Whistler Apartment Featuring Exterior Walkways Is a Road Map to Post-Pandemic Design

Long before the pandemic, Innovative Building delivered resilience, air quality, and safety.

Solara Exterior Final

Innovation Building

Rod Nadeau of Innovation Building Group tells Treehugger they "build high-performance apartment buildings at a discount to Code Minimum buildings." Getting to high performance is a learning exercise, and there was a lot to learn from their 2015 project in Whistler, British Columbia, Canada—The Solara—which has many features we have been talking about recently on Treehugger, particularly in terms of post-pandemic design.

The Solara is certainly not built at a discount to code: It is a luxury building for seniors in the ski resort town, designed for people downsizing from homes. What immediately caught my eye was the exterior corridor.

Solara Plan
Floor plan of the Solara.

Murdoch + Company / Innovation Building

When you look at the plan, the benefits of this are immediately obvious: You can have bedrooms and dens with windows on the corridor side. The exterior corridor is extra wide. Nadeau explains:

"The wide exterior walkways promote stopping and chatting with your neighbors, which people do not do in a 5’ wide interior corridor. It helps that the building beside us has a grocery store, coffee shop, liquor store, daycare, and dentist. We all walk to these services and once again we tend to meet on our walks. We have 4 bus routes that stop at the end of our driveway. It is easier for us to take the bus than drive to most things."
Roofttop deck

Innovation Building

And if you want more social interaction, there's "the rooftop patio and garden boxes that are the best and most appreciated amenity we have ever put in a building."

Exterior large balconies

Innovation Building

If you are an introvert, the other striking feature of the plan is the vast balconies, as much as 14 feet deep—these are serious outdoor rooms.

Installing SIP

Innovation Building

This building may not be cheap, but it is certainly high performance. On the exterior of the 2x6 walls, there are 8-foot structural insulated panels (SIPs). Nadeau says, "It worked but was too difficult and expensive." There are also individual heat recovery ventilators (HRVs) and hot water heaters in each suite, which is more expensive than central systems but gives owners of the units more control.

The project won the Multi-Residential BC Wood Design Award in 2017: "The jury felt this project provided the best example of the effective use of wood products for multiple applications. Traditional lumber materials and techniques were complemented by the addition of mass timber LVL panels, beams and posts for both structural and finishing purposes."

Trimming LVL inplace
Trimming LVL panels in place.

Innovation Building

The laminated veneer lumber (LVL) is used for the exterior walkways and framing, where it can be seen, giving the building its woody charm. Nadeau tells Treehugger:

"We used the LVL for all the posts, beams, decks, and the exterior walkways. They are made in Brisco just south of Golden BC. They also form the elevator shaft as single pieces from top to bottom. I just wanted to try them and our carpenters like working with heavy timber. They have a few challenges to keep them dry during construction. They do make a nice wood finish when done."
Installing LVL elevator shaft
Installing LVL elevator shaft.

Innovation Building

It also won a WoodWorks Award, that described the construction in greater detail:

"Solara used LVL (laminated veneer lumber) panels, beams and posts as both the structure of the building and the finish. The elevator shaft is constructed of 60-foot long by 8-inch LVL panels screwed together. All the decks and walkways are made of 5.5-inch LVL panels on LVL posts and beams fastened with Heco Topix screws without having to use steel plates, which sped up construction time and provided a unique wood finish to the building. Clear cedar siding was used for some soffits and as accent siding on the building."
LVL Beam with hidden fastener
LVL Beam with hidden fastener.

Innovation Building

The award citation continues:

"Eight-inch SIP panels were used as 'outsulation' over the entire wall system. The wall structure is conventional 2x6 framing with R20 batt insulation for a well-insulated, airtight wall system. All the units have an HRV supplying fresh air with heat recovery. To complete the wall system, triple-pane windows were used. The roof is wood trusses with R70 insulation. Using wood lowered the project’s carbon footprint and reduced the size and cost of the foundations. Using wood as both the finished product and the building structure further reduced materials and embodied energy required for a beautiful finished building. Using wood reduced thermal bridging in the structure and improved the energy performance of the building envelope."
Interior of Solara

Innovation Building

We noted earlier that Nadeau's company builds high-performance apartment buildings at a discount to Code Minimum buildings. This isn't one of them, but I am starting with it because there is so much to like here, especially since we hear so often in comments that many of our readers can't imagine living in apartments. These have balconies as big as some backyards, it's low enough that you never need to use the elevator if you don't want to; the units have cross-ventilation and fresh air.

In my earlier post—"How do you sell a green apartment building today?"—I suggested building with exterior walkways, but also to market the building as Passivhaus because today it's all about health, resilience, air quality, and safety. Nadeau offers all of this, telling Treehugger: "We size the ventilation rates for heating and cooling giving us even better ventilation than the minimums that Passive House strategies employ."

However, he continues: "We have not certified our buildings as we spend all our money on the building and systems rather than consultants. Our electricity bills show us it is working, as well as no complaints from anyone living in our buildings."

It's an interesting approach. Most people don't know what Passivhaus is and probably don't care if they get their granite counter and mountain view. Back in my days as a developer, there was an unwritten rule that you should never live in one of your own buildings because other owners will be complaining to you about something every time they see you. Nadeau is living in this building and appears to be speaking to everyone without complaints, so it's clearly working for him.