© Susan Fitzgerald Architecture

New Archetypes: Multi-Generational Design from Susan Fitzgerald Architecture

This unique Halifax house balances the evolving needs of work, family, and aging, all while promoting urban agriculture.

Zachary Edelson Zachary Edelson

New Archetypes is a regular column that explores how architects use modest projects to experiment with new concepts, collaborations, and innovations. These small designs pack a big punch, surpassing the constraints of size, resources, or conventional expectations.

A fundamental tension exists between people and buildings: our lives change quickly, but buildings do not. Careers evolve; children leave the nest; parents age and require care. Yet houses and offices remain static or resistant to change, forcing us to relocate or rebuild. One project in Halifax, designed by Susan Fitzgerald Architecture, is designed expressly to that tension. As its name suggests, “King Street Live/Work/Grow” embeds the changing needs of work, family, and aging all while incorporating urban agriculture into a 25-foot-by-100-foot site.

© Greg Richardson Photography

© Greg Richardson Photography

Fitzgerald worked closely with her husband, a builder, to design and construct the project. He works in their shared office on the ground floor. They have lived there with their two children, ages 17 and almost 13, for nearly one year.

The DNA of this multifaceted project comes from distant lands: from 2011 to 2013, Fitzgerald was funded by the Canadian Prix de Rome to research urban agriculture in Central and South America. Over the course of four one-month trips, Fitzgerald discovered a resilient synthesis of living, working, and cultivating food. For example, the 1962 U.S. embargo forced residents of Havana to farm in their courtyards and roofs, creating an urban farming legacy that endures today. In Cuba and elsewhere, architecture was intimately linked to cultivation. But another more pressing — and personal — question loomed for Fitzgerald: her children may desire more personal space as they mature and/or move out in the next few years. Meanwhile, her aging mother might relocate from the United Kingdom to live with her and her husband. “You realize how changeable life is,” says Fitzgerald, and “within a very short space of time, a lot of changes [can happen].”

The site was zoned both commercial and residential, enabling Fitzgerald to build as-of-right.

These challenges — and their solutions — would coalesce in an unusual site in the north end of Halifax. The land was affordable thanks to its eclectic setting: the neighborhood boasted a recycling depot, the city crematorium, a mosque, cafés, apartments, car repair shops, small startups, and more. More importantly, there were no zoning hurdles. The project would have to fit within a narrow Victorian plot, common to Halifax, the United Kingdom, and many North American cities. However, it would reject the standard solution of a ‘residence up front, yard in the back.’ This house would stretch along the southeastern side of the site, opening new possibilities for movement and flexible programming.

(Top) The rental studio seen from the main building’s first-floor living area. (Bottom) The main building’s office, home to Fitzgerald and her husband’s offices.

The design consists of two volumes: located adjacent to the street, a three-story structure has the family dwelling above an office. Second, at the back of the plot stands a two-story live/work studio. The two are connected by an indoor hallway, second-floor outdoor deck, as well as gardens and a driveway that run alongside. In other words, both buildings have at-grade access. This unique configuration means Fitzgerald can live and work in the same building while renting the other building’s apartment and office, together or separately.

An array of small-but-critical details makes this possible: doors that lock separately, bathrooms on each floor, and wraparound cotton curtains that admit light but maintain privacy. Her children sleep in bunks in the connecting hallway. However, even the hallway could eventually be partitioned in half if/when her children leave for college. This halving would leave one guest bunk for her house while adding a third bed to the rental studio.

(Top) The ground-floor plan. (Middle) First-floor plan. (Bottom) Second-floor plan.

© Greg Richardson Photography

© Greg Richardson Photography

The children’s bunks, located behind the doors in this passageway, mean less personal space and more time spent elsewhere, such as the office, which is available after hours. “When kids leave home, you suddenly have all these rooms that they occupied,” says Fitzgerald, “It’s a real waste of space.”

The mission of gardening and sustainability remains front-and-center. Beans and peas grow along the roof’s railings while tomatoes, herbs, lettuce, cauliflower, and other plants grow in the main garden. Harvests are so plentiful that Fitzgerald gives food to neighbors, though there’s an architectural secret behind her green thumb: the black corrugated metal parapets accrue additional heat during the day, keeping the plants warm and extending the growing season. Using a similar logic, the concrete floors of the building capture the low winter sun, heating up and cutting winter energy bills in half.

© Greg Richardson Photography

© Greg Richardson Photography

Ample glazing means lights rarely need to be turned on during the day.

This is only her sixth project with her husband, whose contracting firm also works out of King Street, but she says “having a builder who’s really in tune with architecture … speaking the same language” creates new opportunities when translating drawings to built reality. For instance, she and her husband could experience potential upper-floor views on scaffolding prior to construction then use that information to advance the design. The fruits of their labor are still being harvested as interest in their project grows: just this week, a group of planners from Toronto are visiting the house. Fitzgerald says, “Now there’s more acceptance of this,” her unconventional approach, “And people really appreciate the project.”

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