Case Study: Whistler Residence by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
Everyone’s idea of a private oasis is different. For some, paradise is a tropical beach and endless summer. For others, it’s the mountains and four changing seasons of beauty and recreation. It was most assuredly the latter for the London family who commissioned this house in the Canadian ski mecca of Whistler, British Columbia. They wanted the house as much for its green seasons as for its white ones, and among their most important requests was a big, green lawn for their athletic family and visiting friends. They desired a complete antidote to drizzly, dismal London life.
The clients were not newcomers to Whistler when they approached Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and their Canadian affiliate, Bohlin Grauman Miller, to design their family’s mountaintop getaway. They had first owned a condo at the foot of a ski lift, and, later, a log home on a golf course—another avid interest of theirs. They had lured their friends from all over the world to the resort village, and they, in turn, bought houses there as well. So, the clients had plenty of time to deliberate about their next and much bigger commitment to Whistler.
They knew they wanted a place for large-scale entertaining, and hanging out with immediate family. And then they found this 7-acre site, already carved into a circular shape and planted with 21 300-foot-deep geothermal wells by the developer. After a failed attempt to work with a local architect, they approached BCJ, whose Seattle office is half a day’s drive or so from the site. Robert Miller, AIA, was the principal in charge; David Miller, AIA, (no relation) was the project architect.
Even for a firm as capable as BCJ, this was a formidable undertaking. The house itself approaches 9,000 square feet, and access to the site was difficult, even in good weather, for construction crews and suppliers. Thrown into the mix were the 2010 Winter Olympics, which brought everything to a halt for their duration, and, during the same period, changes to Whistler’s building regulations. Coupled with clients who were very engaged in the planning of the house, design development was necessarily slow and thoughtful. “Our process is a very collaborative one anyway,” says Robert. “And, because the project had such a long timeline, we had a pretty large group involved. Many people from the firm moved on and off, but everyone was excited to work on it.”
There were a set of “givens” on the project that dictated the siting and shape of the house. That circular pad for one, the nearly two-dozen geothermal wells for another, and the mountain’s rocky ledge. Everyone’s goal was to get as much of the house and as many of the outdoor features as possible aligned with view corridors. “We did lots of studies about how to site the house,” David explains. “Ultimately, the main house is based on each room having its own character and view. And the guest house looks back up to a smaller mountain behind the view.”
The first big move—what you could call the jumping-off place—was the stunning cantilevered pool that appears to hurdle off the mountain and into the view. “We started with the pool and worked our way from there,” says Robert. “Then, the house is positioned between the lawn and the rough.”
A special team handled the rock work for the swimming pool. “The only blasting we did was for the pool,” Robert recalls. “To get the pool to slice through that rock ledge, we had an explosive artist. They drilled a series of holes around where the edge would be, then slowly blasted off layers until they got the slices where the pool should be. And when cracks in the rock would emerge where they didn’t want them, they would fill them with epoxy. It was the closest you can get to an art form in explosives.”
Using SketchUp and Revit, the design team studied carefully where the sun would track over seasons, and its relationship to the view opportunities. In some cases, the architects simply opted to send people out long projecting decks to experience full immersion in the mountains—those decks echoing the pool’s dramatic posture. “The building responds particularly to different times of year and different views,” says Robert. “Having the time during the design phase to really consider that was great.” David adds, “It’s really hard to describe or even capture in photos, but the house is very experiential.”
New visitors to the site would never expect the monumental house they ultimately discover. The first views appear beyond two rocky ledges, where a low-slung storage shed and what seems to be two clad volumes form a motor court. Only the glass-enclosed chimney rising from behind hints at what’s to come. Once inside the court, the clad volumes disclose their big reveal, a central portal lined in blue architectural glass leading to the house and lawn. And those clad volumes? They’re really garages, with bi-fold lift doors masquerading as walls. The garage to the left serves the main residence, and the garage to the right is for the guest wing.
Passing through the portal, a framed scene of lawn and house entices. Once on the other side, the full breadth of the house unfurls like a fan toward the mountain, with majestic board-formed concrete-and-glass walls and great swooshes of covered walkways. Along the lawn, a series of oculae protrude from the ground. Sculptural and practical, they perform different purposes: one merely services mechanicals; one is open to the elements, allowing snow and rain to drip down into the hot tub below; and a third contains a light tube, ushering daylight into the wine cellar. “They’re like Corbu’s light cannons. The sun is directed right on the center line of the cannon. In the cellar, there’s a spot of light on the floor that’s at a perfect angle on the summer solstice,” says Robert. “It happens around 3 p.m.,” David adds, “which is not a bad time of day for a bottle of wine when you’re on vacation.”
The wine room is on the lower level, along with a recreation room, secondary bedrooms, exercise room, and steam room. On the main level, family areas are at one end of the house and principal entertaining areas are at the other end, closest to the guest wing. The living room rises to double-height to capture the full rise of mountain peaks. The central fireplace and its chimney follow suit, climbing up through the roof and terminating in custom glass-and-steel skylights. “In the mountains, fireplaces are essential. We went through lots of iterations of the design. We wanted to keep it clean-lined, but also have something that’s a totemic element in that space,” David explains. The skylights usher in much-needed natural light and, when open, act as a thermal chimney to let heat escape during the summer months. “Light comes down and emphasizes the patterns in the stone. There’s a little mica in it that shimmers,” says Robert. A custom blackened-steel wood holder completes the piece.
Flooring is radiant-heated integral concrete, with swaths of walnut to define warm zones of refuge in the house. Doug fir paneling climbs the walls and ceilings of the living room, and reappears as a custom headboard in the third-floor master bedroom. The projecting decks are wood salvaged from a windfall on the mountain.
The dance between wood and concrete has its grand culmination in the soaring two-story stair. “We wanted to elevate the staircase, so it can be viewed as something beautiful to look at both inside and outside of the house,” Robert recalls. Suspended on cables, it’s a floating “ribbon” of wood as it rises to the top level, but turns to solid concrete as it descends to the lower floor. “The builder tuned it like you would tune a harp. More than any other element, it speaks to the quality of the contractor,” he adds.
Says David, “The client was very engaged; every team member was really engaged—everyone was firing on all cylinders for this house. And the project manager, Mike Ciebien, was especially thoughtful. He would tell his people, ‘you’re never going to work on a project like this again, so you’d better do your best job.’”
Plans and Drawings
Whistler, British Columbia, Canada
ARCHITECT: Peter Bohlin, FAIA, principal; Robert Miller, FAIA, principal in charge; David Miller, AIA, project manager; David Guthrie; Adrienne James; Niklas Koenig; Emma Nowinski; Terrence Wagner, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, Seattle, in association with Bohlin Grauman Miller Architects
BUILDER: Mike Ciebien, project manager, Durfeld Construction, Whistler
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
Bohlin Cywinski Jackson
PROJECT SIZE: 8,700 square feet
SITE SIZE: 7.6 acres
CONSTRUCTION COST: Withheld
PHOTOGRAPHY: Nic Lehoux (except where noted)
GARAGE DOORS: Schweiss Doors
Garibaldi Glass, Starphire
KITCHEN RANGE: La Cornue (main house), Wolf (guest house)
REFRIGERATOR/FREEZER/WINE REFRIGERATOR: Sub-Zero
DISHWASHER/SPECIALTY APPLIANCES/WASHER/DRYER: Miele
FAUCETS: Dornbracht, Gessi, Vola
SINKS: Franke, Duravit, Julien, Kohler
TOILETS: Duravit, TOTO
LIGHTING: Lucifer, Lumina, Flo
HOME CONTROL: Bang & Olufsen
WINDOW SHADING: Lutron
Benjamin Moore, Armourcoat