House Beautiful: living in a remarkable Maharishi Vastu retirement home on Saltspring Island, BC

House Beautiful: The gift of constraint
Grania Litwin / Times Colonist
April 18, 2013

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It’s the home of Vincent and Maggie Argiro, natives of the States who had heard about the friendly island and decided to build a remarkable retirement home there.

Based on an ancient form of Indian architecture — called Maharishi Sthapatya Veda, or Vastu — the home is designed to increase occupants’ health and happiness.

It certainly feels calming and harmonious the moment you enter through the lotus flower gate, cross a lavender-edged terrace and step into the two-storey glass foyer.

The L-shaped building is reflected in an L-shaped pool, and the entire house is oriented to the cardinal directions. Light floods into every room from east and west, through interior and exterior windows, as well as skylights — perhaps one reason the house is supposed to boost clarity and creative thinking.

“A vastu house is said to be a fortune-creating house too,” said Vincent, who seems pretty creative already.

He is a world leader in three-dimensional, advanced visualization software design. His Vital Images Inc. — now a division of Toshiba Medical — produces medical-imaging software, a diagnostic tool used in hospitals worldwide by radiologists, cardiologists, oncologists and other specialists needing to explore inside the body.

In the couple’s home, everything from orientation and proportion to property slope and relationship to nearby bodies of water is governed by vastu design. By great good fortune, soon after arriving on the island, they found an ideal 3.8-hectare site with panoramic views stretching from Mount Baker to Black Tusk in the Garibaldi Range 132 kilometres away.

Designer Everest Lapp said it was a very demanding project. “Siting the building was difficult, as it had to be within a certain envelope with very particular dimensions. Everything was very detailed and exacting.

“In some cases, we had to move a wall a quarter of an inch. Even the rockwork was redone at one point. I’d never done a fireplace like this before, with a high window in the back. I didn’t even know it was possible.”

There were compensations, though.

“The Argiros* are amazing people with so much depth, and although their expectations were very high and it was super-challenging, creating this house has enriched my career,” Lapp said.

“I sometimes wondered if it would come together, but there is no doubt in my mind that Vincent can do anything he wants. He is very, very bright.”

The 3,800-square-foot home has a feeling unlike anything she has experienced, Lapp said. “There is an energy — something ethereal about it.”

Vincent knew a designer called Everest would be up for the challenge.

“She is a former national mountain-biker and snowboarder and I heard there was no slope she couldn’t go down,” he joked, adding he likes challenges, too.

“I read a book years ago with a quote I’ve always remembered: ‘Constraints are gifts to creative people.’ It’s been my maxim and guiding principle all my life,” said the innovator, who is still an active consultant and mentor to other entrepreneurs — and an electric-vehicle buff who has a Tesla Roadster and a Model S, both of which were the first of their kind in B.C.

“In this architecture, we had to follow the rules exactly, the tolerances were very small, up to 1/16th of an inch,” he explained. “But we could be very creative within them.”

Maggie said their island builder, originally from Switzerland, was very precise, too, and really got on board.

“This house was absolutely the toughest I’ve ever built, and I was up there more than two years,” said Robert Huser.

“A lot of the stuff you just don’t see … all the floor joists, for instance, had to be ripped down. A 2×10 is actually 2×9.5, and we had to make them 2×8-and-three-eighths. But the Argiros are great people and it was cost-plus [pricing].”

The owners used as many local craftspeople and materials as possible, said Maggie, who designed the glass catwalk with Lapp. It’s made of kiln-cast, textured glass fabricated in the Vancouver Glass Studio of Joe Berman on Granville Island. A totem beside the stairs was commissioned from First Nations carver Doug LaFortune, depicting eagles and sea otters.

“There is a great spirit in this house,” said Maggie, noting that during construction, there were many coincidences. Time and again, just when they needed something, it would appear: A container of wood, originally headed for Japan, suddenly became available; a barn full of rare wood was discovered at the 11th hour.

The house has hydronic in-floor heat, a forced-air system used mainly for ventilation, a high-efficiency heat pump for hot water and a backup propane generator.

“We need the generator when the power goes out; it can be out for three or four days up here,” said Vincent, and 80 per cent of the lights are LED, which use 80 per cent less energy than incandescent bulbs.

The eco-friendly home is filled with small details, such as a small deck with outdoor shower off the master bath, and a ladder to a rooftop perch. “It’s my cubbyhole,” Vincent said. “You know the old song Up On The Roof? Well I have that bug. I love sitting up there.”

Hanging on the stairway wall is a massive marble slab from an area of southern France famous for Paleolithic cave paintings. “There are amazing iron deposits near Lascaux and when I saw this piece, I immediately thought: That is nature’s painting and it should not be cut up for countertops.

“It weights 800 pounds and hanging it was the most dangerous, demanding part of this whole building.”

Vincent devised stainless-steel rails for it to sit in and a framework of aircraft aluminum bolted onto a reinforced wall.

Maggie’s favourite haunt is the kitchen she designed.

“For years I worked in a postage-stamp-sized kitchen,” said the former home economist, who worked for Continental Mills, testing and developing recipes. “So this is wonderful.

“My main thing is workflow and efficiency. You come in with groceries, put them in the refrigerator, wash and prep them here, chop here, cook here, choose the dishes here, serve here. It works beautifully,” she said, moving clockwise around the area. Her island includes a baking centre with tin-lined drawers.

The commercial fan above her Wolf range was tricky to install at the large window, but she wanted to enjoy the view and check on her outdoor Italian pizza oven.

Vincent is most proud of the “smart home” technology he programmed himself.

“The house has a whole set of rhythms that adjust the lights and thermostats every day, every season. This nervous system shuts down all non-essential power at night, or when we’re on holiday.

“Almost all the wires go dead. The whole house is de-energized, so radiation of all kinds drops dramatically when we sleep, and the house idles at less than 500 watts.”

Vincent explained they took their time finding a place to retire in their mid-50s and toyed with the idea of building a home in Minneapolis, “but it never felt right. Then we heard about Saltspring, this magical community of talented and special people.”

They love the island and their peaceful new house.

“It’s as if there are no walls, no ceilings,” said Maggie. “You feel that nothing stands between you and nature.”

This demanding Saltspring Island home brings out the best in creative design and artisans. The Argiro home is 5th in a video series called, House Beautiful, published by Debra Brash, April 20, 2013 for timescolonist.com.

© Copyright 2013

*Vincent Argiro is a trustee of Maharishi University of Management. Vincent and Maggie Argiro were major donors of M.U.M.’s Argiro Student Center.

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