Trent Rodney had been selling luxury big box mansions, as he calls them, when he discovered the one-storey post-and-beam Watt’s Residence, built by architect Fred Hollingsworth in 1951.
“It was just so cool, so different,” Mr. Rodney says.
He had attended the realtor’s open house at 3635 Sunnycrest Dr. in North Vancouver and was struck by the open concept of the West Coast modern design. When a friend visited from California, he wanted to show off some B.C. West Coast modern architecture. But when they drove by the Watt’s house, it was being demolished.
It was a pivotal moment for the 33-year-old realtor, who’d at one time considered a career in architecture. Along with co-founder Jason Choi, they created the West Coast Modern Group, an agency that markets homes so that they’re prized instead of destroyed and replaced.
Since he tapped into that market in 2017, he’s discovered that knowledgeable buyers are willing to pay a premium for a house built by the giants of West Coast modern such as Arthur Erickson, Fred Hollingsworth, Ron Thom, Ned Pratt, Bob Lewis and Peter Kafka. Hollingsworth, inspired by American mid-century modern architect and friend Frank Lloyd Wright, built many homes in North Vancouver, and several are still standing.
Mr. Rodney has found that people are willing to pay as much as 10-per-cent to 15-per-cent more for a West Coast original than a new house in the same neighbourhood.
“When we started West Coast modern, around 60 per cent of the houses, when they hit the market, were then torn down,” Mr. Rodney says. “Since we started, the majority [of homes] that we have sold have been West Coast modern and we haven’t had one demolition.
“What we do is market the house as a work of art, and so we charge a premium. People value what they pay for and so they are paying for this kind of architecture.”
The message to potential buyers is clear: If you want a new build, look elsewhere.
“They can go to another lot across the street and tear that down instead – and spend a lot less money.”
Mr. Rodney says they sell an average of three West Coast modern homes a month right now, ranging from mid-century to contemporary. The West Coast modern style was most prevalent between 1945 and 1970, and embodied the era’s design ethos: open concept houses for middle-class families, with exposed timber and brick, abundant light, radiant concrete floors and deep overhangs to cool the interiors.
But in the past 10 years, there has been more value placed on square footage than heritage design and many of the houses were lost.
Happily for heritage advocates, in the past couple of years the ones that have survived have now become a prized collection with a growing fan base. At first, Mr. Rodney says he struggled to compete with the big new luxury houses. But now, he is seeing smaller West Coast modern homes out-pricing those big new houses.
In September, 2020, he sold the Sea Ranch Residence in West Vancouver, an A-frame built in 1970 by Barry McLeod, acquired by a couple from Manhattan for $3.5-million. Three months ago, Mr. Rodney sold a Hollingsworth at 3990 HIllcrest Ave., in North Vancouver for $3.415-million, to a local couple. In the past few weeks, he sold the Forest House in West Vancouver, built by Kafka, for $2.75-million, to an Edmonton buyer. The house had been listed in 2019 at $1.8-million and didn’t receive any offers. Things have changed.
Just two weeks ago, Mr. Rodney listed North Vancouver’s only custom-built Erickson house, built in 1965, at 3623 Sunnycrest Dr. – next door to the former Watt’s Residence that had been demolished. It was built just after Erickson designed the Gordon Smith house in West Vancouver and was also inspired by the architect’s trip to Japan. The house used to be called the Mitchell House but is now called the Wedge because of its dramatic roof design, which mimics the surrounding mountains.
Mr. Rodney listed the house for $2.998-million and it sold the next day for $3.4-million, having received a subject-free offer from a North Vancouver couple. They put in the high offer before anybody else could view it. The couple, who were in his database, had missed out on the Forest House and weren’t about to risk losing another one.
“We pushed very, very hard on the Arthur Erickson legacy,” said Mr. Rodney, standing inside the 2,390 square-foot house, which had been painstakingly renovated with a new kitchen and addition that seamlessly matches the original home.
The key to West Coast Modern Group’s business model is in the marketing, which makes the most of social media networks. The Wedge House had 60,000 views on Instagram and another 40,000 of an Arthur Erickson video Mr. Rodney created and circulated on TikTok. Some of the people who viewed the house were there because their kids had seen the TikTok video.
Instead of the usual “realtor’s open,” the young firm holds “architectural tours” and taps into a database they’ve accumulated of creative types who love the architecture, to the tune of about 15,000 people. Mr. Rodney figures about 15 per cent to 20 per cent of buyers are international.
They also incorporate product placement. On the day I visited the Erickson house, the rooms were being accessorized by Japanese lifestyle shop Itsumo, with the items on display also on sale. They typically sell the products with the house, which are also featured on their social media.
As for finding the West Coast modern houses to add to his inventory list (which numbers about 600), the approach is a lot more old school.
“We go through the bushes and find them.”
It was while driving around looking for the houses that he came upon Erickson’s Wedge House at 3623 Sunnycrest Dr. The owners, a couple of doctors with grown children, have lived in the house for 20 years and had added onto the house in order to ensure that the next owner wouldn’t knock it down. With an updated kitchen and bamboo floors, and the tasteful addition that enhanced Erickson’s Japanese inspiration, owner Meagan Smith knew that the house had a better chance of surviving.
Vancouver’s design and build company Lanefab did the renovation and re-used and expanded upon wood features throughout.
Ms. Smith and her husband had purchased the house for around $400,000, a hefty sum at the time for a small house. But they loved West Coast modernism and the 1,600 square-foot house suited the family. Ms. Smith didn’t want to call her kids on her phone just to get them to dinner.
In order to save the houses, homeowners are spending significant sums to update and add onto the houses, to make them more livable by today’s standards. The love of the architecture can come with a price.
“We realized if we are going to sell it’s going to appeal to a very small market, even if we had redone the kitchen and bathroom,” Ms. Smith said.
So they embarked on a renovation that cost more than they paid for the house. It’s part of the reason they sold.
“We incurred a pretty big mortgage when we renovated and added on, so we would like to get rid of that. We’d both like to slow down. Not retire, but slow down. So if we could get rid of the mortgage, it would make it easier. Also, we’re just looking for a change.”
There is little that can be done by the municipalities to save the houses, other than a temporary protection order that gives staff a couple of months to explore options for heritage conservation. That would include a Heritage Revitalization Agreement that offers extra density in exchange for preserving the original house, such as a coach house. Moving the houses is difficult, because many of them are sitting on a slab foundation.
Mr. Rodney has tragic stories of these “works of art” that have been lost, such as the iconic multi-level Graham House, set on a cliff in West Vancouver, and designed by Erickson and Geoffrey Massey. The house, which needed work, was built in 1963 and demolished in 2007.
“The Graham House was one of the worst. It was super cool, bought by a mall developer and just sitting there vacant now.”
Now that buyers are finally seeing the value in the homes, he’s hoping that those demolitions are a thing of the past.
“Vancouver is getting there. People are learning that less is more, and they don’t need more rooms to fill.”
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