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Photo © Greg Richardson

Two Hulls House

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects

Nova Scotia, Canada

Between the Sea and the Sky: Evoking maritime images and experiences from the architects' past, a house for a young family reaches out to the water.

By Clifford A. Pearson

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Most architects say they start each project with a blank slate. Brian MacKay-Lyons, though, talks about creating a body of work over 27 years; he isn't afraid of describing a new design as “consistent.” “You build on the shoulders of the project before, so you get a little better each time. I haven't gotten tired of that,” says MacKay-Lyons, who practices with partner Talbot Sweetapple in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The architects stress “place, craft, and community” in shaping their buildings. In their part of the world that means “it's always going to be a box,” states MacKay-Lyons, explaining that in a climate that shifts from freeze to thaw about 250 times a year, icicles will form on eaves and simple lines work best. “Then we cut openings in the box like Matta-Clark going at it with a chain saw.”

If you look closely at the firm's projects, you'll notice the subtle evolution. The Two Hulls House, which perches on the rocky coast about two hours south of Halifax, strikes a more dramatic pose than its predecessors, for example. “Over the years, we've become more and more clear about how our buildings relate to the ground and how they meet the sky,” says MacKay-Lyons.

The glaciated geology and crashing waves at the site of the house pushed the architects to raise the 3,360-square-foot structure on concrete piers and cantilever its twin pavilions 32 feet out toward the sea. The architects, both of whom grew up in the Maritime provinces, remember playing under the hulls of ships in dry docks as kids and tried to capture that experience with this house. So they even wrapped the undersides of the pavilions in wood and left enough space for people to stand (or stoop) underneath. “We wanted the house to float,” says Sweetapple, “and to let people inhabit the space between the building and the ground.” The pair of long boxes sliding past one another was also inspired by Glenn Murcutt's Marie Short House in Australia. “Glenn has been a mentor since 1985,” says MacKay-Lyons.

At first, the architects planned to use timber frames for the pavilions and clad them with corrugated metal. But building wood cantilevers would have been expensive, so they switched to steel frames and cedar cladding. To link the two pavilions, they designed a wood-clad block on the landside of the house that pushes through one and just touches the other.

The clients are a couple of doctors originally from Brazil and their two daughters. They have a place in Halifax but plan eventually to use the Two Hulls House as their primary residence. “We fell in love with the coast here,” says the husband, “so finding the right place to build [on the 75-acre site] was really important.” They settled on a hill that affords views to a pair of sandy beaches on either side of a rocky promontory.

One pavilion serves daytime functions such as living and dining, while the other one houses the bedrooms. The linking block acts mostly as a spacious foyer with a broad set of wood steps up to the night pavilion, while it also pushes through the day wing to define the kitchen. Two studies (one for the kids and one for the adults) anchor the landside of the pavilions, providing cavelike counterpoints to the pair of covered decks that project out to the water. Floor-to-ceiling glazing at the tall end of each pavilion brings in enough daylight to reduce the use of electric lighting, while cross ventilation in the narrow structures eliminates the need for air-conditioning.

“This house is about dwelling in the landscape and knowing where you are in the universe,” says MacKay-Lyons. Sitting on one of the decks, staring out to sea or at the stars at night, you certainly feel connected to the great outdoors, even if you can't quite fathom your place in the cosmos.

Completion Date: November 2011

Size: 3,360 square feet

Total construction cost: withheld

Architect:
MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects Ltd.
2188 Gottingen Street
Halifax, Nova Scotia
B3K3B4

April 2012
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