As you ring the bell at 1098 Wolfe Ave. in Vancouver, its Jetsons-theme-music chime suggests you’re in for a bit of a show. Sure enough, the 6,500 square feet that lie beyond the front door comprise a showpiece, in a particularly literal sense of the term. This modernist mansion was designed to be a calling card for an emerging architect. And, as its recent sale for a cool $4.5-million attests, even a showpiece can be a good investment.
Clinton Cuddington conceived and executed the house as his debut project at Measured Architecture. He and his young family needed a house; his new firm (co-founded with erstwhile partner Matthew Woodruff) needed buzz. Measured Architecture branded itself as both edgy and eco-minded, but although the principals had logged almost a decade at Bing Thom Architects, the firm itself had no portfolio to speak of.
The Wolfe Avenue House would be a way to build professional equity – a catalogue of Mr. Cuddington’s design skills and values. With financial backing from his father-in-law and input from his interior-design-trained wife, Monica Berdin, Mr. Cuddington set about creating his home cum architectural showroom. “It took me not only to a new philosophical level, but also to a new practical level” of design professionalism, he says.
The house is a paradigm of in-your-face Modernism: rectilinear massing, minimal decoration, interflowing spaces, naked yellow cedar and concrete, with a geothermal heating system and green roof for eco-cred. It’s also a luxury job: limestone floors, big skylights, elevator and six bathrooms.
As a calling card, the house certainly served its purpose, garnering a flurry of media attention when it was completed in 2008, including a Designer of the Year nod from Western Living magazine.
But while the media attention was mostly positive, and just the sort of buzz the new firm needed, the path from conception to construction to final resale has been long and tortuous. From the outset, some Shaughnessy neighbours and traditionalists at City Hall were apoplectic that an emphatically Modernist structure should sit squat in an enclave of fusty, old-money, traditionalist homes.
Mr. Cuddington was encouraged and supported by architect Richard Henriquez (himself familiar with the travails of building modern in Shaughnessy), by former employer Bing Thom, the late Abraham Rogatnick, city development planner Sailen Black and a few other stalwart supporters.
When the house was actually built, some colleagues raised their eyebrows at its large scale and the audacious gesture of branding it as “ecological” with a size of more than 6,000 square feet and copious amounts of granite imported from China.
But for Mr. Cuddington’s purposes, the sniping misses the point. The Chinese granite was specified because it was the lowest-cost granite the architect could find, therefore allowing him to devote more resources to the Japanese stonemason who meticulously cut and positioned each stone without mortar. As far as the house’s footprint goes, he sees his creation as harm-reduction: The lot allowed for construction of 18,000 square feet and a 35 per cent footprint; this house and its 12 per cent lot coverage is about one-third of that.
The Wolfe Avenue house is also characterized by copious use of “reveals” – those narrow routings and gaps that are characteristic of Modernist detailing. Reveals replace baseboards, and make the junction line between floors, walls and ceiling appear especially smooth and flush. Ironically, the striking minimalist effect they create comes at a great cost, since it requires a double drywall layer and a lot of meticulous craftsmanship. “It does take a lot more in the way of dialogue and project co-ordination – which costs money,” Mr. Cuddington allows.
He and his agents faced an uphill battle from the get-go, given the home’s location on a busy thoroughfare. Although the house is quiet inside and in the back garden, there’s no escaping the whoosh of traffic as you stroll out the front door. Mr. Cuddington recalls how prospective buyers would be entranced – “and then as soon as they stepped out onto the master balcony, they’d go, ‘Uh, see ya later,’ and walk out.”
He took to personally pitching the unsung advantage during site tours: The home’s position on what he calls “the moat” – the elevated edge that curves around Shaughnessy’s eastern front – offers a uniquely expansive view of the city, with the mountains and Simon Fraser University in the background.
Real-estate agents were also scratching their heads about how to sell a multimillion-dollar house without the “Shaughnessy checklist” of amenities. No swimming pool, no home theatre, no wine cellar – and a mere three-car-garage in an enclave known to embed eight-car garages in its mansions. One agent pleaded with him to add props – a billiard table or, at the very least, a foosball table. Mr. Cuddington held firm: The whole point of his exercise was to sell the architecture, not to obstruct it. But in the game of real estate, he observes, “Shaughnessy doesn’t play by the same rules.”
The construction cost was $3-million. The land cost $800,000. The house went on the market in 2008 at $5.9-million – and sat there for almost two years and through two agents before finally selling at $4.5-million.
Profit: $600,000 and change. Gratification that he can finally pay back his father-in-law: priceless.
The buyers are a young family of four from mainland China – a demographic that has not, to now, been renowned for architectural audacity nor an appreciation of modernism. “They took a 1 1/2- hour tour and fell in love with it, and followed up with a six-hour home inspection,” Mr. Cuddington recalls.
Real-estate agent Andrew Hasman, who formally closed the deal on Feb. 1, cites the Wolfe House sale as proof that preconceptions about the Vancouver luxury market needs updating.
“Modernism is coming back into its own,” he says. “People have a better understanding of it now.” Including buyers from mainland China, who have had a long-standing reputation for eschewing contemporary design. “Their tastes are becoming a lot more sophisticated,” Mr. Hasman says. The implications for real-estate marketing? “Huge.”
Despite the relief of being able to move forward, Mr. Cuddington feels wistful about letting go of his debut project. “It’s like sending my first-born off to university.”
On the plus side, the project has enabled him not only to get his name around, but also to build a network of top-quality builders, craftspeople and suppliers to work with him on future projects.
“I call them ‘the Loyalists,’” he says with a smile.
Special to The Globe and Mail