– Words by Angela Cowan Photography by Lia Crowe
After nearly 30 years at the helm of Zebra Group, designer Rus Collins is as energized as ever by the creative process that sees ideas transformed into reality. And that enthusiasm and energy has only increased since launching Zebra Construction in 2004 with his business partner Martin Whitehead.
“We couldn’t possibly build all the houses we design, but every one that we get to do, it’s satisfying and rewarding to see how the vision we all had at the beginning is fully realized at the end,” says Rus, adding, “I get most excited about working on infill projects. Whether it’s tearing an old house down, or having it picked up and taken away on a barge, you’re left with a blank lot. Starting from scratch in an established neighbourhood—for me I find it challenging.”
With the trend in design still leaning modern, it adds another layer of complexity to fitting those puzzle pieces together, especially when the neighbourhood is full of older, traditional homes.
“I like modern homes,” Rus says, “and I like them to fit wherever they’re put.”
One of the most satisfying moments came recently when Rus decided to take a detour by a modern house Zebra Group had done in Oak Bay for a repeat client, and learned that very often, passersby would stop and just look at the house, complimenting its design and feel.
“I hadn’t seen it since the lot was vacant and we designed the house,” says Rus. “And that’s really fulfilling to hear that kind of feedback. I want it to be something people look at because they’re interested and intrigued by it, but also because it does fit in as part of that streetscape.”
He adds: “I’m hoping that for a lot of our designs—once the landscaping is mature—you don’t know if the house is 10 or 50 years old.”
Outside of the office, Rus feeds his creativity with cooking, art and painting, among other pursuits.
“I love to cook. Ever since the COVID pandemic started, I’ve been baking bread and making sauerkraut, and making pickles and other neat, fermented things,” he says. “And I also like to paint. I find that what I do for a living is so exact—when you draw houses and floor plans, it’s so technical—so when I go to paint, I want the opposite. I want to be freer with the brush.”
He’s drawn to abstracts, and since getting “seriously” into painting in 2007, has sold some pieces.
“There’s definitely a parallel between painting and art and architecture,” he says. “A painting is supposed to capture your interest, and lead you through it. [A paintings is] like a house. To me, a house needs to draw you in. When you open the front door, you don’t want to run to the back of the house to look at the view. If you draw them in, and lead them through it, then maybe they’re experiencing your artwork, or some architectural feature, and then when they get to the view, it’s a completely different experience.”
Whose shoes would you like to walk in?
I’m actually quite comfortable walking in my own shoes. If there is one thing I’ve learned over the years, it’s that no matter how appealing someone else’s life may look from the outside, every one of us carries our own demons.
What is the food you could eat over and over again?
Sashimi and sushi. And did I mention I like to drink red wine? Oh, and pizza…
You’re given $1 million that you have to spend selfishly. What would you spend it on?
After COVID, I’d buy two first-class tickets to travel around the world until I run out of money.
Political correctness has gone too far, and there are too many rules that control how we live.
Where would you spend a long time doing nothing?
Anywhere in the world that is warm, with a beautiful beach and a good selection of wine. Hawaii, Barcelona, Nice, to name a few!
What is the one thing you’re secretly proud of?
My business, with my hard-working partners and staff that always show their strong work ethic and integrity, plus the amazing clients who have helped us be successful.
What makes your heart beat faster?
A warm, sunny day, driving my car with the top down and the right music playing on the stereo, next to my girl, and on a road trip adventure to somewhere we’ve never been.