Architect Randy Bens Plays with Light and Shadow in New Westminster “Screen House”

Independent architect Randy Bens gives a New Westminster couple's bungalow a fresh take, expanding the ceilings and maximizing the use of the area's natural light

Credit: Roger Brooks

Independent architect Randy Bens’ New Westminster “Screen House”

New Westminster’s “Screen House” puts a fresh angle on mid-century modernist architecture 

One thing was clear: Jeanine Harper, a psychologist, and her husband, Canadian contemporary artist Les Linfoot, needed more room. With three boys between the ages of 17 and 26 living at home in 2008, the family’s 2,500-square-foot L-shaped bungalow suddenly felt cramped.

Knowing that expansion was necessary, the couple hoped that whatever renovation took place would keep the mid-century modernist architecture typical of their New Westminster neighbourhood in mind.

Enter Randy Bens, who honed his skills under the tutelage of such prominent local architects as Arthur Erickson and Nick Milkovich. Both Harper and Linfoot wished to work with a younger architect, to be “part of the patronage of someone with talent who’s just starting out.”

Meet Architect Randy Bens

For Bens, it was “a great chance to do something interesting” at the forefront of his career as an independent architect. He immediately determined the house to be in good condition and knew that he could complete the project without losing much of the existing structure and walls.

He also aimed to put a contemporary spin on materials and cues derived from some of the surrounding 1950s and ’60s Massey Heights residences – vertical cedar siding, gently sloping roofs, exposed beams and rafters – in order to make his clients’ rancher fit in with a fresh, new take.

Randy Bens' New Westminster "Screen House"
Raising the roof and adding a 1,000-sq-ft second-storey addition transforms a mid-century bungalow into a light-filled sanctuary that still fits into the New Wesminster neighbourhood. Recycled fir was used on the floors and the simple colour scheme doesn’t comete with Linfoot’s artwork (Image: Roger Brooks)

Besides reversing the family and dining rooms and pushing the house out about 10 feet in front to make way for a larger living space, the main floor of the home, where the boys would take over the existing bedrooms, remained virtually intact. Rather, the biggest change came with the addition of a “private sanctuary” for Harper and Linfoot – a place “just for them.” The only way to do this, according to Bens, “was to go up.”

Adding Height to Your Living Room

“What we decided to do was to create a 1,000-square-foot upstairs addition, with a master bedroom and bathroom, and a painting studio for Les,” he says, adding that he used a simple palette of recycled solid-fir floors, wood trims and white walls in order to create a neutral backdrop that would work to showcase Linfoot’s colourful paintings.

“We had to take the roof right off, but we were only able to add a certain amount of area over the first floor due to the zoning bylaws,” Bens recalls. “So we gave double height to the living room, taking that room’s ceiling right up to the very top of the second storey.”

The new south-facing living room, with its soaring windows, necessitated a creative solution to keep the harsh glare of the sun at bay. Bens conceived a “screen” of stained timber and anodized aluminum, which he then suspended at a 90-degree angle directly in front of the house. Extending past the living room in both directions, this unique architectural feature effectively protects the home from sun and rain and adds a horizontal element to counter the vertical nature of the added height of the second storey.

Light and Shadow in Your Home

“The clients were really involved in the creative process,” says Bens. “We were very interested in exploring the idea of light and shadow – specifically, the play of light across the front of the home. You can see that the horizontal lines of the screen combined with the vertical siding throw a shadow with an interesting ‘quilted’ texture into the house as the light changes throughout the course of the day.”

Beyond the screen, Bens says that the most detailed part of the redesign was the staircase that unites the main and the second storey: two steel tubes punctuated by floating solid-wood treads to match the flooring in the upstairs bedroom and studio. Ascending the stairs and approaching the master bedroom, which features a pair of sliding wood doors, is, he says, “almost like retreating into your own little hotel suite.”

The bedroom is spacious and bright, with lots of windows to let in the light and maximize the view beyond. A generous walk-in closet affords plenty of space for clothing and personal items, while a pleasant outdoor walkway features scattered circular stepping stones that form a “bridge” between the master suite and Linfoot’s workroom.

To create a clean, contemporary ensuite, Bens chose composite recycled floor tiles and an angular, glass-clad shower. For both the countertop and the edging around the bathtub: dark-coloured PaperStone tile. The palette in the master bath is rounded out with a soft-blue back-painted glass wall behind the tub.

Seeking to further maximize the magnificent vista afforded by the home’s new upper level, the architect created a second, panoramic, stained-cedar deck accessed by two separate entrances. Large and light, it faces the sun and the tremendous view – simple, but, according to Bens, “what more could you ask for?”

New Westminster "Screen House" designed by Randy Bens
The screen not only protects the home from the elements, it creates a visual interplay of light and shadow. The upstairs bedroom is a sanctuary with sweeping views and a private deck. Linfoot’s art studio is also located on the second floor, accessed from an outdoor walkway (Image: Roger Brooks)

Not much, according to his clients. “The view, the whole upstairs, it’s hugely pleasurable,” Harper told Architectural Record at the time. “More than just light, there’s a lightness to the house that is such a nice thing. It flows, there’s so much space, yet it’s also quite cozy.”

“Cookie-cutter houses don’t appeal to us,” added Linfoot. “While we know the house reflects features of others in the neighbourhood, we’re also surprised by the people who we see standing on the street and staring.”

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For updates, subscribe to the free Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.