Murray Siple has never been one to be hampered by physical realities. Traversing a near-vertical mountain on a thin piece of wood seems impossible to many, but to former snowboarder Siple it was just another day on the job. The now 35-year-old Siple studied photography and video at the Emily Carr Institute in Vancouver, then left school to make extreme-sports movies, traveling all over the world to film skateboarders, mountain bikers, and snowboarders careening down steep mountains. Not once did fear stand in his way.
Then, in the fall of 1996, a catastrophic car accident brought an early end to Siple’s time on the slopes, resulting in what is known in medical terms as C 6/7 quadriplegia. In everyday terms, this means that Siple has only limited use of his arms and hands, and that he’s traded in his snowboard for a manual wheelchair.
Full of willful determination and preternatural optimism, Siple resolved to live independently and set about remodeling a house to achieve this goal. The Vancouver firm Acton Ostry Architects Inc. was a natural choice for Siple: Their modern aesthetic and artistic leanings complement Siple’s cinematic sensibilities.
Finding a house turned out to be a two-year-long process, due to Siple’s exacting site requirements. "Murray told me he was looking for a place in North Vancouver on a cul-de-sac that is as level as you can get in mountainous and rugged North Vancouver. He wanted it to be a ’50s open-plan ranch house with a city view next to a forested creek," architect Russell Acton recounts, then says with disbelief, "A year later, he called me and said he found a place—and there it was, exactly what he was looking for."
The lengthy site search provided a perfect interim testing period to determine Siple’s needs for the new house. A wheelchair hitting interior walls and running over door treads can take its structural toll, and Siple was fortunate enough to have what he calls his "experimental space." "I had a rental house up the street that was slated to be torn down, so I was allowed to bash it up inside and figure out what did and didn’t work," he says with a sly grin that suggests it was a good thing the house was eventually leveled.
Meanwhile, Acton and Javier Campos, another member of the project’s design team, were observing Siple as he completed even the most mundane tasks—from washing clothes to sorting mail. "We know exactly how far Murray can reach, we know how high his knees are. We spent a lot of time watching how he moves and turns and gets around corners and pushes off walls—and all of these things are incorporated into the design," Campos explains.
After the house was purchased, extensive renovations began, and compelling structural assets were revealed from beneath decades of bad taste. The basic ’50s ranch had no insulation, the rough-hewn river-rock fireplace was a clunky eyesore, and popcorn ceilings capped off what Acton describes as a "stuffy and very average" place. The prior owners—a middle-aged couple whose dream home, Acton says dismissively, "was probably a tract house with crown molding"—had painted everything dark red and yellow and set up dividers that created small spaces. At Siple’s request, the architects quickly took the original house down to the Sheetrock, knocked out room partitions, and got "all the brass fittings the hell out of there."
What the house did have was "good bones," Campos points out, and those are still evident in the 3,000-square-foot, two-bedroom space. A gently sloping concrete walkway (seams and thresholds are a nuisance for wheel-chairs) leads up to the entry in what Acton refers to as the "crotch of the L-shaped house." Inside, there are few walls, and light pours in through the many windows and baffled-wood skylights that take advantage of the densely wooded location and fulfill Siple’s desire to "live in the trees." The windows provide access to the local wildlife. Deer, coyotes, blue herons, and bears all pay regular visits while Siple writes, produces, and edits award-winning documentary films like Kronen Strasse and Carts of Darkness in his home studio.
Walking into the living area, it’s easy for a visitor to feel intrusive in the intimate space, like you’re wearing someone else’s custom-tailored suit or handmade shoes—a reflection of the careful detailing that makes the house fit Siple so well. Whipping up cups of cappuccino from his built-in espresso machine, Siple relays an anecdote about another man who also remodeled his house to fit his wheelchair needs. "He can’t get to his kitchen sink, so now he always has to ask someone to go get him a glass of water. That’s what I wanted to avoid: I didn’t want any spaces I couldn’t reach. If some-thing falls in a corner, I want to pick it up without calling someone for help."
His frustration at thoughtless redesigns for people with disabilities is palpable—and understandable, based on the seamless integration of accessible elements in his own home. The built-in cabinets all release with a slight touch and roll open on sliders to reveal the contents from both sides; a faucet dangles over the oven range so pots don’t have to be moved to the sink mid-cooking; and industrial carpets are built into the cherry floors to prevent uneven wheeling surfaces. Nothing is out of Siple’s grasp: Even the Jenn-Air refrigerator was chosen for its adjustable shelves, so Siple can grab a gallon of milk without struggling to reach the back of a tall shelf.
Siple has always had a predilection for parties, yet now he prefers to entertain at home rather than slog into the city through Vancouver’s omnipresent layers of precipitation. Moving his wheelchair near the dish-washer, he demonstrates how lots of room was left for him to maneuver even if guests are milling about, unlike at restaurants or bars where he must constantly ask people to move out of the way. To motivate friends to make the short trip over the bridges to his house (most Vancouverites think the traffic-clogged trip from downtown is a hassle), Siple gets pay-per-view hockey games on his large plasma-screen TV—a major draw for puck-crazed Canadians—and has plenty of floor space for guests.
Although Siple ventures to downtown Vancouver a few times a week to run errands or, as Campos puts it, "when the red party phone rings," he can find most of what he needs at home or in the surrounding leafy green suburb of North Vancouver. "At my previous place, I had to have hired help assist me for four hours a day with laundry and cooking and all that. And I couldn’t stay up late because I had to get up early when the assistant came. Now I do everything myself, and someone only comes in once a week to help clean." Siple pauses, then looks fondly around his sleek and spacious home, warm from the crackling fire. "This space has brought me independence."
That’s what we call a true machine for living.
A former editor at Dwell, Amara recently left the glamorous life of a magazine staffer to pursue her freelance writing dream. She has written for Sunset, Wallpaper*, the Architect’s Newspaper, VIA, and Apartment Therapy.