ARCHITECTURE – Reno’d to the max
Farouk Noormohamed took a cramped, vinyl-sided fixer-upper facing heavy traffic and transformed it into a sophisticated oasis of calm that is being praised by home builders. It wasn’t easy, and, with costs over $300,000, it wasn’t cheap, MARCIE GOOD writes
MARCIE GOOD – Special to The Globe and Mail
Architect Farouk Noormohamed has a quick answer to a question about the difference between designing a house for a client versus a house for his own family. It has to do with the bane of any renovator’s existence: budget.
“For yourself, you will accept something you wouldn’t accept for a client,” he says. “Not because you want it any less, but because you know you can’t afford it.”
That’s not to say, however, that the home he and his wife, Farida, designed has any sense of compromise about it.
They started about a year ago with a small vinyl-sided house on 15th Street in West Vancouver.
Their friends wondered if they were crazy when they bought the white rancher. It was outdated, with a cramped interior and carport out front, and it also faced the busy route from the #1 highway exit to Marine Drive.
But the couple could see promise in the post-and-beam structure and envision ways to alleviate the traffic noise. Thanks to its unattractive location, it had an attractive price tag.
The result of the six-month renovation is a sophisticated yet comfortable four-bedroom home that weighs in at 2,500 sq. ft. but feels much bigger. It was recently chosen as a finalist in the $200,000-$400,000 renovation category of the Canadian Home Builders’ Association of British Columbia’s Georgie Awards.
Three years ago the Noormohameds sold their family home after their two children moved out. First they tried a downtown condo, but while they loved the lifestyle, they found the downsize a little drastic. The Lions Gate Bridge commute to the North Vancouver office of FNDA Architecture was wearing on their nerves, so they looked back to the North Shore.
Mr. Noormohamed laughs as he recalls their own struggle with “scope creep,” a temptation he always warns his clients against. Their plans for a few updates soon turned into a complete gut-and-rebuild. They kept the shell, reconfigured the layout, and maximized every inch of space with clever design ideas. The total budget came in just over $300,000, which he adds was much lower than it would have been to build from scratch.
The first measure they took to block traffic noise was a wall facing 15th Street.
This created a courtyard between the driveway and the front entrance, a pleasant space graced with a fountain and Japanese maples that acts as a physical and mental buffer between outside and inside. The idea was so successful that a neighbour across the street commissioned FNDA to build a similar design for his house before he put it on the market. Further sound-proofing was achieved with the construction of a garage and elimination of all windows except one on the street-facing side.
It’s hard to believe the Georgie award judges do not visit the homes they choose, because this house must be seen to be truly appreciated. “When you ask someone what they think of a building after they’ve seen it, they find it hard to explain,” Mr. Noormohamed says.
“That’s because architecture is a series of experiences, positive or negative.” Here, those begin with the sanctuary of the courtyard, where you may notice the exterior colour of the house matches the bark of the cedars. Not only the colour but the understated style of the flat-roofed home, which stretches down a slope at the back to a stream, seems at one with its surroundings.
The original house had a games room, bedroom, living room, family room and kitchen on the main floor. The Noormohameds opened up the space for a living and dining area with the kitchen on the east-facing wall. Now, a visitor enters the front door and sees, across the room, another door. This one is now a piece of art, although it once hung on the house of the Hindu wife of Akbar the Great.
They salvaged the door when they were living in Karachi, Pakistan, between 1979 and 1986. Mr. Noormohamed was designing and overseeing the construction of the Aga Khan University for the Aga Khan Development Network, which focuses on education and health projects. Here, the door has multiple meanings. While the Noormohameds are Muslim, the motifs etched in teak reflect both Muslim and Hindu traditions. “As you come through this door,” he says, referring to the front entrance, “it’s a reminder of where we used to be.”
It also shows their detailed planning, which included how to display their favourite art. A recess in the wall at the bottom of the staircase is the perfect dimensions for a traditional carving from Kenya, where both of them were born. They studied at University of Nairobi before moving to the U.S. in 1974.
Several paintings in the neutral, black and red tones of the main living area were done by their daughter Alia, who is studying architecture at Carleton University. She also designed some of the millwork and display boxes along the staircase.
Careful consideration has made the most of the space available. “The worst thing in most people’s homes is the mess around the phone,” points out Mr. Noormohamed, as he opens up a cabinet to reveal the phone, a collection of newspapers, books, and pens. Close the door, however, and the mess is gone. Similarly, cabinets built into the wall in the living area keep blankets, pillows, and entertainment equipment out of sight. A “study” area in the dining room hides the fax machine and printer inside attractive millwork.
Rather than drywalling the living area’s ceiling, they chose to clad the original knotty beams in dark stained plywood for a sleeker look more in keeping with the home’s modern design. Then, lattice screens were installed, echoing the screens that give privacy and shade on the south-west exterior walls. Because the ceilings are black, they seem to disappear behind the slats, creating the illusion of more space.
One of their ideas they gave up was a skylight in the dining area. Considering the small sacrifices made to stay on budget, Mr. Noormohamed gestures towards the coffee table, which on closer examination turns out to be a long piece of glass (“our old dining room table,” he adds,) placed on concrete bricks. While some of his clients would spend thousands on a designer version, this one has a simple elegance that suits the space and allows full view of the black-and-off-white striped rug below.
The only area added to the original house is about 40 square feet in the master bedroom, which is a surprisingly peaceful retreat in the far north corner of the basement. With windows facing the forested ravine behind the house, here is noise that doesn’t need blocking out: the trickling sounds of the stream.