Smart Design: Architect Rick Shean on natural light in a small house

Architect Rick Shean describes this house as being designed to vary with nature. “Here, the light changes colour with the time of day, with the seasons, and with the colour of the vegetation it’s filtering through”. Sarah Brown talks with Rick Shean of Shean Architects about the project.
Find details on where to find the materials and finishes, as well as the local experts that helped with this project, at the bottom of the post.

Photo by Doublespace Photography

How did you bring light into the space?

The challenge was to create a lot of light in this small space. There’s a south-facing rear yard that’s not open to the street, so that’s where the larger windows are concentrated. But I also thought about how to let light in on all sides while also protecting the homeowner’s privacy. When you walk through the house, you’ll see a lot of clerestory windows that capture light. There are also vertical windows that frame specific trees, like the neighbour’s ash. I spent a lot of time planning how to place the windows to take in light and views.

How does the colour palette of the interior allow light to shine, so to speak?

The colours are simple and non-contrasting, subtle and sublime. This palette allows the light to transfer through the spaces in the house. To break up the paleness, I brought in texture through the floor and ceiling.

Photo by Doublespace Photography

How does adding texture make the house warmer?

By playing with texture, you can still keep things minimal but also soft. For example, if you look upwards, you’ll notice the wood ceiling. It warms up the room but in a very soft and minimal way.

Where else did you use wood to emphasize texture?

The choice of woods is really key, both inside the house and on the exterior. Inside, the floors are hand-scraped white oak — it has a strong grain, but we added a whitish wash on top. Outside, we added texture through two woods. There’s Belgian reclaimed barnboard, which is a much less rustic barnboard than the Canadian barnboard you see more commonly. Because Belgian barnboard is not as old, it is smoother. We put a white wash on top of it to bring out the silvery tones.

Photo by Doublespace Photography

How do you picture the light in this house?

Since the build is new, I have only really experienced the light in two seasons so far. I think of my houses as evolving with the day and season. They are a living entity inside nature — they change with nature. Here, the light changes colour with the time of day, with the seasons, and with the colour of the vegetation it’s filtering through.

Did you make allowances for the placement of some shades to block light?

Sunshades are pretty overrated. I prefer trees! With that in mind, I try to maintain privacy through how I place the windows. That said, sometimes you need to cover some windows. When you pull down the shades in the living room and kitchen, the effect is almost like a Japanese lantern. The shadows of the trees and leaves on the shades are just amazing.

Photo by Doublespace Photograpy

You’ve even focused on light in the garden.

We installed very understated lighting on the birch tree in the backyard. And the entrance to the house is lit at night — but with subtle, diffused lighting.

Tell me about all the decks on this house.

The back deck is something we wanted to retain from the old house. It looks out onto the garden, which is almost a viewing garden. There’s also a Juliet balcony off the master bedroom, which looks out over the birch tree in the backyard. By choosing this type of balcony, we didn’t have to apply for variances — and it preserves the neighbours’ privacy. At the front of the house, the balcony over the carport has views to the river. Here, some of the panels are opaque for privacy, while the sections with direct views to the river have clear panels.

What was your biggest challenge?

It was the soil! This area sits on the banks of the old riverbed, so it was a big process to dig out all the soil, which was unstable, and replace it with acceptable fill.

Architect Rick Shean is the principal at Shean Architects.

Where to Buy

Cabinetry Cedar Ridge Designs
Contractor V. Tomic Construction
Flooring Northern Wide Plank
Glass Graham Glass & Mirror
Kitchen and bath fixtures Astro Design Centre
Lighting Arevco Lighting
Metalwork Mercury Metal Fabricators
Reclaimed Belgian wood Atmosphere & Bois
Windows Marvin Windows and Window Works