An Architect Riffs on Chinese Design For Her Grandparents’ Aging-in-Place Retreat

Honoring the homeowners’ roots in Chinese studies, Curio House taps into traditional Eastern design philosophies.

Set within the East Asian community of Richmond, BC, Curio House allows two Chinese scholars—the architect’s grandparents—to age in place. "I have a very close relationship with them," says Haeccity Studio Architecture cofounder Shirley Shen, "and it was kind of a family endeavor." The homeowners had lived in a two-story home on the same street for 40 years, but it was falling into disrepair, and the stairs proved a challenge at their age. "So, [the design] was to reinterpret using their cultural background as the basis, but to do it in a modern way."

Douglas fir cladding that leads into the foyer conceals the garage, which is a 24-foot-wide, top-hung, bi-fold door.

The resulting design integrates principles from feng shui, a set of spatial laws meant to direct energy, and siheyuan, a historical courtyard house. The home, for instance, lies on a north-south axis, an element that comes from Eastern philosophy—the front door allows you to enter from the south and proceed through the home to the more intimate spaces on the northern end. "Because the clients have a large extended family and regularly receive visitors, we wanted to think of it more as a village than a house," says principal Travis Hanks.

Initially, guests are greeted with a vaulted courtyard space, again borrowing from East Asian spatial principles. "The main concept [references] how Chinese families traditionally lived together back in Asia," says Shen. "So, the central courtyard is a public space for everyone, but people are able to retreat into their bedrooms, or to private quarters along the edges and along the back." 

A Volcanic rock garden–following a principle of feng shui–is placed at the entrance of the home.

The front garden has a water feature that offers protection, according to feng shui, and an arrangement of volcanic rock that symbolizes mountains. Cedar wood cladding along the entrance wall offers a material connection to the western coast of Canada. 

The single-story, zero-barrier layout is wheelchair accessible, and Shen added other features to make sure the home continues to be comfortable and convenient for her grandparents.

The outside is brought in with double-height NLT (nail-laminated timber) ceilings and automated clerestory windows.

"This was an opportunity to build their dream house, and an aging-in-place space—but the main thing was that it would be accessible to them," Shen explains. "Currently, they hang around the kitchen island a lot of the time. That’s sort of the focus of their current home. So, we were thinking, if they can’t sit at a high bar chair in the future, then they would have to roll up to it in their wheelchair." The team struck on the idea of a motorized island whose height can be adjusted via remote control. 

A remote-controlled kitchen island rises and lowers to accommodate wheelchairs.

A custom waterfall countertop in the kitchen adds to the home’s sense of serenity and continuity.

The shower is also zero-threshold, allowing for ease of use. Every element within the home has been carefully considered for its holistic effect in the space. 

In addition to the open kitchen, there’s a smaller wok kitchen.

The banquet table featuring an inlaid Lazy Susan—a nod to large, shared family dinners at Chinese restaurants—and a custom curio made of steel and oak were both designed by Vancouver–based industrial designer Ko Júbilo.

"In terms of the interior, there are preferences for where the headboard needs to be and then how that relationship works to the door of the bedroom, so those were things that the clients guided us on," says Shen. 

"The basic tenet of Chinese architecture is that the earth is represented by a square, and heaven is represented by a circle," says Shen. "And that’s translated into things like the door hardware: rosettes are a circle set within a square, and there’s a perfectly round table that’s inside of a perfectly square plan."

A zero-threshold shower and safety bars in the bathroom connecting two master bedrooms are thoughtful touches meant for aging in place.

A light-filled office has plenty of built-in storage.

The private wings are separated by alternate cladding that transitions using insulated glazing systems.

Ultimately, Curio House is a meditation on family—and the way families regard their histories and come together to build their futures. It’s a synthesis of philosophies both ancient and modern that feels unequivocally of today.

Related Reading: 9 Smart Home Devices For Aging in Place 

Project Credits:

Architect: Haeccity Studio Architecture / @haeccitystudio

Builder: Vanglo Sustainable Construction

Structural Engineer: Fast + Epp

Interior Design: Haeccity Studio Architecture

Cabinetry Design: SOMA Millwork & Design, David Rootman

Venetian Plaster: Contemporary Home, Chris Knell


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