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An unusual N.S. beach house

This tree-framed cottage treads light on the land using time-honoured eco friendly building techniques

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Photo by Janet Kimber

It’s mid-afternoon on a balmy day. Teri Appleby and her husband, Keith Dwyer, march through a hectare of woodland near Lockeport, Nova Scotia. They’re on a scouting mission to decide if they want to buy the property. Determined to reach the beach, the couple bushwhacks their way through the trees.

“And there it was,” Appleby says. “A beautiful mile-long crescent beach with silver white sand. We couldn’t speak for a few minutes. It was even better than the pictures we saw online.”

Six years ago, they were in the market for a Nova Scotia cottage with water frontage within two hours or less from Halifax, where they live with sons Jaeger and Casey.

  • A 19-metre long deck fronts nearly 15 metres of windows that take full advantage of passive solar in all seasons. The Adirondack chairs are made from recycled plastic.
  • Although it’s adjacent to the dining and living area, the kitchen’s drop ceiling and wrap around Corian countertop give a sense of separation. Recessed lighting and subdued knobs and handles on cupboards ensure clean lines and an uncluttered look.
  • The fireplace is a self-contained, precast unit that doesn’t need a screen. Not only does it hold the heat but it also has a strong draught to prevent smoke from billowing back into the room.
  • Main entrance.
  • The master bedroom features full width windows with unobtrusive blinds.
  • Part of the “screen room” at the end of the beach house, where the family stores sports gear and accessories for quick access to beach.
  • Jaeger, Casey, Keith, and Teri enjoy the sun on the deck.
  • The boys love playing in the surf just beyond the tree line of their summer home.
  • A good stash of wood is conveniently located close to the entrance of the beach house.
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Appleby and Dwyer had both spent time in nearby Mahone Bay and Brule Beach, so that’s where they focused their search. This property was love at first sight, but there was no cottage; they would have to build.

Normally, most people who purchase a beach-front property decide to build with a view of the beach and ocean. Not so in this case. Appleby says, “We wanted to protect the trees and recreate that moment of wonder every time we stepped through the trail onto the beach.”

Privacy and unobtrusiveness were also considerations. “Locals use the beach regularly for daily walks and quahog digging,” Appleby says, “and we didn’t want to change the landscape of what they were used to seeing. We just wanted to tuck into the trees and be hidden away.” Once they purchased the property, the couple contacted long-time friend and architect, Nova Tayona of Nova Tayona Architects. Although Tayona lives in Toronto, she was born in Halifax, and studied at Dalhousie University’s School of Architecture.

Tayona says her clients’ desire to maintain as many of the trees as possible initially felt very counter-intuitive to what you should do when you have an ocean site. “But when I visited it for the first time it was obvious how contained and special it felt—this forest room beside the ocean,” she says.

Once the location of the beach house was settled, several other challenges arose.

Water was the first challenge. “We drilled a test well but it was brackish,” Appleby says. “We could opt to drill a proper well and desalinate the water using a reverse-osmosis process, but were uncertain how stable the water source would be. There was also a possibility that the water would run out.”

The solution was a home design that harvests rain. The asymmetrical gabled roof funnels rainwater into three 6,700-litre cisterns. They filter and UV treat the water for all household needs including drinking water.

The second major challenge was the possibility of severe storm surges flooding the cottage. To avoid this, they built the home on stilt-like piles. “The system used was a screw pile as opposed to a standard pile you would pound into the ground,” Dwyer says. “This is faster, newer technology that is more suited to sandy areas where there is little soil to work with.” Should a surge occur, the water will flow under the structure instead of into it.

Another challenge was the need to remove more trees than they had hoped for the septic field. “But a beautiful thing happened,” Appleby says. “A small field of Nova Scotia wildflowers spontaneously grew in this open area directly in front of the cottage and we now share our yard with Monarch butterflies, honey bees, and hummingbirds.”

This build embodies how a home can respond to its natural surroundings by emphasizing sustainable approaches to living on the coast.

The beach house is oriented along an east-west axis and capitalizes on passive heating and cooling. Additional heating comes from thermal mass in-floor radiant heat and there is high solar reflectance from a Galvalume roof—a sheet steel roof coated with an Aluminum-Zinc alloy that reflects solar heat.

Ninety per cent of all occupied areas of the beach house are within seven metres of a window that opens. Using wood for framing, structural elements, and finishing materials took advantage of local craft and building methods. As well, all plumbing fixtures are low-flow and the appliances are rated Energy Star (the mark of high energy-efficient products in Canada.)

In an email interview, Tayona described the exterior of the house as being skinned in semi-transparent black-stained eastern-white cedar. “The result gives the appearance of the house receding against the forest backdrop, and contradicts its bright colour,” she says “At 10 feet deep, the 48-foot-wide (three metres by 14.6 metres) cantilevered roof provides the perfect amount of shade in the summer, and allows the low winter sun to warm the concrete floors in the cold season.”

The low ceilings and walls in the entry, bedrooms, and private areas are clad in Douglas fir plywood giving a feeling of intimacy, and provides a spatial relationship to the forest outside, bringing the outside in. Higher ceilings in the living area give a sense of unlimited space and lightness. The ceilings are clad in fir plywood and birch ply, exuding warmth in contrast to the concrete floor.

Tayona says she loves it when clients come to her with a curiosity and love for design as well as being open minded to the overall vision for a project. This project she says was particularly satisfying.

“Its light footprint just feels right. All of the passive moves that were used are common-sense moves that people have employed for generations, but we’ve strayed far from this collective knowledge when we build today.” The house won numerous awards, including the 2017 Canadian Green Building Awards and the 2017 American Architecture Prize for Architectural Design/ Green Architecture.

From the homeowner’s point of view, Appleby’s top tip is to find an architect who shares your aesthetic. “Look at photographs of their past projects and make sure you love the architect’s work,” she says. “If you are considering a project that is special, different, or challenging in some way, be sure to research contractors and chose one who is open to, and has experience with, working on projects that may seem outside the box.”

It’s also important to believe in the finished product and stick with it, Appleby says. The area faced a long stretch of foul winter weather in 2014. “We endured a very long, very complicated building project. Sometimes we wondered if it was going to be worth it all in the end… but it turned out more beautiful than we could ever have imagined.”

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