Architecture, Made On Site
Built by husband-and-wife architects for themselves, an off-grid cabin in the mountains of Vancouver Island captures the adventure and freedom of powder boarding, free of rigid ideas.
David and Susan Scott wanted to make architecture. But not in the way one imagines married architects making architecture for themselves — drawings of their dream mountain retreat, years in the drawer, just waiting for the right building site. No. Building their own alpine cabin, the Vancouver-based architects wanted to design and build in a singular act.
In 2006, a longtime friend led them to a piece of land he’d come upon when planting trees at 4,265 feet (1,300 m) above sea level, on the northern end of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. “We had never been on the snow in the area until acquiring the building site,” says David Scott, speaking for the adventurous couple. “We fell in love with it at first sight, and the people and terrain are really special.” With almost 50 feet (15 m) of annual snow accumulation, the remote community-operated alpine recreation area of Cain is known for legendary powder.
At the time, the couple, who met in architecture school in Halifax, Nova Scotia, worked for established firms and spent long hours in offices, drawing. “We have a love for building and being outdoors,” says Scott, who appreciates drawing as an important part of design. Now building their own off-grid cabin, however, they wanted to channel the freedom they feel when powder boarding into an immediate design process centered in adventure and not heavily in rigid plans. “We began the project with a desire to work with a greater level of freedom, where the specifics of the site and available materials would inform the work in a direct and unfiltered manner.”
Scott and his wife knew they had a narrow window in life, before having children, to complete construction on their own on long weekends and holidays, and with help from friends.
“We began the project with a desire to work with a greater level of freedom, where the specifics of the site and available materials would inform the work in a direct and unfiltered manner.”
Hand in hand: Design and construction
Inspired by the materials available around the site and the environmental conditions, construction was planned to avoid machine excavation, to withstand the very deep annual snowfall, and to resist dominant winds. Accordingly, the structure was elevated above the height of the accumulated snow on the ground. “The use of full-length, unsawn logs provided us with the ability to get height in a manner that used the wood’s strength the same way Douglas fir spar poles are used as sail masts,” Scott explains.
The cabin, primarily constructed from Douglas fir, gets more refined from the outside in. The columns are unworked logs, the beams and joists are rough, bandsaw-milled, and the walls, floors, and ceilings are clad in planed boards. The cabinetry is made from construction-grade fir plywood. The exterior is clad in cedar that has weathered to the tone of the surrounding forest. Both woods are harvested in the area.
The roof form began with a simple gable, rotated to direct the snow off the back of the cabin. A half-dormer was then introduced over the entrance to direct snow away from it, funneling the snow into the prevailing winds.
Family life at the cabin
Today, childhood memories are already being made at the cabin. The Scott family now includes two young daughters, who Scott says are both on skis and love the snow.
Much of the approximate 1,075-square-foot (100-sq-m) cabin’s interior is designed and made by Scott and his wife. The main living space is small, and the family spends much of the time on the long, cushioned bench eating, playing games, and relaxing from a day on the snow. “Our favorite spot is by the large window,” says Scott. “Both for the ever-changing view of the forest, but also in appreciation of the effort that went into its installation.” He drove the glass overnight on a rented flatbed and hand-positioned it with a group of friends the next day — “an incredibly smooth effort, given its size and weight.”
The remote site is directly accessible by gravel road five months of the year. During the other months, equipment and materials are brought up by toboggan. There is no electricity, and a wood stove provides the heat. Water is collected from a local source and carried in. The Scott family cherishes the simple lifestyle the mountain hideaway affords. “We enjoy the solitude of not having cell phones and gadgets around to distract us,” says the architect, who finds “a wonderful freedom” in seeing no bars of coverage on his phone. “This is an incredible place for our daughters to love being in the mountains as much as we do.”
“This is an incredible place for our daughters to love being in the mountains as much as we do.”
The powder hounds come up here as many weekends as possible during the winter, but they also love the warmer temperatures in spring when snow is still plentiful. “It’s incredibly peaceful,” Scott says. “The fall is fantastic when the blueberries are ripe, and we try to spend Thanksgivings on the mountain, splitting wood and enjoying dinners with friends.”
Adventure by design
The off-grid cabin was David and Susan Scott’s foundation project and formative in their desire to start their own architecture practice, Scott and Scott Architects, with the goal of spending more time in the mountains. To both, making architecture on site is ultimately the most direct, enjoyable way of working, and one that provides the greatest opportunity to understand materials and detail resolution and evolution. Today, the firm is working on projects in Whistler and Squamish, and in their province’s interior high country. “We love working in these challenging locations where adventure is the reward,” says Scott.
(Alpine Modern has covered the A-frame cabin Scott and Scott built in Whistler for a young family of skiers and snowboarders.)
Architect David Scott opens the door to the off-grid snowboard cabin he built with his wife on Vancouver Island to show his three most treasured artifacts hidden inside.
The cast-iron pot
“We have a Björn Dahlström-designed cast-iron pot we slow-cook many meals in on the wood stove, which is essential to how we live when we are [at the cabin].”
Get your own: Björn Dahlström designs pots and casseroles for the Finnish company Iittala. Dahlström’s current line is stainless steel, but cast-iron pots and Dutch ovens similar to the one in the picture are available from brands like Le Creuset, Sur La Table, and Lodge.
The splitting maul
“I have a love for Swedish axes. Of my collection of over 100, the most used and loved is the Gränsfors Bruk splitting maul, which powers through the yellow cedar rounds. It is a beautiful object from a company we greatly admire. Whenever cutting wood, I look at the stamped initials of the smith that made it, with appreciation for his work and respect for a very old company which values and celebrates the workmanship of the individuals within it.”
The Gränsfors Bruk splitting maul’s head is heavier than the head of splitting axes, and the poll is designed for pounding on a splitting wedge.
“We love our Hudson’s Bay blanket, which was a wedding gift from the architect I worked for for a number of years, before we began our own practice. I’ve often thought that a Bay blanket should never be bought for oneself and is something that carries meaning as a gift.”
Buy it for someone: Woolrich offers Hudson’s Bay Point Blankets under the offcial license of the historic Hudson’s Bay Company. The legendary blankets have kept generations of trappers, hunters, fur traders, and Native Americans warm and comfortable. 100-percent wool, loomed in England. △