Winning over the wild west in Port Renfrew, B.C.
Winning Over the Wild West
A rugged contemporary design embraces a dramatic view
By Carolyn Heiman
Carved into a dramatically sloped lot claiming a rare private beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island, the home of Sandy and Nolan Fisher’s stands like an amphitheatre before the dramatic shoreline. Its windowed front offers uninterrupted views from every room on every level to the ocean and beyond to the Olympic Mountain range. The sloping shed rooflines aesthetically feel like arms opening to the sea breeze and in a practical sense they keep maintenance to a minimum.
It took equal parts vision, courage and fortitude to build on the site. When the couple decided to retire from the pub business and move from the B.C.’s Lower Mainland to Port Renfrew, some viewed their decision as a foolhardy. Port Renfrew hadn’t shed its image as a logging village in decline so few saw it as a retirement mecca.
But Nolan loves fishing and fishing is excellent in the area. It was affordable waterfront in a part of the country where that is almost unheard of.
Just a few years after moving in, already the village is a different place than it was when they purchased the lot. A new marina is under construction, a relative hive of development activity is taking place around vacation home construction, and tourism is a growing factor in the area’s economy and some whisper it is the Tofino of 20 years ago.
As for the house, the Fishers had the foresight to see how almost four acres of forested land could become an idyllic centre for family gatherings including their daughter’s recent wedding. And, with the advice of a biologist, geologist, building designer, contractor and landscaper they’ve been able to create a space that fits beautifully into the environment.
Sandra says with understandable pride that bemused friends who once questioned their decision now drive onto the property and have gone from saying ‘Are you crazy’ to ‘Ok, now we get it.’ Certainly the relatively isolated location has not deterred visitors. Sandra’s two-year-old twin grandsons have already been on the B.C. Ferries service between Vancouver and the island 40 times to visit to the place well on its way to becoming a retreat for multi- generations. The two-bedroom, 2,200-sq.-ft. home easily meets their day-to-day needs. Itsexterior, right down to the aluminium siding, is geared for low maintenance. Likewise, inside there is almost no drywall that hd to be painted and concrete floors with in-floor heating are indestructible.Sandra claims no formal decorating training but she has a formidable knack that can elude those who have spent years studying design. She especially has a keen eye for making modern and traditional elements complementary, not competing. While the overall feeling of the home is west coast contemporary, her choice of objects and furnishings, like the metal sofa table that has a decidedly vintage industrial feel, adds a sense of well-used warmth to the room.
The home is punctuated with her influences both large and small, but all details have been guided by her desire to have the home powerfully connected with the outdoor environment. The colour palette draws heavily on foliage and rocks seen out of doors. Emerald and mossy greens are set against warm wood, soft grey concrete and granite splashed with copper-y touches. The inside and outside crossover happens with materials too. Two whale ribs serving as front door handles lend a magnificent entry to the home. A humongous tree root, washed up on the beach during a winter storm, now serves as the pedestal of a glass-topped dining room table. Rather than a predictable wooden leg, a rock supports a raised fireplace threshold. Two giant cedar tree trunks, polished to an amber glow, are supporting pillars in the main floor of the house.Paul Clarkston, a builder who has created a niche around building contemporary west coast-designed homes on the rugged west coast, says the home had to be shoe-horned onto the site. “We had no movement on the house. It barely fit as it was” once the required ocean set back, tidal wave front, and creek setbacks were factored. “We built that home into a pretty crazy bank with concrete walls.”The limitations of the triangular shape left to build on, made a second floor to the home mandatory and that’s where the Fishers’ bedroom is perched like an eagle’s lookout.
Then came the challenge of finding space for a septic field which, once under construction, required 25 truckloads of sand and a pumping system to move it up the hill.
Looking back on the project Sandra says one of the best decisions was to install a propane fireplace, almost unheard of in a logging community. “I love to come down in the morning and instantly turn on a nice fire. And I don’t have a big mess all the time,” she says.
After building the family home, the couple turned their attention to erecting a palatial garage/boathouse which happens to be supported by an giant beam from a tree on the property. Since completion, Sandra commandeered the ocean-fronting space originally intended for cars and trucks, into a guest accommodation complete with a bathroom, electric fireplace to cozy it up, and TV. With the garage door flung up and open, the view meets the five-star test anywhere. Meanwhile a loft area has been transformed into a bunking area for visiting grandchildren using an artful blend of industrial and antique chic decorating flourishes.