Here on the west coast, we don’t have to go far to enjoy the spectacular beauty around us. Those with waterfront homes are especially fortunate. British Columbia is blessed with an unsurpassed variety of shoreline landscapes, from the gently pastoral to the wildly rugged.
As an architectural designer, I’m lucky to be able to work in a lot of gorgeous locations. My happy task is to make visible the possibilities for a life by the water, whether planning a tiny creekside cabin or a multi-level family home overlooking the harbour.
Usually, I’m approached by clients who have purchased a waterfront lot and want a home design to optimize its assets. But it’s best to start before buying land, in order to assess the challenges and opportunities in building there. I always look for several factors which, together, characterize an ideal site:
There should be a strong sense of connection with the water. After all, that’s what makes a waterfront site special, and a wall of dense tree cover defeats the purpose. It follows that we look for a view, whether it’s a nearby point or islet, or a longer prospect of open water and distant mountains. Building at different levels and angles can offer dramatically different perspectives.
Ideally, the shoreline will run east-west and the lot will have a southern aspect. This makes it ideal for passive solar heating and year-round comfort. Also, the site should offer privacy from immediate neighbours. This is partly a function of lot size, but can also be achieved by topography or vegetation.
A rural lot should have enough terrain suitable for a septic system, thus avoiding an expensive treatment plant or disposal field. There should be fairly easy access to get building materials and equipment onto the site without resorting to a helicopter. That said, a challenging building site isn’t necessarily a detriment, and can give rise to some of the most creative and beautiful solutions.
A good site has distinctive features — whether trees, rock outcrops, a stream, or natural vegetation — that inspire a strong architectural response. Finally, I look for a strong spirit of place, a quality that makes the site unique. There’s an innate harmony and grace in how the parts comprise the whole. The ideal waterfront home is one designed to integrate with its surroundings, not dominate them.