Tea Swamp House

 455 E17 Avenue, Vancouver, BC

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This project was initiated in 2004 with the search for an appropriate site. The clients, a photographic artist and a musician were moving from Banff and wanted a central Vancouver location. A 50′ lot was purchased in the north Riley Park neighbourhood at the south edge of Mount Pleasant. This lot was in the middle of a former swamp and contains some original swamp trees. For untold centuries the site of Mount Pleasant was a dense forest diagonally bisected by an ancient trail travelled by First Nations peoples and wildlife such as deer, bear and elk. On its southern edge was an opening in the forest where a beaver dam had backed up a creek forming this large swamp. In 1860 Colonel Moody’s Royal Engineers improved the trail for better access to the new naval reserves set aside on English Bay. The purpose was to provide advance notice of any naval attack by Americans on the new capital of the Colony of British Columbia at New Westminster, and to provide access to ice-free Burrard Inlet if the Fraser ever froze over. An open swampy area was a landmark on the trip through the dark forest and soon was named the “Tea Swamp” after its Labrador tea, a small plant used by pioneers to brew tea.

The residence is comprised of a home and two studios for the owners/artists. Carole Harmon (owner of the protected Harmon Building in Banff) is a photographic artist and Gary Sill is a musician and composer. The swampy soils conditions are challenging since there are 16 feet of peat on top of more solid ground. The metaphor of a swamp has been used to extensively inform the design. This is, metaphorically, a land-locked “house boat”.

Owing to the very high water table and unstable surface soils, the residence is constructed on a floating concrete slab supported on 30′ deep drilled steel piles. The concrete foundation slab is expressed as a “floating” base on which the house structure sits. One enters the house from the street over a wood bridge. The music studio is located on the main floor. It was required to be structurally and acoustically separated from the remainder of the house, so the studio is a building within a building, floating on neoprene pads. 11′ ceilings were provided to accommodate the studio and the remainder of the main floor benefits from this higher-than-usual ceiling height. It is anticipated that occasional home concerts will be held in the living room. The upper floor accommodates a family room, laundry, two bedrooms and two bathrooms. The upper floor also contains a large out door deck that is oriented to take advantage of the winter sun, drawing it deeply into second floor family room and the kitchen below.

Instead of a garage, the photographic studio was constructed at the rear of the property. It is fronted by a linear pond over which a bridge has been constructed to enter the studio from the rear garden.

The main floor roof of the house and the roof of the photographic studio have been designed as “green roofs”. It is expected that the planting for these will be completed in the future. This site has the last remaining original mature native trees on the block, which have been carefully retained and incorporated into the landscaping. The approach to the landscaping is to create a natural woodland environment, using many plants and flowers that can be found in a typical lower mainland bog forest. This is certainly in contrast to the remainder of the streetscape. As one passes this residence, the impression of a bog forest is created, as a reminder of the original nature of this bog location. There is always the hope that this precedent will encourage other residents to adopt more sustainable and natural landscaping.