It’s a story that’s been told many times — a couple from Alberta retires and downsizes to a low maintenance condominium on the west coast. But this familiar tale takes an unconventional twist when two retired prairie farmers decide to change the plot. Instead of considering a turn-key condo, the couple relocated to Victoria with ambitious plans to bring their modernist dwelling blueprints to life. Now if a farmer’s design plans don’t initially conjure images of flat roofs and open plans, one glance of this modern dwelling centred around a private inner courtyard will have you rethinking the prairie farmer design sensibility.
Originally from rural Edmonton, this design-minded couple were not new to custom home building when they imagined their fourth design as a u-shaped home where they could age in place. After consulting locals and interviewing at least seven different builders, all roads led to Maximilian Huxley from Maximilian Huxley Construction Ltd to bring his on-site expertise to their unique custom build in the Uplands. The outcome is 2500-square-feet of pure modernity where geometry and nature merge in a quintessential ‘less is more’ design aesthetic.
“We come from the prairies where it gets very cold, so the essence of our design really centred around the interior courtyard to capitalize on the coast’s temperate weather. Even with twenty years of construction experience, Max Huxley is still young, open minded and enthusiastic — he understood our design plan right away and was on site every day,” says the homeowner.
Of course, looking for a property to fit with an established design isn’t the typical approach to a custom build and subsequently took the couple two to three years to find a corner lot in the established area. Huxley adds that “the couple sold the property’s original 1960’s split level house to Nickel Brothers who moved the house to Sooke to be reused.”
“Informed by their time in rural Alberta, the couple’s definition of vistas include wide open green spaces rather than neighbouring houses so bringing a fraction of farm-life privacy to the design, the modern home enjoys a total of twenty-three clerestory windows to let in an abundance of natural light without compromising on privacy,” states Huxley.
However, not everyone approved of the couple’s design that excluded street-facing windows typical of the other home’s in the area. “During the approval process with the advisory design panel and planning in Oak Bay, the committees were critical of our design because of the absence of picture windows facing the street. They referred to our design as ‘the fortress’ and felt we were turning our backs on the community,” adds the homeowner.
To address the committee’s claims, the couple consulted Rus Collins, principal designer and co-owner of Zebra Group, to help modify a few elements of the design in order to navigate the permit process. “I tightened some of the interior drawings and worked with the couple on the exterior elevations to create a more acceptable curb appeal required by the committee,” states Collins. To elevate the home’s approachable feel, the couple included a welcoming four-by-eight-foot glass front door with an adjoining concrete patio where they can meet and interact with the community.
Connection the design’s overall theme, the transition between interior and exterior is seamless. “The home is basically composed of four boxes that look inward, through large glass sliding doors, toward the courtyard with an open concept living area housing the kitchen, dining area and twin bedrooms,” says Huxley.
The owner adds that “for us, the idea of sitting in a room and seeing around the entire home brings such a warm cozy feel. No one is remote and the courtyard is integrated into the living space. Through the summer months, we have the doors to the courtyard wide open and include it as part of our living space.” A built-in concrete barbecue maintains the courtyard’s sleek modern feel and enjoys a custom water feature to add to the area’s tranquil ambience.
Also designed by the owners, the home’s landscape includes a Japenese garden, low maintenance concrete planters in the courtyard and manageable evergreens so the couple could be free to travel. “With an open courtyard, we were concerned about dirt and dust coming in the house so we planted 420 green mondo grass plants that would cover and contain all the dirt. Within a year, the garden should be a mass of green as the plants all grow to the edges.”
Benjamin Moore’s sky blue paint on the cabinets and kitchen island is a bold nod to the big skies of the prairies and offers a colourful accent to the otherwise monochromatic space. Recycled hemlock cladding on the eleven-foot ceilings add warmth to the home and keep the predominantly neutral palette from feeling too stark and cool.
Well-versed in the vernacular of modern architecture, the owner’s approach to the design reflects the perspective of German-American architect Mies van de Rohe who stated that “once you’ve subtracted everything that doesn’t need to be there, the plan is perfect.” Completely embracing this less is better aesthetic, they elevated the dwelling’s breezy open feel by creating free-standing rooms (closets, powder room and bedroom ensuites) not structurally connected to the ceiling.
In order for the couple to age in place, Huxley created a zero threshold throughout the entire house where exterior surfaces are level with interior surfaces. The curbless shower was built to be accessible for the owners in any phase of ability including the use of a walker or wheelchair.
The home’s structural minimalism echoes van de Rohe’s notion of ‘skin and bones’ architecture that exists within a minimal framework of structural order balanced against the freedom of unobstructed free-flowing open space.
“After living here for a year, the home has exceeded our expectations — it turned out even better than we thought in terms of comfort, proximity to the outdoors and the neighbourhood. And the urban jungle didn’t turn out to be a jungle at all,” laughs the owner. “We worked so closely with Max it never felt like a brand new or unfamiliar home — it felt comfortable right from the start. Our home is perfect for the two of us and easily transforms into a great space for entertaining friends and family; simplicity really is the ultimate sophistication.”