Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Building better

With ‘organic architecture’ in Whistler, form follows nature over function.

With perpetual hectares of lush forestry and agricultural ambience, British Columbia offers a landscape of organic abundance. Beneath the waterfalls, running creeks, and whimsical wildflowers, there is a poetry of the land, an innate dialogue between humans and nature. 

Human habitation in B.C. can be traced back to more than 10,000 years, a time when Indigenous people cultivated a society so in tune with their natural surroundings, building traditions were designed to perfectly suit the climate, environment, and geography they resided in. Indigenous architecture was grounded upon maintaining harmony with the land in a deeply organic manner. 

In today’s world of modern architecture, as space and land have become increasingly precious, there is a pull to return to these intrinsic building practices, consequently, sparking an organic renaissance in home design. The term “organic architecture” was conceived by iconic American architect Frank Lloyd Wright as a philosophy that promotes a synchronous coexistence between buildings, terrain, and humans. This approach reimagines architecture in a way that seeks to build within the land, not on top of it—to not infringe on nature, but instead create a conversation with it. In essence, organic architecture is about building homes that are wholly integrated into the surrounding landscape. This means factoring the height of trees, the solidness of the soil, rock formations, and the positioning of the sun, into not only the exterior features of a home but the interior as well. As the late award-winning architect James Polshek once said, “The design of buildings in natural settings must be responsive to the earth out of which they arise and the sky against which they are seen.” 

As humans, we have to ask ourselves: how can we, as a living species, harmonize with our natural surroundings?

 Listening to the land 

Eldon Beck found himself pondering this very question while in the early stages of planning Whistler Village. As Beck wondered aloud to Pique back in 2005, “Is it possible to take a natural site and rearrange it with a lot of structures, but keep the sense that it’s the place that it should be?” 

Beck’s goal in designing the pedestrian-only Village Stroll was to encapsulate the mountains, whilst maintaining the natural flow of the land and offering a feeling of meandering and wandering.   

Unlike many heavily urbanized communities around the world, with its sprawl of concrete and over-condensed living, Whistler is neatly situated amongst the vast, coastal rainforest captured in many a postcard and glossy tourist magazine, a perfect place for organic architecture to exist. Back in 1978, when discussing the previous Whistler Village plan with then-alderman (and current Sun Peaks Mayor) Al Raine, Beck felt it looked too much like a “mini-Vancouver”—which for him, was a major problem. With a much more spirited concept in mind, Beck beamed, “The land always tells you what to do.” 

The Whistler Village Design Guidelines, as laid out in Whistler’s Official Community Plan, describe an enduring vision: “Whistler Village: charted for a multi-use pedestrian town centre set in the forest and the mountains. Offering visitors a setting distinct from their everyday environment, Whistler Village was to be a place of life and excitement in all seasons, a social place, a restful place, a place of discovery and delight, a place to catch the sun, a place to be entertained, and a place to participate. Carefully situated buildings, responsive to light and landscape and linked by a meandering central pedestrian promenade connecting lively public plazas and squares, were central to this vision of the Village as a journey of constant discovery and a destination in and of itself.” 

 Building the home that already exists 

Building in a place like Whistler requires an intimate relationship between architect and typography, a choreography of the land. Much to the mind of Beck is Edgar Dearden, CEO and founder of local sustainable building design firm, GNAR Inc. A forward-thinking, eco-centric builder, Dearden has been conceptualizing buildings in Whistler since 2016. One of his main aims is to keep homes in Whistler alive indefinitely, through sustainable processes such as retrofits, recycling materials, and responsive excavation. 

“Here at GNAR, we are hugely influenced by the organic nature of Whistler,” says Dearden, looking out his window at Whistler’s striking peaks. “As Whistler has to accommodate to such weather extremes—getting to extreme highs in summer and extreme lows in winter—the designing of a home becomes all the more important. The most foundational principle of climate-resilient home design is to build houses that are filled with light and get free energy from the sun.” 

Making architectural choices that feel like they are at peace within their environment is a core element of the notion of organic architecture. At GNAR Inc., these choices are about designing homes with characteristics and Passive House principles that synchronize with the seasons. A performance standard for the energy performance of a building, the Passive House approach prescribes the following building principles: south-facing windows that capture heat from the sun in winter and also keep the sun out in summer, super-insulated walls, mechanical ventilation, and no thermal bridges (i.e. steel balconies, canopies, and roof extensions). “Whistler, being a valley in the north-south direction that we are facing, it means we are very light-deprived at certain times of the year,” Dearden explains. “So, it makes it all the more important to have the solar orientation right.” 

Circumscribed by glaciated mountains on both sides, Whistler offers a highly unique topography. 

“It is humbling, as these Whistler mountains are hundreds of millions of years old, and to think each of us humans is here for this short blink of time, relative to the rocks and earth,” Dearden says. 

These stunning mountain ranges, with their awe-inspiring vistas, however, represent “the No. 1 sustainability fail for architects working in Whistler,” Dearden argues. Because clients are “so encapsulated with designing their homes in correlation with the view—installing all north-facing windows and zero south-facing windows,” the result, Dearden says, is “a terribly cold home with no natural heating efficiency.” 

When it comes to working cohesively with the land, Dearden points out that, as a sustainable builder, “you are doing the best you can with the land, as you are often building in quite challenging circumstances … Say, if you are on the side of a cliff, you need to connect to the rock. Rock can support four times the weight of soil, so you can be quite creative when you are anchored to the rock. With that in mind, we try to achieve a minimally invasive excavation as best as we can.” 

Getting creative is the quintessence of organic architecture, and is the essence of one of GNAR’s paramount procedures: repurposing pre-existing homes and reusing what is already here on earth. 

“The most sustainable home is the one that already exists,” says Dearden. “Here at GNAR, part of our sustainable home design formula is to build using pre-existing, plant-based materials.” 

One of GNAR’s recent designs, a 1,200-square-foot West Coast-style cabin built near Sechelt, earned the firm a 2023 BC Embodied Carbon Award in the Small Buildings category, and uses a locally produced, prefabricated, plant-based panel from the BC Passive House facility in Pemberton. 

“When we think of the carbon footprint of buildings, we need to consider two things: the operational emissions (energy used for heating/cooling) and the upfront embodied emissions (from extracting, manufacturing, and transporting building materials),” Dearden explains. “In 2023, we have concluded that it was essential to use plant-based materials—like straw, wood, and mushrooms—because plants suck carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow. Anything that you have within a building that is plant-based is going to contain carbon in it.” 

According to a 2021 study from the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the Earth itself rhythmically regulates the level of CO2 when CO2 transits between organic and inorganic carbon reservoirs. To aid Mother Nature in this organic process—of necessity or by choice—it seems only right to adhere to plant-based building materials and put organic architecture on a plant-based pedestal. 

To consider our carbon footprint means to counteract the harmful effects of carbon emissions by introducing eco-friendly materials and energy-efficient processes. Whistler builders such as GNAR are increasingly making the case to homeowners to switch from gas to electric. Meanwhile, the provincial government has also taken substantial steps to modernize B.C.’s building code by implementing stringent construction and energy standards. 

At the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW), officials have set in place ambitious environmental goals as part of its Climate Action Big Moves strategy, including for building design and construction. 

“In addition to visual design consideration, building efficiency is vital to the Resort Municipality of Whistler’s Climate Action Big Moves goal to reduce greenhouse emissions to 50 per cent below 2007 levels by 2030,” writes a municipal communications official in an email. “To reduce building greenhouse gas emissions, the Resort Municipality of Whistler has adopted the provincial Zero Carbon Step Code.” 

The updated code goes into effect in Whistler on Jan. 1, 2024, and, among other things, sets limits on the amount of greenhouse gas a building can emit per year, and specifies progressively tighter limits for new builds in the resort as time goes on. 

In 2021, buildings made up about 42 per cent of all emissions in the resort.

“Tonight’s proposed building and plumbing regulation amendment bylaw and the adoption of the Zero Carbon Step Code is a perfect example of policy action, of political action and a vote option opportunity that could influence our share of community greenhouse gas emissions for decades to come,” said Claire Ruddy, executive director of the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment, at a council meeting in May outlining the Zero Carbon Step Code. 

“Buildings last for decades. There are very few actions that council, with one decision, can enact that would lead to a nearly 10-per-cent reduction of emissions needed to reach our 2030 targets.”


 Indigenous inspiration 

Then there’s the conversation of building material composition. Along with concrete, the other most common building material here in B.C. is wood. 

When it comes to attitudes towards B.C.’s cherished old-growth trees, there is a rigid dichotomy between Westernized and Indigenous harvesting practices. Where Western resource management practices–which only go back several hundred years–have the potential to hinder B.C.’s biodiversity and its ability to adapt to climate change, Indigenous practices—refined over millennia—sustain and ensure ecosystems can thrive for generations to come. 

For many First Nations, the forest and trees are treated as valued members of the family, so, to chop down hectares of old-growth is seen as a horrible act of killing. Today, modern architects are leaning into this idea of anthropomorphism, basing true sustainable architecture on a simple decision tree. By impersonating our natural landscapes, we create a family tree that considers future generations when we build our homes of today. To forge a sustainable future, we must again, look back to Indigenous philosophy. Instead of building with individualistic desires in mind—like, say, building towards the best direct view of Whistler Mountain—we must architecturally time-travel, building for generations and generations to come. Instead of asking ourselves what we want, we should be asking: what does nature want? 

 Ecology, not economy 

Joe Dahmen, assistant professor at the University of British Columbia School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, has engaged in this radical dialogue with nature for the past 20 years. “Nobody asks the cherry trees want they want,” he says. 

Dahmen, who, alongside a team of researchers, is popularizing the use of mushroom roots as building materials, is changing the way we approach new builds. In the magical world of mycelium biocomposites (mushroom roots), Dahmen describes mushrooms as “self-healing” and “dynamic.” 

“I try to decontextualize materials, instead of trying to force things together that shouldn’t go together,” he adds. “Here at UBC, we base architecture on a different paradigm: we look at natural materials. My research is all about biogenetics materials. Biogenetics is what supports life.” 

Dahmen reiterates the importance of responding to challenges through a necessary process of re-evaluation. “We need to reframe our relationship with the building materials we use so that we can support life in all facets of the rainbow … so that we can have a symbiotic relationship with ecology,” he says. 

Despite the doom-and-gloom coverage of climate change in the media, Dahmen is optimistic there is positive change happening all around us, especially among the students he teaches at UBC. 

“We are aware of the cataclysmic disasters around British Columbia. Therefore, my students seek nuance; people are seeking alternatives—like plant-based materials,” he says.

“As landscape architects, we invent visions. There is an ethical imperative to use the privilege of architectural knowledge.” 

Dahmen recommends we take a longer view of the structures we build to ensure they can withstand the test of time. What happens in 30 years? How is a home going to age? How will it decompose back into earth?   

As we enter another phase of the acute climate crisis, we should circle back to Lloyd Wright’s defining philosophy: organic architecture as a means of responding to the increased challenges of social change, modernity, and technological advance. Among today’s architects here in B.C., the principles of organic architecture could be a vital catalyst for a deeply ecological existence. Many who are lucky to call Whistler and other areas of British Columbia home have a duty, as stewards of the land, to plan for the future, to live within our means, and to design homes in correlation to the formation of the land. As the natural world evolves, our building practices must evolve along with it, organizing our society around ecology, not the economy. We must blend in with the existing landscape, to exist in what already is. 

And so, let us put our hands and feet in the soil again. 

Let us build from here.