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Set your sites on good design

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Achieving maximum solar gain and protection from the wild winds of the Newfoundland coast set the stage for this home in East Port designed by architect Chris Woodford. Photo: Woodford Architecture

When the synthesis of nature and building is part of the plan

There are important factors to consider when building a home in Atlantic Canada. Newfoundland architect Chris Woodford says being able to open the front door and not having the dog blow away is one of them.

In 2013, Woodford moved back to his home province to open a design firm. Early in his career, little high-end architecture was happening on the island, so he built his resumé and reputation for modern design in places like Norway and B.C.

Today, he leads one of a handful of firms in Newfoundland and Labrador that is creating exciting private and public spaces in a region that takes pride of place to another level. His work is deeply rooted in the concepts of the local vernacular, an architectural term focusing on the ways buildings used to be constructed and why.

“The fishing stages and houses with dormers are the iconic images of Newfoundland,” Woodford says. “When you study these structures, they were built as an economic response to the landscape. This ties into the modern approach to site planning when there was consideration of the winds, materials and access to the buildings but somewhere along the line people started buying house plans out of catalogue.”

He believes, since his early days as an architect, another shift is happening. People are talking about architectural design but with a better appreciation for the landscape comes a greater expectation about how the house performs. This is where a solid site plan comes in.

Woodford says that site planning is critical to his overall design process and especially important when one considers the rugged Atlantic coast.

 “The coastline of Newfoundland is amazing,” he says. “To not consider it is to discount the best part of what your house could be. The relationship of the house, the land, and the water is one of the most exciting things about designing here.”

Ken McLean and his wife Barb Case bought one of the last waterfront properties in East Port, N.L. on the northeastern border of Terra Nova National Park in 2004. McLean comes from Australia, but Case has an East Port ancestry that reaches back over 200 years in the pretty outport village. The initial plan was to build a little getaway from the city. But with deeper consideration about the next chapter in their lives, they looked to East Port as a place to retire.

“What are we doing in foggy old St. John’s in a high energy consumption home when we could be in East Port in a high energy efficient home?” says McLean.

With no urgency for the build, the couple took 10 years making many visits to their undeveloped property. Ken logged hours studying the prevailing winds, recording the solar path and experiencing the site in all seasons. When Barb walked into Chris Woodford’s office in 2013 to ask him to design their home, she already had a tidy sum of data collected.

Serendipitously, the site had existing protective features that would factor into the overall design plan.

“The site was heavily treed says,” Woodford says. “The first time that I went to visit the site it was at the tail end of hurricane. When we stepped on to the property it was dead quiet. We knew that we were not going to want to disturb many of those trees with the build.”

To achieve the maximum solar gain, the house needed to be positioned 15% off the horizontal of the street at the front of the lot. This took special permission from the municipality that required all new builds to be on the horizontal to the street, but once the council heard the reason for the positioning, it granted approval.

McLean said he put the onus on Woodford to maximize their solar gain. Research showed that an east-west orientation would be optimal. Disturbing as little of the densely forested landscape on their one-acre lot, the couple still enjoys views of the water year-round. 

The topography analysis revealed the need for drainage solutions that included extra weeping tile in the construction. With the municipality’s approval they also were able to move the debris from the house excavation over the shoreline edge of their property helping the reinforce the steep incline to the beach.

In Halifax, architect Chris Crawford of Fathom Studio says that he is seeing homeowners lean into a more ecological approach to their design. For many, knowing how their home is going to relate and connect to the environment is as important as how it looks.

 “There was a time when the world looked at buildings from the point of dominating nature. That sort of mindset trickled down from the Victorian age but in recent years that has really changed,” says Crawford, adding that his clients are embracing these ideas in a deeper way.

Solar potential, prevailing winds, plant species, microclimate, and privacy have all become important elements of site design. Crawford sees his clients change direction in what they thought they wanted to achieve in their build and then shift ideas when they look at what their site plans reveals.

Even with increasing threats of shoreline erosion and the impacts of the climate crisis, the desire to build on the coast has not ebbed. Crawford adds that future-proofing properties is an important aspect of site planning because what you have on your landscape today might not be there in 20 years. 

Municipalities are starting to put restrictions in place for floor elevations based on expectations for sea-level rise, which also plays into evolving regulations for how close to the shoreline you can build a home. These are all things that Crawford says you need to consider regardless of where you build.

Crawford’s firm, that started as a landscaping architecture firm but has evolved to include architecture, has a full interpretive team for the design process and is now utilizing drone imaging that captures amazing details and information about the site.

“The drone flies a pre-programmed flight path to capture the topography with such detail that you even get information on the plant health on the site,” says Crawford.

Information like this requires a professional, but there are things that you can do on your own to learn more about your own property that will help inform the design process. Prevailing wind data and solar path information are fundamental to site planning and are available for free and can be found with an internet search. 

Satellite imagery of even very remote locations is also accessible. Something Woodford thinks is both fascinating and a little scary thinking about all the information being recorded from space.

From his home in East Port, Ken McLean encourages everyone who is considering building to take the time to really understand how their property functions.

The time invested in his site plan resulted in a house design that has more than satisfied his family. Five years later the only thing that causes McLean consternation are the snow drifts around his garage. 

“The wind drift created by the tree barrier can create huge amount of snow,” adds McLean. “A few years ago we had to shovel off the roof of the garage.  That’s something that Australian’s are not genetically predisposed to.”

East Coast Living