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A courtyard and glassed-in passageway connect two volumes that can be shared or split into separate units.

As more people opt to work from home, how can their houses fulfill changing roles? Susan and Brainard Fitzgerald, an architect and a contractor, found numerous ways to optimize their own multi-functional live-work space.

The LiveWorkGrow house reimagines a deep, narrow site in the west end of Halifax, where an eclectic district is defined by residential, commercial and light industrial buildings, including a coffee roastery, a crematorium and a legal marijuana grow-op.

Architect Susan Fitzgerald and her husband, Brainard, who runs his own contractor business, used simple volumes to reinforce the streetscape’s shingle box and flat rooftop style. The syncopation comes through via party wall parapets, glass end walls, and a cutaway ground floor, which provides laneway access to the property’s interior.

Left: Linear volumes and a flat roof fit in with the shingle box style of the mixed-used neighbourhood. Right: Fully glazed walls overlook the courtyard, providing light and passive heat during the day.

The designers adopted a vernacular side-hall floor plan, though they split the interior in half to create two live-work spaces. These share a central courtyard, with a narrow, glassed-in passage connecting the two boxes at either end. The straightforward layout not only fulfills the bylaw requirement allowing only one building on the site; it also provides a shared rooftop terrace.

For now, the courtyard link belongs to the family’s unit in the front, with two sleeping cubbies for the couple’s children. To make a single workspace, the wall at the back could easily be removed, or shifted to the front to enlarge the studio. The cubbies, in turn, could be converted into workstations or offices. Similar modest adjustments would accommodate other configurations, a strategy to extend the building’s life.

“This is our first concrete structure, definitely our most challenging project so far – and the most gratifying,” says Brainard. Board form concrete walls on the ground floor and the stair towers offer rich texture to enhance the glass, black corrugated metal and wooden planks that make up the exterior. Meanwhile, the stairs, built-in units and kitchen cabinetry are clad in warm birch, complemented by polished concrete floors. Robust concrete or wood plank ceilings draw the view through the fully glazed walls, enhancing a sense of connection between inside and out.

The narrow lot also dictated an east-west configuration with a blank party wall to the south, less than ideal for passive solar design, and at first glance the walls would seem to be excessive sources of heat loss. Yet on the winter morning when I visited, the floors and walls were radiating heat gained after sunrise from the east, while the low afternoon sun through the west walls reloaded the concrete against the evening chill.

The main level is now being used as office space for the couple.

Susan says she was inspired to build a multi-functional environment after spending two years studying urban agriculture and informal urbanism in such far-flung locations as Bogotá and Santiago, trips that were made possible after she won the Canada Council for the Arts Professional Prix de Rome in Architecture in 2011.

“We saw incredible resourcefulness in the way people use every possible place to grow food or improvise activities,” she says.

Studying this design model revealed the agricultural potential of flat roofs. High parapets create a microclimate for vegetable beds, with harvests continuing into mid-October (late for Nova Scotia). The integrated rooftop agriculture strengthens the community, too, by connecting with the neighbours’ intensive urban gardens to the north and south.

Built-in storage units in the bedrooms, living areas and workspaces are clad in light birch and complement polished concrete flooring.

Life in the Fitzgerald household has a similar improvisational quality. Her architecture practice and his contractor business have priority on the ground floor, but after school and on weekends the big studio table draws their two children and their friends. Upstairs, an equally large table is the focus of family life, and in summer, gatherings move to the high roof with panoramic views of the city.

Long term, the two-storey live-work rental suite across the courtyard affords an autonomous space that could suit other occupants, including aging parents or grown children. But more than providing extra space for an adjoining business, the overall design of LiveWorkGrow imagines work as an integral part of family life, and the home as an evolving space, adaptable to a range of activities for years to come.

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