Floating homes in Granville Island’s Sea Village

Friday, September 30th, 2005

Modernism floats in Sea Village, the cul-de-sac that’s also a tourist attraction

Paula Brook

CREDIT: Photo by Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun The layout optimizes narrow view corridors, with windows that open onto the kayak dock. Furnishings from Inform Interiors.

CREDIT: Photo by Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun Indoor-outdoor living: Sea Village’s modernist gem fits the Granville Island palette of cedar, metal and glass.

CREDIT: Photo by Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun The third-floor family room neatly accommodates collectibles and clutter, the industrial sliders opening 10 feet onto the rooftop deck.

CREDIT: Photo by Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun Robert Lange of DGBK Architects worked with IMFS Floatation Systems, from the Styrofoam up.

CREDIT: Photo by Ian Lindsay, Vancouver Sun The front hall’s custom maple cabinetry tucks smartly into nooks and under stairs to create maximum living space.

Choosing to live in a floating home is tantamount to saying, don’t fence me in. Nowhere is this feeling more palpable than smack in the middle of Vancouver‘s aquatic cul-de-sac, Sea Village.

Bordered by the city’s busiest waterway on one side and its most hectic seawall on the other, with Granville Bridge traffic buzzing overhead and Concord Pacific’s construction crews reshaping the shoreline opposite, this tiny neighbourhood offers the surprising sense of being worlds away. The visitor need only walk down the ramp off the Granville Island seawall to experience an immediate washing away of urban stresses — work, school, traffic, all swept under the dock.

Which is not to say it’s for everyone. Only 30 people live here, in 13 floating homes, about half of them survivors of the community’s eviction from Coal Harbour 26 years ago, when houseboats were turfed to make way for waterfront development. The size and shape of Sea Village are strictly controlled by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation, Granville Island‘s landlord, and by the City of Vancouver, which handles permits and development for the federal agency.

If you think it’s hard to build the house of your dreams on land, try doing so on False Creek. It can take years to navigate the bylaws, after which you face all the challenges of flotation, not to mention the constant tidal change, the dock-rocking wake of passing party boats and the seriously tipsy effect of having too many heavy relatives sitting on one side of your dining table.

Sea Villagers must also deal with the gawkers. Hundreds of them a day in the high season, tourists and locals, all drawn to this charming corner of False Creek, like gulls to a trawler.

“Hey look, honey,” I heard a seawall stroller say to his wife the other day, eyeing one of the homes from an easy line-tossing distance. “This modern one wasn’t here before. Wonder where it sailed in from?”

I happened to be there to meet with Robert Lange, an associate of Vancouver‘s DGBK Architects, who designed the “modern one” for a family of four who had recently moved here from Dunbar. Which is to say, they followed their house in their car as it was towed from its construction site in Ladner around Point Grey and into the creek.

The family preferred not to be included in this article. They already feel public enough — like living in a fishbowl, they told me, without malice or regret. They knew they’d be on display when they moved into Sea Village, and don’t actually mind answering gawkers’ questions about the life aquatic. Even the silly ones, such as “Where’s the motor?”

But they’d rather let Lange answer the serious ones, such as how do you maximize living space atop a slab of concrete-coated foam without creating a big, boring shoebox? And how do you protect privacy on the very public south-facing walls without darkening the living spaces? And how do you capture the spectacular water and mountain views to the north when you’re berthed in the village’s back row?

For meeting all these challenges, and more, Lange is being honoured next month as a recipient of Western Living magazine’s 2005 Residential Design Awards. “The award recognizes the social and environmental creativity of Lange’s design,” says the magazine’s editor Jim Sutherland, who is featuring the home along with three other winners in his October issue.

“It’s not really a whole lot different from building a house on land,” says Lange. “Some of the challenges are just magnified.”

For one, he had to use every space-saving trick in the book to make the 1,750-square-foot structure comfortable for a growing family moving from a traditionally furnished 2,700-square-foot home. Working closely with his design-savvy clients and with interior designer Kathryn Lange, he created large, airy living spaces whose fluid lines and reflective surfaces provide seamless integration between indoor and outdoor, land and water.

What you see from the dock is intentionally less interesting than what a passing boater would see from the water. There is minimal glazing on the public south side, the only clear window being a narrow sidelight at the front entrance, offering a mere hint of the jewel-box interior.

The imposing south facade is clad in cedar and corrugated metal — fitting references to West Coast modern and Granville Island industrial esthetics. A broad skylight brings natural light into the entire front of the house on all three levels, thanks to an open staircase with nautical-style steel cable and channel stringers supporting light maple treads.

Recessed and track lighting plays off the reflective surfaces throughout the interior — steel, glossy maple and limestone. It’s an ideal backdrop for sleek, modernist furnishings, including the classic Mies van der Rohe leather set in the living room, a Niels Bendtsen dining table and Hans Wegner chairs.

On the creek side, soft northern light pours through six-foot-high windows. The sense of living on the water is so palpable that the owner was moved to leap out his bedroom window into the creek to celebrate the house’s arrival on a hot day last summer. A finger dock has now been attached below to accommodate the family’s five kayaks, so jumping is out, but the swimming is fine — thanks to the city’s recent clean-up work around False Creek.

The docks are buzzing over the summer, quieter this time of year when the action moves up onto the decks where neighbours gather in friendly groups, stoking barbecues, tending potted plants, taking in their spectacular views from rooftop hot tubs.

It is always a big day for the little community when a new resident arrives — especially when they have a house in tow. More typically, newcomers simply move into vacated homes, but even so there tends to be major shuffling around the docks as old-timers move up to prime front-row moorings and newcomers shoehorn themselves into the back.

Lange’s clients wanted the back row, as it happens. There’s less noise and wake action from passing boats, and with proper planning they found they could still enjoy plenty of scenery. The small, angled side windows and big front sliders are oriented precisely to the view corridors between and over the adjacent homes.

It helps that Lange worked floor-space magic on the lower levels, massing the electrical and plumbing conduits on the south side in order to raise ceilings to the max on the north. His trickiest challenge was providing his clients with the top-floor family room they wanted while respecting the Sea Village bylaw that no more than a quarter of the house could reach the 26-foot height limit.

The result is a bright little gem of a room perched atop the jewel-box house, opening out to a large play area — the best of all possible backyards, say the children who live here. Especially when the tide is in, and the whole village rises 16 feet.

© The Vancouver Sun 2005

2 Responses to “Floating homes in Granville Island’s Sea Village”

  1. We are interested in renting a houseboat in the sea village on Granville Island Vancouver for 1-2 weeks. Do you have anything available or have a contact for me. Thanks

  2. Charlene Brooks says:

    I am looking for a floathome in Sea Village. Are there any for sale at this time?