Canadian Architect

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Float: Up to the Bedrock

A house in a surreal Maritime landscape negotiates between its massive, stony surroundings and the versatility of light-frame vernacular building techniques.

April 20, 2016
by Benny Kwok

Situated atop a hill in Purcell’s Cove, Float is surrounded by exposed bedrock and the remnants of a dense forest that was devastated by fire.

Situated atop a hill in Purcell’s Cove, Float is surrounded by exposed bedrock and the remnants of a dense forest that was devastated by fire.

PROJECT Float, Halifax, Nova Scotia

ARCHITECT Omar Gandhi Architect Inc.

TEXT Benny Kwok

PHOTOS Doublespace Photography, unless otherwise noted

The geological features found in Nova Scotia—along with sweeping Atlantic Ocean and inland views—have long inspired bold contemporary architecture along the Maritime Coast. A particularly dramatic landscape is found in the Purcell’s Cove backlands, near Halifax. Located in the southwest portion of the North West Arm, Purcell’s Cove is a place with a mysterious aura, filled with jagged fields of rocky outcrops and subcrops, remnants of a glacial basin that existed centuries ago. With its hills and valleys hugging inland lakes, the backlands is a popular destination for mountain bikers, who whiz around gigantic sheets of broken-off rock—called bedrock floats—that have tumbled down the cove.

The living room enjoys a panoramic view of an inland lake.

The living room enjoys a panoramic view of an inland lake.

Float, a private residence designed by local architect Omar Gandhi, MRAIC, takes its inspiration from these loose pieces of rock. The 232-square-metre building is placed “off the beaten path,” says Gandhi. It is half a kilometre inland, on a hilltop clearing surrounded by rock outcrops. A decade ago, a forest fire roared through the adjacent area, leaving a ghostly trail through what used to be a densely treed landscape, leading to the hilltop. The sculptural forms of Float’s exposed bedrock surroundings “is the most miraculous thing,”  Gandhi recalls. “It seemed the perfect anchor for a house.”

The approach to the house presents a relatively closed façade, in contrast to the expansive lakeside views from within.

The approach to the house presents a relatively closed façade, in contrast to the expansive lakeside views from within.

As if pummelled by the forces of glaciers and fire, the formal massing of the home suggests a large boulder that has become severed and has shifted over time into four trapezoidal forms offset from one another. Designed for a university researcher with two grown children, this volumetric ensemble forms nuanced relationships with the surrounding geological features. A tall rock edge runs adjacent the approach, framing a sheltered, private zone: an ideal spot for a small fire pit and an enclosure for the family dog. The site’s raw, wild landscaping leads up to a crack-like entrance between the residence’s volumes.

The entrance foyer is capped by a floor-to-ceiling window that gives a glimpse of the landscape views visible from the house’s living spaces.

The entrance foyer is capped by a floor-to-ceiling window that gives a glimpse of the landscape views visible from the house’s living spaces.

Upon entering the home, one becomes immediately aware of a warm glow of light that bleeds into the foyer. Similar to earlier houses by Gandhi, the entrance is a compressed space with a lowered ceiling. This is capped with a fully glazed wall that offers a glimpse of the landscape beyond.

An exposed rock face forms a dramatic backdrop for the dining area.

An exposed rock face forms a dramatic backdrop for the dining area.

The central volume houses spaces for daily living, and is flanked by two sleeping zones—one above the dining room, the other containing two bedrooms and an upper-storey loft. In the middle of the twisted linear plan, the living room looks out over a lake, while the dining area comes within a few metres of a three-storey-high bedrock outcrop. A similar contrast occurs between the sleeping areas: the master bedroom is exposed to an immense view, while a second bedroom has an earthy presence adjacent to massive rocks.

The slat-covered garage forms a mysterious presence at the western edge of the house.

The slat-covered garage forms a mysterious presence at the western edge of the house.

The roof’s jagged profile tracks the irregular rock formations below; the interior volumes underneath reflect these changes in topography. Clerestories pierce through in appropriate zones, like popped-up car headlights, allowing seams of light into the top of the house during the day. The garage—which doubles as a woodshed—is slightly different in character. Covered with open slats, it becomes a wooden lantern that gently glows throughout the evening.

The exterior is clad with gray-washed boards to match the surrounding rocks

The exterior is clad with gray-washed boards to match the surrounding rocks

While the house is formally inspired by its geological surroundings, it is also influenced by the vernacular traditions of Maritime building construction. The architectural language is drawn from traditional shed outbuildings, adapted to maximize views and natural light, and shaped to accommodate a hierarchy of spaces. Each trapezoidal volume is a light-wood frame structure, making the house relatively inexpensive to construct by local contractors. To blend in with the bedrock strata, the exterior façade is clad with gray-washed, grainy wood. Like the shadows and voids found in the outcrops, panes of black steel and edge-to-edge glazing intersect with the wood volumes. In contrast, the interior material palette is minimalist: white walls and concrete floors are brightened by delicate walnut and coloured lacquer accents.

The son’s loft bedroom looks out over the surroundings.

The son’s loft bedroom looks out over the surroundings.

At times, Float’s negotiation between the vernacular traditions of Maritime architecture and the jagged landscape of Purcell’s Cove could be more grounded: the house feels like it ricochets between the lightness of the wooden boxes and the heaviness of the bedrock. A stone-clad entrance, for instance, may have helped to pin the boxes more firmly to their surroundings. But in nature, a bedrock float has the potential to move, however slowly. Float feels as if it reserves that right, too—although its presence for a long time yet will be appreciated as a resonant addition amidst the backlands.


Benny Kwok is a recent graduate of the Dalhousie University School of Architecture and the winner of a 2014 Moriyama RAIC Student Scholarship.


CLIENT Dr. Melanie Kelly | ARCHITECT TEAM Omar Gandhi, Jeff Shaw, Devin Harper, Hayley Johnson, Ozana Gherman | STRUCTURAL Andrea Doncaster Engineering | CONTRACTOR Tamlyn Construction | AREA 232 m2 | BUDGET Withheld | COMPLETION Summer 2015



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1 Comment » for Float: Up to the Bedrock
  1. lsarch says:

    Enjoying the uniqueness of the natural site and clean-lines of the built-form, but for the sake of life-safety, how does one avoid and get away with not installing a guard/handrail at the interior stair (of 15 risers)?

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