Architect D’arcy Jones on daily life from the perspective of small projects,
prefabricated cabins and the picturesque site of 24 Sussex Drive.
1. Describe how ‘lil’ projects enhance the landscape and the interesting moments they create.
A client asked us to design a small office for him, located away from his main house so his home-based work as a mortgage broker was less disrupted by his young children. The zoning would not allow for a second “building”, but would allow a 100 SF shed to be built without a permit. So we designed what in effect is a very nice 100 “shed”, that nicely works as an office.
Since then we have designed many small buildings, where a loophole in the definition of a shed is manipulated to be intensely compact but incredibly functional and inviting small spaces. The landscape between a house and small building is intensified, since it immediately creates a courtyard or outdoor room. The North American suburban convention where the main house has now swallowed up large garages has completely killed any semblance of in-between spaces, where the wind is blocked to let tomatoes flourish, where neighbour’s can’t peer in to see your outdoor dining area, and where sunbathing can happen in private. In non-suburban settings, splitting up functions and locating them in disparate buildings lets the weather be read in-between (fog, wind, sunsets etc). And at a very basic level, in either setting a small building allows for moments where one can see the exterior palette of a building, looking back onto the main house. It is possible to spend most of one’s life indoors, and have the exterior material or colour of a building have no bearing or impact on our perception or daily life. Small building fix that.
2. Why are prefabricated cabins so popular?
Since all of our jobs are built with time-tested conventional concrete or wood-frame construction, it is rarely difficult to find skilled labour even in small out-of-the-way locations. Finding local suppliers for better quality contemporary windows, doors, fixtures, and finishes is almost always difficult though.
We created a flat-pak series of cabins for a Canadian company, based on our experience with building small buildings in remote locations. The principle is very much based around your garden shed. It’s also built around cost and ROI. For example, the prefab cabin cost would be much lower than one which came already secured. It would cause massive shipping bills. Before and since, our studio always has a handful of small projects on the boards at any time. These projects are located all over the Pacific Northwest, Western Canada, and soon Ontario. Our experience with Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS) and Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) technologies allows us to take full advantage of all prefabrication methods currently on the market. Then popularity of our small buildings, prefabricated in part or in whole, is because in a culture where bigger is better, we are noticing a return to small family-oriented cabins and cottages for recreation or aging-in-place. For our clients, the focus is on quality, not quantity.
3. In 2009, you participated in a competition for 24 Sussex Drive. Describe what makes that site intriguing.
Canada is book-ended by oceans at its east and west coasts. We entered the competition primarily because the interesting site was located on a river; early in Canada’s history the exploration and travel that was possible via rivers created the country we know today. Notably the St. Lawrence, the Red River, and the Fraser River.
But: Canada’s current residence for the prime minister highlights borrowed architectural traditions that are not and were not created in Canada.
My proposal for a new Official Residence is simultaneously new and old with the addition of familiar geographies and fresh spaces that abstract the dominant landscape in Canada. Being flat, the site at 24 Sussex Drive lends itself to combining an ocean, a lake, a river, a forest, a mountain, a rock (Shield), and a prairie. These landscape elements would be carved into or overlaid onto the existing property, with inhabited spaces and service requirements housed in the resultant voids where the new landscapes don’t quite meet the ground. The new residence is located on one continuous level, exaggerating its horizontal expansiveness, like Canada. Though expressively modest and park-like from the street, the house’s interior spaces were planned to boldly jut out over the river, a glassy void supporting an artificial forested landscape weightlessly over an existing one. The proposed design runs counter to Canadian modesty, intended by our studio as a provocative proposal to initiate a new era where Canada takes a stronger international leadership role, embracing the country’s size and geography as a strength.