Q&A: Mark Osburn, architect

Vancouver's Cabin King dishes on island life then and now, and building the perfect tree house.


July 24, 10:29 a.m., Mayne Island, B.C. (Photo: Grant Harder)

Let’s say you’re an American industrialist who has just purchased a string of private islands near Victoria, or a world-famous musician looking to strike all the right architectural notes with your Gulf Islands getaway. Who are you going to call? For the past quarter century, the answer more often than not has been the Vancouver design firm of Osburn/Clark Productions—specialists in designing and building the most beautiful cabins (please, not cottages) in the most difficult spots. Mark Osburn spoke with Vancouver-based freelance writer Jim Sutherland.

Born: 05/12/44
Graduated from UBC in 1970
Once worked as: A commercial fisherman
Met his business partner: Designing exhibits at Expo 86
Number of Custom homes Osburn/Clark has designed since: 100+

Canadian Business: You’re that rare person who has always lived on the West Coast. Does that somehow explain how you came to specialize in seaside cabins?

Mark Osburn: Maybe partly. I grew up in West Vancouver, and on the last day of school each summer I’d go to the barbershop and get my hair shaved off, so I wouldn’t have to worry about ticks. We’d spend the entire summer at our place on Paisley Island. Every Friday the fathers arrived on the daddy water taxi. Strangely, the services were much better then. Every couple of days a boat would dock with the groceries people had ordered.

Through the 1970s, I divided my time between Vancouver and Kyuquot, which is way up Vancouver Island’s west coast, eventually doing renovations and working a lot with heavy timber. At one point, I went into business with a company that did demolitions—salvaging lumber from all the warehouses and marine buildings that were coming down.

In the early ’80s, there was no work for architects. But I knew some people involved with the B.C. pavilion for Expo 86, and I got hooked in with that. That’s how Wayne Clarke and I started working together. He was out here on a holiday and had no money to get home because there was no work in Halifax, either. We didn’t know what we were doing, but we knew more than most people did, so we ended up helping out on a bunch of Expo stuff. After that, we started to get a few little projects on our own. One landed in Western Living magazine as the World’s Most Expensive Garage. A Gulf Islands place also ended up in the magazine, with a story written by the playwright John MacLachlan Gray. That gave us a persona. In simple terms, we’ve been working for interesting people in interesting places ever since.

CB: You quickly became known as the Cabin Kings. How did that happen?

MO: It’s like a snowball. First you have to have something to show, then you have to get it published, then you have to make sure that the next one is as good as or better than the one before. Now you have a reputation. The other thing is, we were really lucky. We ran into incredible builders that we’ve worked with for over 20 years now. So, because of the people we’re working with, we can make better buildings in the middle of nowhere than most people are capable of doing in the middle of the city.

CB: What factors make designing cabins to be built in the middle of nowhere so different?

MO: Water, power and waste. And access—all of which you’d take for granted if you were building in the city. Beyond that, much of it comes down to maximizing the light and managing the climate. A lot of times you use the building itself to create wind barriers or warm areas where residents can be outside. The other major aspect with places outside of town is that they’re often multi-generational family gathering spots—it has to work for two but also for 22. You can’t make a place so big that a couple is going to feel like they’re in some big hall.

CB: Your best-known project is probably a family compound on the Gulf Islands where you designed personal cabins for two teenagers.

MO: This was an American family. They had the fairly typical situation where the last place the kids wanted to be was on a private island in the middle of nowhere, so the parents thought that getting them involved in designing their own places might increase their interest. What happened is, they got so involved, it almost got out of control. Molly’s House is very textured and rustic, with most of the wood reclaimed from the site. Joe’s House is very much a boy’s fantasy, like a tree house.

CB: Joe’s House in particular has received a lot of attention. (It won awards from the North American Wood Council and Western Living magazine and was named one of Dwell magazine’s 100 Houses We Love.) Everyone loves the bed, which is mounted on recessed rails so it can slide out onto the balcony for sleeping under the stars. Was that Joe’s idea?

MO: No, that was ours, though we probably saw it somewhere else first. The parents thought it was crazy, but Joe just thought it was the best thing in the world. It’s such an unusual building because it’s very small, but it has so many different aspects to it, and it’s so beautifully made, and it sits in such a lovely spot.

CB: Does that say something about clients—that your best work could result from working with an 18-year-old boy?

MO: We have a fairly playful side to the practice, and those kinds of projects encourage that aspect of our capacity. But clients are all different, and nothing can predict how things will play out. People that you think are going to be really thoughtful and curious turn out to have so many preconceptions about what they’re going to get that they’re impossible to work with. Other people are prepared to let the solutions come along. Process-oriented people are better than ones who are used to picking things out of a catalog. That kind of thinking makes it hard to get to interesting solutions.

CB: So you don’t think it’s best to start with the style or look of the finished product in mind, but rather to view a successful design as the result of a whole series of correct decisions?

MO: Yeah, that’s the way it’s supposed to work. The best buildings are ones that start with an idea, no matter how stupid it is, and let it get tested and tested and refined and refined. One of the benefits of our studio here is that no one owns a design or a building, so at the end of the day it’s the result of everyone’s efforts.

CB: The Osburn/Clarke partnership is almost three decades old now. How do you account for that?

MO: It’s simple. Wayne knows how to make buildings. That’s all he does—he sits around and makes things beautiful. I scout the site and place the building. Everybody else makes it work.