Northern Exposure

It is an onerous challenge to build in a place possessing so extreme a climate and such variable light conditions. Factor in the presence of a significant indigenous population, a remote geographic location and a frontier history, and it becomes even more critical to develop an architectural culture responsive to the landscape, its people, and its particular sense of place. Fortunately for Kobayashi + Zedda Architects (KZA), the abundance of First Nations land claim settlements and subsequent self-governing initiatives have allowed the firm to define and articulate this process in terms of built form and community infrastructure in their adopted home of the Yukon.

One key example of this process is the Ordish Anderson House, a single-family residence for a Tlingit artist/carver and his wife built on a 2-acre lot in a country residential subdivision of Whitehorse. The site was partially cleared by a previous owner, and the architects thus chose to nestle the house against the north edge of the existing clearing. This enables southern exposure to be maximized and provides a vista for the dynamic experience of the ever-changing light and colour of a northern environment.

The client’s requests were grounded in a desire for a home that was strongly connected to its site, and beyond mere space requirements, the wish list included plenty of colour, texture, and ample opportunities for daylight. The program accommodates a home studio for the artist in addition to basic family living spaces. Essentially a three-bedroom bungalow, the centrally located entry foyer connects private and public zones, all of which are expressed as three distinct volumes clad in contrasting colours and textures of corrugated Galvalume siding. On the south elevation, wood screening devices and expressed wood structural elements unify the three volumes and enhance the warm tones of deep yellow and rust red. As the property is not fully serviced, water and fuel tanks must be stored in the house. Consequently, core plumbing and mechanical requirements are concentrated into the central linking volume for efficiency. In the public wing of the house, the studio loft is placed over the kitchen and food preparation area, and overlooks the high-ceilinged dining and living spaces. From the studio, a northern view of the adjacent boreal forest provides contemplative respite, and the space receives an even source of daylighting conducive to carving and other tasks.

KZA must contend with particular climatic and light conditions in the North that invariably impact upon their design process. Standard 96* * 32* windows form a repetitive triple-pane low-E glass wall on the south elevation in order to transparently link the house to its site. For a plethora of reasons, KZA continue to use vinyl-framed windows in their buildings. Though less attractive, they are unquestionably economical, perform better than aluminum, wood or steel in such a cold climate, and their use supports the local economy as they are manufactured directly in Whitehorse.

Light is extremely variable in the Yukon with summer sun setting just before midnight, rising a mere few hours later. In winter, the converse occurs, with only a few hours of precious daylight available every 24 hours. As a result, the pattern of shading devices was carefully considered not only as a formal and textural element, but as a functional one, designed to permit maximum valuable winter sun into the interior while simultaneously limiting the amount of relentless summer daylight and the concomitant excessive solar heat gain. The design team relied on solar angle studies and mathematical calculations to determine the scale and spacing of the wood slats forming the screen on the south elevation. Relative to the regular horizontal pattern on the top portion of the screen, the spacing of the 2* * 6* cedar slats on the lower portion of the screening device is much denser to block the high summer sun while still permitting as much low winter sun as possible to penetrate to the house’s interior.

In striving to build contextually and relevantly, KZA must accommodate specific requests from First Nations clients. These requests invariably include a desire for round forms, the use of wood and striking colour, durability, and most importantly, a strong connection to the land in which the particulars of site are acknowledged. Some of these elements present unique challenges, one being the adverse effects of a harsh northern environment on exterior wood cladding. As a consequence, wood’s application is restricted to protected exterior regions like the soffit, and is more liberally utilized in building interiors. In fact, the firm has learned to make the interior spaces the focus of concentrated design detail, which only makes sense as the cold climate creates a highly interiorized culture seeking refuge from the elements.

Other important lessons have been learned in the decade since Jack Kobayashi and Antonio Zedda began practicing together, many from their travels and research in Scandinavia, where the extreme climatic and environmental conditions are so similar to the Yukon. Moreover, the Scandinavian countries possess an exemplary architectural culture respected the world over, and manage to accomplish great things with imaginative subtlety and an economy of means. As a result, KZA have moved away from a derivative west coast style of hyper-expressed timber elements and their tectonic connections, and have adopted the critical “less is more” doctrine. In doing so, they have reduced unnecessary embellishment and continue to streamline the exterior forms of their buildings in a constant evolutionary process.

As full-time residents of Whitehorse, Kobayashi and Zedda’s comfort with and understanding of the community has grown, and their work and practice have matured accordingly. In the unique context of the Yukon with which most Canadians are likely unfamiliar, they have established an architectural vocabulary and a distinct oeuvre of work that reflects the environmental, economic and cultural realities of this vast place, and have begun to give it meaning and direction for the future.

Client: Tanya Ordish and Ken Anderson

Architect Team: Antonio Zedda, Ryan McLennan

Structural: Niels Jacobsen

Mechanical: North Fraser Mechanical Ltd.

Electrical: Action Electric Ltd.

Contractor: Trimate Construction Ltd.

Photography: Kobayashi + Zedda Architects Ltd.