Abstract thought

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It’s not true that Mike Miller builds all the new high-end custom homes in Fairfield, Rockland and Oak Bay; it only seems that way.

In just a few years, the energetic builder behind Abstract Developments Inc. has completed a long list of projects, some of them winners of Victoria CARE or Georgie B.C. awards in the Canadian Home Builders’ Association annual competitions, even a national SAM award from the CHBA.

His waterfront home, Radius on Gonzales Bay, won 11 gold and silver awards in 2007, including the top trophy for “project of the year.” (There isn’t a “best garage” category but there should have been, for the 1,800-square-foot space built into the rock under the 6,000-square-foot house, where Miller parks his performance sports cars and brings them up to street level on a scissor-lift elevator.)

Recently, Abstract has been building Terra Verde, 16 townhomes on Richardson Street in Fairfield priced between $750,000 and $800,000. Partnerships with local investors have let Miller push Abstract faster. For example, Lorne Campbell of the supermarket family was a partner on this project, whose built-out value is $12 million.

At the same time, Miller is building two homes on the west side of Moss Rocks with views of the ocean and across town to Beacon Hill Park costing $2 million and up apiece. Individual lots for five more are waiting on the hillside site.

“This is the alternative to a penthouse without the strata fees. People want quality and we’re giving it to them,” he says.

Everything Miller does is wood frame, and the construction side of the business is what he likes best. “Personally I love the building more than the development.”

{advertisement} He built two new homes near Craigdarroch Castle, another close to Government House, plus three on an infill property on Fairfield Road, two view homes (one termed “funky contemporary” design) on Gonzales Hill, and a six-unit townhome project near Christchurch Cathedral.

Over in James Bay, he did a four-unit character conversion plus two new single-family homes that look as if they were built in the 1920s. Back in Fairfield, he made a five-plex by raising up a craftsman home and building suites on three floors.

Miller also carved out White Pine Estate, an eight-lot subdivision on one of View Royal’s last large properties, off Helmcken Road. Last year he finished Edgecliffe – three new custom homes and a renovated, older tudor-and-stone place on the knoll above McNeill Avenue and Foul Bay Road.

Miller came here with his family from Edmonton in the 1980s, when he was just 12 years old. He was an auto-body painter when he bought a plain house in the Burnside neighbourhood, fixed it up, made it a duplex, and rented out the two units. He still owns the revenue property.

By 2004, he was building expensive custom homes and started winning design awards. Thirteen years since that Burnside renovation, three of the first four employees still work for Abstract. The company is up to 50 employees now – team members, Miller calls them.

Abstract is definitely not a cookie-cutter builder. He has relationships with architects Peter de Hoog and Vic Davies and custom designers Zebra Design and Keith Baker (Baker has his own CARE project of the year award for a big West Coast Road waterfront house from 2005), and Miller has used them for different projects.

“I have to lead the team – it doesn’t mean I have to know it all,” he says.

That Burnside renovation was in 1997, and a look at his list of buildings shows the pace has picked up, although, Miller says, “I consider myself pretty slow and steady.”

He’s 37 now and isn’t close to backing off. His day starts at 6 a.m. with hot yoga and green tea, then he heads to work in a big red GM Avalanche pickup to job sites.

Abstract is shifting direction somewhat and diversifying. The company owns a key corner on Foul Bay Road, and the old house is his office. With adjacent properties up to Amphion Street, this site will be the Gateway project, a mixed commercial-residential building right at the entrance to Oak Bay.

His latest acquisition was the commercial property at the corner of Cook and Fort streets, formerly the B&E Grocery. The storefront has been leased as a martial arts studio, and several other commercial tenants are located there. It’s another redevelopment site several years into the future.

“He’s done a lot of really innovative projects,” says Casey Edge, executive officer of the CHBA. “He creates these dream homes.”

If you haven’t previously encountered Miller or Abstract, that profile is going to change. This year he joined the board of the Capital Region Housing Corp. as one of three community members. He’s now a director of the Urban Development Institute’s Victoria branch and he was elected this year to the CHBA Victoria board of directors.

“What we’re trying to do now is refine our business to be a more sophisticated business for development,” Miller says. “Next thing I want to do is expand the custom business.”

He’s talking more green initiatives, more creative kinds of development. Infill housing, he points out, “that’s sustainable housing.”

A new venture called “access housing” would be affordable, yet with more design elements built in.

Even if they’re half as interesting, design-wise, as the big custom home projects, watch out.