BY ALEX VAN TOL
SPRUCE looks to local luxury-home designer Keith Baker for his insights on the custom-home process, from site optimization and energy efficiency to sustainable design.
Born and raised in Victoria, internationally recognized home designer Keith Baker actually started his career as a professional musician. But the dog-eat-dog Los Angeles scene didn’t appeal, so he ditched it for something a little more soulful. He discovered a beautiful knack for woodworking while helping a realtor renovate houses in Monterey, and followed his passion to become a ticketed cabinetmaker. When he returned to the Island, Baker reconnected with a friend from his music days — Grant Gislason, who by then owned Vintage Hot Tubs. Gislason put him in front of clients needing wood elements designed for their high-end backyard decks and retreats.
The rest is history. Now heading up renowned KB Design, Baker has been designing locally and internationally for 38 years. He specializes in luxury residential homes and brings a distinct environmental consciousness to his design work.
What should people know before they embark on a custom home build?
Be open-minded. That’s a good place to start. Some people don’t have all the answers of how they want it to go together; they just know it needs to feel this way, and they need this number of rooms. And some people are very specific and very prescriptive — that’s actually harder. I encourage people to have an open mind in terms of the home showing up perhaps even better than they can imagine. Allow the design process to unfold in a positive way, rather than having tunnel vision about how you think it should go or what you think you have to have. Understanding the process means you move, take another step and then you find out, “Oh, there’s another question I need to ask.” It is iterative. It isn’t a straight line from A to B.
What are the best ways to work with a project site and its qualities?
What I do is deeply consider how you actually operate in terms of flow. How do you arrive? How do you get from your car and bring your groceries in and how does that work when you’re on this three-dimensional place? The simple answer is to listen to the land. You need to be able to understand not just what its shape is, but how it actually is going to serve the needs as requested by the client. Not everybody wants the sun to come up in their master bedroom. Some people need it. All those practical things are a big part of the result of paying attention and listening to the land.
How can one increase the sustainability of their home?
Sustainability for houses means, how can we keep making houses and not wreck the planet? You always want the least amount of energy consumption with the smallest footprint. Sustainability also means — to me — do it right, once. It may cost a little bit more, but in the big picture, it doesn’t make sense to pay twice and have the hassle [of replacing cheap components].
I always encourage my clients to make sure they do all the big stuff as best they can afford, and really consider where the money gets spent. There’s an awful lot of emphasis on [stuff] … I’ll just use granite counters as sort of the epitome of “stuff.” Not that that’s a bad thing, but everybody had to have granite counters for a while there, right?
The granite counter became more important than having windows that were going to last and never having to be replaced. That’s what I mean about priorities. There’s an esthetic too. If you do something wild and crazy, you’re going to have a harder time selling it to the next person. If somebody buys the house, and then they’re going to throw [an undesirable esthetic element] away, are we being sustainable?
How do you increase energy efficiency?
It’s plugging holes, really. The Step Code that’s coming down the chute for everybody is all about energy efficiency, and the way to have energy efficiency is to not need the heat in the first place. It’s like putting a sweater on. We actually put outsulation [insulation on the outside] on all of our buildings. Over the last number of years, science has identified what they call a thermal bridge between every stud. You’ve got a place where all the heat inside your house wants to escape because heat will always go to cold to stabilize itself. That thermal bridge goes away when you put an insulative blanket around the house.
How does your background as a cabinetmaker influence your home designs?
The evidence would be in the little details: how a roof returns around a corner; the proportions involved; how all the bits and parts of the house actually interrelate. If you’re building a cabinet or a piece of furniture, it’s just as important to consider materials, proportion, scale, texture, line. All the things that apply to design apply to whether it’s a sideboard or a house. What we find from builders who build our houses and from officials who review our plans, the comments that we get are how clear and buildable what we design actually is, because we actually understand all that. It’s not a theory. It’s a part of my experience.