Home-Buyer’s Guide. Client: Blu Realty

Promotional/Brochure, December 2012


BLU BUYER’S GUIDE                                                                                                                                             

Buying a home is fun and exciting. It can also be nerve-wracking. Having one of our Blu Realty agents working at your side will ensure that your best interests are looked after, and that your home-buying experience is happily memorable. Blu will help you find exactly what you’re looking for, and we’ve prepared this guide to help you streamline the process and avoid pit-falls.

1.            Make Sure You’re Ready to Buy

               If you’re thinking of buying a home, you’ve taken the first smart step by contacting Blu. But there are three things that have to be ready: You, Your Bank Account and the Real Estate Market.


Let’s talk. About what you want and what you need. We’ll help narrow your focus, find options, and ensure that you are ready to take the plunge. Plunge? Yes, it’s a big deal. There are sacrifices to make, and your home will require constant care. But it’s worth it—it’s what pride of ownership is all about.

Your Bank Account

Your first home will be the biggest financial obligation you’ll ever face. You need to have a down-payment, your debts should be managed, and you don’t foresee any issues with your source of income.

The Market

Markets go up, markets go down, and even the smartest experts can’t accurately predict when a market will peak or bottom out. But this is a long-term investment: if you choose a home that you can afford, and that meets your needs, you’ll enjoy living in your investment as it grows in value.

2.            Decide Where You Want to Live

Our city has many diverse neighbourhoods. You may be attracted to the city centre; the prices are higher, but you’ll be able to walk everywhere. Or you may want to get more for your money by moving away from downtown. Maybe you want a quiet area, maybe you want a yard, or you want to be near a specific school. Visit the various city sectors and decide which ones are right for you. Narrowing it down in advance will save time and allow you to focus your search.

3.            What Do You Want?

In real-estate speak, we refer to ‘Needs’ and ‘Wants’. ‘Needs’ are the essential things, as in number of bedrooms. ‘Wants’ are things you’d like to have—like a double-car garage.

Make lists. Needs and Wants. Must-Haves and Absolutely-Nots. As you make these lists, think about your lifestyle. Along the way, you’ll further narrow your criteria.  Your strategy is to find a home in your price range, that fulfills all or most of your ‘needs’, as many of your ‘wants’ as possible, and in a neighbourhood you like.

There are many different types of homes to choose from. Here’s a quick run-through:

               Single-Family Detached: The house is not attached to the house next door.

               Semi-Detached or Linked: Two houses share a common wall.

               Duplex: A building zoned for two families (a Triplex is zoned for three, Fourplex for four).

               Townhouse: Also known as Terrace or Row Housing. Several homes, sharing walls, are joined in a row.

               Condominium: You own 100% of your unit, plus a share of the common areas. Common areas include plumbing, electrical        systems, hallways and elevators, and may include things like party rooms and gyms.

               Loft: This is similar to a condo, but the design is open-concept and/or has exposed bricks and beams.

               Live/Work: In some cities, this can still mean that you are living above your own retail business.  Nowadays, though, it usually means that you are using at least one room of your house as an office or studio, and you run a business from that area

New or Pre-Loved?

A new house is just that. Everything is brand new and you just move in. On the other hand, not only do older homes have charm and character, but the previous owners will likely have made improvements and up-grades.

In both cases, of course, inspections are essential. ‘New’ doesn’t always mean ‘perfect’, and older homes can sometimes have a little too much character.

Building Your Own

If you want to build your own home, know your land. That means any and all restrictions on it, its neighbourhood, its history and its physical characteristics. Once you’ve chosen your design, know your builder—check references and visit other homes built by the same company. Have your Real Estate Advisor and/or lawyer review everything before you sign anything. While your home is being built, stay on top of the process with regular inspections and checks of time-lines and budgets. And remember that you have a legal right to make a full inspection of the house before you accept it as complete.

4.            Choose Your Real Estate Advisor

               The real estate market is not for do-it-yourselfers, and a good agent is worth his or her weight in gold.

Naturally, we think you should go with a Blu advisor. But if you’re reading this in a city where there is no Blu advisor, you can get referrals from friends and family members, go to Realtor.ca, meet agents at open houses, or just jot down numbers from lawn signs.

Then interview your prospective advisor. Make sure that you can establish a rapport—you don’t have to become instant best friends, but you need to see a friendly feeling right away, and you need to be able to communicate easily. Then ask questions.

               Top Ten Questions to Ask When Hiring a Real Estate Advisor

1.            How long have you been in the business?

               A newly-licensed advisor can do a wonderful job and will have up-to-date training, but practical experience is invaluable.

2.            What is your average list-to-sales-price ratio?

               A listing agent should hold a track record for negotiating sales prices that are very close to list prices.

3.            How will your marketing plan meet my needs?

               You want to know how the agent will sell your home—where and how he or she advertises. Ask to see printed materials and links to on-line marketing activities.

4.            Will you provide references?

               Ask for a list of references, then call those references.

5.            What separates you from your competition?

               Key phrases to listen for: ‘assertive’, ‘available by phone or e-mail’, ‘analytical’, ‘able to maintain a good sense of humour under trying circumstances’.

6.            May I review documents that I will be asked to sign?

               A good agent makes forms available to you before you are required to sign them. Ask to see your agency disclosure, seller disclosure and listing agreement.

7.            Can you help me find other professionals?

               Your agent should be able to provide a list of service providers who can help with things such as home inspection, legal advice and financial advice. If you see the term ‘affiliated’, ask for an explanation—this could mean that the agent is getting compensation from the people on his/her list. If that’s the case, the referral is biased and not reliable.

8.            How much do you charge?

               Real estate fees or commission are negotiable and vary from broker to broker. Negotiate the best deal.

9.            What if I’m unhappy with your service?

               You may find that your agent is not performing to your standards. You may not get along. Ask if you can cancel your agreement if you want to.

10.         What haven’t I asked you that I need to know?

               Pay close attention to the answer to this question. There is always something else you need to know.

Your Contract    

Once you’ve chosen your advisor, you will sign a contract. It will specify the advisor’s duties and obligations, and will spell out the nature of your relationship. That relationship will likely be Non-Agency, Dual Agency or Single Agency.

In the case of Dual Agency, the advisor represents the buyer and the seller, and all parties consent to this. In a Non-Agency relationship, the advisor can work with you, but cannot give you advice. Also, in this case, nothing you say is confidential.

Most people prefer the Single Agency relationship, where your advisor represents you alone, and is required to act only in your best interests. Anything you tell your advisor is confidential, and your advisor has an obligation to disclose to you any and all information related to the transaction.

What to Expect from Your Real Estate Advisor

Your advisor will perform many essential functions. First of all, he or she will become an expert on your wants, needs and financial parameters, and will make sure that you view only those homes that are right for you. Your agent is a resource for comparing homes and neighbourhoods, will be privy to non-public features of the MLS System, and will be able to make appointments and answer your questions as you walk through potential homes. He or she will also provide up-to-the-minute information on financing, explain your mortgage options, negotiate with sellers, smooth out conflicts, and draw up contracts.


FINTRAC is the federal agency responsible for administering Canadian legislation and regulations concerning money laundering and terrorist financing. Your advisor is required to complete a Client Identification Form, and ask you for verified ID such as a driver’s license or passport. You can find out more at http://www.fintrac-canafe.gc.ca.

And a Note on Sticking With One Advisor

Some people think that they’ll get a better deal if they have more than one agent. The opposite is true. All agents have access to the same property listings. And scattering your time and energy among multiple agents will work against your goal of finding your best home.

5.            Hire a Lawyer

               There are many legal steps, and piles of documents, involved in the transfer or property ownership. You need someone to translate the ‘legalese’ and ensure that your interests are protected. Even if pit-falls like fraud, government legislation quirks, zoning issues or un-paid taxes don’t come up, lawyers will still make the transfer of the home a smooth one.

               To find the right lawyer, get referrals from people you know, or from your Real Estate Advisor. Ask your prospective lawyer about fee structure and get an estimate on other costs. If you don’t understand something, ask. And don’t be intimidated—it is a lawyer’s job to explain legal jargon and be helpful to his or her clients.

6.            Sell Your Current Home

               Few people can hold onto two homes at the same time. You’ll need to sell your current home and here’s a quick overview of things you need to know.

Buyer’s & Seller’s Markets                                                         

When lots of people are shopping for homes, but there are few homes for sale, it’s a ‘Seller’s Market’. When there are lots of homes for sale, but few people buying them, it’s a ‘Buyer’s Market’. However, if you’re selling one home to buy another, you don’t have to worry about the market. Unless you’re making a huge category change, the price that you get for your existing home will be relative to the price you pay for your new home.


It is true that winter sales tend to be slow. That means that winter is a good time to make offers. If someone has to sell a house in January, and there are fewer buyers looking, your negotiating advantage rises. In spring, sales tend to be brisk. This means that there’s more competition for those houses that are for sale—and that makes it a good time to accept higher offers.

If You Need to Sell Fast

This is where your Real Estate Advisor becomes your second-most valuable asset. He or she will help you to establish the right price, and make your home look attractive—without making you look desperate.

Buy First or Sell First?

The eternal question. Many people are able to time their sale and purchase to happen on the same ‘closing date’. As a buyer, you can make your offer ‘conditional’ on the sale of your existing home, so you’re not paying for the up-keep of two homes. Or, when selling, you can try to extend the ‘closing period’ to give yourself more time to find your next home.

7. Work Out the Finances

Figure Out What You Can Afford

               Before you start looking for your dream home, you have to find out how big that dream can be. A home is the most expensive thing you’ll ever buy, and there are lots of additional expenses to  consider. It is these extra costs that can leave people ‘mortgage-poor’ (where the cost of home ownership leaves them little else). So you need to think ahead.

               When buying a home, there are five main one-time costs: Down-Payment, Legal Fees, Title Insurance, Inspection Fees, Property Transfer Fees and Taxes. Depending on your circumstances, there is a sixth one-time cost—moving. If you have a large household, and/or are moving from a long distance, this expense can be significant.

               After that, there are five monthly costs: Mortgage, Utilities, Maintenance, Insurance and Property Taxes. How much of your monthly income these costs take will determine the size of your mortgage, i.e. how much you can borrow. We figure this out in one of two ways:

Gross Debt Service Ratio (GDSR) Calculation:

This lending principle states that your monthly housing cost should not exceed 32% of your gross monthly family income.

Total Debt Service Ratio (TDSR) Calculation:

Under this lending principle, your monthly housing cost and payments on all of your other debts (including loans, credit cards, and lease payments) should not exceed 40% of your gross monthly income.

Our What You Can Afford Calculator will let you easily estimate your maximum affordable mortgage payment of principal and interest. Just enter your monthly income and expense amounts, and the calculator will do the rest. Then, use our Mortgage Calculator and your monthly payments, showing principal and interest, will be figured out for you.

8.            Arrange a Mortgage

Who to Talk To

               There are hundreds of banks, credit unions and other lenders who would love your monthly mortgage payments. So talk to everybody—your banker, other banks and people you know. And talk to Blu—we have a lot of knowledge about mortgages and can offer great advice.

               But you may find that your best resource is a Mortgage Broker. Mortgage brokers make their living by finding low rates, and they usually don’t get paid unless you sign your mortgage through them. That motivation translates to getting you the best deal.

Your Best Mortgage Could Be the Seller’s Mortgage

               Often, you can take over, or ‘assume’, the seller’s mortgage. If the seller is locked into a lower interest rate than you can get, it’s a great idea.

Your Mortgage

               There are three items to note:

               Mortgage Term: This is the length of time of your bank loan—it’s usually five years. At the end of the term, you negotiate a new term, and new rates.

               Amortization: This is the length of time it will take to pay off the mortgage, and it often runs to 25 years. The longer your amortization, the lower your monthly payments (and the more interest paid).

               Interest Rate: Interest is the cost of borrowing money; the rate is a percentage of the total loan amount.

               Using Blu’s Mortgage Calculator, check the difference between borrowing $100,000 at 6% for 25 years, and at 9% over the same amortization period. At 6%, your total interest is $91,940.69; at 9%, $148,391.15. That difference of $56,450.46 affects how much you can borrow, and illustrates how important it is to find the best possible interest rate for your loan.

The Down-Payment

You want your mortgage to be as small as possible, which means making the biggest down-payment possible. So set aside as much money as you can. And think ahead: Does your new home need repairs? Do you want to renovate? Do you need appliances? Furniture?

Your Interest Rate: Fixed or Variable?

With a ‘variable’ mortgage, your rates fluctuate with the bank rates. With a ‘fixed-rate’ mortgage, you ‘lock in’ at a set rate for a set period. But if you lock in for five years and rates goes down, you’re stuck paying too much for five years. If rates steadily climb, you’ll save a bundle. Blu can offer good advice on this tough question.

The Home Buyers’ Plan – A Little Sweet Relief

If you’re a first-time homebuyer with money in an RRSP, you can withdraw up to $25,000 without paying income tax. If your spouse is also eligible, that’s $50,000. Ask Blu how to best take advantage of this plan.

Mortgage Application Check-List

Here’s the information you need to supply to your lender:

               Letter of Employment Confirmation: state your position, salary and length of employment.

               List of Assets: cars, stocks, bonds, GICs etc.

               List of Liabilities: car payments, students loans, credit card debt etc.

               Social Insurance Number

               Chequing Account Number

               Lawyer’s Contact Information

               Details about the house you want to buy

Budgeting for Extra Costs

There are lots of extra costs involved. You need to consider these, because they will add up.

               Application Fee: Some lenders charge a fee to process your application. Ask to have it waived.

               Appraisal Fee: Your mortgage lender may want your new home appraised by a professional, and will often pass that cost onto you. Ask if you can have that fee waived.

               Mortgage Broker’s Fee: Your mortgage broker may charge a fee that’s payable on your closing date. Ask your broker, in advance, what that fee will be.

               Land Survey Fee: Lenders may require a survey of your property, even if it’s an existing survey. Ask your lender about this at your first meeting, and check with your lawyer.

               Home Inspection Fee: A home inspection is crucial to avoiding surprises and protecting yourself. This is money well-spent.

               Home Insurance: Mortgage lenders require you to carry fire and extended-coverage insurance because your home is the security deposit on the mortgage. Often, you can have your insurance payments added to your monthly mortgage payments. But shop around for the best policy.

               Title Insurance: This is not mandatory, but it will protect you from all sorts of fraud and potential errors surrounding the title to your land. Ask your lawyer for details.

               Legal Fees: You’ll pay your lawyer for his or her invaluable time, plus you’ll pay for ‘disbursements’, i.e. costs involved in title searches, drawing up the title deed, and preparing your mortgage. Ask for estimates.

               Adjustments: Your home’s previous owner may have paid property tax or utilities in advance, and he or she will want to be credited for those payments. Your Blu Advisor and/or lawyer will know what might come up.

               Maintenance and Utilities: Remember that you will now have more monthly payments. There will be property taxes, and utilities. If your new home is a condominium, there will be monthly fees.

               Property Transfer Tax: The amount of this tax varies from province to province. Ask your Blu Advisor, or your lawyer.

                The GST/HST and New Homes: Resale homes don’t involve GST/HST, but newly-built homes do. If you intend to live in your new home (instead of renting it out) there is some relief. Consult your Blu Advisor and/or lawyer.

9. Go Shopping

Now your ducks are all in a row. You know what you want and what you can afford. And you have a Blu Advisor at your side to save you time, energy and money.

See What’s Out There

The Wonderful Realtor.ca

Real Estate Advisors have access to an incredible house-hunting tool called the MLS® System, which is operated by real estate boards across Canada. You can view the publicly-available information yourself, but your Blu Advisor has deeper access and can start sending you listings of potential new homes right away.  Most listings have multiple photos; some have moving 360-degree views. And with the interactive mapping feature, you’ll be amazed how fast and easy it is to zero in on your favourite houses.

Take Another Tour

Go back to the neighbourhoods that you previously identified as desirable. Go during the day, and at night. Note the proximity of industrial areas, railway tracks, airports and flight paths. Look for parks, schools, shopping areas and transit hubs. Jot down the addresses of houses with For Sale signs. If there are Open Houses under way, go inside and look around.

Open Houses

Open Houses are a great way of seeing the homes in your prospective neighbourhood. They will likely be hosted by an agent that knows the house, and the neighbourhood, very well. So don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Note: If you are going to open houses without your Blu Advisor, take some of your advisor’s cards with you. This will keep over-zealous agents from hounding you for information during your visit.

Private Viewings

When you have found homes that you want to see, tell your Blu Advisor and he or she will book the appointments for you. (The Realtor® Code of Ethics frowns upon clients contacting listing agents directly.)

Viewing Tips

Three Don’ts

               Don’t let a giant kitchen island or swanky hot tub distract you from your goal of finding a home that meets your needs and fits your budget.

               Don’t get carried away by the décor or furnishings. Try to visualize how the home will look once it’s yours—with your furniture, your paint colours, and your lifestyle.

               Don’t wear clothing that will make you tired—fatigue affects decisions. Wear light clothing and comfortable shoes that are easy to slip on and off.

10.         Make an Offer

               You’ve found a home! Congratulations! Now, if you actually want to make it yours, you have to make an offer that the seller will accept.

Preparing the Offer

Your Blu Advisor will prepare your offer for you and ensure that no details are overlooked. But here are some terms to note:

                Buyer: That’s you.

               Seller: The present owners.

               Purchase Price: The most important number. Let’s hope the seller goes for it!

               Deposit: A cheque you write to the seller or the seller’s broker. This is your way of saying ‘my offer is serious’. The size of the deposit is up to you.

               Chattels & Fixtures Included: This is what’s included in the house—the appliances, the draperies, the light fixtures. Be clear about this. Don’t assume that the dishwasher will be there when you move in.

               Irrevocability of the Offer: This refers to the length of time you give the seller to consider your offer. It’s usually no more than 48 hours.

               Completion Date: This is the glorious day you take possession; usually 30-60 days after signing.

               Clauses Particular to the Agreement: Every transaction is unique, and you may want to add conditions that are important to you, e.g. proper home inspection.

Submitting the Offer

You’ve signed on the dotted line and your advisor has given your offer to the seller. Now what? The seller can accept your offer, which is great. Or, the seller can reject your offer. This is not uncommon, but your Blu Advisor will find out why.

The seller may also ‘sign back’, or make you a ‘counter-offer’. In this case, the seller wants to alter some part of your offer—usually the price, in which case he or she will cross out your offered price and write in a higher number, or delete a condition. Then it’s your turn, and you can do the same, or accept the counter-offer. Your Blu Advisor will stick close to you through this process and see you through it.

11.         Have the Home Inspected

               When you’re buying a home, you need to scrutinize every last detail. Home inspections rarely cost more than a few hundred dollars, and they can help you avoid unpleasant surprises. Your Blu Advisor can recommend several trustworthy home inspection companies.

Make a Conditional Offer Based on a Satisfactory Home Inspection

This is an increasingly standard condition on any resale home. If the seller doesn’t want you to closely examine the home before you take possession, you may want to keep looking.

Hire a Qualified Professional

Make sure your inspector is a member of a recognized professional organization. Ask for, and check, references. You need to know that your inspector has the right training and experience.

What Will Inspectors Check?

Lots of stuff. Plumbing and electrical systems, the roof, visible insulation, walls, ceilings, floors, windows, and the integrity of the foundation. They also check for lead paint, asbestos, mould, outdated and dangerous wiring, and evidence of pests like mice or termites.

Join the Inspection

It’s going to be your home—get up close and personal. If your inspector finds a problem, you’ll learn about it. And, along the way, you’ll pick up maintenance tips from a pro.

Get it in Writing

Your inspection report will summarize the condition of your home. If there’s anything that needs work, the inspector will note an estimated cost for the repairs. That estimated cost will affect your offer.

Home Inspection for a New Home?

As mentioned, ‘new’ does not mean ‘perfect’, and construction quality can vary greatly from builder to builder. In some provinces, repairs and corrections required for new homes may be covered by government or industry-sponsored warranty programs. Bad news doesn’t necessarily mean it will have to cost you. Still, the inspection cost isn’t significant and may be worth it.

12.         Close the Purchase

               Your offer has been accepted and you can’t wait to move in. But you still have to close the deal. Your Blu Advisor and your lawyer will do most of the closing work. Here’s what you need to do.

Immediately begin satisfying any conditions of the agreement that require action on your part. Your Blu Advisor can fill out the documents stating that the conditions have been satisfied.

Have your lawyer search the property title. This can take a while, so make sure you allow ample time.

Well before closing, make sure that your insurance will be effective on your closing date. Your insurance broker will give you a ‘binder’ letter certifying that you’re covered. You can’t get a mortgage without this letter!

Have your lender finalize your mortgage documents and have your lawyer review them before you sign them.

A day or two before closing, you’ll meet with your lawyer to sign the closing documents. Your lawyer will tell you in advance what certified cheques you’ll need to seal the deal.

13.         Organize Your Move

               It’s time to move and there’s much to do. Here’s your check-list.

Call at least three moving companies. Get quotes, get references and check those references. We’ve all heard the nightmarish stories, so make sure that your mover is established, reputable and has insurance.

Schedule Your Move

‘Closing date’ may not mean moving date—you may not get the keys to your new home until late in the day. So schedule your actual move for a day, or two, after closing. And try to move on a week-day, and mid-month. Moving companies are busiest on week-ends, and at the beginning/end of each month. You may be able to negotiate a better rate if you move at another time.

Arrange Utilities

 Your lawyer will transfer essential utilities like hydro and water, but you’ll have to make the arrangements with the telephone and cable companies.

If You’re A Renter

Give notice to your landlord, or sub-let your apartment. You will have to clean; you may have to paint. Start this process early. Budget the time for it—and, if need be, the cost of hiring someone to do it.

Change-of-Address Notices

Go to Canada Post and register your change of address. Send out address cards to anyone who regularly sends you mail. And don’t forget to have the address changed on your driver’s license.

Evaluate & Liberate

A new home is a sort of new lease on life. This is a chance to liberate yourself from the stuff you’ve been hoarding for years. If you don’t need it or don’t want it, sell it or give it away. Have a garage sale and/or call around to various charities to see if they’ll pick up furnishings, clothing and appliances


Moving companies will do this, but you will do it best. If you buy your own boxes, and pack yourself, you’ll also save money. Start packing early, label anything that’s fragile and label your boxes by room so the movers will know where to put them.

14.         Breathe

               Breathe? Yes. Because, after you’re un-packed and settled in, you may feel strange urges—to buy a new carpet, get quotes on expanding the deck, shop for stainless steel appliances  So stop, breathe and relax. Take the time to adjust to your new budget. Take the time to enjoy, and love, your new home.

Cathedral Place: The Salvation of a Landmark

Canadian Property Management Magazine, September 1993

In 1988, there was an uproar when it was announced that Vancouver’s much-loved, 60 year-old Georgia Medical Dental Building would be demolished. Although the building was clearly unfit for restoration, Vancouverites were concerned about the aesthetic changes to one of the city’s most high-profile intersections.

In retrospect, they needn’t have worried. Cathedral Place is now one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. The 23-storey structure, the most expensive and finely-detailed building ever constructed in Vancouver, is the result of the efforts of three men: owner Ron Shon, architect Paul Merrick and Bill Rooney, vice-president of the Shon Group.

cathedralplace4Shon, Rooney and Merrick started discussing the new building in 1987. “The Georgia Medical Dental building had to go,” remembers Merrick. “The market was sluggish but Shon knew that the site was meant for a commercial property. Also, he’d had the site for a long time and it was the last thing he would have sold. He wanted a building that would generate revenue and be a source of pride to his family, and to the city. At the same time, it had to match the surrounding buildings and be an effective office building.”

Matching the local architecture was a challenge. Behind Cathedral Place, to the north, lies the luxurious (pink) Park Place high-rise office building. To the east is the equally sleek head office of the Hongkong Bank. On the southeast corner sits the majestic Vancouver Art Gallery, which was built in 1906 as Vancouver’s Courthouse. Directly to the south, is Canadian Pacific’s grand Hotel Vancouver, built in 1941. And directly to the west is Christ Church Cathedral, which was built in 1888.

Merrick met the challenge by beginning with the building’s materials.

“The Shon Group wanted a timeless stone structure appropriate to its neighbours, particularly the Hotel Vancouver. The Hotel Vancouver was built with Nelson Island granite and Haddington Sandstone and we couldn’t get either stone. So we brought in white-grey granite from Spain for the base, and did the rest of the building in Indiana Limestone. This limestone is terrific—you see it on many of Chicago’s buildings. It’s lighter than other stones and it darkens less in the rain, which is very important in Vancouver.”

One of the most upsetting aspects of the Georgia Medical Dental Building’s demolition, to heritage buffs, was the loss of its terra cotta trim, which included three terra cotta nurses. In fact, the nurses had become dangerously unstable and would have had to be removed even if the building had remained.

The Shon Group didn’t dispose of the terra cotta. The nurses and trim were donated to the Vancouver Museum, which keeps the nurses and half the trim in its collection—the other half was auctioned off to the public. Then, the nurses and trim were reproduced for the new building.

“There are two companies in North America that still do commercial terra cotta,” says Merrick. “We had to go to Philadelphia to have the nurses and trim copied. It was expensive, but it was important. It was worth it.”


Another important aspect of matching the neighbourhood was the colour of the Cathedral Place trim—the Hotel Vancouver is famous for its peaked turquoise roof. So Merrick gave Cathedral Place blue-green windows and a blue-green peaked roof.

“The windows are meant to seem like picture windows, although they were designed to take partitioning at the standard five-foot intervals,” continues Merrick. “There are nine-foot ceilings and we thought of putting in opening windows, but that meant more aggravation and an additional $800,000. We went with non-reflective glass which cuts glare without making the day look dull, and the colour works well in this climate.

“As for the roof, I grew up in Vancouver and the Hotel Vancouver’s roof is part of the city’s image for me. So we put in a turquoise steel peaked roof, which houses the elevators and air exchangers. It’s higher than the hotel and isn’t as imposing, but it retains that famous Canadian Pacific chateau roof and adds to the effect of lasting quality and presence.”

cathedralplace3Merrick had other instructions. The interior of the building was to be appropriate to the market—centre core with a respectable core-to-wall distance, no intrusive interior columns, and a smart building with good-quality services and environmental control systems. Nothing too exotic.

This criteria was met. The building is 360,000 square feet of office space, with one floor of commercial. There is a four-storey, 360-vehicle underground parking lot, and each office is finished according to tenant specifications. The columns were integrated into the walls and the building runs on high-tech management systems.

Cathedral Place uses Johnson Controls’ Metasys computer control system, which permits the highest possible ventilation rate. The General Electric Total Lighting Control system allows for individualized energy efficiency, and the S.I.S. Pentagon 2000 security system combines on-site personnel with programmed Wiegand cards and central lock-down capabilities.

The Shon Group wanted Cathedral Place to match the Hotel Vancouver in another way—in the area of ground-floor activity.

“So many triple-A buildings have large, empty lobbies,” says Merrick. “Not Cathedral Place. We’ve created a necklace of movement to, at, and around the site, just as is the case at the Hotel Vancouver.”


The first floor of Cathedral Place houses a jewellery store, a travel agency, a florist, House of Brussels Chocolates, a boutique, a bank, two cafes, a stationers and the Sri Lankan Gem Museum. Perhaps most importantly, there is another museum attached to it—the Canadian Craft Museum. That added a new wrinkle to the development.

“Originally, the whole property was going to be covered with office space,” says Bill Rooney. “But we wanted the highest-quality structure. So we arranged a density transfer with the city. In exchange for building the new Canadian Craft Museum to the north, we were given a density bonus—additional floors.

“The arrangement improved the whole place,” continues Rooney. “The museum is a draw to the building and we think that the final product has made leasing easier—that and the fact that we made sure that this building would present no management challenges.”

Merrick did a superb job of designing the 20,000 square-foot museum and the courtyard which separates the two buildings—there is now an elegant, classic sanctuary in the middle of Vancouver’s bustling downtown core.

cathedralplace1 courtyard

One of the more unusual things about the Cathedral Place is long gone, but it certainly raised the profile of the building: the site’s $40,000 construction hoarding. It was created by Design Works Inc., and no Canadian city had ever seen anything like it: a 3-D custom-designed architect’s board, complete with huge pencils, giant rulers and an enormous business card (with paper clip), from the leasing agent.

“The hoarding was a real attention-getter and established an image for the building before we broke ground,” says Rooney. “Cathedral Place overlooks some of the largest landscaped areas in the downtown core. It enjoys strong visual and physical links with the business and cultural life of Vancouver. It’s a unique combination of locational convenience, functional efficiency and architectural distinction—an address that any owner, property manager or tenant can point to with justifiable pride. In other words, it’s a very special building on a very special site and everything about it had to be special, from start to finish.”

Paul Merrick is definitely proud of his creation. “This was one of my best opportunities. A city’s only as good as its pieces and we had an owner who wanted the best for his city. Ron Shon went far out his way for that project, with the result that no one has had any negative feedback on the finished product. The whole city is proud of Cathedral Place.”

Dream Team: Architect Arthur Erickson & Landscape Architect Cornelia Hahn Oberlander

Landscape, June 1994

Among its many blessings and advantages, Vancouver has two national treasures who have steadily worked to define the first standard of Canadian landscape architecture.

arthurThe first is Arthur Erickson, now one of Canada’s most famous architects. While not a landscaper, per se, the Vancouver native knows more about it than most. When he was growing up in Vancouver, no one in his family had much of an interest in gardening but, from boyhood, roses were a hobby and he held a deep interest in botany and biology.

He decided, though, to become an engineer. After studying at the University of British Columbia (UBC), Erickson spent two years in the army. He was posted in India, Malaysia and Nepal, fell in love with travel and decided to go into the diplomatic service. Then he happened to pick up a copy of Fortune magazine. “I saw Frank Lloyd Wright’s Desert House and thought ‘If an architect can do that, I want to be an architect’.”

Erickson headed to McGill University then, after graduating in 1950, he spent three years in Europe, observing its buildings and landscaping.

In 1953, he returned to Vancouver but found that his unorthodox approach didn’t fit with that of his conservative colleagues, so he took a teaching job at the University of Oregon. In 1957, UBC offered him a position, and he spent the next seven years teaching and working on residential projects.

As a professor of architecture, Erickson didn’t specifically teach landscaping, but he always stressed its importance. “I taught that it was crucial to design the whole site. I’ll never know to what extent this concept got through to my students—many architects aren’t interested in landscape. But when I was teaching students to sketch, I would take them outside and have them draw blades of grass—that had to have some influence.”

In 1963, Erickson won the competition to design Simon Fraser University (SFU). Unable to teach and build, he gave up teaching and never looked back.

SFU covers 900 acres, but Erickson only landscaped the central quadrangle, leaving the rest for playing fields and meadow. Much thought, however, was put into the landscaping of that quadrangle.


“I wanted the garden to keep the viewer interested by changing with each viewpoint,” he recalls. “You can’t understand it by standing in one place—you spot something different from each vantage point and have to investigate. I like to hide things for people to discover.”

erickson2From the entry of this garden, or the top of the stairs, you see a long, formal pool featuring an enormous block of Fraser River jade. Three long stepped-up hedges of Rhododendron and Pyrus partially hide a pyramid structure in which people can sit and study, and Locust trees enclose a small playground. Silver Maples provide shade, and there are Dogwood and Hawthorn trees—loose forms contrasted with thin forms. The overall design, and the use of hedges, gives the illusion of greater distance.

Erickson is particular about what goes into his landscapes. He enjoys scented gardens, walled gardens and Japanese gardens, but feels they’re inappropriate for BC. He uses lots of rock and moss and, although he loves flowers, he avoids anything fancy. “I prefer things like single roses. Gladiolus is too stiff, Dahlias are too showy, Carnations look like pompoms.”

He always uses water, but never fountains. “Water is very important—it reflects the sky and brings light to a garden on dark days. But an upward spray is awkwardly artificial.”

The garden at Erickson’s own home has become famous due to admirers’ efforts to have it declared a Heritage Site. It reflects his opinion of how a private garden should be. “I like natural, underground gardens. Over-designed landscapes feel contrived. I want everything flowing together and messed up.

erickson6“When I bought my house, the garden was all grass. By the third year, it was weeds with a few struggling flowers. So I bulldozed the lawn into one great mound. I made a pond, which I’ve never cleaned, and I planted Pine trees and grasses taken from beside the Fraser River. For colour, I use pots of flowers. The rest grows wild.

“Thirty years later, I have a meadow surrounded by forest. And it changes every year as different plants seed themselves. I now have a Persimmon tree, a new Arbutus and tropical grasses.”

Erickson also believes that one of the most important things for any landscape is for all elements to belong. His preoccupation with a connection between the nature of a site, and what is planted in it, or built on it, comes from growing up in BC.

“When you live here, you spend much time experiencing nature. The landscape becomes an influence. That explains Wright’s influence on me as an architect. His buildings interpreted landscape experiences—the edge of a cliff overlooking a valley, or a forest at the top of a mountain. I’ve always been excited by the design adventure offered by the physicality of a site.

“I also think that this is the important difference between eastern Canadian architecture and western Canadian architecture. In Ontario, you can place the same building anywhere. Here, we never have flat sites, so every structure has to be site-specific.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve never thought of architecture as being separate from the landscape, and why I study the character of a site before I do the building. The land is always part of the building.”

This approach appeals to those who wish to build homes on difficult sites and there are several prominent Erickson houses and gardens in the Vancouver area.

“I recall one site that was a former dump; there was a stream beside it. Rather than landscape the dump and put the house beside it, I put the house on the dump and tapped the stream to make a lake. In another case, the garden was seen through a low window, like in a Japanese teahouse. I concentrated on the ground plane, added dry rock and rearranged the existing plant material to allow the garden to be viewed properly.

erickson7“Another client had a huge sloping lawn that was so over-planted, the flowers were blocking enjoyment of the wonderful lawn and the view beyond. So I removed most of the fussy garden to feature the lawn. When you do things like this, you bring the home and the garden together. When you bring the home and garden together, it makes living in the home more comfortable.”

For commercial projects, Erickson prefers an orderly landscape with touches of wildness.

“Even in the city, I try to bring landscape into the building, and every one of my designs must enhance its site and fit its character.”

One of Erickson’s most difficult sites was one of his most recent, and famous, projects—the new Canadian chancery in Washington.

My instructions from the Canadian government were to express neighbourliness, openness and friendship,” recalls Erickson. “But Washington’s regulations are severe—there are 20 committees overseeing style, shape, height. I had to use those restrictions in my design.

“I studied the street and the site, which is on Pennsylvania Avenue, opposite the US National Gallery and its new I.M. Pei wing. I was captivated by the neo-Classicism of Washington’s buildings and the consistency with which that style appears in the lines and heights of these buildings. So I chose the idiom of the southern plantation house with the grand columns and large front porch. But I put the porch inside the building and kept to the Classical order of base, body and top. Then, to echo a nearby building, I made a rotunda as a means of support. The overall effect is one great sweep which, I feel, is the character of the Canadian landscape—one enormous expanse and sense of space.


“Through the columns, and into the courtyard, the landscaping begins. It looks like the slope of a mountain, planted with white flowers, Azalea, Hawthorn, roses. I wanted Mountain Laurel, which I felt were in keeping with the north, but we couldn’t get them in the right growth patterns.”

Naturally, there is water at the embassy. “The basin of water in the courtyard also represents the Canadian landscape, and in it we placed the massive ‘Spirit of Haida Gwaii’, which is the Bill Reid sculpture of the spirit canoe in which the shaman takes initiates to find their spirit guide. This is not only very Canadian, but could remind some of the famous paintings of Washington crossing the Delaware.”

The fact that he couldn’t get the Mountain Laurel annoyed Erickson and, though he realizes he can’t plant everything, he wishes that Canadian growers would expand their selection. “Our nurseries are getting better but too often we have to outside of Canada for what we want.”

It also annoys him that people won’t leave his landscapes alone. “The meadow at SFU was supposed to remain wild, in contrast to the groomed landscape, but they keep moving it. And we had planted Canadian columnar Juniper trees at the embassy but one ambassador removed them. I have no idea why. It’s very frustrating.” erickson10

Erickson never deals directly with nurseries or gardeners. That is left to his long-time collaborator, and Canada’s premier landscape architect, Cornelia Hahn Oberlander.

“Cornelia knows how things should be done,” says Erickson. “Most landscape architects don’t take her intellectual approach or do her research. She has a wonderful knowledge of plant materials. I tell her what I want to do conceptually and she finds the plants to achieve the design.”

Cornelia Hahn was born in Germany and grew up in the U.S.  After studying history, art and botany at Smith College, she went to the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she studied architecture, planting and landscape design, graduating as a Bachelor of Landscape Architecture.

Also at Harvard, Hahn met her Canadian architect/city planner husband, Peter Oberlander. In 1953, he accepted a professorship at UBC (where Erickson would later join him on staff).

“When we first moved to Vancouver, I saw Canada as a new country with untouched spaces and limitless potential and challenges for my profession,” recalls Oberlander whose first projects were the grounds of the UBC Faculty Club and UBC’s Rose Garden. But she was also raising three children, and became interested in playgrounds. She designed the playground for the Children’s Creative Centre at the Canadian Federal Pavilion at Montreal’s EXPO ’67. She also became a member of the National Task Force on Children’s Play, and co-founded Vancouver’s Children’s Resource Centre. In addition, she is Past-President of the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects, and its former Environmental Chairman, and she remains a Fellow of both the American and Canadian Societies of Landscape Architects.

erickson11Much of Oberlander’s work is well-known. For Vancouver’s Expo ’86, she was the landscape architect of Canada Place, the Pan-Pacific Hotel, the World Trade Centre and the Ontario Pavilion. She was awarded the Canadian Society of Landscape Architects’ National Award for her work on the Ottawa National Gallery, and she designed the grounds of the Environmental Science Building and the Ward Environmental Garden at Peterborough’s Trent University. In Vancouver, the exquisite Cathedral Place Renaissance Garden is Oberlander’s, and she worked with Bing Thom on BC’s Chan Shun Performing Arts Centre, and with Matsuzaki Wright Architects on UBC’s Institute of Asian Research.

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In 1990, Oberlander received the Order of Canada. In his citation, Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn said: “She is known for integrating her designs with the natural environment, yet always adds a unique new vision and dimension. Her expert technical knowledge is coupled with her concern for expressing cultural, social and environmental concepts in her work.”

Oberlander’s philosophy toward landscape design stems from her days at Harvard, where she enjoyed helping architects ensure that their buildings related to the landscape. To this day, her projects are always based on architects’ design concepts, but she infuses those with the result of her own studies of the social, cultural and physical features of each site.

Her trademarks are simplicity of form, sculpted earthen mounds and a ‘less is more’ palette. Her gardens consist of solid areas of flowers in pink, blue, grey or white, with lots of grasses and shrubs. She uses her mounds to screen out traffic, to provide an element of surprise and for the burial of building scrap. And she never uses anything exotic.

“Why be exotic?” she asks. “The history and ecology of each site dictates its use. It’s not appropriate to plant unnatural plants. I use common plants—what’s available, what suits the climate, the client, the budget.”

She does not do rockery, topiary or fountains, although she does use water to reflect the landscape. She prefers simplicity, makes sure that her landscapes require minimal maintenance and she has never exceeded a quote.

erickson14 erickson15 

Her approach is direct. She won’t take a job unless she is guaranteed supervision. She looks at the architect’s design, researches the site, quickly designs the landscape, then goes back to the architect and client and works with them to compose the palette before working out the grading and drainage. She takes time to educate the architect, contractors and maintenance people, and she stays on after each project’s completion to see that everything goes as planned.

Oberlander first worked with Arthur Erickson in 1974, when she joined the landscaping team for his famed Robson Square. They have since done three dozen projects together.

erickson5“It’s unusual for an architect and landscape architect to work so well together,” she says. “The relationship is often a struggle. Arthur and I have a very smooth relationship—we don’t even have to talk much. I know what he likes, I see his concept and I know what I have to do.

“One of the wonderful things about working with Arthur is that be believes in considering the landscape when he’s devising the building’s concept. Many architects believe that you must finish the building before the landscape can be designed. Arthur and I compose landscapes together and agree that the outdoor space should be dramatic without being fancy.

“For Robson Square, we worked out the garden before he did the drawings. Then we worked on the final drawings together, deciding on the grading and drainage—once the grading and drainage are right, the planting falls into place.

“Robson Square takes up three city blocks and we wanted to import nature into the city to create an attractive urban forest,” continues Oberlander. “Arthur changed my approach on that project. My first thought was to go with masses of evergreens. Then he said something that is so simple: ‘But there are many greens.’ I began to pay more attention to variations and now I use a wider variety of plants, especially different types of rhododendron, for a richer tapestry.”

“Cornelia wanted to keep Robson Square simple and I agreed,” recalls Erickson. “Since the design is stepped up, I suggested that we use alpine materials at the higher levels and mix Pine, Japanese maple, Magnolias and Rhododendron in planter boxes. The long rows of Memorial Roses and Laurel were her idea. But everything is there because of her exhaustive research into growing mediums.”

Another famous Erickson-Oberlander project is UBC’s Museum of Anthropology (recently featured in the film Intersection; Erickson was the model for Richard Gere’s architect).

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The purpose of the museum is to house Pacific Northwest Native artifacts, so Oberlander felt that its landscape should simulate that of the Queen Charlotte Islands, home of the Haida Nation. She showed Erickson pictures of this landscape, with the totem poles standing on mounds covered with wild grasses and surrounded by forest. With help from seed expert Angus Richardson, the concept was realized.

Erickson’s concrete and glass building sits on a promontory facing the ocean and mountains. Rocks, shells and logs accent the landscape, which consists of meadows and mounds seeded with indigenous grasses and flowers—wild roses among Scotch Broom, Hemlock over tall wild grasses, purple, pink, yellow and white Vetches, ferns amid Oregon Grape—all of the plants used in the Haida lifestyle. A grey gravel pond reflects the mountains, and grassy mounds shield the museum from traffic and create a sense of hills rolling to the ocean, as they do in the Queen Charlottes.

Erickson and Oberlander did not get their way in all design aspects of the museum. They wanted the site covered with all plants used by Pacific Northwest natives, to create an outdoor museum, but funding problems arose. Most frustratingly, Oberlander recalls, the university kept mowing the grass. “I said: ‘Native people didn’t have lawn movers, why are you cutting the grass?’”.

An even more famous Erickson-Oberlander project is the aforementioned Canadian embassy, which Oberlander calls one of the most exciting projects she’s working on. And for it, she was presented with the National Landscape Award for the Beautification of America.


“The chancery is important as a Canadian presence in the heart of Washington, and I was able to work as I like to—from the beginning, as part of a team aiming to integrate the building and landscape. It was also a chance to show what landscaping will be like in the 21st century, when we’ll no longer have space around buildings for our designs.

“We had no room on the ground for a garden, and only 0.25% of the building’s budget was allotted for landscaping. So it had to be economical, low-maintenance, beautiful and functional. And I had to work within their building constraints. It was a challenge.”

Erickson’s U-Shaped chancery takes up two thirds of the site and there is a pool in the paved courtyard. So Oberlander had to go up; her landscape is attached to each floor’s balconies with planter boxes, giving each office its own cascading garden of Memorial roses, Gumpo White Azalea, Delaware Valley White Azalea, and Cockspur Hawthorn. “Like cascading trees growing out of Canada’s rough mountain ledges,” she explains.

Other plants used for the chancery were Scarlet Oak, Red Oak, Eastern Red Cedar and Boxleaf Holly. To allow growth in the boxes, she created a support system of a light-weight growing medium, a low-water consumption irrigation system, slow-release non-toxic fertilizers and safety devices for maintenance workers.

The Mountain Laurel issue bothered Erickson; it didn’t faze Oberlander. She’s used to it. “I often have trouble getting what I want because I don’t mix things, I use large plants, and I need huge quantities. At the moment, I’m looking for 20 Gingko trees. Last summer, I had to find 4,000 Kinnikinnick for the National Gallery ground cover. I do, however, wish that growers would realize the importance of offering native and low-maintenance plant material, rather than focusing on fancy shrubs and flowers.”


Oberlander has just completed work on Ottawa’s Peace-Keeping Monument and is now working on the new Ottawa City Hall, plus the landscape of the new Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly building in Yellowknife, which will be landscaped with plants that are genetically true to the region.

Meanwhile, Erickson is designing a new cultural centre in Malaysia. So we don’t know when they’ll collaborate again. But we’ll be looking forward to it.

Profile: Bing Thom, the Landscaper’s Architect

Landscape, September 1993

thom5All landscapers wish that architects were more understanding of the landscaper’s job. Well, one of Canada’s leading architects feels the same way.

Bing Thom was born in Hong Kong and raised in Vancouver. His uncle was an engineer and when Thom was eight, he visited his uncle’s office. There, he saw architectural drawings and decided to make drawing such plans his life’s work.

At the same time, he had a feel for gardening and the landscape, a sense which he attributes to his Asian ancestry. At 17, he jumped at the chance to work as a landscaper’s helper. “I spent a summer designing gardens,’ says Thom. “Building rock walls and transplanting trees was good experience—it taught me hard work.”

In 1966, Thom graduated from the University of British Columbia (UBC) with a degree in architecture. After obtaining his Master’s in Architecture from Berkeley, he spent two years teaching at the University of Singapore, then returned to Vancouver and taught at UBC for another two years.

In 1973, famed architect Arthur Erickson asked Thom to help him on a project. “Erickson was my teacher at UBC,” explains Thom. “He, like Frank Lloyd Wright, was influenced by Oriental architecture and they shared a tendency toward the landscape. This appealed to me.”

Thom helped Erickson on the now-famous Vancouver Courthouse/Robson Square. “This project involved a lot of landscaping,” remembers Thom. “Vancouverites wanted a park. The government wanted an office building. So we put the park on top of the office building.

thom1“The courthouse was interesting—three mid-downtown blocks and we were putting a garden atop a man-made structure. The main questions were of waterproofing and finding the right soil mix. So we developed a totally new soil that is both lightweight and able to sustain nutrients.

“There were thousands of plants in that garden,” continues Thom. “We found an entire orchard of pines, magnolias and rhododendrons which we transplanted. Also, Spokane [WA] had 200 matching London Plane trees, which are used in cities all over the world. We bought those but, at planting time, the city’s chief engineer stopped us. He said they grew too fast and that the roots would interfere with sewers and water lines. So we planted 200 Sunset Maples and Victoria happily took the London Planes. Engineers don’t understand plants. They think there should be plastic everywhere.”

Thom next project was Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall which he designed in a park setting. In 1980, he again helped Erickson, this time on Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill project, which involved re-developing five mid-town blocks and adding linear parks and green space.

thom3 In 1982, Thom opened his own office and now employs a staff of 20, including nine architects and his wife, Bonnie.

It is Bonnie, not Bing, who has the green thumb. The daughter of a farmer, Bonnie is an educated landscaper and works on all of Bing’s projects.

 “I have a feel for gardening, but Bonnie has the talent. I tell her how I want to project to look and she compiles a list of the plants that will get me that look, according to their colours and textures.

 “More architects should consider the colours in the surrounding landscape. I never use red brick because only green plants match it. Instead, I keep my buildings neutral so that when plants flower, their colour takes over.”

Thom is an architect first, but he will not design a building unless he also designs the landscape. “It’s a personal thing. The building must grow from the ground, and the landscaping is the foundation. Each building must sit correctly on that setting, while relating to the landscape. So the landscape is actually more important than the building. Many architects don’t realize that landscaping is essential to architecture—that buildings and gardens are inter-related and indivisible.

“I start every design by looking at the property’s characteristics—the way the sun shines, the wind blows, the location, the view. I use plants only, never anything artificial. And I always use vegetation from the building’s locale. We must remember that we can’t fight nature. We have to work with it.”

What do Thom’s clients think about his approach?

“They appreciate it,” says Thom. “They may mind spending the extra money, but they never argue. I just remind them that’s money well-spent. Many people don’t realize thatlandscape architecture is more difficult and time-consuming than structural architecture, and that it takes more creativity to do a good landscape than it does to do a good building. I don’t have to account for growth with granite.”

Every one of Thom’s gardens also has a purpose. “I want my gardens to be places for meditation and contemplation,” he says “It’s important that people find tranquil spaces, even in the busiest of cities. That’s why we take care that my gardens are harmonious—never jarring or extreme.”

Surprisingly, Thom has no garden of his own. He and Bonnie live in a penthouse, with four balconies, and not a single plant. “I’m the barefoot shoemaker,” says Thom. “We’ve been planning a roof garden but we’ve never had the time to create it.”

This fits with a trend that Thom has seen increasing—and one that he thinks the landscape industry should be capitalizing on.

“People are living closer together and are nostalgic for gardens. I see more rockeries, solariums, and balcony and roof gardens, and there’s a demand for hobby plants, like bonsai. People want more colour in plants that take up little space.

“I advise landscapers to get into more public education. There’s a thirst for what landscapers have to offer. People are concerned about the look and health of their environment and there’s a need for professionals to go to the public with courses and lectures.”

Thom also advises the landscape industry to lobby for universities to include landscape architecture in their architecture and engineering programs.

“Most architects can’t be bothered with the extra work of landscape architecture. The problem is that no landscape courses are required to get a degree in architecture. This should change. The architect finds himself working on a project where the client wants a park or garden, and winds up in a situation where the right hand doesn’t know what the left is doing.

“Universities don’t require architects to take interior design courses either. That also makes no sense. It’s like medicine, where specialists come to think of the body in parts, rather than as a whole.

“People wonder why I bother with the landscape but it’s perfectly logical. The building, the interior and the landscape are inseparable, and the same creativity has to be behind all three elements. This should be taught as part of any school’s architectural program.

“The real key, though, is to teach engineers about landscape. Engineers do the most damage to the landscape. Traffic engineers do tremendous harm. They want to keep their roads straight and will mow down any number of trees to do it. They need to learn that roads don’t always have to be straight.”

Thom, now 53, still lectures at UBC and has just completed a three-year term as Chairman of the Vancouver Public Library Committee. His most recent achievement, however, was his award-winning Canadian Pavilion at EXPO ’92 in Seville.

thom4“I wanted to build a Canadian building in Spain, but I couldn’t transplant Canadian plants, so I made a garden using hard landscaping and evocative images to get the Canadian feel.”

For the first time, Thom had to use man-made materials. He created a jagged white front which looks like a snowdrift during the day but, when lit at night, looks like the Northern Lights. Inside, the pavilion’s focal point is a wall of shimmering blue/green water—it’s actually panels covered with etched aluminum foil. People were so enthralled by the effect, they waited up to 10 hours to get in a second time.

Thom has won numerous awards but his greatest compliment is seeing people enjoying his landscapes. “It’s satisfying to see people relax in my gardens. I see them become happier, friendlier.”

Still, he is never satisfied. “I wish I could redo every garden. No matter how careful we are, gardens never grow according to plan. That’s what makes it challenging—the hope is always that the next garden will be my perfect favourite.”

Scandistyle Examined

Blitz Magazine, May 2002

Many designers might cringe at the mention of Ikea in conversation about design.

‘Fact is that Ikea introduced, to the North American mass market, an entire concept of interior decorating—a concept that was not invented by Ikea, but made affordable and easily available by Ikea. Spare, simple designs, uncomplicated materials, and splashes of colour among natural tones: this, to those who haven’t studied art history, is Scandinavian design.

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The concept of Scandinavian design refers to a particularly simplified subdivision of modern design. Characteristic features emphasize practicality, freedom from pretension and controlled use of materials. Lightness and clarity are common denominators. Timelessness and a thorough familiarity with materials bind the creations with modernism.

Design experts will tell you that Scandinavian design is a way of life, at once urban and close to nature. Many Scandinavians spend a good chunk of their lives close to woods and water, hiking in the wilderness or at summer cottages. This sounds a lot like life in Canada, except that, the experts say, Scandinavians spend nine months indoors—presumably, their winters are colder. It is said that, in the Scandinavian world, home and public interiors play a larger role, and that design is a question of survival—the farther north one goes, the harsher the conditions and the scarcer the materials. Long distances enhance the importance of using local materials, local technologies and local energy. ‘Sound familiar? Then why doesn’t Canadian design look the same as Scandinavian design?

Perhaps it’s a difference in attitude. In the Scandinavian countries, design has always been approached as competitively as sports. Nuances arise from each country’s culture, industry, politics, education and economy. Several generations of architects and designers have regarded themselves as part of a political movement. There is huge public support for design, and it’s the subject of investment by Scandinavian governments, all of which have produced national programs to support and develop design.

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Young Nordic Design: Generation X surveys the achievements and experiments of 50 young designers and design teams from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden, and includes 60 works presented in furniture, industrial, textile, graphic and fashion design. Unusual pieces include Cyberia, a jacket that includes a built-in location system, a communication system, electrical heating, a first-aid kit, a hypothermia bag, ice picks and a water-heating pocket. There’s a coffee mug whose handle is also a spout, a portable sofa, a lamp whose shade collapses when it’s turned off, an elegant cabinet handle whose actual purpose is to prevent shoplifting, a chandelier made for swinging from, a blade-like, high-speed kayak made of molded carbon fibre, and a road-racing bicycle made of carbon fibre.


On Leo: And You Thought You Were Clever

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, executed i...

Self-portrait by Leonardo da Vinci, executed in red chalk sometime between 1512 and 1515 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Blitz Magazine, September 1998


Forget Mona. The genius of Leonardo da Vinci (b. 1452) manifested itself in many other ways. He was one of the greatest painters the world has ever produced, but he was also a scientist and an inventor. His paintings are perfect representations because he was a dedicated botanist and student of human anatomy. He was one of the Milan Cathedral architects. King Louis 1 popped his wig when Leo confronted him with a marching robot lion. He studied aerodynamics and hydraulics and, though he hated war, he became a military engineer, inventing the tank, the machine gun, the steam cannon and the parachute — all this while Italians were figuring out what to do with the newly-introduced tomato plant and Christopher Columbus was bobbing in the Atlantic.

          Leo was an odd guy. His students were not allowed to use brushes or colours until age 20 — the number of years it took, he calculated, to learn how to draw perfectly. And he kept most of his ideas secret, going so far as to write his notes in mirror-image. Now, however, an exhibit brings those notes to life, making the Codex look, well, a little lame.

          Leonardo da Vinci, Scientist – Inventor – Artist, which runs at the Royal British Columbia Museum from October 1st to February 28th, explores Leo’s artistic and scientific contributions, and their significance to the modern world. The exhibit consists of 230 objects, including 150 sketches and drawings, a multi-media display with 8,000 photographs and 25 models which the RBCM made using his drawings — of, among other inventions, his helicopter, spring-driven automobile, swivel bridge, paddle boat, chain-link bicycle and a full-size flying machine complete with 30-ft wing span.

          To demonstrate his theories about ‘how to paint’, the exhibit also holds 20 original paintings and sculptures, by Leo (The Kissing Infants, Virgin of the Rocks, Virgin with Child, The Infant St. John, Mary Magdalene, Bust of Christ as a Youth) and by his pupils and contemporaries, including Giampietrino, Bramantino, Raphael (The Young John the Baptist), and Salai (Monna Vanna).

The Mona Lisa.

The Mona Lisa. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

          The exhibit, which was assembled in Sweden and Germany, has wrapped up in Boston, and Victoria is its only other North American appearance. It is a celebration of the passion, intelligence and inventiveness of a guy who was way ahead of his time. But he clearly saw himself as an artist first, and left behind this statement, which illustrates his dedication and explains his inexhaustible curiosity : “The mind of the painter must transform itself into nature’s own mind, and become the interpreter between nature and art.”



Leonardo da Vinci - Virgin of the Rocks - WGA12694

Leonardo da Vinci – Virgin of the Rocks – WGA12694 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A Master Photographer: In Praise of the Silo

Blitz Magazine, January 2000


Canada is not beautiful in detail, but by the immensities of its proportions…This rudeness…one tries to express it in extreme simplicity of composition, form, strength, obvious contrast in light and shade. One is not looking for gloom, but rather dramatic strength…for the forms, contrasts, proportions and designs which belong to Canada and to no other country.

         John Vanderpant, 1928

John Vanderpant arrived in Alberta in 1911. A photo-journalist, he was on assignment for a Dutch newspaper. He stayed. In 1919, he moved to New Westminster, BC and, by the mid-1920s, he was (along with other West Coast photographers like Johan Helders, Harold Mortimer Lamb and Harry Upperton Knight) an acclaimed figure within the international circuit of Pictorialist salons.

siloHowever, speaking about Vanderpant’s 1925 solo exhibition at the Royal Photographic Society in London, a critic noted that his work reflected little of the Canadian spirit. Vanderpant resolved to “unlearn the Old World concept of beauty in relation to its environment,” and turned away from the aesthetics of Pictorialism, adopting a simplified graphic economy in his photography, emphasizing rhythmic pattern and simplicity.

Vanderpant and his colleagues–Frederick Varley, Vera Weatherbie, Beatrice Lennie and Jock Macdonald, among others, formed a group which resolved to combine, in their paintings and photography, Utopian ideals with a modernist approach. The idea was to create new ways of viewing the interaction between nature and technology. These artists believed in the power of art to shift patterns of thought and lead away from the social conflicts that reigned over the Depression Era. They broke with traditional photography and painting to challenge the British colonial mentality which dominated Canadian culture at the beginning of the century. And their approach was to combine European Modernism with an enthusiasm for British Columbia as the frontier between East and West, the natural and the urban.

Meanwhile, the architecture of the grain elevator had been recognized by modernist European architects as a symbol of the dynamism of North American culture, and its ability to progress rapidly by breaking with archaic European traditions. Le Corbusier extolled the virtues of the engineer who was able to create structures that combine form and function, and identified the terminal grain elevator as one of North America’s most significant contributions to architecture. Really? Well, yes. Grain elevators were seen to emphasize the potential for social harmony, rather than to represent social struggle.

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In Canada, the elevator was an important emblem of the vitality of the Canadian economy, and the prosperity that Vancouver’s middle class was enjoying in the 1920s, as the country captured an increasing share of the international grain trade.

Vanderpant turned his camera on the terminal grain elevators that first appeared in Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet in 1916. Writing about a series of grain elevator photographs which he took between 1934 and 1936, he said that grain elevators “rise on lakeshore and terminal throughout the land and in their rigid strength and sublime simplicity are the unpretentious temples of trade. As seen through an artistic mind, the print gives strength of form and cement, the tenderness of beauty, of texture, the design possibility in form and shadow, the feeling of safety in the storage of abundance, they give an almost religious adoration of significant form.”

Yeah, well it’s important to appreciate your subject matter.

He also wrote about the abstract patterns found in vegetables; we can assume that he was an interesting dinner guest.