Celebrating the best of Western Canadian architecture, Book Lover’s Paradise by Vancouver firm Rafael Santa Ana Architecture Workshop (RSAAW) has won Western Living’s annual competition for Home of the Year. A thorough mid-century renovation featuring a stunning stair-side, double-height bookshelf and a secret attic playroom, the project transformed a tired, inefficient house with good bones into a chic, contemporary, and spatially eloquent family home.
As Principal of his eponymous practice, Rafael Santa Ana anchors RSAAW's work in a foundation of sustainability and adaptation, with a goal of anticipating the evolving needs and uses of each project and embedding flexibility within the design process. So when it came to designing a family home for himself, his partner, and their young children, Santa Ana had a keen understanding of how a careful and thoughtful renovation could revitalize a utilitarian yet plain house into a stylish, ultra-efficient, and vibrant family home. The result, which he dubs a 'book lover's paradise', is a home at once tailored to his family's unique identity as well as expressing eco-forward and timeless design fundamentals that ensure the space is capable of adjusting to evolving family needs over time.
The Santa Anas purchased the home in the leafy neighbourhood of North Vancouver in 2009, living on the main level and renting out the basement suite for a decade before undertaking a full renovation of the entire house in 2020. Eschewing market trends toward disposable fixtures and finishes, RSAAW's renovation respected the origins and West Coast identity of the quasi post-and-beam style home and kept its structural bones intact, opting for clever adaptation and intervention over demolition. The goal was to visually and physically open up the entire space and integrate the previously separate suites whilst optimizing for efficiency and functionality.
The resultant renovation has radically improved the experience of light and space in the house by connecting the two levels via a dramatic double-height atrium which forms the central spine of the structure. The atrium is topped with soaring vaulted ceilings punctuated by strategically placed skylights which facilitate maximum seasonal light penetration. In addition to uniting the basement and main floor volumes into one coherent narrative, the atrium also serves to showcase the extensive family library, with custom floor-to-ceiling shelving comprising stacks of white oak veneer boxes housing a formidable book collection.The towering bookshelf is flanked by a matching oak staircase leading to the main level living areas and bedrooms.
Given his personal philosophy of sustainable design, Santa Ana knew that anchoring the renovation in energy efficiency was key. To achieve this, the entire interior building envelope was replaced, triple glazing installed on every window, and underfloor heating panels substituted for the original forced air system. A central fireplace which was structurally integral was retained and upgraded for energy optimization.
In addition to energy efficiency, spatial efficiency was enhanced throughout the design by reimagining how floor space was allocated to various functions. Custom shelving throughout the home offers strategic storage whilst incorporating platforms and nooks for displaying curios, found objects, and other quirky ephemera. Sleeping quarters were modified to occupy a smaller footprint in favour of maximizing common area living spaces. A former mechanical room on the lower level was repurposed to create a discreet, almost hidden corridor doubling as a storage area, allowing the main level to remain clutter free. Resilient tile flooring was installed on the lower level to allow a practical solution for the shedding of shoes and coats after outdoor activities, particularly during Vancouver's famously wet winters. On the main floor, threshold-free light oak flooring and shadowline walls bring a sense of depth and warmth to the space.
Several years prior to undertaking the renovation, Santa Ana designed and built a backyard garden 'modern treehouse' for the children; a sleek, asymmetrical box engineered to perch atop a threaded 'stem' which allows it to 'grow' vertically, in parallel with the stately Douglas Fir it embraces. A whimsical cutout corner window in the playhouse is a miniature mirror of a distinguishing window in the main house. Although it began as a fun design experiment, in certain ways the playhouse formed an early thematic blueprint for elements of the renovation (speaking to Western Living, Santa Ana refers to it as 'almost like a first draft of the house').
The playhouse theme of interacting with nature was brought into the home through installing vaulted ceilings, extensive and oversized glazing, and skylight cutouts, all of which allow plenty of natural light into the interior, reciprocally offering abundant views of greenery in the garden and beyond. The sense of play and a blurring of public and private spaces is expressed in the main house in the form of a secret children's attic playroom. This fun new iteration of a formerly inaccessible area is now entered via a bedroom ladder, conferring a sense of proprietorship on the children. The attic playroom also features a peekaboo cutout window echoing the one in the garden, this time looking out over the main floor living area.
Finally, the treehouse's tonal color palate of a monochromatic black and white exterior with striped ribbons of colour on the interior (expressive of Santa Ana's Mexican heritage) is echoed throughout the main home, with the general black and white palette accented by matching panels of coloured stripes on the attic playroom carpet and on the exterior siding, with complementary pops of color appearing in vibrant decor and art pieces. Custom millwork and white oak throughout the home ensure that warmth is not sacrificed in the gallery-like design and that the aesthetic and functional melding of indoor/outdoor, work/play, and public/private spaces remains coherent.
Formerly a cramped, galley-style nook, the kitchen has been reconceptualized as heart and hearth of the home and a seamless extension of the main living area. Appliances, plug-ins, and hood vents are artfully concealed from view in favour of streamlined cabinetry and countertops, creating clean lines and efficient performance expressed via minimalist form. Cooking, dining, and living areas fuse into one multipurpose space, functioning variously as a gathering place for family and friends, de-facto office and study area, or simply a spot to relax and unwind, shedding the skin of the bustling outside world in favour of being enveloped in the warmth of a truly lived-in family home.
The final result of the year-long renovation truly is a book lover's paradise - a cosy yet fresh space which respects the home's original character and physical environment whilst updating it into a fully contemporary, future-focused, light, bright, and coolly functional space appropriate to the ever-evolving needs of family life in the modern era.