May 19, 2024

West Vancouver: Renovation honours architectural legend Barry Downs

West Vancouver home gets a contemporary upgrade while honouring late great Canadian architect

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Architect Cedric Burgers wasn’t mincing words: “If you don’t buy it, I will,” he told Tanya and Scott McMillan, at an open house for what would become their West Vancouver home.

The couple had asked Burgers to join them and give his two cents on the home’s potential. And he had learned that the 1966-built house was originally designed by late great Canadian architect Barry Downs.

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“The house was beautifully built for its time; a well-crafted West Coast Modern mid-century house with a flat roof,” says Burgers.

It was 2016, and the McMillans were returning from a stint living in New Zealand with their three children, aged 7, 9 and 10. The home, with its large, open rooms, wide windows and North Shore forest setting, seemed like a perfect place to land.

“We loved the bones, the clean lines and the large windows. It was set in this natural landscape and had a great indoor-outdoor connection,” says Tanya. “We knew it was going to need some work, but Cedric educated us on the history of Barry Downs and his contributions to architecture in Canada. Knowing the history and the relevance, we jumped at the opportunity.”

In the home's two-storey living room, the design team used cedar panelling matching the home's exterior siding for a focal point wall that runs from inside to out. Zinc panelling gave a crumbling brick fireplace new life, while custom-cut window panes slotted into the home's original cherry-stained wood frames.
In the home’s two-storey living room, the design team used cedar panelling matching the home’s exterior siding for a focal point wall that runs from inside to out. Zinc panelling gave a crumbling brick fireplace new life, while custom-cut window panes slotted into the home’s original cherry-stained wood frames. Photo by Andrew Latreille
Large basaltina porcelain floor tiles run throughout the home, the terrace and the pool surround.
Large basaltina porcelain floor tiles run throughout the home, the terrace and the pool surround. Photo by Andrew Latreille

Burgers was thrilled to work on a home with such a pedigree, as intent on honouring Downs’ vision as modernizing. Among other upgrades, the project would include structural reinforcements, new flooring and windows throughout, a new kitchen and dining area, layout adjustments, and a new wing accommodating a new primary suite and a pool.

Once draft drawings were complete, Tanya invited Downs himself — who happened to live nearby at the time — over to take a look. “He used to walk his dog around our block,” she says. “We wanted to include his suggestions because we wanted the renovation to feel like it was part of the original design and not an add-on.”

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With this in mind, the house retains most of its original form and profile, with its entry on top and three floors stepping down the hillside. The pavilion-like new addition juts off the bottom floor, while a system of retaining walls replaces a sloping garden at the back to make way for a patio and pool.

A series of retaining walls filled a sloping garden to make way for a new pool and patio, floored in the same porcelain tile as the home's interior spaces.
A series of retaining walls filled a sloping garden to make way for a new pool and patio, floored in the same porcelain tile as the home’s interior spaces. Photo by Andrew Latreille

“I explained to Barry what we were trying to do, and he was very receptive,” says Burgers. Not only did Downs remember the original home, but he was gracious about the proposed changes, writing a letter of support to the District of West Vancouver. The District eventually approved the project — even the setback-exceeding addition — contingent on preserving the home’s heritage value.

Inside, the spaces had been through two renovations since the 60s, creating a sort of esthetic hodgepodge. So, the team’s first step was to peel back these layers, then restore as much as possible to original condition, while refreshing the home for modern living.

The home’s centrepiece, then and now, is the two-storey living room, where floor-to-ceiling cedar panelling, with a charred and stain-rubbed finish, now matches the home’s exterior siding, for indoor-outdoor flow. Zinc panelling gave a crumbling brick fireplace new life, while new custom window panes slotted into original cherry-stained wood frames. The effect is clean-lined, but also textured enough to feel welcoming.

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“We love being there watching movies with a fire going, and nice light. Especially in the winter, we spend a lot of time in there together,” says Tanya.

In the new wing, large windows match the feel of those in the original home, but with modern glass-to-glass corner joins for even wider views; something Burgers imagines that Downs would have done himself, if the technology had been available in his time.

On the home's lower floor, a pavilion-like new addition houses a new primary suite, thoughtfully designed to blend with the look and feel of the original structure, overlooking the swimming pool and the surrounding forest.
On the home’s lower floor, a pavilion-like new addition houses a new primary suite, thoughtfully designed to blend with the look and feel of the original structure, overlooking the swimming pool and the surrounding forest. Photo by Andrew Latreille
Walnut millwork, grey tile and marble counters create a serene setting for the primary ensuite.
Walnut millwork, grey tile and marble counters create a serene setting for the primary ensuite. Photo by Andrew Latreille

An open-plan kitchen and dining room replace tucked-away rooms typical of the home’s era, retaining the original windows to frame the forest view, with large new skylights and a white palette to brighten further.

“When you look through (the home), you’re always connecting to the outside,” says Burgers.

As a result, the house is now very much the forest sanctuary the family envisioned when they first toured it all those years ago, says Tanya. “It’s almost like a holiday when you’re at home,” she says. “In the winter, you see all the snow on the mountains when you’re sitting in the kitchen, and in the summer, it’s like a tropical little paradise.”

The design team wanted to restore as much as possible to original condition, while refreshing and updating the home for modern living.
The design team wanted to restore as much as possible to original condition, while refreshing and updating the home for modern living. Photo by Andrew Latreille

Downs wasn’t able to visit the renovated home before he passed away in 2022, but Burgers hopes he would have approved. After all, from the front, the structure looks almost as it did in 1966 — except for a row of Douglas fir trees, which were saplings at the time of construction and now tower to 100 feet tall, rivalling the surrounding cedars.

“If this had been a new build, all the trees would have come down,” says Burgers. “But those beautiful trees have grown in and around the house. The roots and foundation have settled into their way of living with each other.” And the house into its next era.

Architectural Design: Burgers Architecture

Interior Design: Marieke Burgers

Construction: Jason Lorenz, Lorenz Developments

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