Immobile Home

Project Seaforth House, Seaforth, Nova Scotia
Designers JudyAnn Obersi and Jane Abbott
Text Kai Woolner-Pratt
Photos Peter Bogaczewics unless otherwise noted

Sheryl Grant and Suzanne Taker are emphatic that they “are not cookie-cutter people.” The house they inhabit conveys that message perfectly. A highly deliberate and idiosyncratic conversion of a mobile home overlooking the Atlantic, the Seaforth House is not built from scratch, but can’t quite be called a renovation either—just one of the many ways in which the house resists being categorized.

Seaforth is an area just outside of Halifax on Nova Scotia’s sparsely populated Eastern Shore. Jaggedly beautiful, this coast stands in contrast to the rolling hills of the Annapolis Valley and the placid beaches of the South Shore that define this province in the Canadian imagination. Its unyielding and intractable soil could be the reason that this region was never populated densely. Approaching Seaforth by car, there is a sudden shift as a sprawling suburb gives way, at the crest of a hill, to a rural landscape. Once over the hill, the density is lower and the ocean views denied to the suburbs are abundant. The Seaforth property has been in Taker’s family since her grandfather first laid claim to it as a homesteader. Since the Seaforth House can be characterized by persistence and resourcefulness, the heritage of the property as a homestead is fitting. The project’s reuse of the mobile home affirms the layers of history that the couple shares with the land. 

The owners of the house began to look for a designer when they decided to forgo their downtown condo and make their permanent residence at Seaforth. For years they had spent their weekends at the mobile home that Taker owned, and which Grant describes begrudgingly as “shabby chic.” She means this mostly in jest, because when the time came to undertake its most recent iteration, Taker had already—in the course of those weekends—completely transformed the home. Hardwood floors were laid, kitchen cupboards bricolaged out of reclaimed glass, walls taken down and others built. Taker would spend days alone engrossed in hammering and sawing, or would invite friends out for weekend visits to work on projects in the intervals between ocean swims and elaborate meals. 

However much they loved the mobile home, when Grant and Taker decided to move there permanently, they didn’t give a second thought to taking it down and building from scratch—“everything was crooked!”—until their contractor suggested retaining the existing structure to save them from rezoning the property for a larger footprint. The idea immediately struck a chord with the couple and their values, and they ended up reusing everything they could, including the structure of the trailer itself. The fruits of the couple’s weekend upcycling can be seen in the main washroom, where a sink is slotted into an antique dresser and a salvaged cast-iron tub is supported on wooden blocks found washed up on their beach. 

The limitations imposed by the footprint and the original structure allowed for a focused allocation of resources. The house is an anomaly amongst its immediate neighbours (which are oversized tract houses) on account of its small footprint, fine materials and idiosyncrasy. The clients approached designer JudyAnn Obersi, who in turn asked longtime friend and collaborator Jane Abbott to help her with the project.
A sketch by Obersi illustrates the basic concept for the design: a winged mobile home is rooted into the ground. In the design, the structure is placed on a poured-concrete plinth (of a piece with the new foundations) that contains additional square footage for a master bedroom, dressing room and utilities room. The weight of the mobile home is transferred, through two inset steel beams running its length, onto the walls of the plinth. On ground level, a new terrace extends out from the living room in the existing mobile home. Obersi sloped the hill such that the master bedroom could open, through sliding wooden doors, onto a second south-facing terrace with views to the ocean. 

Obersi and Abbott imagined the original structure—now the upstairs—stripped down to steel. The house can be compared to a weaving which gathers together many threads. The steel chassis acts as a frame within which Obersi has woven an architectural “warp,” which structures the playful bricolage that the couple enjoys—the “weft.” While the couple keeps the front room tidy for guests, they have left the back spare bedroom in its natural state—overwhelmed with beautiful fabrics and unfinished crafts piled on the bed and chairs. It is unsurprising that the downstairs space they had planned on using as a dressing room has slowly been filled with piles of salvaged wood, stones, fabrics and power tools. There is hardly any room for dressing—it has become a workshop. 

By incorporating the existing structure and appending to it, Obersi and Abbott have created a very comfortable and sensible house with well-proportioned rooms and deliberate views. It maintains a unified material palette, which successfully contains the vibrancy of the clients’ project within a coherent whole. Economical and elegant detailing, such as in the minimalist stairway, adds to the delightful experience of the house.

Although on one hand it is simply a modest retreat, the Seaforth House exemplifies values of reuse, reconsideration and recollection pertinent to our cultural moment. The last two centuries of Western culture have emphasized growth as a defining element of the civilization project. The publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962) is often pointed to as the moment that critiques of progress became part of public discourse. Since then, increasingly insistent critiques of progress have been made. The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth (1968) was published in the year of student revolts, and E.F. Schumacher’s Small
is Beautiful
(1973) appeared in the midst of the oil crisis. Today, these ideas and values saturate public discussion around climate change and the economic crisis. Architecture, however, marches on—checked, perhaps, by lack of capital, but not by a re-evaluation of the discipline. Seaforth illuminates a different role for architecture: carefully rehabilitating the accumulated results, both large and small, of postwar industrial building practices—structures which are quickly degrading and, perhaps unnecessarily, being replaced. The house points toward an architectural culture that maintains a skeptical attitude to progress and to building. It maintains existing boundaries, and affirms the values of limitation and smallness. Seaforth sees virtue in a mobile home made immobile, and in staying rooted where it is. 

Kai Woolner-Pratt studies at the School of Architecture at Dalhousie University.

Clients Sheryl Grant and Suzanne Taker | Design Team JudyAnn Obersi and Jane Abbott | Structural Andrea Doncaster | Contractor Econo Renovations | Area 1,713 ft2 | Budget $230,000 | Completion August 2013