When artist Stephen Waddell first laid eyes on the Vancouver house he and his wife, landscape designer Isabel Kunigk, wound up buying, there was no lightbulb moment, no hint of a diamond waiting to be unearthed. “Nothing about the existing house convinced me it would work,” he admits. But their architect, D’Arcy Jones, had a vision for the 1,300-square-foot 1940s bungalow: He’d raise the structure, transform the basement into the main level, and turn the former main floor into a bedroom level. “Basements are such a dreary tradition in Vancouver,” says Jones. “It’s hard to bring in natural light in a way that makes it a space you’d want to spend time in.”
He soon tweaked the plan by adding a triangular third floor to serve as an office and as a playroom for the couple’s two children. “The city insisted on no flat roofs, so we couldn’t do a major correction to make a contemporary house,” he says. “But they didn’t anticipate how we would interpret minimum roof slopes. It’s like a Toblerone box.”
Having spent more than 10 years in Europe, the couple didn’t mind living small. But natural light was a priority, as was outdoor entertaining in back and an ever-changing garden in front. “We decided to keep the yard, over an investment in more living space,” explains Waddell, who acted as his own contractor to keep costs down.
But before any details could be implemented, the house had to be raised. “It seems radical, but it costs less than if it were built new,” Jones explains. “An empty wood-frame house is no heavier than a dump truck, so they use four hydraulic jacks. Raising a house is, surprisingly, not a big deal. It’s more work to detach your house from its foundation,” he says of the process, which involves stripping the structure to the studs and disconnecting the gas, water, and sewer lines. With help from one or more steel I-beams, the house is raised, usually within a matter of hours, and temporary support cribs placed. After the new walls are framed, the house can be set back down atop the new ground floor—typically no more than a month later.
Once Waddell and Kunigk’s house was lifted, about eight feet above the original, the team turned to the interiors. What was formerly the basement is now the kitchen, living room, and dining room, with nine-foot ceilings and glass doors that open to a deck that doubles as an outdoor dining room, defined by low walls of poured-in-place concrete. Up a few steps, tall grasses and trees obscure neighboring houses. “Indoor-outdoor spaces aren’t typical here,” says Waddell. “We didn’t want to look down on the garden but look out to all the green.”
With its raw-concrete floors, exposed rafters and joists, and the steel beam used to lift the house, the ground floor has a deliberately unfinished quality. “I take joy in seeing the joists that I placed,” notes Waddell. The middle level is more refined, with smaller windows for privacy, while the top floor is a luminous space, with views to the mountains. “Putting glass at each end makes it feel sculptural and pure,” says Jones, who likens the house to a layer cake, each level having a different character.
Vancouver has its share of rainy days, Waddell says, “It’s interesting to see how you can live in a smaller space and have a relationship with the outdoors.”