best winter retreat homes in Ontario


By Kelly Buffey, Akb Architects


Canadian Winter Home Experience from an Architects Viewpoint

From an architect’s perspective, the quiet tranquility of a white winter landscape presents an opportunity to design buildings that will provide a comforting place of refuge during the cold dormancy of the winter season. The visual silence of a fresh blanket of snow offers a moment of pause, reflection and inspiration. It is this stillness, characteristic of our Canadian winters, which serves as the creative inspiration for our firm’s approach to the design of ski chalets.

When we begin to conceptualize a new building, we focus on the experiential qualities…how the building makes you feel. While each project evolves from its unique conditions and processes, there are a few key architectural elements that we use to heighten the experience while anticipating the environmental impact. These include a thoughtful approach to natural light, views, materiality and sustainability, each of which respond to their respective contexts and program.

When designing a ski chalet, this has specific implications. Given the shortened daylight hours of the winter season, maximizing the number of large windows allows for a brighter, more uplifting experience of the interior. Capturing strategic views of the exterior requires a focused response to the thinner vegetation and open vistas typical of the colder months. Selecting a durable material palette that will withstand the harsh weather conditions not only affects the building’s winter performance, but also informs its visual presence. Also, integrating sustainable strategies that respond to the site and seasonal implications is particularly significant when designing a ski chalet, given the need to reduce energy consumption during colder weather.

To illustrate how these principles may be applied, here are three distinct winter homes designed by our firm, Akb Architects, each of which elevate the experiential qualities of lightness and warmth.


Comprised of 3,000 square feet over two storeys, this chalet is in a private ski club, tucked between a protected ravine and the Niagara Escarpment. It was designed as a winter weekend retreat that would also be used for year-round enjoyment. The site is characterized by an abundance of deciduous trees, which offer welcome shade and privacy in the summer, and allow for open views of the distant ski hills in the winter.

The inversion of a typical chalet program results in the public spaces occupying the top floor. This facilitates a shared appreciation of long vistas to the surrounding ski hills during the colder months, with the more intimate spaces and reduced window openings housed on the ground floor below. Entry to the chalet is neatly concealed on the front elevation through a screened and covered passage, articulated with vertically oriented wood slats painted white. This transitional space offers privacy and protection from the elements, while referencing the winter white program.

In the interior, the spare qualities of the exterior are reflected through an understated but refined material palette. Walls and sloped ceiling planes form a sculptural composition in matte white that amplifies winter light and the purity of the snow outside, enhancing the expression of light and shadow throughout the course of the day.

With sustainability at the forefront of the design process, the requirement of material durability and longevity was paramount: low-maintenance prefinished Canadian pine siding and a
high-performance metal roof were specified for the building exterior. To further reduce the ecological footprint, energy consumption was decreased through a high-performance glazing system, hydronic radiant in-floor heating, additional insulation, and a wood-burning fireplace. Natural lighting and ventilation are optimized through the provision of several large, operable windows.


Located on an open corner lot at the base of a private ski club development in the Georgian Bay Area, Maison Glissade is a 2,400 square foot chalet with a recreational basement below. It was designed as a year-round weekend retreat with primary use during the ski season.

This commission involved the design of a two-storey chalet that would encourage family togetherness and enable new experiences that evolve over time and with seasonal changes. An efficiently planned ground floor consisting of private bedrooms and a large mudroom encourages the users to congregate upstairs in an open concept, light-filled, family hub comprising the communal spaces. Under a gabled roof, the upper floor is defined by a white-painted, peaked ceiling and fully glazed window openings at either end to maximize natural light throughout the year. These windows strategically frame an unobstructed and expansive view of the adjacent ski hill towards the south and a treed valley to the north, with reduced openings to neighbouring properties on the east and west.

The exterior palette consists of two primary materials: Western red cedar boards used to clad the walls and roof (left to weather gray, they eschew the maintenance required of wood staining or painting); and robust, maintenance-free, custom charcoal gray aluminum panels selected for the guard on the rear balcony.
Sustainable strategies include: minimizing site disturbance by building on the footprint of the original chalet; using eco-friendly interior materials free of adhesives and laminates; employing a renewable resource for the majority of the exterior cladding; optimizing natural light; providing a deep overhang on the generous south-facing opening to mitigate heat gain; and the use of large sliding doors and windows to transform the second floor into a breezeway, maximizing natural ventilation.


Set against the rugged terrain of the Blue Mountain Escarpment, Alpine Chalet was designed as a winter weekend getaway. Firmly rooted at the base of the wooded ski hills, the owners enjoy direct access to the slopes of a private ski club from the eastern edge of their property. With 4,650 square feet of living space on the ground and second floors, this chalet combines the practical utility required of contemporary life with the recreational program of a chalet.

A double height kitchen, dining and living room are oriented toward the ski hill, allowing for an abundance of natural daylight through framed windows on both the lower and upper portions of the walls. Views of both the base of the hill as well as extended vistas of the top of the slopes are captured from the ground floor. A second storey mezzanine, with cathedral ceiling, overlooks the social space below, with private bedrooms nestled behind.

Clad in western red cedar on the exterior walls, a limestone base around the perimeter, and a copper standing seam-roof, the materials were selected for their quality, longevity and ability to benefit from the natural weathering process. The conscious selection of durable materials extends the life of the building, while also reducing the need for replacement or waste.

Additional sustainable initiatives include: a large three-sided wood-burning fireplace which provides supplemental warmth; hydronic radiant in-floor heating on the lower level; the optimization of natural light and ventilation through the use of large, operable windows with a double height volume, allowing for passive cooling; and the implementation of high-performance windows to reduce heat loss during the colder months.

Kelly Buffey (M Arch, B AA (ID), B A, OAA, FRAIC), Co-Founder and Principal at Toronto-based Akb Architects.

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