Passersby sometimes mistake Douglas and Maureen Leahey's new home in Pugwash Point, N.S. for a group of barns or sheds. But Brian MacKay-Lyons takes no offence.
"I like the fact that the building is incognito – that it's a double take," says the Halifax-based architect, who designed the home with the farm culture and Scottish barns of the area in mind.
Clad in uber-durable Galvalume corrugated metal panels, with gabled roofs, this home on the province's north shore comprises three seamlessly connected buildings, while a fourth stands at attention (offering storage space) between the main dwelling and the winding rural road.
"I guess there's an attempt to make something that is modern and traditional. The forms of the buildings and the way they are clustered is quite traditional, but the material and the really, really clean lines make it kind of modern," says Mr. MacKay-Lyons of the multiple award-winning firm, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects Limited.
"Really old homes are not fluffy. They tend to very, very austere, much like modern architecture."
Now in the process of relocating from Calgary – where they've spent most of their adult life – to Douglas's hometown, the mostly retired Leaheys – she a family therapist, he a meteorologist – will use this place as a home base from which to travel.
"The dream was a place in Pugwash and a condo in Manhattan," says Maureen, a New Yorker. "Whether that will ever happen remains to be seen."
Meanwhile, they're basking in their home, perched on a bluff overlooking Pugwash Harbour, where they often watch the pirouette of ships going to and from the nearby salt mine.
The single-level dwelling lies alongside a field of wild grasses and flowers, at the edge of two, 2½-acre lots, rather than in the middle. That placement is as intentional as the look of the home, which adds up to 2,100 square feet.
"It's kind of an obsession of mine: the conservation of the agrarian landscape," says Mr. MacKay-Lyons, who confesses he urged the family to build on the edge of the field, and buy the field next to it.
The home's location and form are also acknowledgement of the shore's sometimes biting winds and harsh weather.
"Making a collection of small buildings was really a strategy to create protected outdoor places in that open agricultural landscape, together with the hedge row on the property line, which also gives some shelter," explains the architect. "Creating these sort of micro-climates allows them to follow the sun around and get out of the wind when they need to."
The home features two bedrooms, two baths, and an open-concept living pavilion with kitchen, dining area and living room. A freestanding central "core" includes the streamlined kitchen, pantry, utility room and bathroom, not to mention tons of storage space. Indeed, every spare inch of the home seems to contain a discreet cupboard, drawer or pocket door.
"It's kind of totemic, like a totem in the centre … I think the kitchen in the modern home is a kind of hearth," says Mr. MacKay-Lyons.
It's here that the home's beamed and vaulted ceiling is terrifically displayed, the soft grey stain chosen by the Leaheys complementing the muted tones of the decor, by Calgary's Douglas Cridland Interior Design. In-floor heating ensures comfort, even with the home's concrete floors. The couple can scout out wildlife, including bobolinks, blue herons and the neighbour's cows, or listen to the crickets.
While the couple's desire for clean lines, understated effects and a spartan aesthetic jibes with the firm's body of work, Douglas was also looking for "a room that would be a retreat, a womb."
And so, the library. Located in the third shed, the one with windows only on the water side, the room is cozy and inviting, with an oversized window seat where curling up with a book on a cold winter's evening seems like a no-brainer.
"That was the programmatic piece that was unusual. Kind of traditional, and old in a nice way," says Mr. MacKay-Lyons.
For Maureen, there's a detached deck, which she calls her "moon-viewing platform."
"It's great for watching the sunsets. The sun sets by the lighthouse, and you can't see it from the living room because of the trees," she notes.
Recently returned from a trip to Kyoto, the Leaheys say they could feel reverberations of their own abode in the homes there. MacKay-Lyons studied in Japan, and in China, California and Italy, before settling back in his native Nova Scotia in 1983.
He doesn't deny the Japanese influence in terms of "space and framing and creating outdoor spaces and gardens." That's particularly evident in the Leaheys' Zen garden, adjacent to the home's main entrance, which boasts a variety of stones serving distinct purposes.
The Leaheys approached MacKay-Lyons because he'd previously designed a home in the community for Douglas's twin brother, although that home is quite different from theirs.
"It's more majestic – although you couldn't be much less majestic than this," Douglas says with a laugh.
But while tough economic times and the environmental movement have prompted some people to adopt a simplified approach to home-building, the Leaheys are not your average consumer.
"It's sad today that people have an idea of what a house should look like mostly based on bad television shows," muses Mr. MacKay-Lyons. "We're bombarded constantly in the media to consume, consume, consume, and to think of these things as status symbols."
He recalls a lecture in San Francisco years ago, when he was asked what he would like to be doing in 10 years.
"I said, 'Making buildings that are more silent, but have more to say,' " he says. "More meaning, more silence. So this project expresses that."