Let in the light

The owners of Sitka Physio & Wellness had a clear vision for the 1,400 square feet of space they’d leased in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel Vancouver. Along with a West Coast feel, they wanted a space that would be light and airy, despite its subterranean locale. The challenge for the architects at Vancouver’s Gates_Suter was to realize that vision without access to any natural sources of light. The key to the design, says architect Joanne Gates, was to find a way to fool the mind’s eye into thinking the space had a natural sky-lit feel.

Choosing not to close in the ceilings, Gates and company were then faced with a suspended tangle of service wires, ducts and sprinkler systems. Using a white palette, Gates says the first step was to paint out all of the services and wires as a way of evoking a soft white light that would make the space calm and serene. Next, the team looked to white perforated-metal screens, pre-painted with a durable factory finish, as a way of covering up the services, while still allowing the light to flow through, making the space seem much loftier than it is in reality.

 Wood and glass elements were used as counterpoints to the starkness of white. Wanting to refrain from a “woodsy” look, and to keep the design fresh, Gates used oak veneer millwork for the reception desk and cupboards, and an engineered oak floor throughout, for both its lightness and its durability. Like bamboo, says Gates, oak gives a softer edge than regular hardwood. With apple-green coloured walls, the space took on an earthy feel while still avoiding a traditional forest look. “We went through many greens to get the right one,” says Gates. “And again, it was so there’d be a sort of fresh calmness to the space.”

Glass walls etched with an image of the Sitka tree (a large spruce found in coastal forests), along with a seamless mirrored wall on the far side of the large gym, add to the light and spacious atmosphere. “It was quite remarkable how the mirrors and glass worked together in the big space,” says Gates. “We knew they would amplify the light. We didn’t really expect how much they would multiply the space.”

Lighting became the final piece of the puzzle. Using fluorescents with fixtures than could be retrofitted to LED’s, Gates also experimented with soft T8 bulbs aimed upwards, until she was able to achieve the diffused light she desired. “Ultimately this project has given us a lot more confidence in terms of knowing that we can achieve a quality light effect even without natural light,” says Gates. “And the end result really does feel as spacious as we had hoped.”

To those faced with a similar design dilemma, Gates’ advice is to simply follow your gut: “For us, we were quite blessed with a client who trusted us. Not every client would want perforated metal on their ceiling. We simply went with our instincts and weren’t afraid to experiment.”  cI