Finding the colour of harmony in renovation

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      Judging by what you see from the curb, David Wong’s East Vancouver home is every bit as red as (take your pick): Communist Russia before the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev; Santa Claus in his Christmas Eve finery; or Satan. This isn’t by accident.

      “It’s a complementary colour for green,” says the 49-year-old native Vancouverite, interviewed at his smartly renovated abode. “Certain colours go together—like blue and yellow, which is what IKEA uses, really strengthen each other.”

      Indeed, as red as Wong’s two-storey home may look at first blush, it’s also as green as David Suzuki, romaine lettuce, and beer on St. Patrick’s Day. That’s not readily apparent until you’ve spent some time with the designer and processed his ideas on what makes a healthy, happy house. From positioning facing windows at different heights in bedrooms to create airflow, to carefully plotting out his entire back yard, Wong consciously set out to make a difference after buying a ’60s-built bungalow in 1992.

      The results are admirable, starting with his yin and yang–motif front door, which is doubly impressive considering it looks expensive despite being made out of just cherry-stained plywood and galvanized sheet metal. Inside, he successfully blended the old and the new, with the house’s original oak flooring coexisting in harmony with irregular charcoal-coloured porcelain tiles that, in a nod to the palace courtyards of China, run from the front entranceway through the house. By not breaking the bank to make his Asian-themed home ecofriendly, he’s both an inspiration and a testament to inventive thinking. “I sort of practise what I preach,” Wong says. “I’m into taking cheap materials and making something interesting out of them.”

      Spend an hour with Wong, and it becomes clear that little things can add up to make a difference in how we impact the planet. Sometimes it can be as simple as thinking about what you have planted in the back yard. When Wong moved into the house, one of the first things he got rid of was the lawn, partly because grass needs a huge amount of water to be golf-course green during the summer months. A bigger motivator was the idea that, by putting in a mini-orchard’s worth of fruit-bearing trees and plants, Wong could cut back trips to his local grocery stores.

      “When people talk about sustainability and being green and all those trendy words these days, they talk about buying locally,” he says. “I planted things I like to eat. In my back yard I have six or seven different fruit trees—plums, two types of apples, Asian pears. There’s also been strawberries, gooseberries, blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries.”

      In the summer and fall, Wong becomes a popular man. However, he’d much rather be less of an urban anomaly.

      “I give bagfuls of fruit away,” he reveals. “One of the best things I think we could do for our city would be to give every single homeowner a fruit tree to plant in their back or front yard, or even a city park.”

      Grass in front of the house was replaced by paving stones to create a mini terrace, which Wong says gives him an “outdoor living room” in the summer. The terrace is sloped so that rainwater—which he also collects in barrels provided by the city—is directed towards the dwarf cedar trees he’s planted.

      As impressive as the outside of Wong’s home might be, it’s inside where his ability to think green is truly made clear. His first major reno involved rethinking the kitchen.

      “We ripped out the ’60s kitchen and built one that I felt was conducive to a happier household,” he says. “The first thing I did was put a big skylight in the kitchen to allow natural light into the home. One of the biggest beefs I have is that most homes will have a window by the sink, but it won’t be big enough to light up the room. Look at all the condos in Vancouver—it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, people have to turn on a light to use the kitchen.”

      He feels most bedrooms aren’t much better. Wong’s master bedroom features massive cathedral-style windows, which ensure that you don’t wake up in the morning pawing for the lights. The switches in the room don’t just turn off the overhead lights and bedside reading lamps: he’s had the house wired so he can control the outside and downstairs lights from his bedroom.

      “One of the best ways to encourage people to turn off lights,” he says, “is to make it easy for them to do that.”

      Airflow was something that Wong thought about a lot when he decided to add another storey to his house in 2003. Stand close to the master-bedroom window and you can see into his study on the floor below.

      “People don’t realize that one of the greatest detriments to their health is moisture,” he says. “You look at a lot of windows and you’ll see little black spots, which is mould. All you need to prevent that is have good airflow. If I open up the den window, the air rushes up through here.”

      Rather than close off the basement, he left it open, with slots cut into the wall at the top of the downstairs stairs. A skylight that opens on the top floor creates an airflow to ensure that, once the weather gets hot, the house stays cool without energy-sucking electric fans.

      “The key to what my whole house is about is that it breathes,” Wong says. “When I open the skylight, the cool air from the basement rushes up and through the skylight. Instead of buying air conditioners, you use nature and the law of physics to make your house breathe naturally.”

      Wong figures his greenest action of all was building onto what was already there.

      “It really bothers me,” he says, “to see homes being torn down that have really beautiful, straight timber that was probably harvested from first-growth forest and seasoned for 40 years. What do they do? It’s easier and quicker to tear down a house in a few hours, truck it to the landfill, and then build a new home, put in a couple of compact fluorescent lights, some bamboo flooring, and some nonvolatile paint and call it a sustainable house.”

      Warming up to the subject, Wong proves that it’s sometimes possible to make a green guy see red, even if that red is a couple of shades less intense than his house.

      “Everyone knows that a major renovation costs more than starting from scratch,” he says. “But to me it’s worth it. If you want to talk about recycling, the highest form of recycling is recycling an old home.”




      May 1, 2009 at 10:37pm

      I've met this guy before. He is really cool, fun and real passionate on enviromnent.Great article. I wonder how much more it cost to renovate instead of building a new home?