BY DANIELLE POPE
The first time Allan Cockell and his wife Benedicte visited the Gulf Islands, specifically Salt Spring, they fell in love with craggy cliffs, winding arbutus forests and the deep blue of the Pacific. It’s little surprise they planted their dream home on another tiny island — this one in the middle of Haro Strait with 180-degree views.
What might be surprising, however, is that they managed to build this home entirely off-grid — on an island with no pre-existing power or water sources, and where materials (even the construction trucks) had to arrive by barge. They managed all that while tailoring the home to suit its isolated geography.
The home, on an island near Salt Spring, is perched on a rocky crest, with glorious views of the Saanich Peninsula. Sided in cedar and curved horizontally, the house looks like a noble monument to its natural environment. A wall of windows opens to the south, with solar panels tucked, strategically out of view, below the terrace.
It’s easy to see how inspiration for this home grew from its geography. Thanks to an Arts and Crafts-style approach to the workmanship, this structure combines the elegance of natural materials with an understated homage to the environment that surrounds it.
When the Cockells approached architect Bo Helliwell, designer in principal at Blue Sky Architecture, about the project, Helliwell knew there would be challenges. This wasn’t the first time he’d worked on a remote island, but the forested property, mossy ridge and limited resources would influence the home. It took five years, from concept to move-in, but the house has won awards — a Canadian Wood Council Residential Wood Design Award and a Canadian Home Builders’ Association Vancouver Island CARE Award.
“The property is nestled in rock and trees but, with the view, it was clear where the house should sit,” says Helliwell. “Our mission was to work closely with the environment to leave as much as we could undisturbed.”
They did just that. Like many of the island properties Helliwell works on, the lot was dotted with arbutus and Garry oak trees — both protected species. The island also had an abundance of deer, presenting a special challenge for Helliwell to overcome, since the homeowners wanted a robust garden for their near self-sufficient retreat.
These trials seem small compared with the reality that the construction crew would be arriving by boat each day, and materials would have to be craned in by barge. Not to mention, everything from the electrical resources to water supply would need to be engineered. Builder Rob Parsons of R. Parsons Construction says this is one of the more complex projects he’s worked on, but one he’s most proud of.
“It’s a beautiful house, and a complicated one — though you’d never know from looking at it, and that’s a testament to the design,” says Parsons. “With any island project, you know time will be an issue and you have to be so organized with barge trips and materials. But then, you catch the view over D’Arcy Island and Mount Doug and Cordova Bay, and you get a whole new perspective. It’s really something.”
That perspective is why the homeowners place very little artwork on their walls.
“The natural panorama is the artwork here, and it’s ever changing,” says Benedicte. “Some mornings, in the fall, I get my coffee and call to Allan and say, ‘you’ve got to come and look at this tree.’ We’re constantly surrounded by colour.”
This 2,800-square-foot house captures these views through its uniquely curved shape. The home is also equipped with many unseen features — an on-site well, a roof-water-collection system, five cisterns, 26 solar panels, electric, wind and diesel backup generators, radiant in-floor heating, on-demand water heating, UV water filtration and LED lighting. As Helliwell puts it, this house won’t lose power in a storm. “When you have to jump in a boat to get to anything, you want to make sure your home is as self-sufficient as possible,” he says.
Natural materials are a theme throughout the house. Douglas fir ceilings parallel Island-grown, white oak floors. Glulam (glued-laminated) fir beams bring a sense of strength and grounding to the open-concept living/dining room, and a stylized redwood table, crafted by Helliwell’s son, Zeke, offers a pop of colour to the natural tones.
The house draws on Asian influences too, with a traditional Japanese wet room, featuring a deep bath and outdoor shower. Stone flooring and blue tiles in the bath play off the surrounding environment, while the kitchen’s granite countertops and metallic white backsplash match the glass and aluminum featured in this room.
Helliwell and the homeowners agree — above all, the house comes alive through its location.
“There’s a sense of space here and, even though it’s small, we have a real community on this island,” says Allan. “There are so many awe-inspiring things about this home — it’s my happy place, and it feels like a new discovery every time I open these doors.”
Lead Architects: Bo Helliwell and Kim Smith, Blue Sky Architecture
Construction Manager: Rob Parsons, R. Parsons Construction
Structural Engineer: Carlos Chiu, Chiu Hippmann Engineering
Interior Design: Bo Helliwell and Kim Smith, Blue Sky Architecture
Kitchen/Bathroom Millwork: Dan Johnson Woodworking
Plumber: Heatwave Plumbing & Heating
Electrician: Abbott Electric
Exterior Doors: Loewen Window Centre, Karmanah Wood Design
Windows: Loewen Window Centre
Roofing: A-Z Roofing
Drywall: M. Allen Drywall
Painting: TKG Painting
Interior doors: Karmanah Wood Design
Finishing Carpentry: R. Parsons Construction
Flooring: Heritage Hardwood Flooring
Glass: Parker Glass
Landscape: Aaron Pitt, Bodhi Landscapes
Pavers: Island Stone Landscape Supply
Solar Consultant: Kevin Pegg, EA Energy Alternatives