Architects envision buildings, but they are rarely, if ever, the ones who build them. They tend to spend most of their time desk-side, on computers, coming up with plans for contractors and construction crews to execute.
Nova Scotia architect Peter Braithwaite is a unique exception. He not only has a knack for design – he mainly works on modern, private homes – but also a finesse for construction.
He started his career as a carpenter, then switched to architecture because “as a tradesperson, you only have so much control over your projects,” he said. “You are really building what someone else has thought up, whereas I had the desire to control the things I build.”
Now, he is constantly switching between both skill sets. His eponymous studio offers both design and general contracting services. When he’s not at his office, just outside of Halifax in the rural community of Terence Bay, he can be found on site, tools in hand, framing his very own structures.
The studio, which doubles as his home, showcases his singular blend of talents. He planned out the two-storey, one-bedroom structure soon after graduating from Dalhousie University’s school of architecture in 2013 (originally from Ontario, he picked the East Coast institution because of its commitment to handcraft; he now teaches a design-build class there each summer).
At the time, he was interning for friend and mentor Omar Gandhi (they share a somewhat similar aesthetic, taking traditional forms – gabled roofs, cedar siding – but adding modern twists – crystalline forms, minimalist detailing). But soon after, he left to literally build his own business, from the ground up, almost entirely alone.
“I framed 90 per cent of it by myself,” he said. “Nailing and hammering. Getting the beams up with pulleys and scaffolding. Erecting the walls with wall jacks.”
It was a DIY act he wouldn’t recommend others attempt. “It was superdangerous,” he said. “There were some scary moments … wall jacks can only lift a wall so far.” But it was also a DIY project that looks anything but.
Set on 10 rugged acres overlooking the North Atlantic, a long, low box floats toward the sea, delicately perched on a grid of slender, wooden stilts. The dark grey of the stripped hemlock siding pops against the green of the scruffy pine trees and low-lying brush.
Inside, the main floor is mainly a two-storey great room, where a small team of designers and carpenters sits at joining desks under a soaring ceiling. A passion for architecture permeates the space. One wall is lined, from top to bottom, with a perfectly executed model of past, present and future buildings (“sometimes, the model takes us longer to build than the real thing,” Mr. Braithwaite said. “But you learn a lot from building a model”). Another wall is lined with dozens and dozens of architecture books.
Not that the room is suffocatingly focused on the slog. Beyond the bank of iMacs, there’s a patio. “Even in the winter, I try to take time to use it,” said John Marshall, a designer and project manager who works for Mr. Braithwaite.
Expansive windows frame views of the water. “On the foggy days, you can’t see any of it,” said Jillian Ellis, an architecture co-op student at Dalhousie. “Foggy days are the most productive days.”
To maximize the working area, the kitchen, bathroom and storage are compactly clustered by the entryway. The bedroom, tucked up on a mezzanine, is lined with pivoting glass panels that overlook the office. The building lacks air conditioning, so opening the panels, in conjunction with the patio doors, is important for airflow in the summer.
For now, Mr. Braithwaite doesn’t mind essentially waking up in his office. “When you do something you are passionate about, your work and life all blend into one. It’s not a drag to be on the job all the time.”
Although he eventually plans to build a separate house for himself – either on the site or on a neighbouring property – he currently has other priorities. For example, he recently put up two small outbuildings – a spray booth for painting and a wood and metal shop.
“It’s a beautiful place to work,” said Tom Lutes, a Red Seal carpenter who works for Mr. Braithwaite, “especially in the summer, when you can open the doors and work outside.”
Having the workshops, where his team might, for example, build all of a home’s millwork, is part of Mr. Braithwaite’s vision for how to improve the process of turning architecture from idea into reality.
“It is no mystery that there are a lot of arguments in the building process,” he said. “The people designing and the people building want different things. Designers want the most beautiful thing to put in their portfolio. The builder wants to maximize profit. Those two things don’t go together. But having the workshops means that design and trades can collaborate.”
Plus, living and working in his own creation also helps keep Mr. Braithwaite honest. “It’s really invaluable,” he said. “I get to see, on a daily basis, how things hold up, how things wear, what I would do and what I wouldn’t do again.”
It also helps his staff. “It’s a resource,” said Ms. Ellis, who will soon graduate with her masters of architecture. “On a daily basis, I use it as a reference point and go around and measure different things. It’s such a great learning opportunity to see up close how things are actually put together.”