Susan and David Scott are architects who like to get their hands dirty. They want to create things. Build things. They want to work in response to their surroundings and the materials available.
Nothing expresses this point of view quite as much as their award-winning Vancouver Island alpine cabin, built above the treeline on Mount Cain.
“We wanted to go out and just make something,” David says of the 1,000-square-foot structure, which was built without any formal plans.
This impulse to go rogue had been around since the couple’s time studying architecture in Halifax, a program that instilled into its students the notion of actually making their designs.
“And we had been working on projects where we had multiple hundreds of drawings … binders and binders of specifications. Part of doing this was a reaction to that,” he says.
In 2005, they entered a land lottery on the community-run, not-for-profit ski hill in the north of Vancouver Island, and found themselves with a lot for $20,000.
With a few rules required by Mount Cain Alpine Park – no machine excavation, natural colours only, building out from a centre point, rather than within boundary lines – the Scotts started looking for help.
“We sent e-mails: ‘Seeking people willing to work for powder,’” David says with a laugh.
And they came: friends, family, engineers, architects, “and some people who had no idea what they were doing with power tools,” Susan says. “It was such a random group of people – it was really fun.”
True to the couple’s self-imposed strictures, the build itself came together as a response to the materials around them. Initially, they were tempted by the thought of using telegraph poles from a local manufacturing plant, but those weren’t available.
“But then we found this guy – a sawyer – who basically just gave us trees,” Susan recalls.
A friend helping out had built a place on Passage Island and had become very comfortable using high rigging with cables and chainsaw winches, so, David says, it seemed quite logical to take these 40-foot poles and winch them up.
“Everybody thought we were crazy,” David says. “It looked as if we were creating this bush-league Cirque du Soleil – at one point there were six columns in the air all tied up with ropes – hundreds and hundreds of feet of rope.”
But there was method to their madness: The area is known to get extremely windy, and the big poles provide a lot of bending strength.
“Some of those cabins up there, you can see the chandeliers swing,” Susan adds.
The Scotts’ cabin, which won an A+ award in the self-initiated projects category of the 2014 Architizer Awards, was built largely from fir – local, plentiful and cheap. The exterior was clad in cedar, which arrived with a pile of extra thin strips as dunnage.
“We were wondering what to make the sauna from,” Susan recalls. “And then we saw all these strips of cedar and decided to make it like a mini log cabin. It looks great,” she says, before adding, with a sigh: “But it took absolutely forever.”
For a cabin, it’s a substantial space – with two bedrooms and a den upstairs and a living space, kitchen and toilet on the main floor, as well as the sauna – but hardly luxurious by modern standards.
There is no electricity and no running water; reaching the cabin in the winter involves a hike in with all provisions – including drinking water.
Other cabin-dwellers in the area have snowmobiles for transport, but the Scotts are hard-core, pulling everything up on a huge sled – with their two small children sitting on top.
The simplicity of the cabin has, they think, made it look achievable to others.
“There are a lot of reasons young people don’t just go and build cabins the way they used to in the Gulf Islands,” David says. “A lot of it is real estate and money and time.”
“We had a very, very small budget,” Susan adds, noting it cost them about $100,000 – albeit with no labour costs. She estimates that number would have tripled if they hadn’t built it themselves.
Since building the cabin, the Scotts have given up their jobs to raise their kids and renovate their Main Street, Vancouver, house at the same time.
They worked out the cost of child care and hiring contractors, and figured it was about the same as quitting, picking up the power tools and renovating with their daughters about their feet.
The final stage in the renovations was creating their home-studio space, clad with fir and lovingly finished with a mixture of beeswax and whisky. In it, they opened their own practice, Scott & Scott Architects, a year ago.
“It may be a puritan vision of the world,” David says. “But we want our kids to see us working, and to understand how things are made.”