Fuller Life

Project Fuller Terrace, Halifax, Nova Scotia
Architect Susan Fitzgerald Architecture
Text Ian Chodikoff
Photos James Steeves, unless otherwise noted

Even in the most design-conscious areas of the country, there never seems to be enough clients willing to hire an architect to design their dream homes. But there are alternatives to educating and growing a design-conscious clientele. In Halifax for example, many architects have experimented with the design-build process to proactively raise the quality of residential design in this conservative local housing market. One of these architects is Brian MacKay-Lyons, who has chosen the design-build option throughout his career. He built a multi-unit residence on Creighton Street and a live-work building on Maynard Street, receiving a Governor General’s Award for Architecture in 1990 for the latter. His recently completed live-work studios situated behind his offices on Gottingen Street represents the firm’s latest foray into design-build territory. Elsewhere in the city, architect Susan Fitzgerald together with her contractor husband Brainard have undertaken several of their own design-build residential projects over the past several years while engaging in a dialogue about urban intensification and vernacular form.

Having once worked for MacKay-Lyons, Susan is currently a partner at Fowler Bauld & Mitchell, a 20-person Halifax-based architecture firm that has been in continuous practice since 1917. Her husband runs Brainard Fitzgerald Developments, a thriving construction firm. Beyond her role as a partner at an architecture firm and her collaborative design projects with her husband, Susan also teaches at Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning. To offer students an opportunity to gain some construction experience, the Fitzgeralds hire them during the summer months and for their work terms.

Completed in 2010, Fuller Terrace is one of the Fitzgeralds’ latest speculative residential developments. The project is located in Halifax’s North End, an eclectic working-class neighbourhood characterized by turn-of-the-century houses and largely comprised of rental properties. The North End has become increasingly attractive for university students while artists, musicians and writers continue to live in the area. A textbook example of infill housing, Fuller Terrace shares many similarities to other infill projects across Canada where designers have come to recognize how their respective markets maintain an interest in smaller and more affordable live-work buildings that may either be sited on narrow lots or facing laneway conditions.

Fuller Terrace is essentially two stacked volumes with a total area of 1,750 square feet. The upper volume corresponds to a secluded living area, while the lower volume comprises the home office and presents a more public face to what is essentially a quiet residential street. Similar to the designers’ own residence on nearby Elm Street, Fuller Terrace blurs the distinction between public and private spaces. However, in the Elm Street residence, the family room and spaces for everyday life are situated on the ground floor, maintaining a strong visual connection to the street. Conversely, Fuller Terrace’s living quarters on the upper levels are more private yet still include third-floor decks that provide ample semi-private and private outdoor spaces. The rear garage, clearly visible to passersby, could easily be converted to a granny flat once the City of Halifax changes its by-laws to permit such uses. 

The project maintains the typical setbacks, overall height and general massing typically found along this downtown residential street, while the cedar shingles and wood decking that comprise the cladding elaborate upon the vernacular expression of the neighbourhood’s shingle-clad housing stock. Wood siding, so typical of many Maritime buildings, is an effective material given the region’s wet and cold climate. Here, the wood siding is detailed as a rainscreen wall for added longevity.

When the development was placed on the market, prospective buyers immediately understood the value of its contemporary design. Instead of commissioning a house from an architect, projects produced through a speculative design-build method allow clients to immediately visualize architecturally designed living spaces. Moreover, a design-build home might cost a client $500,000 but if that same client were to commission an architect to build a project on an empty parcel of land, she may not be able to finance the construction budget. Arranging an affordable construction loan is far more difficult that negotiating a traditional mortgage for a house being put up for sale. Just a couple of months after it was completed, the Fitzgeralds sold Fuller Terrace to a local businessman who owns and operates several rental properties in the area and who needed a ground-floor office to manage his real estate portfolio while maintaining the garage as a storage facility for the various furnishings used in his properties. 

At the level of urban design, Fuller Terrace addresses some of the long-range planning goals that encourage compact development, improvements to streetscape design, and which enhance the public realm. Led by the Halifax Regional Municipality’s (HRM) Urban Design Manager Andy Fillmore, the City has been focusing on improving services in its downtown over the past decade while defining a greater sense of place for the region through architecture that reflects the history and heritage of the city and its residents. Fuller Terrrace is certainly emblematic of the HRM’s urban design objectives. 

Currently, the Fitzgeralds are contemplating what to do with a seven-acre site they recently purchased near Wolfville in the Annapolis Valley. The property is only a 10-minute walk from the centre of town and the Fitzgeralds are imagining that this next project, the couple’s most ambitious to date, can eventually become a community building complete with a farming component, not just a multi-unit residence. Their Annapolis project may hold the key to the couple’s next phase in their careers; however, building at a scale larger than residential infill is a slow and complex process. With the Fuller Terrace project, the Fitzgeralds are certainly continuing to do their part to ensure that higher-density housing in the Halifax community remains liveable and viable. CA

Client Brainard and Susan Fitzgerald
Structural Andrea Doncaster
Contractor Brainard Fitzgerald Developments
Area 1,750 ft2 (house/office), 550 ft2 (workshop/studio)
Budget n/a
Completion September 2010