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Architect Brian MacKay-Lyons uses landscape as a kind of starting point for an architectural language. The native Maritimer has been surrounded by water all his life, and it’s the power of the Atlantic Ocean that has come to define the stunning coastal homes he’s created in Nova Scotia and farther afield.

“Almost all our work is on the water,” says MacKay-Lyons, whose Sunset Rock House in Shag Harbour, N.S., is just one of many homes featured in a gorgeous new book, Living on Water: Contemporary Houses Framed by Water, from Phaidon Editors. “Water for us is like breathing. It’s part of our psychology. The ocean horizon seems infinite so it has this calming effect on you, but it also makes you feel insignificant. Many of our homes are modest, but part of the way we create a lot of drama is to harness the power of the ocean into the design. The idea is not to stop nature, but to let nature in.”

That theme runs through the glossy pages of Living on Water, an “aquatectural” showcase of houses from Australia, India, Chile, Norway, Lebanon and beyond that incorporate meandering rivers, streams, inland lakes, lochs, fjords, marshlands, seas and oceans to leave an indelible stamp on a property and its natural habitat.

George Cibinel, whose Beach House on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba is featured in the book, says water has always played an important role in architectural design. “The essence of the courtyard, and a cooling pond. Residents built around fountains and water stations throughout Europe. It brings life. So water’s place in modern architecture is just new interpretations of something that’s always been very important, but sometimes forgotten.”

His house, located in Victoria Beach, is built solely to embrace Lake Winnipeg, which is temperamental and vast so that it feels like an ocean. “We wanted a building that addresses the beach from the moment you arrive,” says Cibinel. “We’re 15 feet above the water, and it’s constantly eroded by the waves [they have built an extensive retaining wall]. Lake Winnipeg is powerful, so when it storms – and the lightning storms are fantastic – it’s all about the elements and the sky. The cottage was designed to feel like a screened-in porch, and its close relationship to the water adds a vitality to it.”

The other Canadian entrant in the book, Floating House on Georgian Bay, is the brainchild of New York’s MOS Architects. Perched on an inlet, it bobs on steel pontoons that were used to accommodate the constant rise and fall of the lake. One of several cabins that form a family compound scattered on a series of islands, Floating House, like its sister cabins, was made of wood, taking a back seat to the rocky landscape and wild vegetation surrounding it on all sides.

Toronto-based architect Jim Strasman, who designed the Bridge House on Stoney Lake in the Kawarthas almost 40 years ago, says some architects treat buildings as precious objects that get set onto a landscape, rather than in it. “I believe our job is to blend the built environment with the natural one,” says Strasman, whose 7,000-square-foot Bridge House continues to enthrall visitors to this corner of Ontario cottage country. “The two shouldn’t compete. They should reinforce one another.”

Two Hulls House

South Shore, Nova Scotia

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, Halifax

Greg Richardson

Two wood/steel pavilions sit on granite bedrock and jut out over the Atlantic, like two ships’ hulls up on cradles for the winter. MacKay-Lyons likens the structure to a set of binoculars, keeping a watchful eye on the sea.

Floating House

Georgian Bay, Ontario

MOS Architects, New York

Florian Holzherr

The water level of the Great Lakes is in constant flux, and the Cincinnati-based owners of this Lake Huron property wanted a living space that could also serve as a walkway between islands. Due to the remote locale, the house was built near the shore before being towed about 80 kilometres across the lake to its final resting place.

Sunset Rock House

Shelburne County, Nova Scotia

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects

Greg Richardson

Close to a small fishing village, Sunset Rock’s galvanized aluminum is a shield against the harsh weather off the Atlantic. The underbelly is protected by marine-grade plywood, a material used to build boats. It sits on fin-like footings that will allow rogue waves to pass underneath.

Beach House

Victoria Beach, Man.

Cibinel Architecture, Winnipeg

Jerry Grajewski

A deck, with overhang, spans the Lake Winnipeg side of the cottage and functions as an outdoor living room. Windows across the front open 90 degrees so that on a beautiful summer day, the cottage is like a screened-in porch. It has a wedge shape to capture the breezes from the water.


Clearwater Bay (Lake of the Woods), near Kenora, Ont.

Cibinel Architecture


The cottage is on the north side of a hilly area so the main building does not get a lot of sun. Cibinel created the boathouse and living space to be an extension of living at the beach and enjoying sunshine all day long. A sliding mosquito curtain and suspended fireplace means the space is used year-round.

The Bridge House

Stoney Lake, Kawarthas, Ontario

Strasman Architects, Toronto

Otto Baitz

The 7,000-square-foot-space was built to intrude as little as possible on the landscape. Two concrete structures (containing the bedrooms) create a bridge that supports a long box containing the living area, dining room and kitchen. Partially cantilevered over the lake, it provides optimum vantage points to take in the surrounding environment.

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