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A fluid family room on Bowen Island, B.C.

Michael Boland

A luxuriously spacious great room in Toronto

In this open-concept living area in a sprawling Bridle Path home shared by a couple and their two teenage girls, embellishment, artwork and decor give way to an 18-foot-high ceiling, dramatic apertures and a custom showpiece fireplace. "Its near emptiness and clean lines and shapes give the home a feeling of Zen-like tranquillity," one of the owners says. "Some people would find it too cold, but we like the energy it gives us when we enter the room." The family of four recently brought in Toronto architect Paul Raff to rework the existing space to suit its fondness for an Asian-style aesthetic, tweaking the windows to allow for more light and views, adding the double-sided fireplace between the living and dining rooms and implementing a nine-metre-wide floor-to-ceiling sliding-door system to connect the living room to the courtyard beyond.

"The clerestory windows have the effect of making the space feel like you are not indoors," Raff says, adding that the ceiling being out of one's peripheral vision enhances the feeling of being in a totally open space. Used for dance parties, art exhibits and even an upcoming fashion shoot, the 1,020-square-foot room also doubles as a quiet space for reading and relaxing while looking out onto the courtyard (the TV is tucked away in an entertainment room elsewhere in the house). It is the epitome of a multifunctional space, containing minimal furniture – mainly low-level seating around the fireplace – to keep it clutter-free and flexible. "The space 'declutters' on many levels," the owner says. "It's a huge house, but almost all the spaces in it are intimate in size and they all lead to the living room. It's kind of like a church sanctuary."

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A fluid family room on Bowen Island, B.C.

In many ways, this light-filled, gabled-roof living room is the definition of simplicity: Essentially a simple cube with floor-to-ceiling windows, the space features only a sprinkle of furniture. And that's exactly how the owners want it. A pair of avid art collectors who lived in a house for 30 years before moving to an apartment on Granville Street in Vancouver after their children moved out, they quickly found themselves longing for a more natural locale but didn't want to go back to the upkeep of owning property. So they turned to architect Cedric Burgers to create a low-maintenance secondary home on Bowen Island that wouldn't need a lot of gardening, painting or scrubbing. Inside, Burgers designed a simple living room that could easily shift into a playroom. "We have young grandkids," one of the owners says, "and we wanted a space that wasn't filled with precious objects and high-maintenance furniture." A fairly easy task, considering the art-loving owners are used to living in a distilled environment.

"When you have a lot of art, you can't have a lot of clutter around because it distracts," Burgers says. So ample storage was used to keep clutter tucked out of sight, and the flat-screen TV tucks flush against the wall but can also be pulled out and pivoted to face different spots in the room. A palette of Douglas fir, hemlock and poured concrete slab (pigmented to absorb sunlight) evokes the natural views outside. In fact, the views from the sofa are so dramatic that the owners originally wanted the room to be the site of their master bedroom. "The view is constantly changing with the wildlife, ferry-tugboat and cruise-ship traffic, airplanes and, a month ago, a submarine," the owner says. "One visitor said she had never been in a room where 75 per cent of the view was in motion."

A refuge overlooking Nova Scotia's south shore

Ten years ago, a writer from Philadelphia and his psychotherapist wife wandered into a small Nova Scotia fishing village and fell in love with the welcoming community and serene lifestyle. So the pair decided to build a waterfront summer home there: The house, called Sunset Rock, is a modern, clean-lined space that communicates well with the surroundings. Nowhere is this more evident than in the 300-square-foot living room. Oriented toward the sunset, the room features glass cladding on two sides and transitions seamlessly into an outdoor deck (an invisible railing ensures an unbroken view of the tides from both inside and out). It's a room that's connected to the community in more ways than one.

The house's corrugated tin cladding and the white lacquered millwork that encases one living-room wall, for example, evoke nearby whitewashed fishing huts. But the living room is also designed to evoke a boat itself. Because of its stilted base, many of the vistas out the living-room windows don't include land; the polished concrete flooring "disappears" into the waves on the ocean.

"We wanted to maximize the views of the sun going down over the little islands," one of the owners says. "We wanted nature to be our artwork." As on a boat, much of the furniture is built into the framework. Architects Brian Mackay Lyons and Matthew Malone of the Nova Scotia firm Mackay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects opted for built-in seating at the black granite hearth and on the outdoor deck (which the owners consider part of the living-room space). The only piece of free-standing furniture is the modular sofa that the owners reconfigure to take in different views. "The sofa is it," the owner says. "When we are there, we simply marvel at the ocean. It seems to put life in some kind of perspective, diminishing our problems and increasing our peace."

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