Back to Articles

Finding The Exotic In Familiar Places by House Exchange

Vancouver Sun July 16, 2011

By: Michael Geller

Almost every year since 1999, my wife and I have lived in house exchange homes in another country. We have done this by arranging house exchanges through Homelink, an international non-profit organization established by school teachers more than 50 years ago. After all, teachers have a lot of time to travel, but often do not have a lot of money.

By exchanging houses and cars, and on one occasion pets, we get to have a wonderful holiday while saving a lot of money. Just as importantly, we get to experience another country in a way that is simply not possible when staying in hotels.

After exchanges in Scotland, France, Australia, Sweden, the Caribbean, Belgium and Spain, this year we returned to Spain. We spent time in Javea, a small coastal town about an hour-and-a-half from Valencia, the country’s third largest city. We had a very modern villa overlooking the Mediterranean, in walking distance of the town centre and parade of waterfront restaurants. Living in our house exchange and exploring nearby Valencia and the region, I often thought of an observation I made to a friend after a 2007 trip around the world.

While some enjoy going to exotic places, only to seek out the familiar, others get greater enjoyment from visiting familiar places to seek out the exotic. As an architect, for me the exotic can include new types of windows or kitchen and bathroom appliances. For example, our house had a very high-quality and easy-to-use system of sliding windows and doors with built-in sliding shutters. In a region where temperatures are often above 30 degrees, by arranging windows to maximize cross-ventilation, and placing shutters to shade the sun, there is often no need for air cooling or “conditioning.”

At a different scale, I would like to see Canadians become more like the Spanish when it comes to appreciating great architecture. This was evident last year in Barcelona, where the city’s No. 1 attraction is not a park but the works of the celebrated architect Antoni Gaudi.

In Valencia, residents take great pride in the work of local engineer and architect Santiago Calatrava, whose bridges and buildings around Valencia and around the world are breathtaking.

I have never seen any modern building complex quite as fantastic as the futuristic City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia. It is on a 350,000-square-metre site at the end of what was once the Turia River. Today, the river has been rerouted, creating a 10-kilometre green spine running through the city.

The complex comprises five astonishing buildings; four by Calatrava and one by Felix Candela. They include a science museum, concert hall, aquarium, Imax Cinema, and L’umbracle, a giant pergola of parabolic arches. The latter is similar to the Calatravadesigned space in downtown Toronto. A sixth structure is still not completed. The concert hall, with seating for 4,400, is reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House, but from certain angles looks more like a helmet, beetle or shark. The Hemisferic, which contains the Imax Theatre, was designed to look like a giant eyeball. The science museum is a massive steel and glass structure; although, in my opinion, it could have benefited from the sun-shielding shutters similar to those on my house. The Oceanografic, the largest aquarium in Europe, is similar to Vancouver’s aquarium, but bigger.

During my time in Valencia and Costa Blanca, I wondered why Vancouver could not copy some other things that I found so appealing in Spain. For example, while we like to boast about our extensive waterfront walkway/bikeway system surrounding Coal Harbour, English Bay and False Creek, compared to most Spanish waterfronts, it is really quite boring. While we can count on one hand the number of waterfront restaurants, their waterfronts are lined with restaurants on both sides of the walkway system.

Now I realize that it is probably too late to modify most of the existing Coal Harbour and False Creek waterfront, but it is not too late to create new, vibrant restaurant and retail precincts along the yet-to-be-built waterfronts within the remaining undeveloped Concord Pacific and city-owned lands next to the Olympic Village.

As I reflect on each of our house exchanges, I think of wonderful holidays that produced ideas to improve our way of life in Canada. To those who have often thought about exchanging homes but have been reluctant to try it, I would say go ahead. You will not be disappointed and may indeed discover something exotic!

Michael Geller is a Vancouver-based architect, planner and property developer. He can be reached at and his blog can be found at www.gellersworldtravel.