A quarter-century is a significant milestone in one’s working life. This year marks the 25th anniversary of my design practice, and I can’t help reflecting on the long and winding road that brought me to this time and place.
It seems natural that I’d follow in my architect dad’s footsteps, having watched his designers and draftspeople in action when I was a boy. Also, this job corresponds strongly to dimensions of my personality: the technical challenges, creative possibilities, and personal connections are all tremendously satisfying. Working with interesting people to complete well-defined, discrete projects in beautiful locations, and leaving a (hopefully) beneficial imprint on the physical landscape – how can it get any better?
My first project was also my first house, purchased in Nelson, BC in 1989. Built on a hill, the house had settled and tipped out of plumb by 4 inches. Fixing it up put me on a steep learning curve, and I discovered quickly that there’s a reason that things are standardized! I built or installed almost everything myself – roof, windows, cabinets, tile, gyproc, paint, plumbing, electrical and more. It took a long time, but I was happy with the outcome and emerged with a lot of hard-earned knowledge that has stood me in good stead to the present day.
Then I met my mentor and friend, David Dobie, to whom I can easily point as my greatest career influence. David, an accomplished residential designer, did me the great honour of inviting me to collaborate with him. We worked together through the 1990s, during which time he taught me valuable lessons about how to practice, how to relate to clients and how to keep the creative muse alive.
In 1999, I set up the website BCMountainHomes.com, offering predesigned stock plans for the booming housing market of the day. The next year, I moved to Vancouver and established an office on Dunbar Street. Through a friend, the Vancouver Sun found out about me, and in 2002 they published a 3-page Homes Section feature that helped to grow my business exponentially. I hired my first employee, and then added two more.
Things went well, but I longed to buy a house again and wanted to reduce overhead by working out of a home office. This vision was realized after a move to Victoria, where I worked first in my garage-turned-office, and later in bigger premises on Gladstone Avenue. A few years ago, the desire to live in cohousing brought my family and me to our present home in the beautiful Comox Valley, and here we aim to stay.
I’ve always found inspiration in nature: the topography of the land, the sun’s movement, the seasonal transitions all have practical and philosophical impacts on my design practice. So does the seminal book “Small Is Beautiful”, which I read four decades ago. I’ve come to believe that our role as designers is to provide “environmental mediation” of the type that is, sadly, not practiced often enough. Ideally, our work can help people to integrate synergistically with the world, reconciling human needs with environmental integrity and allowing us to become part of nature again. It’s not easy to admit that there’s more ego than ecology at the heart of much current practice.
My own work has changed profoundly over the years, as its scope expanded and then shrank again to encompass a more local clientele. I’d designed projects in locations that ranged from Bowen Island to Bali, with many clients all over North America. Now I long to be more intimately involved in the construction process and to see projects through first-hand. Just as importantly, I want to practice more sustainably – which in my mind, has demanded that I give up air travel. I’ve no regrets about that decision, and am happy to say that I’m working to capacity all the time now. It took a few years to get here, since every move to a new location – 7 offices in 25 years — meant reestablishing in a new community, which proved challenging and expensive! If only Tanis and I had discovered the Comox Valley sooner…
Looking to the future, I entertain a few hopes and dreams. Personally, I’d like to work on more projects with the potential to influence the sustainability realm – small houses, cohousing, Passive House, ideally integrated with permaculture design. More broadly, I’d like to see our society learn to live within our means without diminishing our natural capital. And finally, I’m heartened by the large-scale embrace of more sustainable practice by architects. Still, the vision that continues to drive the building industry is myopic, with “more = better” as the driving principle. My fondest hope is that the true project of architecture – reconnecting humans and their environment in a healthful, authentic way – will eventually become the norm.
That outcome is within our reach; let’s all do what we can to make it a reality. In the meantime, thank you all — my family, friends, clients and colleagues — for helping me to do what I love for 25 years. I am grateful.