Site Specific

Ridge House is the most recent masterwork of Blue Sky Architecture’s series of artful, organically shaped dwellings. The series began its evolution in the 1970s with Bo Helliwell’s co-founding of Blue Sky Design, whose so-called “Butcher- block Modernism” became a kind of one-firm critical regionalism. In later years, as Helliwell partnered in work and life with Kim Smith, the evolution has continued, accruing subtlety and nuance over the years. Their residential design approach has been pegged as “Arts and Crafts Modernism,” and alternatively as “Organic Modernism,” but boasts much more flexibility than Arts and Crafts, and much more warmth than paradigmatic Modernism.

Like many of their later projects, particularly their 1996 Greenwood House on Galiano Island (better known as “Fishbones”), Ridge House boasts a sinuous linearity that echoes the topology of the site. The house straddles a strip of 15-foot rock ridge on a lush ocean-view site on Salt Spring Island, the largest of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands off the southern coast of the province.

Ridge House was created as the proverbial utopian home for the post-civil-service lives of former Ottawa residents Robin and Janet. Robin has already wound up his career with the National Research Council, although Janet maintains an active worklife as a policy consultant.

Ridge House bears all the vintage vocabulary of Blue Sky Architecture, the West Vancouver-based firm that created it: Douglas fir and other local woods, thick, solid post-and-beam construction, curving forms that speak to the site. But the distinctive drama of Ridge House springs from the ebb and swell of its butterfly roof, whose ridge flexes into a valley at midpoint. Smith cites a childhood finger game to explain the concept: “Here’s the church, here’s the steeple, look inside and see all the people,” she recites, interlacing her fingers to form a palms-in peak and then inverting them to palms-out.

Ecclesiastic allegories notwithstanding, the section reads more like a rollercoaster than a church. The sculptural roofline developed after the architects worked out the basic floor plan, and then started playing with their hands and with sticks -“a kind of pantomiming of the model,” as Helliwell puts it -to come up with a scheme. “We liked the thought of a sheltering entrance with a conventional gable roof,” says Helliwell. “Then at the other end we wanted the house to expand into the light and the landscape.”

The central corridor fans out slowly while the peaked ceiling flattens and then inverts into a valley. This is the defining gesture of Ridge House: the movement of the outside is revealed and emphasized inside and enriches any perambulation therein. As you walk down the double-loaded central hallway, the splay of corridor and the visual play of the ceiling’s exposed rafters richly inform the experience. The kitchen, master bedroom and den run off this vital central space, episodes in the narrative. Then you reach the curved, proscenium-like expanse, glazed floor-to-ceiling to showcase the Arbutus-filled landscape. The window wall infuses the house with that ambiguity so characteristic of West Coast architecture. (Are we inside or out?) So, too, does the outdoor covered terrace cosseted into the east wall -or is it an indoor breakfast room that’s just missing a wall?

Smith and Helliwell have carried forth their deference to West Coast tradition by showcasing the generous views and a plethora of British Columbia wood. In an odd simulacrum of critical regionalism, though, Pennsylvania blue slate was selected for the fireplace and flooring because, ironically, this imported material best evokes the local sandstone of the island. (Culling the sandstone for this task is not an option: it’s too lumpy and soft to make good flooring.)

As befits a structure defined by the sumptuousness of its nature, Ridge House’s design is predicated on sustain-ability. Rainwater gathers in the valley of the butterfly roof into a large scupper, which funnels the water into a pond built into the cantilevered south terrace. As well as generating a reflecting pool visible from the central hall inside, the pond also is a reservoir for irrigation cisterns. The south window wall and stone fireplace wall supply passive heating for the house.

Throughout the project, the architects favoured natural and low VOC materials, and specified water-saver toilets. Most critically is the overall approach of deferring to the site, removing as few trees as possible, and configuring the plan to maximize the cross-ventilation inside. Unlike much of British Columbia’s recent resort-house development, this is not the kind of house that fights or denies its surroundings: the proverbial West Coast dream house. And are the architects concerned about falling into that clich? No, avers Helliwell: “We fall into it quite happily. It’s what we’ve all worked for.”