A home’s architecture plays with the balance between light and dark.
By Danielle Pope | Photos by Jody Beck
Aaron Baird wanted to live in a glass house. As a fervent plant owner working as a software designer, Baird’s wish was to build a home entirely filled with light. He would settle, though, for as many windows as was legally allowable. That limit, however, would turn out to be lower than expected.
“He wanted a big, glass house for his plants and a rooftop patio, but we immediately had to face city building codes and zoning issues,” says architect Pamela Úbeda, principal of Coast + Beam Architecture, who first saw Baird’s sketches and the examples from Australia that captured his vision.
The short story: You can’t have a glass house.
Homes are allowed minimal glazing on a side yard, due to fire code. The further your home sits from your neighbour’s — typically three to 10 feet — the more windows you can have. With the housing density surrounding Baird’s purchased lot, however, he could expect minimal windows on every neighbouring side.
Úbeda came up with a plan.
“We needed to open up that south side, so the plan was to create a courtyard,” she says. “That’s really what created the shape of the house, and that’s how I got Aaron his greenhouse.”
The home’s U shape integrates a central garden and courtyard into the space in a way that makes every part of the house feel like it’s inside and outside at once. With its fishbowl atmosphere, the boundary between public and private is intentionally blurred throughout the space — just how Baird wants it. While the front yard faces a bustling city street, the courtyard provides a protected reprieve, isolated from neighbours.
The balance is more than Baird was bargaining for.
“I honestly didn’t set out to build a house,” he says. “I lived down the street in a crappy little basement suite and with COVID and everything happening I thought, I wouldn’t mind finding a better place to live.”
When Baird discovered the property for sale on the tree-lined street, its tear-down structure was valued at almost nothing. You could smell mould a mile away, he recalls. But the land was appealing, on the crest of a hill, with oak trees and parks nearby. Baird could picture it.
“I was very ignorant going into this, and it took us a couple of years to get all the permits we needed,” Baird says. “But I’m a young guy, and pretty happy … and the project kept getting bigger.”
That wasn’t the only thing changing for Baird.
Since buying the property and waiting for the build, Baird had noticed some increasing health challenges. What started as a concern about asthma progressed into a breathlessness that left him, at times, unable to climb stairs. With months of medical appointments, he was finally diagnosed with pulmonary hypertension — a disease that would change the course of his life.
Baird talks about the fact that he will need a new pair of lungs the way some people talk about replacing a pair of worn-down shoes. It isn’t that it’s a small deal; it’s that Baird is used to meeting challenges head on.
“It’s kind of funny, actually — I bought a house on the top of a hill and it’s a hill I have a hard time climbing now, but I got an electric scooter so I can get around,” he says. “I didn’t know how my health would change when I bought this house.”
Designing the Future
If only a small compensation, Baird and his design team were able to factor accessibility into the build almost from the beginning. He would have his horseshoe-shaped greenhouse, with accommodations for an elevator and single-floor living, if required.
“Doing this with a life-altering condition meant that much of the design was changed to address his future needs,” says Tim Agar, principal of Horizon Pacific Contracting. “The architecture was really secondary to him. Aaron is a gardener first and a homeowner second, so we needed to find a way to bring the gardens inside. He wanted to be able to walk straight through, from garden to house to garden again. So we did things like bring concrete through the spaces, so he didn’t need to worry about shoes.”
The team also created elevations within the backyard to build “absolute privacy,” says Agar, along with almost 10-foot-high fences so Baird could sit and enjoy his space. The exterior rough-grade Shou Sugi Ban siding, with its blackened, charred appearance, contrasts sharply against the bright space, while tying into the charcoal accents throughout the house.
With 20-foot ceilings, almost floor-to-ceiling glass and a catwalk over the living area, the home is dramatic. A loft-style upper level gives Baird space for hosting family and plenty of room for his senior cat, Khan, to call his domain. A perforated steel staircase brings a knife-edge feel to the space, countered by exposed beams and natural wood throughout the house.
“There are touches of West Coast warmth throughout the house, and it’s very open, even in the shelving,” says interior designer Pamela Billinghurst. “Most people want to hide their things, but Aaron wanted to show them off. Being able to quickly grab things off a shelf was important to him.”
Billinghurst worked with Baird to turn every room into a destination. By adding select bold colours in the bathrooms, bedroom and den, as well as a blue perforated staircase, which also creates shadow play on the walls, the home is lit with personality. Even the front door hints at what’s to come.
“The connection between interior and exterior is so strong, you feel immediately connected to nature in this house,” says Billinghurst. “The library loft upstairs has a space for afternoon reading, naps and playing music, while still feeling like you are outside. And you never need to turn a light on in the day.”
While the home required a driveway for bylaw, Baird doesn’t drive, so the team designed a broken-up pathway with greenery. They also put in a rain garden — a pond covered in foliage — to act as an overflow basin and rainwater collection space that flows downhill to the gardens.
Then, of course, there are the gardens. Baird worked with Erin Renwick of Greenspace Designs to bring the outdoor space to life. Her team brought in pops of colours through a series of lupins, ferns, bushes and wild grasses. Baird later added a few touches himself: sunflowers, berries, grapes and tomato plants, fig trees, peach trees and more.
“I built way too big of a house,” says Baird, with a laugh. “I spend most of my time just sitting in front of the fireplace on the main floor, or in the backyard. Being able to look out and see green from every angle in the house means a lot to me, especially as things change.”
Architect: Coast + Beam Architecture
Interior designer: Pamela Billinghurst Interior Design
Builders and framer: Horizon Pacific Contracting
Light fixtures: Amped Electrical Contracting
Cabinets and woodwork: CSD Design
Doors and hardware: Home Lumber & Building Supplies
Roofing: Top Line Roofing
Shou Sugi Ban: Warburton Woodworks
Concrete work: Vancouver Island Polished Concrete, Horizon Contracting
Flooring and tile: Island Floor Centre
Kitchen appliances: Trail Appliances
Countertops: Colonial Countertops
Plumbing fixtures: Watershed Plumbing & Gas
Stairs: NightNDay Projects
Landscape design: Greenspace Designs
Landscaping: Golden Appeal Landscaping