Remnants of an old farm road, low stone fences punctuating the landscape, striking views and a client with a penchant for the works of British sculptor Andy Goldsworthy: What more could Wei-Han Vivian Lee and James Macgillivray, founding principals of Lee and Macgillivray Architecture Studio (LAMAS), have wished for as they first met with their new client in North Hatley in Quebec’s Eastern Townships? She wanted a home she would eventually occupy on a full-time basis, and which her daughter — and her family — would consider theirs as well. Toronto-based LAMAS had already built a house in the small community, and they knew it intimately — particularly Macgillivray, who spent many summer holidays here.
The site occupies part of a much larger former homestead that once belonged to the Virgin family, an agricultural property that was gradually dismantled over the years. Traces of this era are still visible in the countryside where grand houses built by the United Empire Loyalists (who settled here after the American Revolution) still stand, and the beauty of the landscape — with nearby Lake Massawippi and the Adirondack Mountains in the distance — remains unchanged. As Lee and Macgillivray tackled their project, they first turned to Quebec’s early stone houses for inspiration.
From this search for authenticity, they settled on two traditional features directly connected to surviving the province’s long and snowy winters: a solid north wall and a large pitched roof with protective overhangs.
A narrow path that runs along the property line provided the next cue for conceptualizing the house. The architects decided to make the strong, almost sculptural north façade run parallel to it, over 21 metres away. “The house could then be clipped onto the wall,” Lee explains. The opposite facade is mostly glazed, satisfying the client’s desire to be able to view the lake from every room in the house. The plan could just have been a long rectangle — as is the roof — except that the best views were slightly off-centre.
After scrutinizing the landscape for hours on end, Lee suggested tweaking the plan by 10 degrees to better benefit from the beauty of the surroundings. This decision, which looked simple enough, had a ripple effect on all the interior spaces, and it proved to be a real challenge for the architects — as well as for the builders. (During my recent visit to the home, one of the carpenters commented, “It felt like no two pieces of wood were cut at a right angle!”)
The move is felt throughout the 336-square-metre building, particularly in the light-filled, 5.8-metre-tall living–dining area. The position of the asymmetrical ridge beam is puzzling, as is the view of the roofline, which appears to be at odds with the slanted clerestory windows. The entire floor, which requires constant mental adjustment, produces a somewhat unsettling feeling. But it’s also stimulating — and it surely was a source of intellectual delight for LAMAS’s partners, who relish optical illusions and whimsical, theoretical explorations.
Macgillivray and Lee describe themselves as “practitioners and academics, equally invested in pragmatics and discursive research.” As practitioners, they made a point of visiting a local quarry, where they literally hand-picked a variety of stones for their nearly 52-metre-long wall. They also went as far as producing a sketch showing the kind of “assemblage” they were hoping to get from the masons. The resulting façade is a strong earth-bond statement, solidly anchoring the house in the landscape. It also offers a few surprising moves.
For one thing, a large inverted semicircular opening is inserted near the front entrance. Besides bringing natural light into a small office space, its role is to give the adjacent chimney a sweeping upward movement. As for the chimney, it signals the 10-degree shift in the plan. Past the entrance, the stone wall picks up again along its original trajectory. This time, it is the roof’s interruption — again at a 10-degree angle — that features an unexpected move. This cutout brings daylight to the living–dining area and to a walled-in exterior patio meant to protect the client’s privacy.
In this atypical home, every formal and technical decision seems to be the result of careful consideration: the choice of hemlock (aged on the outside cladding and left natural otherwise), the installation of a geothermal system to help regulate temperatures (heating the air and floors in winter and cooling the house in summer) and the design of the structural system, with window frames acting as columns. Like the stone, all lumber, hemlock cladding and even the high-performance glazing systems were locally sourced.
And last but not least is the reinterpreted French-Canadian “baguette” roof. The most fascinating thing about this house, however, is its main façade and singular handling of the plan, which organizes the bedrooms at either end in order to nestle the communal spaces in the centre — all the spaces laid out in a sawtooth formation to enjoy the roof’s protective eaves.
“Living in this home for some time now, I’ve realized the presence of the forest has become as important to me as the views of the lake,” the client says. “This is a place that feels good, whether I am here alone or with my family. While it can be very intimate, it’s also great for parties.” For LAMAS, this project was probably an interesting demonstration of how theory can influence practice and vice versa. I would also argue that this home connects Lee and Macgillivray to a long lineage of architects — and masons — who cared for landscape, natural materials and geometry. Hopefully they, in turn, will transmit the message to their students at a time when architecture schools seem more and more removed from reality.
In Quebec’s Eastern Townships, LAMAS designs a resolutely novel house informed by the area’s old stone buildings.