Cliff House

PROJECT Cliff House, Nova Scotia
ARCHITECT MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects
PHOTOS Greg Richardson

This modest project is the first in a series of projects to be built on a large 455-acre property on the Nova Scotia Atlantic Coast. It acts as a didactic instrument intended to heighten the experience of dwelling in the landscape. Perched on the bedrock cliff, the pure and austere wood box “teaches” about the nature of its landscape through the creation of a sense of vertigo, floating above the sea. This strategy features the building’s fifth elevation–its belly. On approaching the cabin from land, one is presented with understated landscaping and a calm wood box firmly planted on the ground–in contrast to the subsequent dramatic interior experience of flying off the cliff.

This efficient, 960-square-foot cabin functions as a rustic retreat. Intended as an affordable, high-amenity prototype on a pedestal, its main level contains a great room with a north cabinet wall and a compact service core behind. The open loft acts as a sleeping perch. A large, south-facing deck on the cliff edge allows the great room to flow outward, and the cabin’s fenestration optimizes passive solar gains and views, both out to sea and along the coastline.

The project’s rich spatial experience and dramatic landscape strategy is contrasted by its material frugality. This is a modest project with an extremely low budget. A galvanized superstructure anchors it to the cliff, while a light steel endoskeleton forms the primary structure expressed on the interior. The envelope is a simple and conventional taut-skinned platform-framed box. The “outsulation” strategy allows the conventional wood framing system to be expressed on the interior, avoiding the need for interior finishes and the problems typically associated with condensation in insulated wall cavities. An abstract modern effect is created by the cedar shiplap siding on a ventilated rain screen.

In Atlantic Canada, a cool labile climate–characterized by constant wet/dry freeze/thaw cycles–results in a very high weathering rate for buildings. Over the centuries, an elegant, economical lightweight wood building tradition has developed in response to this challenging climate. The light timber frame has also become the dominant domestic construction system in North America. Despite its widespread use, its inherent high level of environmental sustainability, its affordability, and its subtle refined aesthetic, architects have been reluctant to embrace it. The research conducted by MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple’s practice, however, builds upon and extends this often understated, everyday language of construction, most often through modest projects like the Cliff House.

Jury: Among the many weekend and vacation house submissions, this insightful reinterpretation of the archetypal cabin in the landscape was a clear standout project. Perfectly judged for its setting, it elevates plain vernacular form and ordinary materials into a potent mediation on the relationship between the man-made and nature. Its sober tectonic language resonates delightfully with the surrounding coastal landscape, and its haiku-like simplicity and exquisite modesty distills the notion of dwelling into a beautiful and memorable piece of architecture. CA

Client Withheld
Architect Team Brian MacKay-Lyons, Talbot Sweetapple, Kevin Reid, Melanie Hayne, Sawa Rostkowska
Structural Campbell Comeau Engineering Limited
Geotechnical Terrain Group Incorporated
Builder Gordon MacLean
Area 960 ft2
Budget Withheld
Completion Summer 2010