Alchemy is the transmutation of a base material into something more valuable. A central principle of the Shor House on Mayne Island is a kind of alchemical transformation of dis-used wood obtained from multiple sources.
Just as the most energy efficient building is conserving one already built, the most progressive edge of designing with wood is to recycle it into continued use. Despite its modest size, the Shor House demonstrates that careful deconstruction of wooden buildings, then refinishing and recombination of their parts into considered assemblies extends the life-cycle of material otherwise destined for landfill.
This is the new leading edge of design in wood. Much of the recycled lumber comes from the house and barn which once sat on this waterfront site, with an ideal orientation facing slightly west of south, looking across Navy Channel towards Pender Island.
These two structures were unbuilt by a dismantling rather than demolition contractor, with their cladding, floors and frame de-nailed and stacked for re-use—at first without a clear idea of their final use in the new building. An early design decision was to retain much of the existing house’s foundation, but to rotate the long axis of the new building 90 degrees, which also eased development approvals from the Islands Trust.
A retaining wall in dry-stacked stone was kept, then later brought back to better than new condition by master stone-mason Tamotsu Tongu. He also served as an advisor on landscape conservation and new planting, the net result evoking the dialogue of stone, wood and garden in traditional Japanese architecture. The floorboards of the house were captured, de-nailed, but not sanded after re-installation, so the patina of age and wear could lend authenticity for their reincarnation in the new house. It goes without saying that there are substantial energy savings in using wood that has never left the site. In the words of its Architect and owner, Clinton Cuddington, “This project is a test bed of recycling—a zero-take approach.”
His design team at Measured Architecture extended their search for recycled building materials further away from the site. Yellow cedar ties were found from the dismantled Englewood Railroad on Northern Vancouver Island which ran from 1917-2017, then milled for use. Astonishingly, dendrological analysis of their rings established some of this wood as being from trees up to one thousand years old, adding a legacy of character not to be obtained from any lumberyard. Additional framing and finishing lumber was sourced from the former Turner Dairy, in Vancouver’s Mount Pleasant neighbourhood for use throughout the house including exposed NLT flooring and the feature staircase.
Cuddington describes this years-long process of scouting for materials and working with deconstruction specialists this way: “There was a whole set of site assets that we needed to harvest and use—a patchwork quilt that we threaded back together.”
Much of the aesthetic of the Shor House was the result of a 50th birthday present to Cuddington from his wife: a visit to sculptor Donald Judd’s Marfa compound in a converted Texas air station. Judd’s minimal sculpture was impressive to him, but the architect opines that the straightforward re-use of the military buildings, and Judd’s own practical and basic furniture here set a model for what he wanted in his own legacy home. The table of his own design and the plumbing fixtures chosen (notably an earth-toned cast concrete sink) reflect this ethos.
Like the house around it, the fireplace is a simple Platonic form, a cylinder of reclaimed steel from the coring of a bridge pile in Lytton, BC, cut with strategic holes to foster heat distribution. Cuddington’s wish is to spend most holidays plus three days per week here practising remotely, so building program and site planning are highly focused, and stripped to the bone out of financial necessity. This is a modestly-sized house, with a basic pair of master bedrooms on the second floor. There is a similarly tight guest house across a short bridge, and beside it a ceramic and jewelry studio for his wife Monica. Shor House’s richness derives from its rich palette of transmuted materials, not from arbitrary space-making.
Accordingly, the massing of the house is simplicity itself: a straight salt box with the gabled end facing the water, almost entirely glazed. But looking carefully, this proves to be a deflected salt box with an asymmetry of roof slopes, with one angle chosen to maximize the efficiency of the array of 32 solar panels (hardly visible anywhere on site.) This decision also brings more visual dynamism to the great room inside, with its always-visible wood structure.
The house uses no drywall at all, because there is no way to recycle this constant candidate for landfill, but it does boast venetian plaster walls and use of local black Carmanah marble. The previously painted exterior cladding lines many interior walls, painted a standard white to reflect light while also parging over marks, knots and defects. There is new wood in the house, but much of it is charred with a Shou Sugi Ban treatment, its low maintenance surface an analogue to the corten steel used outside.
This all leads to an inevitable question: why is a house as dedicated as this to conserved wood interiors almost entirely clad in corten raw plate steel? Minimal maintenance was a primary wish, and few enclosures require as little upkeep as these rust-patinaed steel walls. Moreover, key design decisions were made during the pandemic, with its horrific uptick in wood prices: “Steel has got a bad rap,” says Cuddington, “It is eminently recyclable, ultimately, capable of advancing its considerable embodied energy without the costs of mining and full smelting again.”
There is also a biographical dimension to this choice, as Cuddington’s family were proximate to the Regina Steel Manufacturing plant IPSCO and the creative offspring of that steel with the sculptor John Cullen Nugent whose work is present on the property.
Cuddington also deeply admired and was mentored by local design genius Clifford Wiens FRAIC, especially his University of Regina power plant and his own architecture studio, with its hyperbolic curved plate steel roof.
Making gold out of lead was the ultimate goal for the alchemists, but at its basis, their magic was more spiritual than chemical. The alchemy of the Shor House is to build from a palette of otherwise discarded or under-used materials, shaping a dwelling that is grounded to site in its very materials, and the strong historical narratives that adhere to them. The house is a collage which imparts unexpected importance to its components, carefully proportioned and set in adjacency. How much more interesting would Canadian houses be if future architects were as careful as this in developing a borrowed palette, then combining them, sculpting such simple spaces for living with equal grace and power? Deferring to the Buddhism of the former owners of the shack here, Cuddington concludes “This house has been reincarnated!”