Outdoor Rooms

A house should: Support your needs, engage your mind, delight your heart. We need to feel more at home when at home.
— Author Unknown
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The most common renovations we are requested to help clients with are kitchens and decks.  I was reminded of the importance of outdoor “rooms” while at a meeting of my journalling group last month.  Each month we meet at one of our homes to exchange ideas about furthering our creative pursuits through journalling.  We used to meet at coffee shops but found that the noise made conversation challenging.  On a sunny September morning we met at D’s house in West Vancouver.  With the temperature at 21°C we took the opportunity to sit outside on her deck.  It’s a humble deck about 8′ wide by 12′ long with a round table placed at one end overlooking the garden and the distant view of the harbour beyond.  The other end of the deck faces the street, but all indications of neighbors and cars are hidden by dense foliage which wraps around two sides, forming a natural screen.  With its direct southern orientation, this deck is perfectly situated to be used for sunny morning coffee, afternoon tea and evening cocktails and barbecues.  The table is always in the sun.  Its modest size comfortably accommodates both a single person capturing a quiet moment to themselves, or a larger family gathering to exchange stories of their day, while sharing a summer picnic.  With a table umbrella to moderate the sun and a gas heater to provide heat on cool evenings, it is the perfect three season outdoor room.  With the simple addition of a covered area to accommodate the barbecue and tuck in the table, the deck would be usable year round!

  • Architecturally speaking, think of your deck as an outdoor room with a floor (the deck surface) and walls (the railings and the wall of the adjacent house).  Choose an inviting deck surface and add an outdoor rug to define a sitting area. The railings should be higher and more solid where you want privacy and more open where you want to see the views.  The building code regulates the height of railings and often the top rail is right in your view line when sitting.  Two solutions are 1. To use a tempered glass railing with no top rail or 2. To create a stepped deck so that when you are seated on the upper level you look right over the lower level railing.

  • Add lighting on the adjacent house wall or on railing posts to allow night time use and choose lights with a soft glow or downlights which will add a romantic atmosphere to your twilight dinners.

  • For year round use consider a covered area large enough to house your barbeque and at least a small sized table.  Ideally the cover should be integrated with the roof form and style of the house.

  • If you’re building a new deck, locate your deck so that at least a portion of it will receive a good amount of sun.  There’s nothing like basking in the warmth of the sun on those cool shoulder season days!

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Berm House Project

A lot of clients ask us about heating systems and other aspects of energy efficiency.  Increasingly, people are interested in sustainable building practices and economic energy solutions.

Several years ago, we were approached by a couple to design a straw bale workshop building for Manitioba .  We designed the workshop with a inner wood frame for structure and wiring, and with building paper and flashings like you would find in standard construction, since research  has proven that straw bale walls sag and rot if not properly detailed.  The roof was insulated to R-100 and the straw bale walls provided about R-75.   The workshop is about 600 square feet and is heated by a small electric domestic hot water heater with hydronic tubing in the concrete slab.  The temperature in Manitoba dips under -40 degrees C most winters, and while the heat turns off at night there is only a five degree temperature drop.   The workshop showed us that high insulation values and tightly sealed building envelopes can be as important as the type of heating system to the energy efficiency of a building.

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The same clients then asked us for a berm house design.  Our approach to the berm house and straw bale workshop were similar: High insulation values create an inner environment that doesn’t require a lot of added heat.   Now that the home has been occupied, the owners have told us that the heating system rarely comes on except during the coldest part of the winter.   A ground source heating system was installed.  Since the ground below a depth of about 8′ has constant temperature, it is a reliable local source of heat energy. (#1 on section image below) A heat pump is used to pump heat out of the ground into a loop that pumps water through the floor slab. (#11)  Electricity is required to power a pump and compressor, but the power requirement is low.

The idea behind building a house into a berm similarly hinges on the fact that the earth is warmer underground than the winter air, and cooler in the summer.  A house that is buried into the earth on three sides, with a super-insulated R-100 roof (#7), with one side open to the south for light and air (#19) is a very energy efficient solution.

This house has been designed for optimal solar heat gain in the winter in the main habitated rooms.   Triple glazed low e windows let in the winter light energy while retaining the interior heat (#10).  Placing all major rooms on the south side is also an efficient day-lighting strategy (#18).  The concrete floor acts as a heat sink for capturing the suns energy in the winter (#3) (#14), while generous and calculated overhangs block direct sun in the summer (#2).   Heat recovery ventilation ducts also run through the slab. (#13)

The roof is designed to allow daylight deep into the spaces, direct rain water (#5) to a cistern (#6) for purification for domestic water use , and has a panel at the ideal angle for solar hot water preheating.  (#12)  The light coloured metal roof also reflects away sunlight during the summer to keep the interior cooler. (#4)

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The super-insulated second floor entry vestibule (#8) is designed for cross ventilation in the summer (#15) , and to isolate cold air from entering the main part of the house in the winter.

Recycled materials have been used where possible, along with low embodied energy and low off-gassing finishes.

The house has been Energuide rated at 86, and showed that even with Power Smart lighting (#17) four times more energy is theoretically used for lights, appliances and hot water than for heating.  The Energuide rating , however, doesn’t  give credit for the fact that lighting is seldom needed due to the effectiveness of the day-lighting design (#18), or give credit for the fact that in Manitoba, for much of the year, heat energy from lighting and appliances will fully heat this house due to the high insulation value.

The Energuide rating also doesn’t take into account that a berm house has reduced temperature differential exposure to the outside environment, or give credit for such strategies such as exterior horizontal footing insulation (#16) and mass walls (#9).  High mass walls slow down heat loss, particularly when located on the warm side of the insulation.  Horizontal footing insulation takes advantage of the mass of the earth in front of the foundations to slow down the flow of heat from the footings.

Having said all of the above, the architectural design of the house is paramount to ensure that it will be comfortable, functional, beautiful and consequently endure and be enjoyed for many years to come.

Condo Renovations

Over the years we have been commissioned to design a number of condominium renovations.  Generally the clients have been downsizing from a larger home, or are just looking to update an older flat that they own.  In Greater Vancouver, a lot of condominiums were cheaply built and need a little TLC in the form of new flooring, door hardware, light fixtures, updated fireplaces, bathrooms and kitchens, and possibly removing or cutting openings in walls to create the impression of larger spaces.

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These are before and after photos taken from the living room looking through the dining room towards the kitchen.  The wall was removed to create a feeling of space, a greater sense of drama, and a social atmosphere where someone working in the kitchen would be more connected to people in the dining and living area.  The removal of the wall also helped distribute natural light throughout the space.

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In this kitchen we created an arched opening in a kitchen wall for similar spacial, social and natural lighting reasons.  Here we opted for a partial opening instead of removing the wall to allow room for upper cabinets.  In condominium buildings, unless the apartment is on the upper floor, there are often plumbing and electrical services running through the kitchen walls to units above which can limit the size of the possible openings.

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In this condominium the dining room wall has again been opened up to the kitchen beyond.  The elegant panelled wall also hides a storage area under the stair, making use of every square foot of space available.  In small spaces this is a must!

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This fireplace surround in copper glazed ceramic tile and concrete stone adds flair to the entertaining space as well as storage for wood and books. An extended raised hearth provides additional seating in a room with limited space for additional chairs.


Renovations can change the feeling of homes as well as upgrading them functionally.   These projects show how otherwise drab, outdated apartments can be transformed, extending the life of the building and increasing the enjoyment of the spaces.