Views Both Big and Small Draw Nature into a British Columbia Island Home

At Bowen Island House, architects omb allowed majestic views to speak for themselves while also framing specific details of the lush landscape.

01 Bowen Island Credit Ema Peter
Bowen Island House, a retreat for a Vancouver family, is nestled along dramatic, lush coastline in British Columbia. Courtesy Ema Peter

Floor-to-ceiling views of the Pacific Ocean, the Howe Sound Islands, and the snow-capped Coast Mountains will no doubt elicit the most wows at this meticulously considered British Columbia home—but it’s the quieter, more focused views that really draw the lush nature in.

Located on a 19-square-mile island off the coast of Vancouver, the Bowen Island House was designed by local practice omb for a young couple seeking a refuge away from the city.

Principal architect Steve McFarlane says the experience of visiting the home is one of gradual unwinding, which begins in bustling Vancouver, then moves to the seaside village of Horseshoe Bay, onto the picturesque Bowen Island ferry, past the quaint shops and cafes of Snug Cove, and into the island’s more remote north end. There, the roads become steeper and dotted with potholes, and wind through increasingly dense forests of cedar and fir until leading to the property’s sloping driveway.

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“They were really looking for what they described as a cabin,” recalls McFarlane, “somewhere they could go and nurture this deep connection with nature, for themselves and for their kids.”

06 Bowen Island House Credit Ema Peter
A deck and open living area offer 270-degree views of the water and nearby islands, as well as mainland British Columbia. Courtesy Ema Peter

Despite the site’s generous eight-acre size, the couple insisted on modesty in scale and materials. And while they didn’t forego modern comforts, they wanted such a light environmental impact that the home could be disconnected from the utility grid—it has a generator as well as on-site well water and waste treatment—if they wished.

Clad in black-stained local cedar and topped with a green roof that echoes the moss-laden forest floor, the house recedes into its verdant surroundings. Inside, the design gradually expands, from the compact lower level that houses the kids’ bedrooms and a laundry area to the upper floor, which contains the open living area. Adjacent to it, a deck provides 270-degree vistas of the shoreline, nearby Gambier Island, and the breathtaking mainland mountain peaks known as The Lions.

Judiciously placed windows and roof lanterns—raised glass boxes that draw light in from the east, west, and south—offer looks at details of the immediate surroundings, while a narrow staircase frames focused glimpses up to the sky and down toward the forest floor.

In many waterfront homes, views of the water dominate every room in the same way to the point that people become numb to its scale, says McFarlane. “We were trying to do the opposite of that, and really celebrate the obvious views, but also identify views that focus only on the land or on the cliff behind the house, and appreciate all the ferns and the young fir saplings that are clutching onto a crack in the cliff, and purposely make those just as important as The Lions,” he says.

10 Bowen Island House Credit Ema Peter
Though sprawling, majestic views abound, architecture firm omb framed specific details from the surroundings, like from the house’s narrow stairwell. Courtesy Ema Peter

“In simple terms it’s expansion and contraction glazing, to either expand your experience of view or focus it.”

In keeping with the client’s request for a minimal environmental footprint, most materials were sourced locally, including the warm hemlock that lines the living space’s floors and ceilings, the local granite in the landscape design, and the basalt stone used both inside and out (on the patio and entry porch and in the bathrooms). Solid walls also provide space for the couple’s impressive art collection, which primarily comprises West Coast contemporary works and includes new commissions for the Bowen residence.

“It’s one of those examples where the whole exceeds the sum of its parts. They’re very simple materials and very simple spaces and very simple building forms, but they have a way of sitting on that site that just resonates so deeply,” says McFarlane, who adds the collaboration with the owners was exceptional, in that everyone worked seamlessly toward the same goal: to create a humble, timeless, and sustainable home in the woods.

“And what I find really celebratory in that work is just how much it achieves with such modest means.”

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