Words: Antti Laiho, Nieto Magazine, Finland

Paul Mathews, Master Planner

As a young man, Paul Mathews 64, disliked the indifferent attitude of American ski resorts towards the environment. He was about to join the field activists’ opposing side, but decided to play a role by designing better ski resorts – it was worth it.

Planning a ski resort in mathematical work. One of the world’s most respected designers, Canadian Paul Mathews, however, did not end up as a ski resort designer by accurate calculations.

He spent his childhood in the mountains, as his parents were active skiers and founding members in Breckenridge Ski Club in Colorado. Atmosphere in the American ski resorts, however, did not please the maturing Mathews.

“I had been in European ski resorts, and when I compared them to American resorts, I noted that American resorts were not designed properly and were filled with bulldozers and forwarded to erosion”, says Mathews at Pyhätunturi hotel breakfast table.

After returning from the Vietnam War Mathews considered his future for a long time. He had studied physics in a university for a few years but longed for something else. Environmental values were important to him.

“I had two options: either join the protest movement and try to put an end to the ski resorts, or I could study and try to design better ski resorts,” Mathews says.

“I have been much more effective when I chose the design. I have designed more than 350 ski resorts – hopefully in the right way!”

Mathews studied forest ecology and landscape architecture at the University of Washington in Seattle. His first actual work case was in Mount Washington Ski Resort, located on Vancouver Island, in 1975. At the time, an important goal was to protect soil, water and forests.

Mathews firm’s, Ecosign, most important design principle is to locate all services as close to the ski resorts center as possible. Mathews first visited Ruka in turn of the millennium – clearly shocked!

“I asked, what on earth is being done there. Large areas were ripped open, divided into lots and then sold for private cabin owners. Roads and other major infrastructure was built and also required maintanance. Worst of all, the cabins were empty most time of the year.”

“I said that the philosophy is completely wrong. 80 per cent of accommodation should be within 400 meters radius from the slopes and services. Then the the resorts can grow and develop sustainably. Accommodation units must be available for rental, otherwise they do not support the village.”

Mathews also wonders why anybody would want to use a car while on holidays. Isn’t it more convenient to park in the car park, take a lift home and walk out of the door, or ski to the slopes?

“Why would you want to pack the family in a car every morning, and drive 20-30 minutes to find a parking space and then walk to the slopes? It does not make any sense”.

Mathews became familiar with village design in his second major job as the chairman of the Whistler planning commission the mid-1970s after. The model was applied from a traditional Swiss alpine village.

In the Swiss valley bottoms the space is of the essence, there’s no excess land available. Contrary to what has been seen in for example Nordic countries and North America, where there is much more room.

“Switzerland is very impressive to me. The use of each square meter has been considered carefully there, but still the country seems like a large national park”.

From the Swiss model Mathews picked short distances, pedestrian villages and small hotels. So-called hot and cold beds had a central role in the design.

Cold beds are privately-owned, which are not used for most of the year. They do not promote tourism in the area, and can even harm the development of the accommodation capacity. Unoccupied cabins do not bring new customers to use services.

With hot beds the idea is that they are always available. The owner selects a cottage or an apartment and uses it when he or she wishes, rest of the time they are rented. Owning such accommodation in a resort is also a worthwhile investment, and reduces the environmental load when unnecessary holiday homes are not built. Even the infrastructure is kept tighter.

As examples he mentions the traditional pedestrian villages, such as Murren, Wengen and Zermatt. Now, many other villages, such as Grindelwald, are considering design changes with Ecosign’s help.

“We are restoring the old Swiss model in Swiss ski resort villages. It is really interesting”, Mathews says with a laugh.

Ecosign operates globally, over the years they have learned that the basics of the design apply everywhere.

“Skiers are similair everywhere and skiing requires snow and the force of gravity”, Mathews simplifies.

Ecosign has measured and has accurate data of skiers behaviour to support their work. For example people are willing to walk to the ski lifts at a maximum of 400 meters. Each meter uphill shortens the distance based on a particular formula.

The slope capacities has also been carefully researched and calculated. There is no point to increase the lift capacity, if there is not enough space on slopes.

The difficulty level of the slopes also impact the carrying capacity: easy slopes can have more skiers than the difficult ones.

But the skiers around the world are not similair in all aspects. Slope congestion tolerance varies greatly between different cultures. For example, the Japanese accept 30 percent more skiers on a slope than the Finns.

There are also other national differences that need to be considered. At Ruka for example we had to take into account five different kinds of pathways.

“We had to fit ski slopes, trails, roads, pedestrian routes as well as snowmobile trails in the same area. These adjustment were not easy, but we succeeded and learned”, says Mathews and gets up from the breakfast table.

It is time to test Pyhä´s new lifts and slopes.

After a few runs the master is pleased.

“The whole resort feels and looks like new. Lifts and slopes function as planned”.

Who will raise the cat’s tail, if not the cat itself.