Case Study: East Dover Residence by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple

“Our firm makes fabric, cultural fabric,” says Brian MacKay-Lyons, FRIBA, Hon. FAIA. “All culture comes from the poor, and all the best ideas are created by cultures over time. We’re just participating in making a larger landscape or streetscape.” His firm’s new house, on a peninsula near Halifax, does seem to absorb the qualities of the small fishing community it overlooks. Situated above a harbor dotted with “funky small boats,” it is adjacent to a village Brian calls “the fishing version of the family farm,” where inshore water workers ply their trade close to home.

His clients bought this piece of land 16 years ago and hired MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple to design a family house. But the project was put on hold after the couple decided the cost was out of their reach. When they came back 13 years later, their ideas had evolved, and so had Brian’s. While the original design was a single building scribed to the land, the new scheme hovers over it and is split into two Monopoly-like pavilions that slide past each other, connected by an entry piece. The forward-most volume on the left houses three bedrooms and a study, while the receding volume on the right contains the open living, dining, and kitchen areas, plus a powder room and laundry.

Influenced by Glenn Murcutt’s Marie Short House, the firm has designed several houses organized, like this one, into living and sleeping pavilions. For Brian, it’s a way to make a building less intrusive in the landscape, as well as to create microclimates and sheltered spaces in what can be a harsh climate. His larger Smith House, designed in 2019, is an example of this on a more luxurious scale. “We go back and forth between very rural projects like the East Dover Residence and spiffier projects like the Smith House,” Brian says, drawing a parallel to the relationship between Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House and his Usonian Jacobs House. “It’s the same parti at two scales and with two kinds of budgets. I prefer the Usonians. Those of us who grew up on bread and water think it’s character-building, so when we get a chance to design a more expensive house, you kind of know about restraint as an aesthetic idea about economy.”

Frugal Chic

That ethic of economy drove the house’s large and small moves. Tall, taut, and bronzed, its rectangular forms are topped with common gang-nailed roof trusses, and the entire envelope is wrapped in Cor-Ten steel to make it as seamless as possible. “So in a way you have a ‘woof’ instead of a roof and a wall,” Brian says. This one-material solution makes sense in a climate with frequent freeze/thaw cycles, where buildings tend to leak when two different materials pull apart. Eliminating overhangs also prevents ice dams; venting occurs at the roof ridge and the bottom of the walls, rather than the eaves.

Organized around views, the sun, and elements of surprise, these spare-looking enclosures are far more than the sum of their parts. The project exemplifies what Brian calls “the good generic,” strategies that make custom architecture more accessible to ordinary people. For example, the view from the cross-axis entry hall reveals two cuts through the rooflines. Looking right toward the great room, you see a skylight that folds down past the eave, and to the left is a mirror image in the bedroom wing. “Because of the truss roof structure, the interior ceiling and outside have different angles,” Brian explains. “When you cut through it, you get a sculptural slot through the building. It’s a thematic detail that ties the two pieces together in terms of light and orientation—creating an effect out of nothing.” 

Another special effect made “out of nothing” is the asymmetrical window placement. From outside, the kitchen window is offset from the skylight, and on the front façade a small loft window “pinwheels” with the study window below. “It’s a dynamic composition I learned from looking at fishing shacks—it’s how they handle wind shear,” Brian says. “If you tie the windows together in these pinwheeling relationships, it creates white space, or rifts, and makes a minimalist and a kinetic effect. Everything seems to be moving; one window slides past another one; it’s essential to our work.”

In what may be seen as a typically Canadian show of good citizenship—but in Brian’s hands has become an architectural language—both pavilions present their blank side or “dumb end” to the public. In the living pavilion, a laundry and mechanical room face the driveway, and in the bedroom pavilion it’s a sequestered study with a ladder to a loft in the gabled roof. “In Nova Scotia we don’t put our gonads on the front lawn,” Brian says. “We believe in the importance of impersonality in the public domain.” That said, he adds, “While you might want a blank public side, you need to have an idea who’s driving up the road. I learned that designing a house for a woman who’d been abused as a child. At the study you can see who’s coming, and in the kitchen, a little window faces in the public direction. Both of these buildings have an eye in the back of their head.”

That lack of architectural “clutter” is evident on the interior, too. Brian says his firm has “never obsessed about craft,” but that doesn’t mean it’s missing. Borrowing an idea from Charles Moore, he says that elements such as bookcases, hearths, kitchen islands, and stairs can be “totems” that give a space focus by attracting finer materials and craft. Here, that is embodied in the thick north wall of the great room, where a bank of birch plywood kitchen cabinets continues into the living room, defining display cubbies and the fireplace wall. No-fuss concrete floors further unify the spaces.

Democratic Design

One element notably absent from the diagram is a deck extending any of these elevated rooms into the outdoors. Instead of attaching this “view killer” to the house, “you’re on the deck when you’re in the house,” Brian says. The great room has a sliding door with a screen, and screened casement windows in the bedroom wing extend the sense of levitation. 

Indeed, he considers the space between the bedrock and the belly of the building as the deck, and it’s his favorite place to sit. Perched on stilts, the house sits lightly on the land, thanks in part to the workaround that builder Gordon MacLean created from the engineer’s drawings. Rather than landing the galvanized steel posts on clunky concrete cubes, he devised a template for core-drilling on a plate bolted to the bedrock. “I had taken a picture of a boat in the local harbor that someone used as a cottage by drilling a hole directly into the bedrock,” Gordon says. “It was pretty cute, and I thought, we have to come up with a way to make it cleaner, rather than having these concrete cubes. We had a steel plate fabricated that we could level over each hole and accurately locate the holes with the core-drilling machine. The house has been through a couple of hurricanes and is pretty solid; it doesn’t shake, rattle, or roll.” It doesn’t shut down when the power goes out, either. A field of solar panels keeps the house humming and sends excess energy to the electrical grid.

Floating above the bedrock, this modest house bows politely to the village vernacular, while making space for lichens and red conifers to grow under and around the building. “We are hopelessly democratic about our architecture,” Brian says. “Wherever I travel in the world I look for the ordinary, the everyday. In Australia it’s corrugated buildings, in Nova Scotia it’s fish shacks. It’s a form of resistance—resisting the effects of globalization. By being conservative, we’re being radical.”

East Dover Residence

Halifax, Nova Scotia

Project Credits

Architect: Brian MacKay-Lyons, principal in charge; Alastair Bird and Diana Carl, project architects, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Builder: Gordon MacLean, Halifax, Nova Scotia

Project size: 2,000 square feet

Site size: 5.5 acres

Photography: James Brittain

Key Products

Cabinetry: Baltic birch plywood, painted MDF, solid laminated birch

Cladding: Corrugated weathering steel

Cooking ventilation: Bosch

Cooktop: Bosch

Countertops: Caesarstone

Dishwasher: Bosch

Entry doors, hardware, locksets: Tiltco Architectural

Fireplace: Stûv

Lighting: RAB, Sonneman 

Ovens: Bosch

Refrigerator/freezer: Bosch

Roofing: Corrugated weathering steel

Specialty appliances: Bosch built-in coffee maker

Washer/dryer: Bosch

Window wall systems: Tiltco Architectural

Windows: Tiltco Architectural