In Lower Lonsdale, Esplanade and 1st street east of St. Georges is our local industrial village. Automotive and repair shops, woodworking studios and fabrication shops have been the norm along this three-block strip of land for the past 15 years, but that’s slowly changing. This area is well on it’s way to becoming a stylish and functional district with a unique North Vancouver identity.

Restaurants, bars, fitness centres and numerous live-work loft spaces are gradually transforming this zone from an industrial wasteland into a trendy urban oasis. Some recent examples are Finch and Barley, The Juicery Co. and Griffins Boxing.

Then there’s the award-winning Emery House: a brilliant “zoning black sheep” restoration project by local contracting company, A Carpenter and A Gentleman. Nestled adjacent to Finch and Barley and The Juicery Co. at 256 East 1st Street, this project is a perfect example of what’s possible when industrial practicality meets North Van’s heritage roots.

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(above: street view)

I had the opportunity to chat with the owner and landlord, Derek Porter, about the project and his vision to restore the faded heritage building into a three-unit live/work building with modern and upscale amenities.

Can you tell me a bit about the house and how you came to own it?

The house was originally built in 1911 and I never realized it was here. I’d been in this building (points to adjacent building) a thousand times, then one day I was across the street at my cabinet maker’s and I saw a guy walk over and put up a for sale sign. The owner, unfortunately passed away and her Son was going to sell it. I bought it in November of 2007. 15 minutes after I bought it, the market just tanked. So I wasn’t able to do anything for about 2 years.

Ah shoot, that’s rough timing. Clearly you survived the recession well enough to bring this thing to life.

Yeah. What we did do was put the house up on stilts, because the foundation was rotting and unstable. And one of my friends is an excavation contractor, so any time he needed fill for a project he took from the dirt and rock underneath the house.

So it was on a bit of a hill before?

It was. Where you see the bottom of the heritage house now is where the land came up to. Before we did the major additions, the house was sitting about 18 feet above the ground.

You were able to go so low with the basement unit because you’re buddy dug it all out for you?

Exactly. So in 2010 we started to pour the outside walls and suspended slab, which goes straight across. Then we needed to lower the house onto the concrete slab. Because the house was so old and the foundation so rotten, the house was twisting. The front left corner was about 2 feet lower than the opposite corner. It could have been condemned, but we decided to straightened it up with a couple big steel I-beams and lifted it up above the slab. All professional house-movers will tell you that the way to move a house is to get it in place, then form the concrete slab directly below it.

Yeah, you already had the slab built and had to somehow get the I-beams out of the way.

Right. So the house mover suggested using a crane to hoist the entire thing, but that wouldn’t work because of the surrounding power lines. We were at a real road block. The city wouldn’t let me build more slab underneath, because we were 18 inches higher than code. Then one day it came to me.

What?

Ice! I put 16 blocks of ice under the house just a teeny bit higher than the beams, slid the beams out, then let the ice melt. Over a period of two days the house slowly lowered perfectly flat onto the slab.

Wow that’s genius. I would have assumed that ice doesn’t have enough structural integrity to support an entire house and that it would crack and break.

Well I had to get what’s called “structural ice”. When I got married I had an ice sculpture and I remembered that thing lasting for days, it was insane! So I called up the guy who I got the sculpture from to get some advice and he made me some ice that he froze from the inside out and gave me all the blocks for like $500.

Amazing. Can you tell me more about the upgrades and additions to the heritage part?

All the detailing on the front except for the little criss-crossing on the windows is original. The windows are brand new, but designed to match the existing. The veranda was rebuilt. All new plumbing and electrical throughout the whole thing.

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(above: view from the laneway, square building with silver siding is the modern rear addition)

I love the contrast between the classic and modern. I really appreciate how you put so much effort into maintaining the structure and style of the heritage building when you could have scrapped it numerous times.

Well what’s interesting is that this is the first residential use building in an “industrial” zone in the Greater Vancouver area.

How exactly did that work? How did you get The City to go for that?

I went to council and applied for some exemptions. I asked to retain the residential use in this industrial zone. At first they weren’t keen on it, but I said, “listen, there’s people living all over the place down here, some are living in campers, some are living in makeshift lofts on the second floor above their workshop, and they’re not to code and in some cases quite unsafe. What I’m doing is making the ultimate ‘live/work’ space. You can make your widgets in these two spaces and live out of the heritage home. It’s true live/work, and there’s no better setting.” And they went for it.

Must have been like pulling nails to get this thing rezoned.

It was. It took two years to get all of the zoning exemptions in place, which I only got because of the heritage status. It really was a great project, though. Looking back I think most contractors would agree that salvaging the heritage house was too expensive and difficult, but it enabled us to get the usage we wanted and I’m convinced we have the right attitude for this neighbourhood.

Totally agree. With density set to skyrocket in Lower Lonsdale Proper with cookie-cutter developments, we need to look at the potential this neighbourhood has to combine industrial style with practical living. Thanks for your time, Derek, and congrats on the well-deserved heritage award.

Any time.


For more information on Derek and his award-winning contracting company, check out A Carpenter & A Gentleman Construction Co. [link]


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