Back in the early 2000s, what made for sustainable building design wasn’t always easy to put into simple terms—nor did said practice always accomplish its goal of treading softly on the earth. Architect Cedric Burgers of Burgers Architecture has been chasing that perfectly green building design for years (and, in fact, won our Eco Designer of the Year back in 2010, when “green” design was enough of a novelty to be a separate category)—but, back then, the solutions were patchwork at best. “We were focused on water recycling, on materials, on these aspects of what green design was, and it was a smorgasbord collage of different initiatives—from geothermal heating to solar panels—that wasn’t really focused in any one particular way,” he says. “And it was hard for people to understand.” Clients would inevitably carve off certain initiatives for budget, assuming they could pick or choose what made for a green building—and, when it came down to it, did they really care if they got a plaque that said they were LEED certified if they weren’t living in their dream home?
Architect Cedric Burgers hired an arborist while designing this home on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast to preserve as many of the trees as possible. Judge and architect Patricia Patkau commended the design’s open living room in its midst. “It is an unexpected space of great generosity.”
Then Burgers, our 2020 Architect of the Year, discovered Passive House construction, which finds its roots in both Canada and northern Europe (where it’s known as Passivhaus). He’d been looking to understand how Northern Europe was moving to sustainable design—and quickly learned that it was primarily about energy consumption. “Buildings consume the greatest amount of energy of all the things that use energy—they never shut off,” he says. “What they’re doing in Europe is they’re saying, if we don’t focus on energy consumption of buildings, we’re missing out. You can have sustainable materials, and that’s great too—but if we don’t focus on energy, we’re not really addressing the issue.” The high-performance buildings that result from Passive House construction—reducing energy by a factor of 10—were easy to explain to a client: thick walls, good insulation, plenty of south-facing, technical windows from Europe. (In fact, the heating requirements for these houses are so low they’re able to work without a massive heating system—a 7,000-square-foot house can function on an electric heater the size of a shoebox.) Walking inside one is what converted him, and what converts most potential clients too, he says. “There’s no odours because the air is constantly refreshed, there’s no cold spots, and there’s no noise—it’s like this warm mausoleum. It’s extraordinary.”
He had, he says, officially drunk the Kool-Aid.
The roofline of the Sunshine Coast home is designed to reveal how it’s built, like that of an upturned boat. “People love the fact that the way it’s constructed is visible,” says Burgers. “I guess it’s human nature, people like to know how things are put together.”
The open living room means that the guest suite behind it has a view to the water.
The puzzle was to figure out how to make these buildings architecturally beautiful, too. Could the simple box that is passive design be translated to a more complex, architecturally dynamic building? When he started designing his own home a few years ago—nearing completion now—his wife took one look at the plans, “a beautiful little German box in the centre of our beautiful site,” he says, and she said, “No, I don’t want to live there.”
“I had been so enthusiastic about this that I had forgotten the design principles I grew up with,” he says. (Burgers is the son of the late architect Robert Burgers, and interior designer Marieke Burgers—design is certainly part of his DNA.) It took time, but he could find a way to create the design he loved with Passive House principals. “Design still has to come first—it’s how people live,” he says. “And that was thrilling for me, because I realized all the things I’d been working on for the last 20 years still apply. I still love the notion of comfort, I still love the notion of flow through the house.”
The Buckhorn project in Whistler, which won our 2018 Home of the Year, was built offsite at the BC Passive House facility in nearby Pemberton. The floor-to-ceiling windows are incredibly efficient—there’s little to no heat loss in the winter, and in the summer, exterior blinds roll down to keep the heat of the sun out.
It’s beautifully demonstrated in his Buckhorn house in Whistler, which was built offsite at the BC Passive House facility in Pemberton. Floor-to-ceiling windows line the south-facing side of the home, and while their size might typically lead to increased energy use, their European construction means they’re incredibly efficient. Exterior shades roll down in the heat of the summer, keeping the space cool, and solar panels on the roof mean the house operates at a net-zero level. But there’s nothing about the space that feels as though design was sacrificed. Notes judge and architect Rachael Gray of Gray Partnership, Burgers’ projects “successfully tie together exterior massing and interior spaces to always create a cohesive whole where the hand of the architect is almost invisible.”
Burgers designed this home for his late father, Robert Burgers, and his mother Marieke. It’s designed to have close connection to a kitchen garden and orchard in the rear yard, and because of its proximity to a noisy street, the north side of the house features four-inch veneer concrete walls to dampen the sound of traffic.
For a home designed on B.C.’s Sunshine Coast, Burgers brought in an arborist to carefully preserve trees on the land and worked the building around them. The house is composed of four lobes: a main trunk with a kids’ room and great room, an offshoot to the west containing a suite for the owners’ parents, a separate bedoom suite and library and a covered outdoor space. The latter means that all the bedrooms have a view to the water—the owners’ parents’ room is set just behind it—and it’s a striking space that architect and judge Patricia Patkau of Patkau Architects commended for its ingenuity. “It shelters visitors as they close their umbrellas, it stores lots of wood for colder weather and acts as an alternate living room,” she commented. “It is an unexpected space of great generosity, not as specific as the interior places, rather... open to interpretation. We need to consider spaces that are capable of such interpretation and reinterpretation over time, to build in the suggestion of multiple ways of occupying space as people’s live change, families come and go, seasons change, et cetera.”
The roofline on the Sunshine Coast home has become a signature design for Burgers. The gutterless, cascading design sheds both water and evergreen needles easily; it’s supported by visible tie rods underneath, keeping the beam structure open to the view as well. “The exposed structure looks like an upturned boat,” says Burgers. “People love the fact that the way it’s constructed is visible—I guess it’s human nature, people like to know how things are put together.”
Perhaps that understanding of human nature is what continues to result in successfully sustainable, beautiful homes from Burgers: people love to understand how their home comes together, and if the story is that they’re contributing to a more sustainable future, all the better. “We want to demonstrate that a good quality of life and sustainable thinking are not at odds with each other,” says Burgers. “You have to change, for sure. But it’s a change in a good direction.”
A piece from Burgers' sister, artist Bobbie Burgers, hangs in the entrance to the home he designed for his parents.