Compact, Modern Gulf Island Cabin
A petite and striking Gulf Islands retreat by Seattle architect Tom Kundig perfectly illustrates that when it comes to the modern cabin, small is big.
Seattle-based architect Tom Kundig is no stranger to British Columbia. A mountaineer who has climbed many of the province’s highest peaks, he’s also a judge in this year’s Western Living Designers of the Year Awards, and the architect behind the landmark Mission Hill Family Estates winery in West Kelowna, which encompasses some 120,000 square feet. By contrast, this Gulf Island cabin measures just 190.
Kundig and his firm, Olson Kundig Architects, have long been noted for innovative cabin designs that push the limits of the form, and not just inward. His 2005 Delta Shelter closes up so tightly when not in use that it resembles a steel box on stilts; for his 2006 Tye River Cabin, Kundig designed almost every wall to be flipped open, turning it into more of a platform with a roof; with his 2007 Rolling Huts, he put wheels beneath several small cabins, so that they could be rolled on and off their floodplain site. That kind of innovation, and Kundig’s brand of rustic modernity, were part of the appeal for this cabin’s owner, a Canadian who works in the development industry south of the border. “The client has a deep interest in sustainability,” notes the architect, “and wanted to explore how small and efficient we could make the design.”
With that as a focus, what marvels might Kundig deploy on the four-acre site? Perfecting the art of compact living is an obvious one, but the attributes go well beyond. To begin, the cabin was sited on the spot where another cabin once sat, to minimize disturbance of the natural vegetation. The materials used include rammed earth, made from dirt on the site, and wood salvaged from fallen logs and a dismantled bridge. Then there are the concrete and the mild steel, the latter complete with its mill marks, which were left as-is. “I like that they hint at the hand and process of their making,” says Kundig, “both things I appreciate and look to celebrate in my work.” Neither material is particularly green from a carbon point of view, he acknowledges, but the concrete was used very sparingly, the steel is highly recyclable, and both are virtually maintenance free and will last a very long time. They also combine to make for a place that is fireproof and secure when not in use.
Meanwhile, the steel box is massively insulated, and heated solely by the wood stove. And the design allows for the future incorporation of solar and wind power, so that some day the place can have a net zero carbon footprint.
And, of course, the cabin is really, really small. Smaller is almost always better from a sustainability point of view, but what about the place-to-call-home point of view? It is, after all, as Kundig describes it, “a steel box.”
But the steel box has an interior that betrays few hints of its industrial-strength exterior. Instead, plywood and cedar dominate a space that is softened further by the necessarily prominent role of the furniture, which amounts to not much more than one chair and the bed. There’s a nifty little kitchen, a tucked-away toilet and an outdoor shower. The property is fairly large, alleviating privacy concerns, and it is situated in a place where the outdoors beckons most months of the year. There’s even an old orchard, providing fruit during times when the cabin is used most heavily.
Simple and sustainable, this little place and the lifestyle that goes with it could be imagined as a very sophisticated update on another cabin, Thoreau’s. And, for the record, his slice of rustic perfection took up only 150 square feet.
HOME DESIGN TIPS
Make a small space more functional with moving walls. A large, weathered steel panel hung on barn hinges slides across the windows to provide security when the cabin is empty, but it can also slide right past the windows to act as a privacy shield for the open-air shower.
Keep the place low-maintenance with durable materials. This cabin was designed to be easily opened and closed (plus, the steel and concrete exterior makes it virtually fireproof) and simple to maintain: its resilient, cedar-lined interior is constructed from fallen logs and a decommissioned bridge. wl