Architect Michael Gottschalk on the Marriage of Environmental Design and Natural Settings

Award-winner discusses design innovation and what inspires him

Credit: Anastasia Chomlack

Michael Gottschalk is renown for homes that become part of their natural surroundings, like this house in Whistler

Environmental design doesn’t only point to the use of natural materials, energy-saving innovations, and less construction waste.

It also means working closely with the natural setting to maximize its potential and leaving as little footprint as possible, according to Vancouver architect and designer Michael Gottschalk.

A modernist in both his progressive ideas 
and clean-lined esthetic, Gottschalk stresses keen attention to “view corridors and the movement of sunlight and shadow throughout the seasons within homes that become a living part of the environment.”

Gottschalk leads a multi-award-winning 
international architecture firm, GDI Architecture, and a successful product design company, Blu Bathworks, both with an ecological bent based solidly in practicality. Whether it’s an upscale European hotel, Asian eco-resort or Whistler mansion, he works intuitively with rugged 
natural landscapes – even in unfamiliar settings like Mactan Island, Philippines – to contrast old and new, clean-lined and dramatically textured. 

Gottschalk developed Blu Bathworks in 2003, and now the firm’s tapware, toilets, tubs and showers grace homes and hotels from Hong Kong to New York. The exquisitely sculptural products don’t just look good; many are designed in a product called Blustone™, which is made from 
recycled quartzite granite leftover from quarry debris and concrete-making. 

Blustone requires far less energy to produce than acrylic or ceramic: a ceramic basin requires 20 hours in a kiln firing at 1,250 F, whereas a Blustone basin requires four hours in a kiln operating at 90 F. Blustone’s insulating qualities retain water temperatures longer, too, ultimately saving water during a long soak in the tub. 

Q & A with 
Michael Gottschalk 

Why design bathroom fixtures if you’re an architect?

For the same reason that Frank Gehry does it. I haven’t left architecture; I’ve just branched into other areas of design. I’m drawn to “microdesign” within a building, but I also design the product’s showrooms and displays for Blu Bathworks. 

Since plumbing is permanently fixed, it isn’t an accessory; it’s a major component in a home’s interior cost and resale value. Blu Bathworks was born out of my frustration as a home designer 
trying to find very contemporary, fine-quality plumbing fixtures at a reasonable price and certified for North American use. There’s a void between Home Depot and Philippe Starck if you envision a 
contemporary esthetic on a reasonable budget.

Have you always been creative?

I’ve always loved sketching. I was drawing in 3D at an early age, and still doodle a lot. My mother always had pens and paper around to draw on, and now we do the same for our kids – they like to draw, too.

Do you wake up in the middle of the night with ideas you have to write down?

No. When my head hits the pillow I’m asleep. That said, my creative process peaks from 11 p.m. until 2 a.m., so I don’t go to sleep until after that.Then I’m so tired that I fall right to sleep. I used to go all night sometimes; I’d begin designing and suddenly it would be 7 a.m.

Have you had major design disasters that you pulled out of the fire?

There are times when I say, “I can’t believe that happened!” Aspects of most jobs don’t quite work out as planned, but often end up being opportunities. 

For a Whistler home built high on a mountainside, after designs were based on topographical survey information provided, we started 
excavating and discovered that there was no ground where an entire wing of the building – three bedrooms and a garage – was supposed to be. Redesigning, with limitations to simply moving the home due to property boundaries, and building supports for those rooms cost over $400,000 more than budgeted. Most people can’t afford that type of contingency! But it looks fabulous.

Have you mentally redesigned your home a hundred different ways in the past six years?

Yes. You are your own worst client. But we have three boys aged six to 12 – it’s chaos at the best of times – so our home works. It’s practical and functional. It has a big kitchen with lots of seating around the island. I’m the short-order cook on weekends, standing behind the island cooking and serving not just my three [kids] but their friends.

What materials have you used more than once?

Steel and stone. We recently designed a fireplace with a steel panel similar to a stove’s ventilation hood that’s 12 feet high, and contrasts with rough-cut stone beside it. Lighting is used within the structure to wash across the rubbed steel, revealing its depth and colours. Elements are carried thoughout the home, including exposed steel brackets and the backside of the entry door is covered in steel.

What was your first job as an architect?

I began working with a ski resort company with a real estate component, and when the owner expanded the business to Europe, he allowed me to travel to help masterplan large projects in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Spain and France, and eventually in Argentina and Chile.

Where do you enjoy working the most? 

The Philippines and Asia, because the climate is beautiful, the people are accommodating, and the pace is a little slower. 

You work with your wife. How does that work?

My wife Jennifer does a large part of the design for the homes we build now, and acts as project manager. She is a detail-oriented cross-the-t’s-dot-the-i’s person, whereas I’m a big-
picture thinker, so we balance each other.

See more photos of Michael Gottschalk’s work.

Originally published in BC Home magazine. For monthly updates, subscribe to the free BC Home e-newsletter, or purchase a subscription to the bi-monthly magazine.