside the giant olive prop, which is big enough to sleep a dozen men.

But Mr. Ramus, who spends nine months of the year with his family in Australia, says he has outgrown the house. It represents a stage of his life that has come and gone. He now works in Sydney as a design mentor for the Sydney Opera House, as well as teaching a university course in lighting, designing media installations and working in television. He also wants to be positioned near the Asian market, where business for major shows is picking up.

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He concedes that his unique house might be a tough sell.

"But I'm not in a rush," says Mr. Ramus.

B.C. architect Henry Yorke Mann, who designed the house, says his houses do re-sell - to the buyer who understands.

"My own little house in North Vancouver, I put it on the market and set a price and it sold quite quickly, not because there was a big demand for it, I don't believe, but because when somebody sees it in that mindset they can appreciate that sort of thing and they want it. The price doesn't matter a whole lot. They are looking for something like that."

Mr. Mann, raised in the Kootenays and educated in the U.S., has designed residences, resorts, public buildings, floating buildings, and light fixtures, furniture and sculptures.

Based in Oliver, B.C., he has been designing his uniquely naturally sourced houses since the 1950s. He is a "green house" pioneer long before the phrase become trendy. His Clark House, constructed in 1969 and featured in major media including the New York Times, was constructed of four-inch fir planks splined together.

"I just didn't like all these plastic things that were starting to come out at the time, I didn't trust them," says Mr. Mann. "I felt that the natural materials made a whole lot more sense. We have the example down in the U.S. with Frank Lloyd Wright and his natural use of materials. He was a big influence on people like myself. As we've since been told, wood is probably the most sustainable material that you could possibly get, because it can grow."

Mr. Ramus's house, officially called Posts Standing, is made of cedar, "one of the most insulating woods we have," he says.

As well, Mr. Mann practices what he calls "the 100 mile structure," which is sourcing materials and labour from within 100 miles of the site. In every project he has done, he has talked the homeowners into building a smaller home, to use a more efficient design. Mr. Ramus originally wanted a 2,600 sq. ft. house, he says, but he talked him into something closer to 1,900 sq. ft. Mr. Mann and Mr. Ramus frequently refer to the "sacred space" of buildings, which is the church-like feel of a house made from wood in a natural setting, without synthetic materials.

"It would be similar to what Christians feel when they go into a Christian church," says Mr. Mann. "It's set and setting - it sets a mood and it allows you to settle down a bit and get feedback from the building itself. It is a living thing. There's a book coming out in Germany in the fall and it has Bruce's house on the cover. I believe it's about sacred space."

Although Mr. Mann has been building houses for 50 years, he's still going strong. "They search me out," he says of his clients.

"I build as much as I can, yeah. The recession hit me pretty good because I like to work on one building at a time if I possibly can. That way I can devote my whole self to one particular project, and Bruce's building is one example of that."

Mr. Mann made the six-hour trek from his Oliver home to Gambier Island about once a month to supervise the design of the Posts Standing house.

"It's not run-of-the-mill," says Mr. Mann. "It is unique and it's a building system that I've used quite a bit in the past.

"You just simply cannot build a house like this one or the other ones I've mentioned without really great clients," he adds. "They are sensitive. They also have got to have the energy and the stick, shall we say, to stay with it, and to bring it to fruition."

Special to The Globe and Mail

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About the Author
Real estate writer

Kerry Gold is a born and bred Vancouverite, and knows her city well. More


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