After architect Nova Tayona submitted her initial plan for the Lockeport Beach House, a summer home in southwestern Nova Scotia, the client, Teri Appleby, asked her to pare it down. The design was hardly extravagant, but it had features Ms. Appleby deemed unnecessary. Rec rooms and second kitchens are nice, but do you need them in a cottage? How important is a pool when you have the ocean nearby?
Ms. Tayona and Ms. Appleby whittled the plan down to basics: bedrooms, living-dining space, and a large porch. The result is a summer home that does what it’s supposed to do and nothing more. For Ms. Appleby, her husband, Keith Dwyer, and their two young sons, ages 13 and 10, the site is a sanctuary – a refuge from a world of distractions.
It’s often said that Maritimers are modest people. Beachfront mansions with boathouses the size of fire halls? Leave that to Muskoka. In Atlantic Canada, conspicuous consumption – what folks there call “putting on airs” – is a vice, not a virtue. The region has some of the finest architecture in Canada, but it’s a tradition born of simplicity.
Ms. Appleby and Ms. Tayona first met nearly two decades ago as waiters at the Argyle Bar and Grill in downtown Halifax. Ms. Tayona was putting herself though architecture school at Dalhousie University. “She was making a coffee table out of cork,” Ms. Appleby says, “and had the whole staff saving their wine corks for her.”
Ms. Tayona now lives in Toronto and runs the boutique firm Nova Tayona Architects, but she travels out east regularly. On one such trip in 2012, Ms. Appleby took her to see the Lockeport property – back then, it was just a clearing in the woods – and offered her the commission. For most of the year, Ms. Appleby and Mr. Dwyer live in Halifax, where Mr. Dwyer runs an electrical-engineering company. The Lockeport home is a two-hour drive southwest, in Nova Scotia’s Shelburne County, a shipbuilding region and former Loyalist stronghold. The family’s three-acre piece of Shelburne is mostly woodland – tamarack and spruce trees covered in old man’s beard – but, at the south end, it gives way to the ocean. “ You come through this dark-green filtered light zone,” Ms. Tayona says, “and suddenly, you’re onto a blasting white-sand beach.”
That juxtaposition – shaded woods versus expansive coastline – is the drama around which Ms. Tayona based her design. You enter the home through a dark antechamber at the northeast corner. To your right, along the north side, are three bedrooms, each with framed views onto the trees. In front of you, in the southeast corner, is the master suite, which can be locked off from the rest of the house, should Ms. Appleby and Mr. Dwyer decide to rent the place out. Against the southern and western sides is the 550-square-foot kitchen-living area, with its generous floor-to-ceiling windows, through which you can glimpse water through a screen of trees.
The conceptual premise is simple. The house telescopes outward, from the tight northeastern corner (the woodland side) to the breezy southwest (the ocean side). Various design features reinforce this sense of movement. The ceiling, for instance, is eight feet high in the sleeping quarters, but jumps to 10 feet when you enter the communal space.
The architecture responds to its environment in other ways, too. The structure sits above ground on helical piers, so if the nearby salt marsh floods, the property will remain untouched. The porch overhang is 10 feet long, the right length to repel high summer light and bring low winter sun deep into the home. And instead of a well, the property draws water from three massive cisterns. Here’s an extraordinary fact: the average Canadian uses more than 250 litres of water per day. And here’s another one: in squally Nova Scotia, the family can meet that need through rainwater alone.
And why wouldn’t they? At the Lockeport home, the guiding ethos is pragmatism. The finishes are workmanlike and modest. The cladding is dark cedar, the ceilings and soffits are a warm fir, and the cabinetry is Baltic-birch plywood installed by a local carpenter. The floors are perhaps the most distinctive feature. In the right light they seem dappled, almost marbled, a testament to what a good tradesperson can achieve with polished concrete.
By reducing the house it its essence, Ms. Tayona and Ms. Appleby tapped into an under-appreciated design principle: when you remove options, you bring people closer together. If you live, as I do, in Southern Ontario, you’ve probably noticed the creeping suburbanization of cottage country. From Monday to Friday, we live atomized lives in North York or Brampton or Etobicoke houses so large we must shout to hear one another. Then, on the weekend, we head to Muskoka cottages with games rooms and home theatres, where we replicate the lonely rituals of suburban life, except closer to water.
The Lockeport house is different. When the family arrives, their dynamic instantly shifts. During August, 2016, their first month at the cottage, Ms. Appleby instituted a simple rule: twice each day, after breakfast and dinner, they’d go for a walk on the beach. Soon, however, the boys started requesting an after-lunch walk, too. “When we’re at home in Halifax, everybody goes to their corners,” Ms. Appleby says, but at Lockeport they settle, instinctively, into a familial rhythm. When you only have one living area, you learn to share it, and the act of sharing changes how you relate to each other.
At Lockeport, each son has his own bedroom. This feature, it turns out, is the one superfluous element in an otherwise streamlined design. “I don’t think the boys have slept separately for a single night,” Ms. Appleby says.