My Design Point Of View
My first hands-on experience with a significantly
large Douglas Fir was trying to buck it up for firewood using a double-handled,
two-man crosscut saw. I was twelve. The man on the other handle was my
stepfather. Before this encounter with old growth forests of British
Columbia he had been a lingerie salesman in England. The logging operation
didn't last long but I give him credit for trying. (Other details of his
life and mine can be found in the
Ardmore House & I
, and my novel,
The Charlatan Variations.)
The fallen giant was about eight feet in diameter
at its stump. We hadn't felled it: from the stump there was a mysterious
missing section of roughly fifteen paces, after which came the bramble-covered,
remaining 200 odd feet we attempted to attack. I mention it because it
was both an example of how BC logging was conducted until the day before
yesterday (in terms of a big tree's life span), and how brief a time European
-- although as Britons we didn't consider ourselves that -- newcomers had been
on the West Coast of North America.
The fir was finally reduced to firewood by the
first chainsaw I watched in action. It also still needed two men --
heavy duty loggers -- to handle its weight and kickback. Between tobacco
spits, the sawyers explained that the missing fifteen paces of wood was
the length of log the original fallers hauled away: it represented the
vertical distance to the first major branch of the standing tree. That
meant clear wood, with no knots. The rest was considered worthless.
This long winded introduction simply shows that I
have always been guided by two opposing principles in my building. First,
I could never imagine a house on the West Coast that didn't make use of
its magnificent trees; and in an unfixable contradiction I wanted to
save as many as possible on any piece of land I owned.
Trees and rocks are inseparable on the islands of
Canada's west coast. That means if you build with them, you want to look
at them -- and that means a lot of glass. But in the Zen of building you
can never know what you will see through a window until you have the window.
That means putting in a lot of afterthoughts. To do that you have to be your
I had always had an affinity for the houses of
Frank Lloyd-Wright, but ironically, it was only while writing
(in which he has only a bit part) that I studied and really understood
him -- and saw that I was his disciple. A good painter doesn't farm out
the vision, the painting, and the frame to third parties. If you set
out to design a house, I firmly believe that you should be able to
build it, decorate it, furnish it, and landscape it. With luck, the
first three can be combined in a single feature.
A picture should replace all these words, but
building -- whether websites or houses -- is all compromises. In the
house (above) where I saved one tree (by letting it grow up through a sundeck),
I used another to construct its
main staircase. I wanted a spiral, but the only possible location had
already been commandeered for one of the fir posts supporting the main
ridge. The solution was to use the post as the central spindle. The
stair treads, or winders, also fir, were each cut in a cheese-wedge,
24 inches at the wide end, 8 inches at the narrow, and 4 inches thick.
They were set into notches in the post, very similar in appearance to
the axed notches remaining in ancient cedar stumps, put there for the
planks supporting the men cutting them down.
The other designer and architect I have a lot of
time for is Charles Rennie Mackintosh. I never got to build chairs like
his, but I would have if writing hadn't taken over my spare time. The
chairs were to go with a table I did make.
Again, the picture should tell the story -- but
it requires a cat called Angus. The table was a slab cut from a single
log, and only one mill, B.C. Forest Products, now globalized into extinction,
could do the job. I asked for a slab 36 inches wide, 4 inches thick, and 18
feet long. Once they found it, and I had it, I needed to cure it. The drying
time was several months and everyone I spoke to said it would warp too badly
to use. I worried, but nature proved them wrong.
Once the table was assembled I sat at the head of
it and ate off it every day -- and every day Angus the cat attacked the
wood beside my right hand with his claws until I placated him with food.
His clawing and my placating infuriated me but became a family joke. The
point of telling this story is that one day when I was knocking Angus's
paw aside in another futile gesture... I noticed that his scratches had
gouged out the rings marking the butt end of the slab.
I began to count them. In several places it required
a magnifying glass, indicating
70 year periods of drought
. It is an interesting
academic exercise to wonder what such a dry spell would do to contemporary
cities like Victoria, Vancouver, and Seattle. The table could also tell my
children a bit of local history -- when the aforesaid Europeans arrived as Juan de
Fuca and Captain Cook. I estimated the table to have needed a tree 500 years
old. One day when I was speaking to the mill I asked a head sawyer what size
the original log would have had to be. "Around eight feet at the stump."
And so another circle closes... to bring us out
of doors, and into: