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Cliff House

MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects

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Sara Johnson, Hanley Wood Media

Project Name

Cliff House

Project Status


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Project Description


Landscape as Project
This modest project is first in the series of projects to be built on a large (455 acre) property on the Nova Scotian Atlantic Coast. It acts as a didactic instrument intended to heighten the experience of ‘dwelling’ in landscape. A pure, austere wood box is precariously perched off the bedrock cliff, ‘teaching’ about the nature of its landscape through creating a sense of vertigo while floating above the sea. This strategy features the building’s fifth elevation - its ‘belly’. On approaching the cabin from the land, one is presented with a calm wood box with its understated landscaping, firmly planted on the ground, in contrast with the subsequent dramatic interior experience of flying off a cliff, like the local fishing sheds.

Challenges and Objectives
In Atlantic Canada we have a cool, labile climate, characterized by constant wet/dry, freeze/thaw cycles, resulting in a very high weathering rate for buildings. Over the centuries we have developed an elegant, economical light-weight wood building tradition in response to our challenging climate. The light timber frame has also become the dominant domestic construction system in North America. Despite its widespread use, its inherent high level of environmental sustainability, its affordability, and its subtle refined aesthetic, architects have been reluctant to embrace it. The research of our practice, however, builds upon and extends this often understated, everyday language of construction, through modest projects like Cliff House.

Environmental Impact
The Cliff House is an extreme expression of the ethic of economy, in contrast with the excesses of our current consumer society. The discipline of listening to ‘place’ (climate, geomorphology, material culture) allows for an understated architecture which gains its power by resonating with its environment. It employs the elegance of the light, timber frame, with its minimal embodied energy and uniquely renewable source.
The problem of the ‘good generic’ affordable prototype dwelling is more relevant to today’s environmental crisis than the cult of the compelling object, the focus of most contemporary architecture.

The Cliff House represents a search for that elusive quality, monumental modesty.
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