Skip to main content

Classic and modern

By |

Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

Contemporary new home offers the best of country and city living

In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt. But Mike Ungar and Paula Mullen looked at their unexpected time at home as an opportunity.

The couple had talked about building a new house, but with Ungar’s busy schedule as the founder and director of the Resilience Research Centre at Dalhousie University, they shelved the idea. He travelled extensively and taking the time to design and build a house was impossible. But with the change in his schedule, they began planning. 

A new residential development in Hammonds Plains, N.S. caught their attention. One lot, with a natural feature they couldn’t resist, stood out. 

“There’s a waterfall and winding river among the trees,” says Ungar. “Being from Nova Scotia, my wife really wanted to connect to her rural roots, while I was pushing toward a more modern design.” 

Their home is five farmhouse-styled structures joined with a flat roof in “Lego-block” sections. The multiple gabled buildings, broken up with connectors, allow this large home to nestle in the forested landscape. The finished view is stunning and distinctive, a blend of modern and traditional.

Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire
Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

“This adaptation of the farmhouse with the sloped roof and wood/metal siding seemed a lovely compromise and avoided the sometimes overly sterile feeling that modern homes can give,” says Ungar, noting it also has a dramatic standing seam black steel roofline. “Our goal was a home that felt warm
and inviting but still looked very edgy and contemporary.
It definitely has a unique look.”

Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

Being energy conscious and mindful of environmental impact were also important.

“It’s not quite a passive house, but it’s very close,” says Ungar. Solar panels cover the back of the home, and the in-floor heating system is fueled by propane. “It’s currently the most efficient source.” He adds the system is designed for modifications if a better option becomes available. 

A room with a view

Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

Two years after the process began, they stand in their home admiring the view that first caught their interest. 

“We positioned the house strategically in the trees and just beyond the watershed to take advantage of the view,” says Ungar. “Much of the year we can hear the water running over the small waterfall next to the house.

Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

“And the black window frames and white walls quite literally create the effect of picture framing the view.” 

The couple was strategic with planting an atrium of plants to create an intriguing look, especially in the vestibule, where it feels like you’re both inside and outside at the same time. Ungar says it’s an observatory to watch wildlife such as deer and rabbits while bringing the serenity of nature inside.

The owners describe the house as having a modern “soft industrial” feel, which is warmed up through the use of stone and live edge surfaces. The couple also included wood beams found in the Mullen family’s 200-year-old barn. Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

The main common area includes a double-sided fireplace, sitting area and kitchen. It’s open and full of light, holding ample space for welcoming others to their home. Ungar and Mullen wanted their space to reflect their love of entertaining. 

Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

The lustrous marble island provides additional kitchen workspace and contrasts with the textured stone wall and maple cabinets. The generous kitchen is designed to be used, with ample space and thoughtful planning. 

Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

“I can cook an entire turkey dinner without having to juggle things around,” says Mullen. 

There’s even extra kitchen space for additional prep and cleanup that cleverly hides behind a door. They also have a tiny sliding door across the back of the counter that opens to the main common area, just behind the coffee bar. It allows dirty dishes to be easily moved out of view.

Ungar and Mullen have five grown children and recently became empty nesters. But they considered homecomings and possible future grandchildren in the design, wanting there to be room for everyone to be comfortable. 

Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire
Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

The property has a guesthouse that repeats the concept of the main home, using two farmhouse styled structures. It’s accessible from the road or via a woodland path between the homes, and over the stream.

It’s in the details

“The house is quite unique with a modern ‘soft industrial’ feel, but warmed up through the use of lots of stone and live edge surfaces,” says Ungar. They’ve also included wood beams found in the Mullen family’s 200-year-old barn. “It was great integrating pieces of history, our own and others… The beams create a sense of continuity, and again make modern feel timeless.”

While the home has a minimalist feel, there are elements that add charm and reflect the couple. Ungar loves books, so a full-wall bookshelf complete with a sliding ladder was a must. On the opposite side of the room is a grand piano, which Mullen plays. Functional art selections act as focal pieces and reflect their love of nature. A handcrafted wooden table in the foyer mimics the root system of a large tree and adds visual interest to the space. In a small bathroom, artisan tiles and a gorgeous countertop of wood and resin resembles a stream of water running toward the sink, mirroring the stream crossing the property.

Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

Ungar, a talented woodworker, has included a workshop in one of the farmhouse units, with tactically placed electrical outlets for his power tools and counter space for working.
The design goes further. 

“The door can be converted to an entrance,” explains Mullen. “And the counter can easily be modified to a kitchen area, and the plumbing and electrical work are already in place.” The bathroom, which may seem elaborate for a workshop, is designed with intent. “This entire area can easily be converted to an apartment.” 

Mullen considers this her forever home. The workshop/potential apartment design is in case she and Ungar one day need a live-in caregiver. 

Ungar has already crafted pieces for the home, including a wine rack and a coffee table. Next on his list is an outdoor fire pit and gazebo. He has his own wood mill in a shipping container at the back of the property. This allows him to use lumber from the trees felled on the lot when it was cleared. They also have a small tractor, so they do much of the landscaping themselves.

Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

The attention to detail continues outside. A French drain system that helps displace the abundant water on the property has become a meandering walkway among the carefully selected plants. A footpath leads over the river to the guesthouse and to an outdoor multiuse sports pad designed for games like basketball and tennis. 

“Neighbourhood kids are welcome to use this space,” says Mullen. 

“There isn’t a park in the area,” adds Ungar. “So, they can come here.” 

Mullen nods. “Adults are welcome, too. We host a weekly pickleball game.” 

This home, which embodies Ungar and Mullen’s individuality — plus showcases their love of nature — also displays their desire for community. 

“It’s an East Coast home that is nestled in the forest, but still close to Halifax,” says Ungar. “The best of both worlds!” 

Melanie Mosher

East Coast Living