Canadian Architect

Feature

Working in the Margins

Building in the Maritimes--through the career trajectory of Susan Fitzgerald, a partner in the 90-year-old Halifax firm of Fowler Bauld & Mitchell.

April 1, 2007
by Canadian Architect

TEXT Christine Macy

It may be a result of Canada’s five time zones, or its latitudinal reach from the 49th parallel to the 90th, but it seems sometimes that the question of “regionalism” marks every discussion of Canadian architecture, inside the country and out. If one were to accept at face value the perspective of the international press, all Canadian architecture is a regional inflection to the various currents of contemporary architecture–an inflection particularly redolent of vast landscapes, nice wood detailing, and a purity appropriate to long, cold winters.

In nationwide discussions of Canadian architecture, the Maritimes are similarly pigeonholed, making “maritime” architecture synonymous with “regional” architecture. Is this because the Maritimes appear, to the rest of the country, to exist out of historical time–rooted, perhaps in the rural novels of Ernst Buckler or, more recently, Annie Proulx? Or because this part of the country is populated with small towns and distinctive rural areas that present such a piquant contrast to the remainder of an essentially urbanized Canada? Or does this tendency to transform the “other” into the “regional” serve as a kind of wish-fulfillment–the feeling that somewhere a purer, truer, more authentic way of life goes on?

In reality of course, history has affected the Canadian Maritimes as much as it has the rest of the country. In fact, European settlement made its first mark here and continued to leave its heavy hand on industrial Cape Breton, the mining and railway landscapes of Springhill, and the debates over centralization and political representation that followed Confederation, right up to present-day struggles for equalization funds and rights to resource revenues. But what if we were to invert this truism, and propose that architecture rooted in the specific concerns of a place–a place not Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver–might present some fundamental insights into contemporary building. Can one speak of modern architecture from such a place?

In the early 1980s, Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre coined the term “critical regionalism” to describe exactly such an architecture–one designed in response to the specific needs and opportunities of a place. While Tzonis and Lefaivre argue that such “critical, regional” work is richer and more nuanced from its reading of a specific place, they suggest it may nonetheless influence work carried out in other places or even globally.

This article explores one example of this kind of work, focusing on a young architect who calls Nova Scotia her home. Like so many people in the modern world, she is an immigrant–in her case, from England–lured away from the West Midlands to the expansive horizons of Canada after meeting and marrying a Nova Scotian when they were both working in London. Susan and Brainard Fitzgerald settled in British Columbia, where she studied interior design and worked in Nick Milkovich’s/Arthur Erickson’s office, before moving to Nova Scotia for her architectural studies at TUNS. After a four-year internship with Brian MacKay-Lyons, during which she worked on several houses, Fitzgerald began looking toward firms that would offer her more flexibility for her growing family, and independence as a designer. The long-established and highly regarded firm of Fowler Bauld & Mitchell offered her just such an opportunity, and in 2006 she became a partner.

Fitzgerald’s husband Brainard is a builder and the couple have never stopped looking for opportunities to put their shared skills and interests to work, finding undervalued properties, renovating older buildings for resale, and designing speculative houses. In this, they have been able to realize the dream of many young people with expertise in the building trades. Design-build work is a lively sector in Halifax, like it is in other parts of the country, as young architects set up their own practices–often in the creative interstices between the retail and media sectors and in city districts that are undervalued, marginal, neglected or in transformation. Design-build firms like Breakhouse (Glenn McMinn and Peter Wuensch) specialize in retail and restaurants in Halifax, while the Fitzgerald husband-wife partnership have focused their energies on residential projects in the city, the province’s south shore and the Annapolis Valley.

Cooperage Lane House, Port Williams, Nova Scotia 2002

Their first project was a speculative house designed by Susan and built by Brainard and his father, a retired high-school teacher. The design was pulled in two directions: on the one hand, the Fitzgeralds wanted it to fit in with the traditionally styled houses in this new subdivision on former farmlands in the Annapolis Valley. On the other, Susan pushed for an open plan, extensive glazing and spare modern detailing in this, her first independent project. The result is a typical gabled house towards its neighbours, and an open, light-filled retreat hovering above the woods towards the back of the lot. Generous eaves shed snow easily and protect windows and doors from rain and ice. Decks, workshops and careful landscaping integrate the house into its sloping site.

The project was a learning experience for both builder and architect, Brainard developing an appreciation for the invention that goes into good design, and Susan a respect for the builder’s knowledge. She explains: “Working very closely with any contractor before and during construction is essential. Explaining the ideas behind the work and the design process gains their interest and respect–but it is almost never done. If the contractor really understands the architect’s goals, then drawings are interpreted correctly, the important questions are asked and design anomalies are noted. This relationship goes both ways–allowing both contractor and architect to improve the building details based on their mutual experience. Nova Scotia has one of the highest weathering rates in the world and any architect who takes a heavy-handed approach with their contractor and does not listen very closely to their concerns is a fool.”

New Harbour Cottage, Blandford, Nova Scotia 2006

Located on a narrow “fishing lot,” this cottage echoes countless other fishing shacks that have lined Atlantic coasts for generations. The difference now is that leisure activities have replaced working waterfronts all along the south shore of Nova Scotia, as the fishery has closed down and former fish sheds are turned into camps, studios and second homes. In this project, the Fitzgeralds turned their design-build efforts to a site on the Aspotogan Peninsula that was accessible only by foot from a logging path. Construction materials had to be brought in at low tide from across the bay.

The cottage is supported on piers secured to rock outcroppings, leaving the natural vegetation and drainage on the site undisturbed. The outside of the cottage is finished with cedar shingles and a metal roof, and the inside is clad with whitewashed boards, making a simple and quiet room that opens up to the south and the ocean views. An off-grid dwelling, it uses photovoltaic panels to power compact fluorescent lights, and is heated by a wood-burning stove. Water is provided by a hand-pumped well; a grey-water septic system serves the sink and shower; and there is a composting toilet. This cottage exemplifies the kind of frugality and practicality characteristic of most buildings in Atlantic Canada. The setting, not the building, is spectacular, and people see little value in conspicuous consumption, preferring the precious pleasures of nature, weather, wildlife and nearby neighbours.

Sir John A. Macdonald High School, Tantallon, Nova Scotia 2006

At Fowler Bauld & Mitchell, Fitzgerald had the opportunity to serve as project architect for the Sir John A. Macdonald High School, under Tony Cook as the partner in charge. The school was built to serve a rapidly urbanizing region a short commute from Halifax,
and is one of a series of new amalgamated schools that are replacing 1950s-era community schools all over the province. Those older buildings–by architects such as Leslie Fairn or C.A. Fowler–were elegant modernist designs that had good solar orientation, narrow cross-sections, and operable windows, and they were also lively community centres, with sports facilities and auditoria. In this new school, Fitzgerald aimed for similar goals, within the tightly regulated framework mandated by the province for school design. She comments that “Many people who hire architects present their desires as a ‘shopping list’ instead of expressing their wishes in broader terms. Yet many aspects of architecture are not tangible in that way. Clients can be reluctant or suspicious when they feel they are paying for ‘frivolous’ items, like view or light or unprogrammed space. Sometimes, the architect is told not to make things look too expensive, as this might appear irresponsible. An architect must work within this premise to achieve results by spending less money; by cutting the ‘fat’ out of the project. Materials have to be used in a way that makes sense to the local building industry, and many aspects of the work must do double duty. The result is an architecture that has little to do with fashion, but rather with architectural ideas that are deeply rooted in the building culture of a place. This is hard for many young architects in Nova Scotia–fresh from the freedom of school–to make something seemingly from nothing and to work within the ordinary or mundane.”

From the outset, Fitzgerald took advantage of the site’s spectacular hilltop location and ocean views, configuring the building in a gentle arc so it would “complete the landscape.” By locating large laboratories on an upper level where they project over the smaller ground-floor classrooms, she created a continuous arcade along the building’s front faade that opens to the south and to the views. This arcade shelters students waiting for drop-off and pick-up along the entire front face of the building.

The main entrance is marked by a library block which projects past the arcade. Inside, it opens up to a double-height entry, which–like the nearby oversized stairhalls–is a meeting place for students coming and going. The building is organized on the classroom module, a fundamental “building block” that is provincially mandated to vary as little as possible from one classroom to the next. A second, more nuanced grid forms the central mezzanine and library, the administration area, cafeteria, student services and recording studio. These facilities form the social heart of the school. At various points along the building’s curve, certain rooms interrupt the rhythm of the grid, such as the music room, the gymnasium, cafeteria, and stage. Large areas of glazing allow different social activities in the school to be visually connected. For example, from the cafeteria one can see to the football field beyond–an important connection in this school, where football is a social activity.

In its construction, the building employs the Nova Scotia commercial vernacular of tilt-up concrete, steel frame and metal cladding. The rhythmic use of punched windows in the concrete-clad sections underscores the classroom module, while the lighter metal-clad system, with its ribbon windows and larger glass surfaces, forms the laboratories and special-purpose spaces. Taking its cue from the classic schools of the 1950s, a narrow plan with excellent cross ventilation keeps additional cooling to a minimum. Although the budget was a tight $120 per square foot, the client expressed an interest in getting the building LEED-certified–provided there was no additional cost.

The building uses a wide array of strategies to meet the requirements of certification: disturbing the site as little as possible and landscaping with plants that require no irrigation; collecting rainwater from the roof for fire protection and grey-water use; and specifying water-reducing fixtures and fittings, motion-sensor lighting and heat-reflecting rubber roofing. Construction waste was monitored regularly, allowing for a 99% reduction in waste diverted from landfill. Materials were assessed for off-gassing and the building was substantially complete two months before it was occupied, providing an ample flush-out period. One major challenge was supplying water to the unserviced site. Formerly a plow station, it had been contaminated by salt and petrochemicals. It also had radon gas under the bedrock, which is not unusual in this area. The solution was to drill a second well that operates continually to flush contaminants out of the rock. The cooperative relationship between the project team at Fowler Bauld & Mitchell and the general contractor Rideau Construction allowed the school to be completed on time and under budget, at $108 per square foot, despite being the first LEED project for most of the team members. The building’s materials and detailing have allowed it to exceed the Model Energy Code and the owner to obtain supplementary financing from the Canadian Building Incentive Program.

Fitzgerald’s next project with Fowler Bauld & Mitchell is a K-12 school for the Waycobah First Nation on the Bras d’Or Lakes in Cape Breton. A design-build project with Joneljim Construction, it is scheduled to open at the end of 2007.

Working in a Firm

Fitzgerald reflects on her experiences over the past ten years, as she has made the trajectory from architecture student to partner in a firm, while continuing to collaborate with her contractor- husband on their own design-build projects: “Four years ago I joined the 90-year-old firm of Fowler Bauld & Mitchell, and have recently been made a partner. A deeply rooted Maritime experience and attention to construction has made this firm successful over the years. Knowledgable partners and a competent team have allowed me to pursue design work in a supportive context. Taking any building from start to completion is not easy–it is a job that can never be fully appreciated until one is deeply immersed in it–and having many combined years of experience behind you within a cooperative framework is invaluable. I am content to work within these constraints and am excited to make something with integrity from the ‘ordinary.’ Nova Scotia is so inherently beautiful that simply framing the landscape is often enough. Making architecture from these minimal budgets, with extremely tight programs, within the local material culture is, in many ways, the true vernacular.”

Understanding “vernacular” as the language people actually speak in a particular place, I would say here that Fitzgerald is working at two levels at once. From the opportunities and constraints of working in a “marginal” and “regional” place, she has managed to create an architecture that has tremendous appeal, both locally and further afield. Like the early modernists, she sees value in a simple and frugal architecture that allows people to enjoy the important luxuries of sunlight, fresh air, nature and community.

Christine Macy teaches architectural design and history at Dalhousie University. She is the co-author of Architecture and Nature (2003), and the forthcoming Festival Architecture (2007) and Dams (2008).

PROJECT COOPERAGE LANE HOUSE

LOCATION PORT WILLIAMS, NOVA SCOTIA

CLIENT BRAINARD FITZGERALD (SR.), DOREEN FITZGERALD

ARCHITECT SUSAN FITZGERALD

AREA 2,200 FT2

BUDGET $220,000

COMPLETION AUGUST 2002

PROJECT NEW HARBOUR COTTAGE

LOCATION BLANDFORD, NOVA SCOTIA

CLIENT BRAINARD AND SUSAN FITZGERALD

ARCHITECT SUSAN FITZGERALD

STRUCTURAL ANDREA DONCASTER

AREA 600 FT2

BUDGET $50,000

COMPLETION MAY 2006

PROJECT
SIR JOHN A MACDONALD HIGH SCHOOL

LOCATION TANTALLAN, NOVA SCOTIA

CLIENT DEPARTMENT OF TRANSPORTATION AND PUBLIC WORKS, DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

ARCHITECT FOWLER BAULD & MITCHELL LTD.

ARCHITECT TEAM SUSAN FITZGERALD, TONY COOK, WAYNE DUNCAN, HARVEY FREEMAN, MARK GAMMON, DANNY GOODZ, MATT JARSKY, CHRIS BOWES, SHEENA GILMAN

STRUCTURAL BMR

MECHANICAL/ELECTRICAL F.C. O’NEIL SCRIVEN AND ASSOCIATES LTD.

LANDSCAPE GORDON RATCLIFFE LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT

CONTRACTOR RIDEAU CONSTRUCTION

LEED CONSULTANTS SOLTERRE DESIGN

AREA 126,000 FT2

BUDGET $13.75 MILLION

COMPLETION AUGUST 2006




Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect

Canadian Architect is a magazine for architects and related professionals practicing in Canada. Canada's only monthly design publication, Canadian Architect has been in continuous publication since 1955.
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