Whistler has long held a reputation as one of the world's top ski resorts, but in addition to its formidable terrain and resort infrastructure, for the last 25 years our mountain town has garnered many accolades for the construction of dwellings. In the B.C. home builders industry, no award is more coveted than a Georgie. On the weekend of February 1, four Whistler construction companies — nominated in seven categories — will attend the gala event at the Vancouver Convention Centre in hopes to bring home another golden statuette for proud display on their mantlepiece.
From its rustic roots on the shores of Alta Lake, to the iconic squats of the 1960s, like Toadhall, to the present day staff-housing complexes, Whistler has always had its share of lodging fit for an impoverished ski bum. But in the early '90s, a new kind of home began to spring up; one of luxury, extravagance and innovation — a home-away-from-home for affluent professionals and their families. It was this increased demand for such high-end homes that contributed largely to Whistler's construction boom in the early '90s.
"Most of my friends and family think that it was because of skiing that I moved to Whistler," said Dave Johnston, owner of Blue Ice Construction Ltd., who moved his company to Whistler from Vancouver's North Shore in 1989.
"That was a part of it, but it was actually a great career move for me to come up here. I was operating in North and West Vancouver, and through all my connections there people wanted me to do (work) up in Whistler and I decided it would be a great place to raise my family. A lot of skiers on the North Shore had (land) up here so it was a natural fit for me, I walked straight into a couple of jobs as soon as I got here."
With much of the valley a blank canvas ripe for development, land began to be acquired by visitors to Whistler looking for a more permanent place to rest their heads. Investment from the south of the border was being fuelled by the disparity of the strong U.S. dollar just as Whistler was coming of age as the world's premier ski resort.
"Things were really taking off and the level and quality of construction was going up with the money that was being injected into Whistler," said Johnston, whose company is nominated for a Georgie this year.
"It was a very exciting time because it was fairly easy to get jobs, but the level of the jobs was very challenging. We were breaking new ground on all sorts of (construction techniques). We were on the leading edge, I was thinking it was just in B.C., but it turned out we were leading edge for a much wider market in Canada, North America and beyond."
A style began to form amongst the home builders of Whistler, not only from the progressive designs of local architects, but out of necessity to accommodate requests from upscale clients. These owners wanted their homes to stand out not only in the Whistler community, but also throughout the continent. Resorts throughout North America began to take notice of Whistler's "snowcountry homes," which were built to withstand heavy snow loads and featured innovations such as in-floor heating systems powered by geothermal energy.
"People who have a little extra money wanted to go this route," said Johnston.
"It's really the personality of these people, they want to do it a different way, they want to be recognized for being different. For a builder its challenging because some of the stuff they want to do is brand new to you. Your job is fun because you get to explore new ways to do it. The clients are very demanding sometimes, but I enjoy that part of it because the build is very demanding. It makes your job very interesting."
Named after Captain George Vancouver, the British Naval officer who was the first European to enter the Burrard Inlet in 1792, the Georgie Awards were established in 1992 by a group of industry professionals who wanted to provide value to the residential construction industry in communities throughout B.C.
"Every year it gets more competitive, the designs keep getting better, the quality of product keeps increasing," said Neil Moody, CEO of the Canadian Home Builders' Association of British Columbia (CHBA BC).
"It gets harder and harder for the judges to choose the winners because of the level of excellence."
In the last two decades the worldwide demand for more energy efficient homes — both for affordability and sustainability — led to the formation of the Built Green program in 2003, a Canadian initiative to govern the energy efficiency of new homes built in Canada. The Georgie Awards still incorporate the Energuide Rating of housing projects in its judging process, but with a program dedicated to assessing green building standards and practices, the Georgies can focus on style, aesthetics and dozens of other categories in its awards.
Adjudication of the Georgie Awards is handled by a panel of 23 judges, all from outside of B.C. Over three to four days, the judges gather in Vancouver to pore over hundreds of submission portfolios comprised of photos and floor plans, and will sometimes even visit the sites themselves for inspection.
"When we look at judges throughout Canada, we have a certain level of expertise that we require with certain standards," said Moody.
"If the judges don't meet those standards they're not invited back to judge the following year. We're very selective of both judges and candidates."
Moody also highlights the importance of inviting judges from outside the province to keep the arbitration process impartial, which requires the judges to be briefed by economists on issues such as the current state of the B.C. housing market and its trends.
"It keeps it a little more transparent," said Moody.
"We've found over the years that that's worked well, we get a better sense of developments from professionals in their areas that may or may not be builders."
As the Georgie Awards heads towards its 25th anniversary, Moody acknowledges the need for the program to continuously evolve with the latest market trends, and in some cases, adjust the 36 categories based on either new buildings or renovations, projects budgets and square footage.
"As the market changes, our committees will change the categories to adapt; what works now may not be available five years from now," he said.
"The level of interest is increasing and remains very high. For the winners — and even the finalists — it's a tremendous marketing advantage for them. You can look at real estate ads where you see 'Georgie Finalist' on a realtor's listing, it's a recognizable brand. Consumers benefit from knowing their houses have gone through this process, and not only their peers, but others from outside the industry have reviewed their product."
While many Georgie Award categories revolve around multi-million dollar custom homes, there are also awards that credit more affordable residences. RDC Fine Homes specializes in "high performance building," which focuses on an efficient building envelope (the physical separator of the interior and the exterior environments), air quality through mechanical ventilation and choosing building materials with small amounts of low volatile organic compounds (such as formaldehyde). The Whistler-based construction company has been nominated for 16 Georgie Awards in the last six years and has won six of them. This year RDC was nominated for "Best Project Identity" for it's work on The Valkyries townhouse complex in Squamish, the "project identity" referring to the marketing and imaging of the development.
"(The Valkyries) has been built to a Built Green Platinum standard," said Bob Deeks, president and owner of RDC.
"That's not an easy standard to achieve for a town house, particularly a townhouse built on a budget."
To achieve platinum level, the dwelling must have a minimum Energuide rating of 82 (a rating of 100 means the household produces as much energy as it uses).
"A big part of it comes from the building envelope, the thermal properties of the walls and roof and the air tightness of the building itself," said Deeks.
"At the same time, as long as you have proper mechanical ventilation, it can really promote more comfortable (living) by eliminating those drafts. We're using a Nest thermostat, a 'smart' thermostat that learns the occupant's living habits and to some degree is self-programming. It also provides remote access."
The Built Green designation is a significant part of the reason for RDC's nomination, rounded out by a professional presentation on the project's website and print media. But under the hood of the project is where some of the most innovative strategies have taken place. The building envelope that Deeks refers to is made from pre-fabricated structurally insulated panels (SIPs) and the foundations were also entirely manufactured off-site then delivered in large, modular sections and set in place by skilled labourers. Instead of using traditional concrete reinforcements (or "rebar") throughout the concrete foundations, RDC were able to use Helix Micro Rebar, a collection of twisted metal fibres — each about the size of a bobby pin — which strengthens the foundation by up to 40 per cent. RDC is the first adopter of Helix Micro Rebar in western Canada.
"It doesn't replace all the re-bar in every application, but in certain applications such as (the Valkyries) it can be added to the concrete trucks at the batch plant," said Deeks.
"This has a significant impact on reducing labour for the assembly of the foundation itself."
Reduced labour costs means more value for the consumer, and ultimately adds to the attraction of the project on the housing market. Such initiatives are all part of the reason RDC has yet another Georgie nomination this year.
Of the seven nominations for the 2013 Georgie Awards, four of them were for Schreyer Construction Ltd.'s renovation of the "Cedar Ridge Home" townhouse in the Benchlands. Builder Axel Schreyer and his wife Katarina — an interior designer — have been in business in Whistler since 1994 and already have one Georgie Award to their name, as well as several Built Green awards.
"I've always been involved with renovations and I think that market is the future here (in Whistler), in place of new homes," said Axel.
"There's a lot of stock that's getting ready to be renovated at 20 years old, for example. Sometimes it happens at the turnover when something gets sold and new owners want to change their property. An update on kitchens and bathrooms would be the biggest markets. Then there's the more radical renovations when we change everything inside."
Though new custom homes continue to be built in Whistler, the inventory of available lots has been decreasing. Whistler has only so much spare land in the valley and in recent years development has turned its focus to more affordable resident-restricted housing to support the local, working population. Buying and renovating a home is currently much more in vogue in Whistler, and as the Schreyers' Georgie nominations suggest, there is just as much creativity that goes into those projects. With Axel as the builder and Katarina handling interior design for the Cedar Ridge Home — in collaboration with JYD Architects and the owners — the renovation added 400 square feet of floor space and managed to achieve an Energuide rating of 83. The removal of several walls and redesign to what Katarina termed "clean lines, a minimal palette of material and colours and high quality products" has resulted in the Schreyers becoming Georgie finalists for Best Kitchen Renovation, Best Renovation of Any Room, Best Master Suite and Best Interior Design of a Custom Residence.
"We like to be trend-setters in style," said Axel.
"We try to still keep a lot of wood and mountain styles in there. Still modern, but not too modern, so it becomes urban. I think here in Whistler we're responsible for upping the designs that (have had influence) in other communities. We're always on the leading edge of high-quality construction here, everybody kind of looks to us that way."
Whistler construction companies haven proven themselves year after year at the annual Georgie Awards, an honour that is becoming more and more coveted every year as competition increases and the bar gets set higher and higher.
"It's a testament to the entire team and the clients, you need everybody working together to be able to build a product that stands out and be able to win an award like that," said Deeks.
"I'm certainly very proud of our group in being able to achieve that level of consistent success over the years, it's an incredible sense of pride. Everyone would like to see a Georgie Award sitting on their table."
A lot of effort goes into just being short listed, with all entrants required to be members of the CHBA, provide professional photos and pay hundreds of dollars per submission in entry fees.
"It's a lot of work to prepare those entries," said Katarina.
"Vancouver is very competitive, there's a lot of good projects. There are not that many builders that enter from Whistler so we compete against these big sharks down there. But we entered five categories and placed as finalist in four. So for myself, that's quite the accomplishment. The one Georgie we have is getting kind of lonely. "
Some of the Georgie Award winners of Whistler
2011 - Best Single Family Detached Home up to 2,000 Sq. Ft. over $350,000
RDC Fine Homes Inc. | Read Alley
2011 - Best Kitchen under $40,000 – New
RDC Fine Homes Inc. | Read Alley Kitchen
2010 - Best Innovative Technical Feature
RDC Fine Homes Inc.| Solar Panel Cooling & Indoor Air Pre-Heat System
2010 - Best Public-Private Partnership
Glacier Creek Contracting Ltd. | The Chiyakmesh
2009 - Best Townhouse Development
Cressey Development Group | Fitzsimmons Walk
2009 - Best Residential Renovation $500,000 - $749,999
Schreyer Construction Ltd. | Nash/Parker
2009 - Best Kitchen under $40,000 – New
Cressey Development Group | Fitzsimmons Walk
2008 - Best Residential Renovation $500,000 - $749,999
RDC Fine Homes Inc. | Iatan Residence
2007 - Best Single Family Detached Home 3,000-3,999 Sq. Ft.
Blue Ice Construction | Mountainview
2007 - Best Single Family Detached Home Valued over $2,000,000
Vision Pacific Contracting Ltd | Young House
2007 - Best Residential Renovation under $75,000
Innovation Building Group | Hungerford Renovation
2007 - Best Residential Renovation Over $650,000
RDC Fine Homes Inc. | Toad Hollow - Whistler BC
2007 - Best Single Family Landscape Renovation
RDC Fine Homes Inc. | Toad Hollow
2005 - Best Resort Development
Intrawest Corporation | Four Seasons Private Residences