Rafael Santa Ana Architecture Workshop Inc. (RSAAW) is a Canadian architectural firm that carried out a thorough, mid-century interior renovation of this dusky, two-storey house in Vancouver, Canada, replete with a timber clad treehouse out in the garden and a double height library that adorns its all-white interiors. Called the Berkley House, the dwelling possesses a “gallery-like” quality with a liberated sense of light and space, a tale of succinct transformation of “a tired, inefficient house with good bones to a contemporary home on another level,” according to Rafael Santa Ana, the principal architect, who is also the client, and currently inhabits the home with his family.
RSAAW’s renovation made sure that the home stayed rooted to its origin, in an industry trend that leans towards complete demolition and choose disposable fixtures and finishes. Their design opened up the dreary, closed spatiality, by simply adapting it to perform to superior efficiency levels, and accommodate future generations of family life enveloped in modest home-living, in a way that overcast days would have less impact on the home’s bright new opened space. The ground floor now contains a patio, bedroom, bathroom, laundry room, media room, craft room, and an office, while the floor above hosts the entrance, bedrooms, master bedrooms bathrooms, a deck and the living room and kitchen, linked by a towering library that spans both floors.
At its inception, the family was attracted to the home’s quasi post-and-beam style and its Californian-style atmosphere, unseen in a typically conformist suburban North Vancouver neighbourhood where the residential architecture resides. The challenge, therefore, was to celebrate and enhance this character, while adapting the house to the Canadian climate and minimise energy use and its subsequent wastage to make the design as sustainable as possible. This was carried out by RSAAW by swapping the entire interior building envelope, installing triple glazing throughout, in tandem with replacing the forced air system with energy efficient underfloor heating.
Prior to RSAAW’s intervention, the two main floors remained separated, with the entire lower level serving as a mortgage helper suite. Family areas and rooms were somewhat cloistered before, with negligible natural light entering prime areas. The renovation opened up the entire home, and linked both levels by means of a central atrium space that remains anchored by a monumental double height library, becoming the heart and soul of the residential design. The area is crowned internally by multiple skylights that channel the Canadian sun, as much as possible, across seasons. Vaulted ceilings throughout the main floor as well as these strategically placed skylights ensure that the interior design’s sense of space is augmented, apart from oversized glazing units that ensure stunning views of the North Vancouver greenery in the adjacent garden and beyond, permeating the Berkely House with natural light even on overcast days.
The inhabitants, a few years prior to the interior refurbishment, had tasked RSAAW to design a garden playhouse for their children where they could play, read or even nod off to sleep in nature, which came to life as a panelled treehouse covered in wood slats. Its slender “stem” is threaded so it can grow vertically with the majestic douglas fir it rests against, and a custom ring hugs the trunk without damaging the tree.
“Interestingly, the treehouse came before the renovation. The kids would have been too old for it otherwise. It became a playful design experiment that now fits perfectly with the home’s aesthetic, while respecting the environment it sits in,” says RSAAW. Accessed by a slight grey metal ladder, the garden house contrasts its monochrome skin with playful, colourful slats that run inside, fitting the clean aesthetic of the home nearby, and immersing itself into nature as a playful design experiment.
“There is something to be said about the contents of books piling on as we had hoped to contain everything within our minds, to appreciate the scale of information we take in. This bookshelf /library /display cubbies, establishes through its massive verticality, a sense of progression of books intended for the children at the bottom, constant consultation within the reach of kids, moving up to books from university and some classics, then slightly higher up, the bulk of a lot of architecture and art books, and then some rare editions towards the top shelf. Monumental libraries are a beautiful form of displaying tomes that provided and keep providing us with knowledge, emotions, entertainment and memories, and thus, libraries evoke a reaction like a collection of artworks, at least for our family,” explains Ana, detailing out why the bookshelf takes up such an intentional, prime space within the interior design.
“Our house has truly become a home for our future. Everything has been thoughtfully improved and yet the character of the home we fell in love with still remains. All the hidden improvements mean better air quality and lower bills, while the aesthetic changes bring us moments of joy every day,” shares Megan Paris, the owner.
While opening up the atrium area, some floor space was lost which was redeemed later on by the creation of the lively children’s area, in a formerly inaccessible attic space. The attic was brought to life with playful stripes of colour which are also mirrored in the entry panelling, as well as in the garden tree house’s interior. “These tonal explorations, along with the warmth of the custom millwork throughout the home, bring a punch of energy into the home’s otherwise gallery – like monochromatic interior and exterior,” the Canadian architect says.
The circulation of the lower level was improved by repurposing the former mechanical room to create a hallway lined with discreet storage for all the family’s bits and pieces. The public face of the atrium is contrasted slyly with this almost discreet corridor, where “the family’s love for art, books, and found objects can be showcased,” says the design team. Downstairs, resilient tile flooring permits dwellers to step inside the house sans worry after outdoor activities, while upstairs, the liberated sense of light and space is boosted by a “threshold-free” light oak flooring and sculpted shadow-line walls.
Discussing the minimal, clean language of the renovation adopted by the Berkley House, Ana shares that residences, especially contemporary ones, often tend to depend too much on furnishings and curated furniture to seem decorative and modern. This abode revels in simplicity, with interior geometries and material textures that are strong enough to stand on their own without trying too hard, allowing it to remain as a white, clean backdrop with white oak accents of built-in furnishings, its dark exterior sitting mildly within a lush green garden. “The rest is really like an ordinary home with our usual life spillover becoming the manageable mess that can quickly be concealed in the extensive storage spaces added,” adds Ana.
Elaborating on the neutral, almost bare material palette, Ana reveals, “We like using materials that remain true to themselves, such as steel, wood and stone… we prefer not to employ tiles that look like wood, or plastics that resemble steel. Materials do not naturally age, unless they remain true to their composition. This is not some esoteric statement, it is simple physics. We kept everything neutral, as North Vancouver is quite dark, while taking the opportunity for the white oak built-in furnishings (when visible) to provide elements of softness and warmth.” However, there is the inclusion of a few curated coloured accents that help inject an intention of personality to the home. “After that, all colours are binary and shroud most spaces either in black, or white by use of drywall plaster or steel, or at the exterior with stain on the shiplap,” he continues.
“The centre vaulted space which commands a double height – this was our favourite part to design and remains special. It mixes all spaces as a stage with the bookshelf as the backdrop for the everyday life. We eat in the library, we cook in the dining room, we eat in the kitchen, we live in the heart of the house, where all sorts of details come together and it transforms every day, through the quality of life, to whatever inhabits the boxes. The Berkley House renovation reflects our family’s future-focus and respect for the past and is the result of a respectful homage to architectural influences, both at home and abroad,” shares RSAAW.
Name: Berkley House
Location: North Vancouver, British Colombia, Canada
Area: 260.12 sqm
Structural: Aspect Structural Engineers
Contracting: Tyrrell Projects Inc.
Tree house contracting: Tridiam Homes