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Toronto dentist comes ‘from away’ to rediscover his French Acadian and Mi’kmaq roots

A house owned by Dr. Martin Bourgeois in Cape Breton, N.S., designed by Nicholas Fudge.Acorn Art and Photography

Dr. Martin Bourgeois, a dentist and oral radiologist, has lived in Toronto for the past 30 years. It’s where he established his career after finishing dentistry school at Dalhousie University in Halifax. But every six weeks or so, year round, Mr. Bourgeois takes a short vacation – maybe a week – and heads back to where he was born and raised: Chéticamp, Cape Breton, N.S.

Getting to the East Coast takes time. It’s a two-hour flight from Toronto to Halifax, then a four-hour drive from there (never mind the time it takes to get to the airport and clear security). But Mr. Bourgeois finds the trip “so easy,” he said, even compared to the relatively shorter two- to three-hour commute to his former weekend place in Haliburton, Ont.

“Being stuck in Friday-afternoon traffic on the highway was so stressful,” he said. “I used to hate that drive … With Chéticamp, it just feels like going home. I am French Acadian with Mi’kmaq roots, so culturally feel very connected to that land. It’s where I have my first memories – walking on the beach with my father in the 1960s. It’s where I feel like I can be myself.”

At the end of the journey, it helps that Mr. Bourgeois can rest and relax at his recently finished cottage. It’s a modest structure – two bedrooms, one storey and less than 2,000 square feet, all clad in simple cedar shingles. But the humble scale of the architecture only emphasizes the capaciousness of the surroundings – the multi-acre site is near the edge of a bluff overlooking the Cabot Trail and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

The thoughtful design, by Halifax architect Nicholas Fudge, creates the kind of connection to the surroundings that Mr. Bourgeois dreams of when he’s in Toronto. “I book my next flights as soon as I get back to the city,” he said.

Wall-to-wall windows help create a sense of connection to the home's surroundings.

The open-concept kitchen, dining area and living room, which all flow into one common space, are lined with wall-to-wall windows that frame the waters and surrounding hills. A series of patio doors provide lots of opportunities to step outside onto a simple wooden deck. The master bedroom is similarly enclosed in glass.

“It’s a wonderful way to disconnect from my crazy, overly busy Toronto life,” Mr. Bourgeois said. “In the summer, it’s great for swimming, having family over, having my wine. October is beautiful with the leaves changing. Winter is just really quiet.”

When Mr. Bourgeois isn’t in Chéticamp, he puts his home on Airbnb for $500 a night.

As restful as the cottage is now, it was a hassle to build, at least at first. The nearest big town to Chéticamp is Sydney, which is two hours away. As with many remote sites, finding a contractor and trades to build anything, let alone something uniquely custom (“I’m very attached to minimalist, mid-century design,” Mr. Bourgeois said), is not easy.

Mr. Bourgeois had initially hired a Cape Breton architect to envision a bespoke home. But after a design process that dragged out over several years only to end in a contracting estimate that was $300,000 over budget, he decided to look for another solution.

Then Mr. Bourgeois came across a Halifax-based company called East Coast Modern, which is co-run by Mr. Fudge and his business partner, Steve Chiasson, a former vice-president at Pepsi Canada.

“I’ve been reading Dwell magazine for years,” Mr. Chiasson said. “I’ve always been drawn to modern architecture.”

East Coast Modern builds homes in Atlantic Canada, often for owners who have family history in the Maritimes but are now “from away,” Mr. Fudge said. “A lot of our clients are in Toronto or Calgary. They want a vacation property here, but they are very intimidated to build because they don’t know any of the trades.”

The one-storey home is relatively modest at less than 2,000 square feet.

Mr. Fudge’s company simplifies the process because it builds everything prefab with the same contracting company, Lloyoll Custom Building, in a factory on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. Each design is tailored to the needs of the homeowner, but based on set modules and assembled from a kit of parts (Mr. Bourgeois’s base model is called the ModHaus III).

The standardization means that East Coast Modern can accurately predict the price of the structure, even signing a guarantee that there will be no cost overruns. The average build runs between $225 to $300 per square foot; however, delivery and site preparation are not included. Those costs are harder to predict and can be expensive, especially for a remote site such as Chéticamp. “The foundation cost about twice what I thought it would,” Mr. Bourgeois said.

The standardization also helps set a firm date of completion, when the house will be shipped on a truck and craned into location. “One of the main reasons I signed with Nicholas is because he said we could do this within a set time frame,” said Mr. Bourgeois. “We started working together in 2016, and he said it would all be done in May, 2017.”

His place was complete within three weeks of the originally expected due date – a minor delay compared with the sometimes endless construction of a custom home.

The humble scale of the architecture only emphasizes the capaciousness of the surroundings – the multi-acre site is near the edge of a bluff overlooking the Cabot Trail and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

East Coast Modern also tries to be time conscious in other ways. Since the designs are somewhat preset, the company doesn’t require as many meetings as fully custom architectural studios typically require.

“We try to prevent decision fatigue,” Mr. Chiasson said, “by not asking people to pick every single detail, like the light switches or the colour of the door knobs.”

Throughout the project, instead of in-person sit downs, Mr. Bourgeois and Mr. Fudge corresponded entirely by phone and e-mail. In fact, the two only met in person for the first time to tour through the finished home.

“Nicholas showed up with champagne,” said Mr. Bourgeois, who has been celebrating the ocean vistas of his hometown ever since.