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Architect Brian MacKay-Lyons designed Elizabeth Bray and Peter Bridgewater's home near East Dover, N.S. to stand above the exposed granite bedrock on galvanized steel stilts, while also protecting the area's fragile ecosystem.James Brittain

In 2006, architect Brian MacKay-Lyons climbed a granite promontory on Nova Scotia’s Atlantic coast and surveyed the rugged terrain sloping down to a beautiful bay.

Elizabeth Bray, an educator, and Peter Bridgewater, a landscape architect, had purchased the tract near East Dover, N.S. for the spellbinding views.

They were delighted when Mr. MacKay-Lyons’s presented his design for a tall and narrow house that would perch above the bay known as the Northern Arm.

The couple then put the plan on hold and returned to their careers in Singapore, where they raised their two sons and built up their resources.

A decade later, Ms. Bray and Mr. Bridgewater let Mr. MacKay-Lyons know that they were ready to begin building at last.

His response surprised the couple.

“We’re all 10 years older – what do you think now?” Mr. MacKay-Lyons queried.

Ms. Bray and Mr. Bridgewater were intrigued to hear the fresh perspective of the co-founder of Halifax-based MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects. The couple agreed to set the original design aside and begin again.

  • Home of Elizabeth Bray and Peter Bridgewater near East Dover, N.S. Brian MacKay-Lyons, architect.James Brittain

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For his part, Mr. MacKay-Lyons had become more and more interested over the intervening years with the way buildings meet the ground.

He devised an entirely new scheme that places the house on galvanized steel stilts so that it barely touches the exposed granite bedrock.

“‘Your ideas change as the architect,” Mr. MacKay-Lyons explains. “Your best practices evolve.”

The concept of a floating building is well-established in Atlantic Canada, where in the past people moved their houses around like ships, he says.

The design also protects the fragile barrens ecosystem – covered in conifers, junipers, lowbush blueberry and lichens – by lightly pinning the house to the land, Mr. MacKay-Lyons explains.

“It’s an exposed, glaciated site, so you don’t want to bulldoze and blast.”

In place of the four-level building, Mr. MacKay-Lyons designed twin pavilions – one for daily living and one for sleeping. In keeping with their Maritime setting, the buildings appear to slide past each other like ships passing on the ocean, he adds.

The new design reflects Mr. MacKay-Lyons’s evolution during a lifetime in Nova Scotia and builds on his earlier Two Hulls house, which in turn was inspired by the vision of his long-time mentor and friend, Australian architect Glenn Murcutt.

At the East Dover house, residents arrive to a steep stair that takes them up to the main level, floating above the bedrock.

Inside the 2,000-square-foot house, the north wall is made of thick plywood and weathered steel in order to anchor the main living space and provide a feeling of refuge. A fireplace, shelving and cabinets are built in.

Two windows fold into the roofline, drawing light and views from above, while also maintaining a strong sense of shelter, the architect says.

The south side is given over to the views, with walls of glass wrapping around the living area.

The nighttime wing provides three bedrooms, with the primary bedroom’s walls of glass at the south end matching those of the living area.

Extreme weather has been a continual area of study for Mr. MacKay-Lyons during more than 30 years as a professor of architecture at Dalhousie University.

On sites next to the ocean, for example, MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple has tackled the challenge of tidal surge. Amidst the devastation of 2022′s Hurricane Fiona, the firm’s Point House – surrounded by water on three sides – was safe because it is set on concrete fins, he explains.

Instead of the ocean washing against the building, it washes under it, he explains. “Don’t try to block nature because nature wins.”

The East Dover house, set on an exposed hilltop, would need to withstand intense wind and cold. Mr. MacKay-Lyons enveloped the structure in corrugated Corten steel, which stands up to Atlantic Canada’s freeze-thaw cycles.

The rust-toned steel combines nicely with the landscape of colourful lichens and red berries in the fall, he adds.

And while Mr. MacKay-Lyons is pleased to take on the projects of tech billionaires and investment bankers, he maintains his belief in “the power of the ordinary, the everyday, the unpretentious.”

Architecture should be democratic, Mr. MacKay-Lyons asserts, explaining that he draws much inspiration from the sturdy sheds and fishing shacks of rural Nova Scotia.

“Those are what people build when they can’t afford to get it wrong.”

The minimalistic details of the eaves and openings of the house are reminiscent of the area’s fishing shacks, he explains.

To keep costs relatively affordable, the architect used off-the-shelf gangnail scissor trusses that allow for a double-height interior with no columns or interior structural systems to obscure the panoramic view.

The natural birch plywood cabinetry in the kitchen and concrete floors throughout are simple, durable and cost-effective materials, Mr. MacKay-Lyons adds.

With the project completed and their sons in university, Ms. Bray and Mr. Bridgewater have returned from Asia and settled into the house.

They both reflect on the way the finished house is markedly different from the one they first talked about 16 years ago.

One of the couple’s favourite aspects is the way the light comes in and moves around the interior, Mr. Bridgewater says.

“The sunsets are out of this world,” he says. We’ve got those coming into our living room.”

Making the building as sustainable as possible was also important to the couple. Mr. Bridgewater estimates they derive 70 to 80 per cent of their power from solar.

The steel wrapping the building is also more fitting than the traditional Maritime shingles they had originally envisioned, Mr. Bridgewater says.

“The Corten rusts and you’ve got this beautiful finish,” Mr. Bridgewater says. “The sun makes the building glimmer.”

Mr. Bridgewater is pleased that the land – with its changes in level, cliff faces and large boulders – remains nearly untouched.

“Those features appealed to me tremendously,” he says.

Now the landscape architect is keen to see with what may grow in the micro-climate created where the two pavilions meet. He plans to experiment with cutting some pathways around the property.

“I don’t want to change the character of the land,” Ms. Bray says. “It’s more like gently nudging so you don’t have to bash your way over brambles.”

Seeing the finished house, Mr. MacKay-Lyons says he is particularly drawn to the space underneath – illuminated by some gentle lighting.

“The underside of the building is kind of the sixth façade,” he says. “That to me is the best place – it glows under there and calls attention to the place between the building and the land.”