Inside a Slick Whistler Cabin Designed for Family Living
An architect’s hideaway is a modernist marriage of sleek design and solid pragmatics.
Enter the Kitsilano office of Measured Architecture and prepare to be utterly confused. However, let’s be clear—there’s certainly nothing confounding about their design approach: a wall featuring drawings, renderings and images of stunning, clean-lined, single-family homes testifies that this is a firm whose compass is unambiguously fixed at “modern.”
No, the confusion rests solely with the two principals, architects Piers Cunnington and Clinton Cuddington. Yes, that’s right: Cunnington. Cuddington. That their major architectural influences, modernists Álvaro Siza and Alvar Aalto, have first names that are almost phonetic doppelgängers adds an extra-large helping of are you serious? to the whole enterprise.
While the surname similarity is odd, it’s also telling. On almost every project they’ve undertaken since partnering in 2009, Piers and Clinton (we’ll call them by their first names) have worked closely together. So, when Piers decided to build a weekend family retreat in Whistler—the first time he’d designed a house for himself—he turned to Clinton for input. “It’s really tough to create architecture without a sounding board,” reflects Piers, debunking the architect-as-lone-wolf cliché. “You can only negotiate with yourself for so long about whether an idea is good or bad, whether it has merit.”
Piers and his wife, a Vancouver-based artist, had some very non-negotiable ideas about what they wanted: an all-season getaway with a relatively modest footprint, to start. It would have to have enough room for the couple and their two pre-teen children, as well as provide a separate space for overnight guests. They also knew what they didn’t want: the peaked-roof alpine aesthetic that dominates the area, even though that style might make the place easier to sell when, or if, the time came. “The truth of the matter is, we designed it for us,” he says, “not for resale.” With kids, durability was also a concern. “We didn’t want to make it too precious.”
Before settling on a design, Piers visited the building site regularly over several months, absorbing the literal lay of the land and noting how the light shifted throughout the day. Can’t software programs do this kind of heavy lifting? “We could map it on a computer,” admits Piers, “but it’s just much more telling to go right to the site. How much shadow is being cast? What’s happening with the trees around the site?” he says, adding that the late-afternoon sunlight turned out to be spectacular, even in winter. “Sometimes, you just gotta go.”
To take advantage of the sun—and to widen the sightline angle to maximize views of Wedge and Blackcomb mountains—the house was sited toward the property’s south sideyard. The design envisioned two levels with sympathetic but distinct footprints; the main floor rests on top of a lower, largely subterranean level buried into a sloping backlot, creating the illusion of a single-storey structure from certain angles. The final two-storey design came in at 2,800 square feet—the sweet spot between Piers’s impulse for space and the practical concerns of his wife, who lobbied hard for a smaller, easier-to-maintain home.
Not everything went according to plan. The original roof design—it resembled “a beetle’s back,” says Piers—was intended to be a stunningly unique feature. But good design dictates that you occasionally have to “kill your darlings” in service of the overarching concept. “I remember sitting down with Clinton and saying, ‘What do you think? Am I holding onto something that doesn’t have any merit?’” Piers recalls.
“We had a conversation through the lens of budget,” says Clinton, noting that excavation costs had affected the bottom line. “My role was to get Piers off the ledge about something he already knew he wanted to do.” With Clinton providing moral support, Piers jumped, so to speak. Moving forward with a more conventional flat roof, they shaved around $200,000 off the budget.
The end result is a modernist marriage of slick design and solid pragmatics. On the main floor, for example, a potentially obtrusive steel structural column is painted teal, a pop of colour that softens what could have been a distraction. Unfussy concrete floors dominate, except in the living room, where resilient Hakwood engineered flooring provides a warm counterpoint.
While the upstairs is reserved for family and entertaining, the lower level provides space for the kids to romp—and for guests to have a bit of privacy. “They can do their thing, we can do ours, and then meet in the kitchen, right?” Piers says. Outside, a nine-foot overhang, created by the two “stacked” levels, provides a dry, protected space to load in and out, while long-lasting, powder-coated metal cladding on the exterior ensures that no one will have to make a special trip to, as Piers puts it, “meet the painter.”
Overall, the home hit the right notes. “I love the house,” says Piers. “As soon as we come up the stairs, I’m like, ‘Ahhh, thank god.’” But because he was so personally invested in the design, initially he found it difficult to show to others lest he, or his firm, be judged by it. In that case, though… why not blame Clinton? “You know, that’s a good point!” says Piers, laughing hard. “I’m going to do that more.”