Video: Click here to meet homeowners Byron Rogers and Claudette Fortin, and learn more about their unique home.
Claudette Fortin and Byron Rogers weren’t sure what they were looking for when they took a house-hunting trip to Lunenburg, Nova Scotia. Newly retired from busy careers in Ottawa, they loved the relaxed vibe of the Old Town heritage district, but they were struggling to find a house that met their needs. “We loved the traditional architecture, but we’d already renovated two houses and knew we didn’t want to live through that again,” Byron says. “We wanted something smaller, comfortable and open, with lots of sunshine and lots of room for gardening.”
After visiting a home for sale a few streets away from Lunenburg’s back harbour, the house next door caught Claudette’s eye. “I said, ‘That’s what I want,’” she recalls. “Both of our jaws dropped. We had the real-estate agent go over and ask who the architect was.” It turned out to be Alec Brown, co-owner with architect Jane Abbott of Halifax firm Abbott Brown Architects. He’d designed the home, a modern take on the classic Cape Cod, 10 years ago for his mother.
Claudette loved the home’s elegant, simple design. “The architecture encompassed the best features of the 18th-century housing,” she says. An empty lot was available one street over. Claudette and Byron snapped it up, starting work on their customized retirement home. She and Byron met with the architects to hash out ideas. “We liked their energy,” says Claudette. “We all came up with the design. It was a great collaboration.” Construction began in November 2013. “But starting from scratch was harder than we anticipated,” says Byron. “It was tough, stressful. We had our stuff in storage for seven months, and we were trying to coordinate two retirements.”
They rented a nearby house for one winter during the construction. “We found out what fuel bills cost here,” chuckles Byron. Claudette enjoyed being close to the work site. “It was nice to be in the neighbourhood and to engage on specific decisions when required,” she says. They moved into their new home one year ago. Situated on a double lot among older homes that boast Lunenburg’s traditional architecture, the modern home makes a dramatic first impression. “When you come around the corner and see it, you think, ‘Wow,”’ says Abbott. “But you immediately understand it in its context. It’s about finding a particular kind of modernism for the Maritimes and, in this case, for a town that already has a strong architectural language.”
For their design, Brown and Abbott went with a “reinterpreted cape,” a home that borrows features from more traditional houses but gives them a modern spin. “The starting point for our design was the town,” says Brown. “Its history and beauty make a strong impression.”
As a UNESCO World Heritage Site recognized for its distinctive architecture, Old Town Lunenburg requires all new buildings and renovations to follow strict heritage guidelines. “Even though it’s a contemporary building, it’s a new arrangement of existing Lunenburg forms,” Brown says. “So it still feels that it belongs in Lunenburg, even though it also belongs in the
The home reinterprets many traditional features, including the unique Lunenburg Bump. “Usually, it’s a Scottish dormer over the front door,” Brown says. “In our case, the bump is over the front door, but it’s on the gable, so it’s flipped. We hope it triggers that memory of the bump form, though we put it in a modern context.” Including local architecture in the design was important to Byron and Claudette. “It was about paying respect to what was done at that time by bringing it into the present,” says Claudette.
Byron loves how the home’s exterior looks nothing like its interior. “It’s like a cathedral of light in here,” he smiles. That’s due in part to the central grouping of skylights that stream light into every space of the house. Skylights cannot be visible under Lunenburg’s heritage guidelines, so the architects hid them atop a large, box-like chimney on the roof. “The chimney is now a machine circulating light and air,” Brown says.
David Risser, of D. Risser’s Construction in Lunenburg, was the contractor for the project. During construction, Byron remembers curious onlookers wondering what was going on the roof. “People were like, ‘What is it?’ he says. “We’d joke with them that it was the infinity pool [laughs].”
These days, Claudette often basks in the afternoon light that pours into the downstairs hallway at the foot of the stairs. “At two o’clock in the afternoon, it’s just glorious here,” she says. “I’ve actually sat on the floor to just look up.” On the main floor is a bright open-concept living area, the “commons” Claudette calls it. A large dining table, made of oak beams from dismantled Quebec churches, is the centre of the action here, with large windows showcasing views of the vegetable garden and apple trees.
The other side of the room boasts an immense floor-to-ceiling bookcase. “We’re old-school book readers,” says Byron, who worked for over 35 years in Ottawa as a health-policy advisor. “We love history, art, literature and travel.” The bookcase extends up the wall to the second level. Here, the space opens up from the staircase, with massive beams spanning across the hallway, which acts like a bridge connecting Byron’s office to the master bedroom. “It’s a bit like a barn with these big rafters and haylofts on either side,” Brown says.
The engineered wood beams are incredibly strong and dense. “They’re also sustainable,” Brown notes, “because they’re made from wood scraps.” At 12 metres long, they were hard to install. “It was quite an operation to put them in with a crane,” Byron recalls. “But they were really at the heart of the project.”
A second entrance on the other side of the master bedroom links to the ensuite, which adjoins a spare bedroom on the opposite end. All of the spaces are awash with natural light from the skylights, which also streams down to the commons. Claudette visited the eight Arctic nations regularly during her career in international relations and project management. The artwork in the house reflects her travels, with sculptures, carvings and paintings from the Arctic.
A cherished piece is the qajjaq (“kayak” in Inuit language) sculpture in the reading area off of the commons. “It captures the energy of the people who live in Greenland,” Claudette says, “their resilience and ability to adapt and use limited materials to survive in a harsh and changing environment.” The couple also collect artwork by celebrated Canadian Ojibwa artist Carl Beam, including the two paintings in the hallway downstairs. “He was the first aboriginal modern artist to have his work purchased by the National Gallery of Canada,” notes Claudette.
Claudette loves to cook and entertain, so the kitchen, which features a large central island, has become one of her favourite spots in the home. “I like having people around yakking while I cook,” she says.
Just beyond the kitchen patio door, she’s planted a kitchen garden with fragrant flowers, herbs and veggies. “I love that you can just walk outside and get tomatoes and herbs,” she says. On the other side of the kitchen, the central utility core of the house contains the main bathroom and a guest room that also doubles as Claudette’s office. For Brown, walking the fine line between historic and modern is the way of the future. “We often think new buildings in heritage districts should try to replicate old buildings piece-by-piece,” he says. “But it should be about embracing more of the essence of the original architecture and reinterpreting it for our lifestyles today.” He believes the home will become part of Lunenburg’s fabric over time. “The shingles will weather, the lot will mature, the form will become another part of the architecture of the town,” he says. “It’s about weaving the next part of the quilt.”