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Vancouver architect Jason King shares his tips for building a dream vacation home on B.C.'s Gulf and Discovery Islands.
Jason King first turned his attention to British Columbia’s beautiful island communities when he was tasked with designing a home on Gambier Island. Unfortunately, King never got to see the project through to completion (plans were scrapped following the 2007/2008 recession), but the Vancouver-based architect’s fondness for taking his work away from the hustle and bustle of the city has only continued to develop—he loves the lush forests, beaches and privacy that come with island living and, of course, the opportunity to help homeowners design their dream getaway. A few years ago, King helped John and Anne Thompson build their Cedar Rock house (the first island home he’s seen through to completion) on the northeastern side of Quadra Island. And now, after embracing the unique challenges posed during construction, King is sharing his advice for others who are interested in building on the Gulf and Discovery Islands. Read on for King’s best tips for minimizing costs, achieving sustainability and going off the grid.
Getting to and from any property in remote B.C. is challenging, and transporting building supplies with you can make it even more difficult. According to King, the best way to effectively lower cost is to decrease the shipping distance—think of it as a 100-mile diet, only you’re looking for supplies to pick up close to the build site.
Unwilling to compromise the beauty of the forest that surrounded their home, the Thompsons only cleared as many trees as were necessary (15 in total) to make room for the 2,000-square-foot structure. They then constructed the home using Douglas fir, hemlock and a single red cedar from the property. “Cedar is a terrible wood to use structurally,” says King. “It’s strength-to-weight ratio is very low.” But that didn’t stop them from wanting to use such a beautiful resource. Luckily, the size of this particular trunk didn’t compromise its strength so a local structural engineer happily signed off on it—the tree now stands proud and tall in the centre of the house, holding up the Crow’s Nest (the Thompsons’ nickname for their attic).
“There’s a lower cost of living ,” says King, but expertise is harder to come by, and like building supplies, bringing contractors from Vancouver to the island is an unnecessary cost. But, according to King, many of the men and women living on the islands are used to getting jobs done with their own hands and are therefore a valuable resources. The Thompsons were lucky enough to find a modern renaissance man (a structural engineer, fisherman, search and rescue leader and builder living on Quadra Island) who felled, stripped and dried the aforementioned cedar for them.
There are a lot of city bylaws that can slow the building process. “In Vancouver you have to show your plans —your neighbours can look at your plans and object to things about the house that you’re proposing,” says King. “But on the islands you usually don’t see your neighbours.” The Thompsons’ five-acre lot, for example, is ensconced in thick woods, allowing them to have more creative freedom. The Cedar Rock home ended up resembling a clam shell or geode, but John and Anne were originally inspired by the appearance of a sailboat, hence the Crow’s Nest attic, prow-like patio and awning. “The sailboat , for me, was about the sense of living on a sailboat where everything has a function,” says Anne. Ever practical, King ensured that no element of the house is without a purpose: wood benches double as storage chests and there’s a space underneath the deck for kayaks and paddleboards—a must for the couple’s outdoor lifestyle.
Nature aggressively works against everything you build, cautions King, and it’s important to take preventative measures. The Cedar Rock home is clad in cedar strips, a wise choice for exterior panelling because they produce a natural resin and therefore don’t need any extra varnish for protection against the elements. “It is a rain forest,” says King, “so the minute you’ve finished your house, nature is trying to turn it black.” This particular cedar panelling, although protected by its natural lacquer, changed colour soon after the house was completed (a welcome change in the Thompsons’ eyes) and now has a softer, earthy tone. King recommends roofing that’s made with metal instead of asphalt; the roof will last longer against the elements, he says. With massive panes of glass that let in gorgeous views and natural light, shutters or sliding panels are another practical investment. “Storms throw big branches and all kinds of stuff at your house,” explains King. “It’s protecting it from people and the weather.” In terms of planning for durability, it also makes sense to drive the building perimeter a few feet into the ground so burrowing animals can’t easily get underneath. The same goes for attic space, which should have no nooks and crannies for birds to roost.
Sustainability is a discussion most of King’s clients want to have, but living the eco-friendly life comes with a hefty price tag. “Most people don’t understand the cost-benefit,” he says. “They want to be as green as possible until you tell them how much it costs.” Installing a solar panel roof, for instance, can require upwards of $25,000—but it would cost the same to bring electricity to a lot that’s not connected to the main power lines. Most properties on the Gulf and Discovery Islands are off the grid, so owners have to function accordingly. If Island dwellers want to stay connected and adopt an energy-efficient lifestyle, they’ll have to decide whether or not they want to invest both their time and money in the project. King estimates that solar panels start to pay for themselves after 10 to 15 years, and can save owners thousands of dollars in electricity costs by the end of their lifetime.A wood stove keeps the heating bill to a minimum and natural light floods the open space through wall-to-wall glass windows.
What the Thompsons love most is the fact that they have no internet connection. John says time moves slowly on the island and the ambience is perfect for sorting your thoughts. Their goal was to build a getaway that wouldn’t disturb the natural splendour that surrounds them, and they joke that one day people will pay to rent cabins with no internet connection so that they can truly get back to nature. Building on the Gulf and Discovery Islands comes with a set of unfamiliar challenges, but also the opportunity to innovate.
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This story was originally published on July 7, 2017.
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