outside the office / by Claire Grotz

We had just returned from a family trip to the mountains, and I was somewhat worried. My daughter Wren had just turned three without once experiencing a snow cave. Since I am an expert of sorts on snow caves—architecture, yes, but mostly from spending my prime snowsuit years in Alberta—I decided that this had to change. Up in the mountains we had perfect conditions: sticky, light, deep snow, temperatures around freezing, and a steep slope with new snow in an open clearing. Perfect for a first snow cave!

Wren is a high-curiosity explorer, but also cautious. She needs to know everything about everything first, so I had to present the idea that building a snow cave would be better than other snow activities. Then I had to explain what a cave was, using the analogy of one of her books where there are some bears that live in a cave. This backfired, however, when she started to associate bears with our cave that we hadn’t even built yet. I eventually succeeded in convincing her that the bears would not be interested in us if they saw us, and even if they were, they would only bite us lightly just to taste us, and if they tasted us, they wouldn’t like us.

So the cave was dug, under Wren’s supervision. She looked around the cave, and stepped out, surprisingly unimpressed. Then, in a flash of light and brilliance, she proclaimed that she wanted a hole at the top of the hill, “so that we can go in it, and come down into the cave, and there can be stairs over there to get up to the top!” It was out of nowhere, but so perfect.

As an architect-dad, I had been mildly concerned in her just-passing interest in blocks and other stackables. But here out in the wild with no toys around, she just went full architect, assessing site, program and available materials and designing a solution to enhance the experience of the place. And I realized that the blocks did not matter, because it wasn’t stacking up blocks that got me started in architecture, either. Rather the fun comes from solving problems in the built environment; enhancing experiences with creative solutions both serious and playful. Sometimes it helps to get out of the office, even just seeing the world as a three year old, to remind me how fortunate I am to do this work every day, and how some of the best projects are the ones right in front of us at any time.

We built a path up to the top of the hill, where another hole was dug—the hole became a tunnel, the tunnel became a slide into the original cave, and it was perfect.