Off the coast of British Columbia—on a site accessible only by boat—a family of Vancouver urbanites commissioned a sustainable cabin for weekend getaways that feels a world away.
Scattered in the waters between Vancouver Island and the British Columbia mainland, the Gulf Islands have long served as getaways for harried West Coast urbanites. But as more of the world discovers the Canadian isles, standard-issue tourist trappings are cropping up like an invasive species. Gambier Island remains one of the few true getaways. The lushly landscaped and pervasively quiet 25-square-mile sanctuary lies off the main ferry route and is thus out of reach for the usual daytrippers and bus-tour crowd. Yet for those willing to eschew the automobile, it’s less than 30 minutes from West Vancouver by water taxi—and an entire universe away in terms of environment.
That remoteness made Gambier Island the ideal haven for Rose Lam and Todd Elyzen, two Vancouver-based film-industry professionals who wanted a weekend retreat for themselves and their two sons, Sam and Max. The couple wasn’t aiming to be self-consciously rustic; they wanted isolation but high comfort—the same kind of furniture, fittings, appliances, and plumbing that they enjoy in their city home. “I said, ‘I’m not going to travel out of the way just to clear out mouse droppings,’” Lam recalls. “The genesis of the house came down to my inability to use an outhouse,” she adds with a laugh.
Then came the hard part: getting the home built. “The phrase ‘ignorance is bliss’ is truly accurate here,” says Lam. “I’m glad we didn’t know beforehand how difficult it would be.”
Elyzen’s experience with film-set mechanics and lighting proved invaluable in figuring out solar panels, septic fields, generators, and other essential off-grid technologies. The main water source is a streamwater-collection system operated communally by two dozen nearby residents. To tap into it, Elyzen rigged a gravity-fed filtration system with two 1,000-gallon storage tanks located beneath the deck.
The roof features a rainwater-retention system and a panoply of solar panels, which are strategically positioned at the same angle as the house’s geographic latitude—49 degrees—to maximize the energy capture. The panels produce enough electricity to drive the house during the summer; a generator kicks in during the winter months. BattersbyHowat designed a simple, compact bunker clad in the same dark-stained cedar of the home to house the generator, with Elyzen advising them on how to position the air intake and outtake ports. Once the shell was built (by Hart Tipton Construction, which constructed the main house as well) and the diesel generator was brought in, Elyzen configured an insulating system of alternating foam baffles to minimize noise and reverberation. The power from the generator travels through cables from the bunker to a 48-volt, 750-amp battery bank housed in a mechanical room beneath the house where an inverter converts the voltage from DC to the more user-friendly AC format.
The paucity of big-city entertainment has inspired a new spectrum of activities for the entire family, Lam reports, especially in the rainy seasons. Doing jigsaw puzzles and cooking together have taken on a new importance in their Gambier life. There’s also the element of necessity: “If we don’t cook, we don’t eat,” Lam notes. “Living here has made us keenly aware of conservation. It’s not just a matter of turning the lights off; it’s more like, ‘You don’t need to turn the lights on.’”