House in Grey Highlands

Architect Ian Macdonald Architect Inc.

Location Grey Highlands, Ontario

A residence for a family of six is to be used as a country retreat. The site is a 55-acre parcel of gently sloping meadow on the Niagara Escarpment overlooking the Beaver Valley, two hours north of Toronto. As found, the experiential sequence and framed views provide a dramatic situation for the new residence. An existing barn located close to the Township road bordering the south edge of the property lends rural character and a sense of history to the site while helping to frame an ideal view to the valley beyond.

In a sense, the house is a non-building, subtly distinguished from the ground plane when viewed on approach; designed to place the inhabitant in particular relationships to the site. The design intent is to provide a spatial framework that will heighten one’s appreciation for and experience of the site, while asserting minimal presence on the landscape. With flat roofs planted in material consistent with that of the meadow, two rectangular wings (one private, one public), are embedded in the landscape and configure, in concert with the existing barn, a civilized courtyard oriented toward the principal view. The design intentions can best be understood within the frameworks of sequential experience, complementary landscape relationships and environmental sensitivity.

One arrives to the property by ascending a tree-lined road which dead ends at the entrance to the site, just east and uphill from the barn. Upon entering the site, one is presented with a glimpse of a distant valley landscape to the north. Incised into the slope, the L-shaped composition of flat-roofed single-storey elements withholds the dominant naturally framed westward view to the valley beyond. The path to the front door delivers one to a space carved out of the meadow, beneath a generous canopy designed using a building section typical of other public spaces in the house. At this point, one’s experience is that of containment within a subtly civilized space in the landscape, structured with dry laid stone retaining walls. The western view to the valley below is revealed only after one progresses through a narrow elongated approach to the public wing of the house. The west edge of this space is fully glazed, and addresses itself over a discrete, flat, civilized grass court foreground to the distant view beyond, framed by the barn and a grouping of existing trees.

The building addresses itself to two outdoor landscapes, designed to provide complementary experiences throughout the year. The long westward view is the most dramatic, and in large part defines one’s memory of the house. The court space serving the entry, kitchen and den is embedded in the meadow landscape, and provides a protected outdoor realm of containment that anchors the project and complements the extension of space and exposure provided by the defining westward view.

Green roofs and a geothermal mechanical system identify this house as environmentally sensitive. Its engagement with the ground helps offset the heating and cooling loads related to the large glazed areas. The most significant aspect of its environmental posture, however, is established by the quiet nature of its physical presence in the sensitive Niagara Escarpment landscape. From viewpoints outside the site, one will read the restored barn and meadow as the distinguishing features of the place.

Ouellette: Farms on the rolling landscape of Southern Ontario can have a unique, iconic form that exist nowhere else. MacDonald torques the visual expectations of this iconography by cutting into the landscape while opposing its form against that of a traditional, weathered barn. Reminiscent of a Wrightian prairie design, MacDonald’s house carves into the land while using meadow grasses as both an insulating canopy and a device to integrate the house with the surrounding environment.

Provencher: The way this house melds with the topography creates a delicate balance with the restored barn, demonstrating a sensitive approach to the given context. The green roof of this house seems to disappear against the natural landscape of the meadow, and the organization of the plan fosters a warm and quiet courtyard, opening toward the meadow.

Taylor: What is striking about this project is the deference that it pays to the restored barn and the surrounding landscape, while at the same time not being afraid to express its own clean modern language. Also commendable is the thoroughness and elegance of the presentation drawings themselves.

Client Private

Architect Team Ian Macdonald, Michael Attard, Margaret Chan-Smyth, Eryn Stoddart, Nova Tayona, Jeremy Campbell, Michael Amantea

Structural Blackwell Bowick Partnership Ltd.

Mechanical Nottawasaga Mechanical

Contractor D.H. Simpson Construction

Area 2,950 Ft2

Budget Withheld

Completion October 2006