It’s an intriguing portal to a secret garden, a warm invitation to rest and relaxation, and a strong set of arms that swings open wide to welcome us home. A piece of exterior hardware that keeps people out and pets in, a gate can also be an opportunity for creative expression. “It offers the owner a high-impact place to express themselves a little bit more,” said Halifax-based landscape architect Sue Sirrs. “We see an awful lot of gates that look the same. Really what we notice are the ones that stand out.”
Many East Coast homeowners are stepping away from cookie-cutter, big-box gates, opting for custom entryways into their outdoor spaces, says Sirrs, owner of Outside Planning and Design Studio. A gate can add ornamental artistry to a green space and also offers visitors a glimpse into a homeowner’s hobby, style or heritage. Designs can include bold-letter initials, family crests or symbols (like Celtic knots, fleur-de-lis or Acadian stars), graphics like animals, fencing sabres and sailboats, or sharp points, dramatic curves and ornate carvings.
Made from metal, wood or a combination of materials, gates are among the favoured exterior pieces to design for contractors like Whycocomagh, N.S. blacksmith Grant Haverstock. “They’re all so unique,” Haverstock says. “It’s a real melting pot.” While Haverstock’s shop, Firehouse Ironworks, regularly creates garden, pool and backyard gates, driveway gates are among the business’ most common commissions. A simple garden gate can run around $100 on the low end, while an elaborate driveway gate can run upwards of $20,000. Design and hardware options (like intercoms, electronic locks and motorized hinge systems) can vary vastly, depending on a client’s budget, Haverstock says.
Though the shop only opened its doors in 2011, Haverstock’s elaborate hand-forged work already peppers the province. In October 2014, he designed an organic-inspired gate for Dine By Design East, a design and culinary showcase hosted annually by East Coast Living in Halifax. Modern blacksmithing is a specialized art form homeowners can use to add unique features to their properties. “Even on the most simple gates, you’ll see artistic touches hidden in small parts like the hinges,” Haverstock says.
And though there seems to be a rise in popularity for modern gates in urban settings, Sirrs says that styles don’t seem to follow any one trend. While she may recommend that clients tie their property together using the same style of gate on the yard, play structure and garden shed, a gate need not match the house. “If you’re in an old Victorian house here in Halifax, you don’t necessarily need to carry that aesthetic in your landscape,” she says. “You could, and your gate design would follow that, but it’s up to the homeowner to make a decision about what they want the overall aesthetic to look like. I don’t see one being more represented. It’s really about the homeowner’s interests.”
And because a gate is a working piece in a landscape, its ideal design is a marriage of function and style, says metalworker Paul Fontaine. “It’s great to have something that looks good, but if it doesn’t function well, you may as well not have one,” says Fontaine. His Moncton-area shop, Heritage Wrought Iron, specializes in hand-forged exterior and interior hardware. Reputable contractors will examine a homeowner’s needs in the onset of the design process. Traffic volumes, security and privacy all factor into the aesthetic possibilities.
A strategically designed gate can help “soften” the element of privacy, for example. “Privacy is a really important piece in a city,” says Sirrs. “We have a lot of urban backyard spaces that really are sanctuaries for people…Sometimes it’s wonderful to talk to the neighbours, but other times you just need a break and want to sit in your yard.” Gates designed to keep children in and predators out, for example, must feature closer spacing between spindles and higher-set latches. Building codes dictate specifications in some cases, which can limit the design.
In Canada, winter weather is another consideration for gate functionality, Fontaine adds. While driveway gates on wheels are common in warm-weather states, they aren’t suitable to withstand the ravages of snow and ice. Mild steel is the industry standard for gates and their hardware. It’s a material on the pricier side of the spectrum, but it offers incomparable durability alongside hollow pre-fabricated gates made of aluminum. “You’ll see those ones bend, sag and crack after a few years,” Fontaine says.
Proper installation is one of the most important elements, and according to Fontaine, the most overlooked by homeowners when adding a gate to a property. It’s a labour-heavy process that involves digging at least as many feet into the earth as the gate sticks out, and pouring a rebar-reinforced concrete foundation. Installation costs usually match the price of the gate itself.
“It will last a lifetime or more if it’s done properly,” Fontaine says. And while gates have long been seen as an exterior workhorse around the region, the landscape is beginning to change. Chatting with a client who hails from the Middle East recently, Sirrs discovered Atlantic Canada is just catching on to a trend in custom portals that’s long been the standard in other countries
“That’s really where we’ve started to divert away from using standardized gates and started to really think of incorporating an element of creativity,” she says. “In many parts of the world, everybody makes their own gate or has one made. They can be very elaborate or very simple. That piece is really quite interesting.”