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A design hothouse in the foothills of Alberta

Developer Ian MacGregor is building an enclave of modern architecture, and drawing from an international menu of top designers

The Rock House was designed as the benchmark in a unique new community, Carraig Ridge, located between Cochrane and Canmore.

A 750-square foot home in the foothills of Alberta is attracting international attention as an exemplary piece of architecture.

The Rock House was designed by Seattle-based James Cutler of Cutler Anderson Architects as the design benchmark in a unique new community, Carraig Ridge, located between Cochrane and Canmore. Its owner, Ian MacGregor – in fact, he owns the entire 650-acre development site – says it's the realization of a lifelong ambition to establish a community of world-class modern architecture amid Alberta's incredible natural landscape.

Mr. MacGregor, 68, who describes himself as "a guy who works in the oil business" is president and chief executive at North West Upgrading Inc., which is currently building a $25-billion refinery north of Edmonton. Carraig Ridge is the culmination of fifteen years spent acquiring $20-million worth of land around his family's ranch.

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"Initially I was buying land to save it from people dividing it into 40-acre chunks," he explains. "This is the foothills and if you divide it like a checkerboard it really disturbs the topography. Ten years ago I decided that this place is so beautiful that it should be developed, we just needed to figure out a better way to do it."

Over the next 10 years Mr. MacGregor would bring the world's leading conservation planners to his site. Among them was Randall Arendt, who's book Rural by Design: Maintaining Small Town Character is considered one of the most important texts in planning. Another was Dr. Christopher Alexander, one of the world's leading design theorists.

Ian MacGregor, owner of the Rock House, says it’s the realization of a lifelong ambition to establish a community of world-class modern architecture amid Alberta’s incredible natural landscape.

"It's really important that we fit the buildings into this site appropriately," says Mr. MacGregor, "and that the development is done in the most environmentally sensitive way we can so as not to disturb or alter what's there."

The final plan features 44 lots of between two and five acres, each unique in topography and outlook. Residents will have joint ownership of the surrounding community land. Lots are priced at $1.05-million for land only or start from $2.1-million for land plus a home designed by Todd Saunders of Norway-based Saunders Architecture.

Canadian-born Mr. Saunders has designed five homes for the site, each one unique to a specific lot.

"We found the buildings took on their own form to fit around the trees," explains the architect, who is well-known in Canada for designing cabins and a hotel on stilts on the remote Fogo Island in Newfoundland and Labrador, "and I'd always rather bend a house around a tree than remove the tree."

Heavily influenced by his 20-year career in Norway, Mr. Saunders says he works to three Scandinavian design principals: "know the difference between a want and a need, create small, good quality spaces and always put nature before architecture."

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He describes the opportunity to work on a project like Carraig Ridge as "probably the best chance I'll ever get to do something great."

Mr. MacGregor says it’s important that the development is done in an ‘environmentally sensitive way.’

As a further experiment, Mr. MacGregor is having one of Mr. Saunders homes, the I House, built by Calgary-based prefabrication firm DIRTT; it will be erected on site later this year.

"The DIRTT built home will be both a spec house and a show home," says Mr. MacGregor. "We want to demonstrate to people what they can do and how quickly they can do it. Good modern architecture doesn't have to take two years. This will be a flat-pack house built to high architectural standards."

Other architects involved in Carraig Ridge are Seattle-based Olson Kundig and New York studio Young Projects. All have been selected by Mr. MacGregor as "architects who do significant work; the best in the world right now."

Of course, buyers are free to choose both a builder and architect of their own preference, though Mr. MacGregor says the development will be governed by a set of strict design principles.

Nestled into the Alberta foothills, each of the 44 planned lots will be unique in topography and outlook.

"We want to attract people with an interest in building small and carefully," he says, "the buildings must support the environment rather than dominate it."

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The "guiding principles" document outlines four lot types: forest, edge, cliff and meadow, each with their own specific architecture guidelines which include maximum allowable height, floorspace and number of storeys. The document also outlines allowable materials and recommended colours and textures.

Environmental preservation is also enforced and selective tree removal may only be allowed with prior permission.

"There's a tendency in Alberta for developers to just mow down everything in sight and then try to plant it all back," says Mr. MacGregor. "That's not what we're doing here. You can't replace a 300-year-old tree."

So far, two lots have been sold and Mr. MacGregor claims there has been "significant interest" from potential buyers in Europe and China. The Rock House recently featured on a British television show, George Clarke's Amazing Spaces, and won Wallpaper* magazine's Best Cabin in the 2017 design awards; accolades and exposure which continue to draw enquirers. Mr. MacGregor believes the Saunders Architecture spec home will further raise the development's profile "among people of the right mindset."

The Rock House has received design accolades and international exposure, drawing interest from buyers around the world, according to MacGregor.

He is "confident the development will be financially successful over time, but we're not in any rush."

Nearby Carraig Ridge is one of Mr. MacGregor's other projects; the reassembly and restoration of the historic Jamieson Ranch, which he describes as including "a significant building for Alberta which predates the railway."

It's where his parents retired to and around which he amassed the land on which Carraig Ridge now sits. The restored ranch is a log-built tribute to the past, while Carraig Ridge is a celebration of modern design.

But, Mr. MacGregor argues, they are perhaps more similar than they appear.

"I see the homes in Carraig Ridge as legacy assets for families," he says, "buildings that will be there for hundreds of years and design which retains it's integrity. The ranch is also a legacy asset, left to me by my parents and I'll leave it to my kids along with The Rock House. It's the same thing, just a different era."

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