In Nova Scotia, a man and a woman walk into a house...


LISA ROCHON January 14, 2011

Though architecture schools across Canada are drawing impressive numbers of female students, the reality on the ground, from Vancouver to Halifax, is that most practising architects are men – white men – and almost every one of them relies on a male contractor to build his stuff.

That’s the reality – troubling for the many ways female sensibility is not being deeply shaded into the places where we live, work and hang out. It’s impossible to say what cities authored almost exclusively by women might achieve, but that’s what I’d like to imagine, then experience.

And yet. There is an exception that proves the rule in a collaboration between an architect and a builder that’s breaking new ground along Nova Scotia’s South Shore. Omar Gandhi – who grew up in Brampton, Ont., to parents born in India – is a 31-year old designer who wants his architecture to move you like soul music. His contractor is not a man but a woman.

Conjure that for a moment. Deborah Herman-Spartinelli, 54, is building three houses designed by Gandhi near the town of Liverpool, once a Loyalist stronghold, now considered to be the next affordable haven outside of Halifax. It comes with white, sandy beaches and warmer ocean waters. Now it also comes with a sweet intermingling of race, and a graceful partnership between a designer and a builder.

Gandhi only officially launched his Halifax design studio eight months ago. Before that, he worked nearly two years for Acadian architect Brian MacKay-Lyons, acclaimed for his stripped-down vernacular modernism. Funny the way the world turns. One of Gandhi’s new clients had previously commissioned homes from his former boss. For their latest house, they sought out Herman-Spartinelli, who recommended Gandhi as design architect. Often, Herman-Spartinelli and Gandhi turn to Halifax-based engineer Andrea Doncaster for structural expertise.

When we spoke by telephone earlier this week, Gandhi had just driven nearly two hours through early morning darkness to review construction details with Herman-Spartinelli. They meet once a week at their three sites. “I am completely blessed with the client-couples I have,” says Gandhi. “They’re always going for it. It’s very surreal.”

The Cedar in Three Textures project, an addition to an existing century-old family home, is being designed in Liverpool for two local doctors, both raised in small towns in Nova Scotia. The couple, Lynda Earle and Andy Blackadar, like Gandhi and his wife Elizabeth Stringer, happens to be mixed-race. Earle’s father was Nova Scotia’s first black member of Parliament.

The reno’s sustainable strategies include changing the heating system to a heat pump, an electrical device that extracts heat from one place and transfers it to another. All new walls are being built to Nova Scotia Building Code requirements R-24 and the roof to R-40. Windows will be replaced by more efficient, airtight ones. All of the interior cabinetry will be made using local solid birch and maple, fabricated in Liverpool.

Gandhi sat down with the doctors, friends of his, and together they determined the need to open the existing house along its southern flanks to bring in natural light and views, previously unexploited, of the nearby Mersey River. Gandhi, who received his architecture degree from Dalhousie University after studying criticism and history in the University of Toronto’s architectural studies program, thinks about architecture as beginning like the first 30 beats of a simple, raw song, or like stories that start dead simple. The suspense then gets brushed in, and heightened with shadow, before allowing for the drama to begin.

At the Hunt’s Point house he’s designing nearby, Gandhi has flanked a natural bowl that dips down in the property with two wings; the slightly darkened corridors lead from the master bedroom or from the guest rooms, ultimately meeting in a large living room with big views of the ocean.

Gandhi’s homes are modest in scale and keep to the traditional, timeworn truth of locally sourced materials such as Eastern white cedar. His modernism makes no room for elaborate decoration or fussy finishes. For the Cedar in Three Textures, the exterior cedar boards and shakes will be left unfinished. Interior millwork is left natural instead of being stained. Concrete will also be left raw.

The beauty is in the intent of the design and an honest translation from the builders. That kind of rigour was inspired by his time building his portfolio in Toronto and work stints with architects Marianne McKenna and Bruce Kuwabara on the ambitious and complex eco-project, Manitoba Hydro Place.

Herman-Spartinelli, owner of Trunnells and Tenons Construction (the business name derives from a timber framing term), started in construction when she was 27 years old and had two toddlers at home. Preferring to work outdoors rather than be shut in an office, she undertook four apprenticeship years and the 8,000 hours required to be certified as a journeyman carpenter.

“Omar is quite different than any other architect I’ve worked with. He’s here, for one thing, once a week, and his ego isn’t as big as some other male architects,” says Herman-Spartinelli. “It’s either their way, or no way. With Omar, it’s the best collaboration I’ve had with an architect. It makes my life so much easier.”

She and her five-person crew build according to a certain faith in construction techniques that produce enduring buildings. She insists on using hammer and galvanized nails rather than frame with air-powered hammer guns. “Somebody with a gun in their hands tends to use many more nails. With galvanized nails, it’s a much stronger product. You can’t rip it apart with your hands.”

Gandhi's studio is barely off the ground. Three projects are under construction. Another conversion of a century-old shed at Peggy's Cove, a project designed to use oversized pieces of plywood as big wooden shingles, is to break ground in the spring.
All of this is happening quietly on the East Coast. Gandhi's architecture is not radical, but the collaboration between the men and women, who they are, and what they believe in, matters a lot. Especially when the sentencing in Nova Scotia this week of Justin Rehberg and his brother Nathan for burning a cross on the lawn of a mixed-race couple suggests poisonous attitudes still exist. If only they could simply be designed entirely out of the psyche.