From a distance, Maureen and Douglas Leahey’s home looks like a cluster of long metal farm sheds. The narrow buildings with gabled roofs hug the edge of a meadow lush with tall grasses and wildflowers.
Simple metal-clad outbuildings are a common sight in the Pugwash area of Nova Scotia’s rustic North Shore. With its rock-strewn, red-clay bluffs, Pugwash Point is a meandering seaside strip of family farms, grazing cattle and clusters of homes and cottages.
From inside their unique home, Maureen and Douglas can enjoy the sparkling views of the Northumberland Strait, watching blue herons fish at low tide and seeing the large salt ships drift into Pugwash Harbour.
The Leaheys are embracing their home’s pastoral setting, preferring the natural look of their wild meadow over a manicured lawn. “We have sweet grass, Queen Anne’s Lace and [my sister-in-law] Dennice planted tiger lilies on the side,” Maureen says.
But they certainly haven’t overlooked modern sensibilities in their unique home. “A lot of the houses around here are traditional but this house is not traditional,” says Douglas. “It has raised some eyebrows to be here in the meadow.”
Nova Scotia architect Brian MacKay-Lyons of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects helped the Leaheys pick the meadow plot. “Initially, we thought of plopping it in the middle of the property but he thought it should lie lightly on the land,” Maureen says.
He sited the home near a hedge on the side of the field, protecting the buildings from the cold north wind. “I have a Johnny Appleseed thing I do, which is to try and preserve the agricultural landscape,” MacKay-Lyons says. “If there’s a field, you don’t build in the middle because you’d use it up and it’s gone.”
Taking stock of this region’s farming heritage, he drew inspiration from local North Shore Scottish farmsteads for the home’s design. “They often have a proliferation of outbuildings and narrow, long-gabled barns,” he says. “They frame little courtyards between the buildings that are wind-protected and sun catchers. They make little micro climates outside that will extend the season.”
“I haven’t quite figured out what we’ll do out here,” Maureen laughs. “Neighbours have suggested square dancing.”
In 1994, the architect designed the award-winning home of Douglas’s twin brother, Stephen, and his wife Dennice, just minutes away on the Gulf Shore Road. He enjoyed starting another project for the same family. “It’s a bit like being a country doctor,” he says with a laugh. Maureen and Douglas consulted him in January 2007, broke ground for the project in July 2008 and moved in a year later.
It’s a level beyond the traditional home they have in Calgary. “That house was built in 1928 so this is quite a departure for us,” Maureen says. “We like good art and architecture and really simple lines.” Now retired, Maureen was a nurse and psychologist in Calgary and Douglas was a consulting meteorologist.
Their new home’s four-shed structure boasts about 2,100 square feet of space, not counting its screened-in porch and nine-metre long front deck. The largest middle shed is 24 metres long and includes a covered porch and open-concept kitchen, dining and living rooms with sweeping ocean views. In the centre of this shed is a two-metre-high freestanding cube that contains the kitchen pantry, a utility room and a guest bathroom.
Maureen’s streamlined kitchen has large, wide tambour doors—they’re like little sliding garage doors that store dishware, coffee cups and spices. The space features Caesarstone countertops, sconce lighting and maple cabinetry in a deep walnut stain by Coastal Woodworkers in Dartmouth, N.S.
A showpiece in this space is the dining room table—a 2.4-metre long rectangular granite table with custom chairs in sunbrella fabric. “We love this,” Maureen says. “It’s a great work table and it’s very durable. It’s also perfect for dinner parties.” Elegant black-matte drop lights by Gomma line voltage illuminate its textured surface.
Tucked into the shed’s central core is the pantry that provides extra counter space and room for the fridge. “Initially we had thought about adding a sliding door to cover the pantry but the architect said no because it would detract from the simplicity of the lines,” says Maureen. Though the home lacks a basement, it has storage space aplenty, with every surface of the central core featuring closet space and nooks. “I worked very hard with the architect on this,” Maureen says.
With its two-metre tall windows, the living room in the main shed is ideal for observing the ongoing drama of the sea below. The couple worked with Calgary-based interior designer Douglas Cridland when picking out its neutral colour scheme, furniture and accessories, ensuring that all fabrics were durable and fade resistant. “My sister can’t get over how he did it,” says Maureen. “It had to be serviceable. It’s in the country. He has a wonderful eye. We credit him and the architects for helping to create the simple Zen feeling in this space.”
Douglas loves the large leather ottoman that serves as the coffee table in the space. “It’s great for entertaining and is very versatile—you can sit on it or put your feet up on it,” he says. A neutral grey sofa, two matching chairs and a comfy swivel chair near the window round out the seating. Keeping things cozy on chilly days is a sleek Stuv fireplace with a guillotine glass door that slides up. Chic rectangular slate tiles adorn the wall with the fireplace.
Overhead in the space soars a dramatic triangular framework of spruce collar ties and vertical pine rafters. All three sheds of the living area feature this impressive beamwork. The couple picked a soft-grey water-based stain for the wood that changes colour in the light.
The sheds also share in-floor heating and dramatic concrete floors. Serendipity played a role when creating the colour and texture of the concrete. “It depended on what happened when 80-kilometre winds were blowing the particular day it was poured,” says Maureen. “It’s what-you-see-is-what-you-get but it all blends in together.”
Through the covered walkway connecting the sheds is the master bedroom. A wide door leads into this space that features a large bed with storage cabinets inside the headboard. Like the rest of the house, the south-facing windows have simple Hunter Douglas roller blinds. An ensuite off the back provides ample counter space and two matching LaCava drop sinks from The Plumbing Barn in Dartmouth, N.S. “The shower is great,” Maureen says, pointing out the Kinetic glass enclosure.
The master bedroom overlooks a screened-in porch that boasts a large round granite table with a steel base. “We have a lot of wind here so we needed something really heavy,” Douglas says. The deck adjoins a larger, nine-metre long uncovered patio. “I haven’t quite figured out what we’ll do out here,” Maureen laughs. “Neighbours have suggested square dancing.”
A short walk from the house towards the sea, a swath of mowed grass leads to Maureen’s 3.6-by-7.3 metre moon-viewing platform. “I was inspired by Memoirs of a Geisha,” she says. “It always struck me as cool to have a place to watch the sunsets. We wanted to have a deck closer to the water. Last summer when the Tall Ships were here, it was amazing.”
The couple’s love of reading inspired the construction of a library for the third shed. “They’re real readers and intellectuals, so it’s an important part of the house,” MacKay-Lyons says. “It’s the feature that best expresses their personality.” The couple wanted a comforting, warm environment for this space. “Douglas told the architect he wanted the library to be like a womb, so very cozy. And he did it,” Maureen says.
The distinctive space is not only a sanctuary for enjoying books but also for appreciating the natural world. “You can hear the crickets and the birds,” says Douglas. “You feel much more outside here because of the windows.” The furnishings here include a soft brown couch and chair and an ultra-suede window seat with oversized cushions for curling up with a book. “I never was a fan of this material but it sheds the dirt very well,” Maureen notes.
Coastal Woodworkers built the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the space. A large panel hides the electrical box and another nook tucks away the TV. At the back, special cabinets open wide for storing photo albums and Christmas decorations.
The fourth and final shed is freestanding but follows the same structure as the others. The couple use it for storing lawn furniture and gardening supplies. Like the other sheds, it’s clad in Galvalume. “You don’t have to paint it or anything—it’s like aluminum,” Maureen says.
The building materials for the project will help the sheds withstand strong winds and harsh winter weather. “There’s a lot to it—it’s not standard construction,” says project builder Barry McKay of Tatamagouche, N.S. “There are steel posts in the corners and the wood had to be fitted to them…it’s unbelievably strongly built.”
That keen eye for detail and level of craftsmanship gives the home a refined quality often lacking in new builds. “We’re very happy with the house,” Maureen says. “Construction manager Faisal Forhart from Special Projects in Halifax and Peter Broughton, the architect from MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects, have been terrific and attended to each little part.”
Since construction wrapped up in the summer of 2009, Maureen has had a few random visits from strangers wanting a peek inside. “One day, a man came walking by the window and said ‘you have a very interesting house,’ and I said, ‘oh, would you like a quick tour?’ He said, ‘well my wife and children are in the car.’ I said, ‘OK, bring them in and we’ll have a quick tour.’ His wife came in and said, ‘your house beckoned to us from the road.’”
MacKay-Lyons likens the attraction to the way the home bridges old with new. “It’s a fuzzy edge between being modern and traditional,” he says. “The forms are very traditional but the materials are modern—that gives the project an edge.”
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