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Home & Design Favourite Room: Modern design meets historic foundations in this Nova Scotia schoolhouse turned home

Architect Brian Mackay-Lyons poses in the bedroom of the Chebogue Schoolhouse, at the Shobac farm, in Upper Kingsburg, N.S., on May 13, 2019.

Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

At Shobac farm in Upper Kingsburg, N.S., “at the end of a peninsula, on the edge of the ocean, at the end of the Earth,” Brian MacKay-Lyons says, there’s a restored one-room schoolhouse that dates from the 1830s.

The architect, fêted for his designs, which marry a vernacular style – “architecture without architects, built by regular folk,” MacKay-Lyons explains – with the contemporary, hails from Chebogue, a small fishing village in Yarmouth County, N.S. And so does the schoolhouse.

The property is dotted with historic structures that were slated for certain destruction. MacKay-Lyons adopts, relocates and rebuilds them here at Shobac. “Kind of like rescuing stray cats,” he says. MacKay-Lyons has memories of the Chebogue schoolhouse from his youth. “It moved me, even as a child, because it’s so simple and essential,” he says.

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“The bedroom is the purest rendition of the design philosophy we have – and my favourite room to live in,” MacKay-Lyons says. As he explains it, the house is “traditional on the outside and modern on the inside.” The gabled exterior, made of eastern white cedar, holds a black cube within, containing all the modern services – bathrooms, the kitchen (one floor below) – he and his wife require. So, “when you’re upstairs, you don’t see anything except this pure concept of old and new,” he says.

There are a few creature comforts as well: an Artemide Tolomeo reading lamp; a hand-painted antique Boston rocker; a blanket from MacAusland’s Woollen Mills (with wool sheared from the Shobac flock); cushions by former Shobac guest Lorraine Tuson; and an intaglio print, Cosmic Fish, by fellow Nova Scotian and friend and collaborator John Greer.

“In the Maritimes, economy is almost like a religion,” MacKay-Lyons says. “And, of course, the idea of economy in all fields is synonymous with elegance. The simplest way to do something is often the best way,” he says. MacKay-Lyons designs buildings from the inside out, “not as objects but as spatial experiences.” In the case of the schoolhouse, that meant balancing the need for views, protection from the elements and modulating light from all sides given the open floor plan. “What I enjoy most is being able to watch the seasons change around us."

MacKay-Lyons began buying up small parcels of property at Shobac about 30 years ago, but the site is much older than that. “This place has been cultivated for 400 years,” he says. The site’s history is described on the architect’s website: The Mi’kmaq used it as a summer camp for harvesting shellfish; Samuel de Champlain made landfall here in 1604, at which point it was established as an Acadian fishing and farming village; later, it was settled for agricultural use. In addition to living in the schoolhouse, MacKay-Lyons operates a satellite office on the site, “a 100-foot-long metal tin can on the edge of a cliff,” he says.

Despite its edge-of-the-worldness, the architect gets a lot of visitors, and even ran an architecture school, Ghost Laboratory Studios, here for a couple decades. “The irony is that this little building is from the village where I grew up and where my family have lived for probably 5,000 years – so it can’t get more local than that – and the people who come and visit us are from all over the world.” But it’s easy to feel at home here. “It’s absolutely local and absolutely universal, this little schoolhouse,” MacKay-Lyons says.

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