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Home of Clare Morris in Chester, N.S. Design by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects of Halifax.James Brittain/James Brittain

In the historic village of Chester, N.S., opportunities to build a new house are rare.

Geography limits the available land on a peninsula jutting into the sea; heritage conservation rules preserve the traditional Maritime streetscape.

Architect Brian MacKay-Lyons accepted a singular challenge when a new client purchased a parcel of land carved out from behind one of the area’s long-standing homes.

Clare Morris grew up in Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley, but she was working in Seattle when she began to make plans to return to the province. During her time on the West Coast, she developed an appreciation for contemporary architecture and a minimalist aesthetic.

Ms. Morris interviewed several architects and found MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects of Halifax best understood her desire for a modest and functional house that would provide places for peaceful contemplation in nature.

While the firm has won many international awards for cultural, academic and residential projects in locations around the globe, Mr. MacKay-Lyons has long been fascinated with the vernacular building traditions of his home province.

“You see the power in the ordinary, the everyday, the unpretentious,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in the democratic idea that architecture is not just for the rich.”

  • Home of Clare Morris in Chester, N.S. Design by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects of Halifax.James Brittain/James Brittain

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In Chester, Mr. MacKay-Lyons and the team designed an archetypal gable-roofed building, drawing inspiration from the funky sheds built by local fishermen.

The base is clad with two-inch matchbook cedar shiplap – a construction technique used for centuries to build Nova Scotian boats.

The upper story is a weathered steel sleeve that appears to slide over its wooden base.

Residents and guests arrive to an entryway created by removing a bite from the corner of the building and enclosing the space in glass to create a reverse porch.

Inside the 1,350-square-foot structure, the bedrooms are on the ground floor with the living areas above.

A staircase of black perforated steel leads to the second floor and the open two-storey space for lounging and dining. A fireplace at one end of the room serves as a gathering spot. Panoramic glass on the other walls draws in the view of surrounding treetops.

The kitchen, a washroom and a covered balcony stand around the perimeter of the main space.

One creative addition is a moveable wall ladder which leads to two lofts hidden in the gables.

On the lower level, two bedrooms provide refuge and privacy. The primary suite includes built-in cupboards and a desk next to a window facing the greenery.

Throughout the home, wood and concrete, combined with white walls and cabinets, keep the palette simple and monochromatic. The materials are also relatively affordable and easy to maintain.

A cedar porch provides an outdoor living space for enjoying the serenity of the wooded lot, which sits down a slope from the main street with a brook flowing nearby.

The completed building doesn’t blend in with the heritage homes nearby so much as dissolve into the landscape itself.

For Mr. MacKay-Lyons, the project became part of the firm’s long experimentation into creating buildings that offer an elevated experience with minimal form, material and cost.

The design is both simple and sophisticated in the minimally detailed eaves, corners and openings, he says.

During more than 30 years as a professor at Dalhousie University, Mr. MacKay-Lyons explored practices that make architecture durable and accessible.

“In the Maritimes we have this cultural ethic about outward modesty.”

He points to the firm’s Enough House, which stands in a valley on Mr. MacKay-Lyons’s Shobac Farm overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. With a simple form and minimal details, that 700-square-foot dwelling is a prototype for Chester House.

Ms. Morris drove across the United States from Seattle to Chester in January, 2021, just as the builders were finishing up. The town was quiet in the midst of the pandemic, she recalls.

“Arriving in winter and just seeing the seasons pass from those big windows was amazing,” she says.

Construction was done over about four years, she says. By building in stages, she was able to complete the project with a budget between $650,000 and $750,000.

Now that she has spent some time living in the house, what strikes Ms. Morris the most is how the architects were able to fulfill her desire for a home that feels cozy and secure.

She also loves the way the light and shadows move through the interior throughout the day.

The heated concrete floors are warm for the residents and stand up to the wear and tear of people and dogs.

She plans to keep the interior as uncluttered as possible.

“I don’t have a lot of art on the walls – I almost feel like it doesn’t need it.”

In mild weather, when the windows are open, Ms. Morris can hear the sounds of water flowing and trout running in the brook.

The house looks its best to her when the rusted steel contrasts against a robin’s egg blue sky and the wood of the exterior blends in with the forest, she says.

The home’s fairly isolated location means the exterior did not need to conform to the style of historic buildings clad in shingles and clapboard. Occasionally people in the village greet Ms. Morris as “the rusty house lady,” but many people she meets don’t even know it’s there.

“You can’t even see the house from the road when the leaves are full in the summer,” she says. “Even in the fall and winter, it’s difficult to see this house.”

For Mr. MacKay-Lyons, the home is the pinnacle of minimal and modest design that works within the cultural context.

A valued opinion came to him a few years ago, he adds, from the architectural historian and critic Kenneth Frampton, who described MacKay-Lyons buildings as “banal.”

“When you achieve the banal, it looks like the building might have always been there. The work looks inevitable.”