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Adapting, Refreshing and Repurposing

When it comes to renovations and restorations—projects that begin with an existing building—the role of an architect can be less than obvious. But working with existing conditions often presents a far greater challenge than starting with a clean slate. Even something as seemingly straightforward as a small home renovation comprises countless details and decisions that require an architect’s expertise to assemble into a coherent vision.

Rayleen Hill and Hawthorne House

“I come from a European perspective on design and planning,” says Helen Browne, the owner of Hawthorne House in Dartmouth, recently renovated by local firm Rayleen Hill Architecture + Design. “I would never, everconsider doing a project at this scale without an architect.”

Browne’s renovation project began with a desire to update her kitchen area, while taking advantage of a generous lot size to add a garage with a mudroom and ground-floor bathroom. “The kitchen had five doors leading in it,” Browne says. “We spent a lot of time thinking about how we could fix it ourselves, but couldn’t come up with a good design. We knew we had to get an architect.”

They brought Rayleen Hill on from the very beginning. “With private homes, the architect–client relationship is a very close one,” Hill says. “It has to be. You have to know everything about people’s lives to make sure that their house is doing everything it should be doing. As an architect, you have to flush out all the details that will make the house exactly what they want. So they come with a lot of trust.”

Hill picked up on what the family needed right away, says Browne. “She understood us and how we live very quickly. She then clearly laid out the structure of working with an architect, and that remained the same throughout. When she came back with the design, it was one of those things where you think, ‘My goodness—why didn’t we think of this ourselves?’ But that’s why you have an architect: because they have such great experience.”

Hill was present throughout the construction process, to resolve any issues that arose or simply to guide the homeowners through the decision-making process with confidence. “In the middle of a construction project, there are so many decisions you need to make,” says Browne. “To be relieved of some of those decisions, or have someone else helping you with them—it’s great. It takes a lot of stress out of it.”

“We looked at how we could put a garage on that house and still have it fit the overall look of the street—all its other houses don’t have a garage at the side,” Hill explains. “That’s why we made it a black box with a matching black door—to, in a sense, conceal it.” New cedar shingles clad the exterior, which has been further updated with modern doors and windows.

Inside, a completely new floor plan gives Browne the kitchen she always wanted. “We basically took out all the walls from front to back,” Hill says, “so that the southern sunlight could come in through the very large kitchen windows at the back and flood the living room with lots of natural light.” A new deck off the back of the house includes a pergola that allows direct sunlight to stream in during the winter, but shields the interior from glare and heat gain in the summer months.

There are invisible changes, too; a new HVAC system relies on a high-efficiency hydronic wood stove, which reclaims 70% of the heat from the ground-floor fireplace to warm the water used for in-floor heating or dishwashing, supplemented by solar panels during the warm season.

“It’s an excellent result that we’re really pleased with,” says Browne. “The cost of one mistake will pay for your architect fees. And that’s just one mistake; in any building project, there’s going to be more than one. The savings in the long run will pay for it tenfold—and because architects have such a great overview, you’ll end up with something much more amazing and desirable than you’d get otherwise. Our house is amazing,” she continues, “and if we didn’t have an architect, our house would be…average, and there wouldn’t be much difference in cost.”

Hill echoes her sentiment. “Sometimes people get bogged down by the fee, because they think, ‘That’s money I could spend on another aspect of my house, whether that’s cabinetry, or a new bed, or whatever,’” she says. “Yet people often spend the same amount of money on windows, or on their solid surface countertops. Investing an equivalent amount in an architect’s fee for a renovation—to make sure that there’s somebody coordinating the entire project, and that every aspect of the design is working in concert—ensures that you’re going to be really satisfied with what you’ve done. The fee you pay an architect alwayspays for itself.”

“I wish more people would employ architects,” Browne says. “Too often, it’s all about the bottom line, but I think it’s more pleasant to see something that’s well designed. Architecture is what gives a neighbourhood its character and style. It shows care for your community, and a sense of pride.”

Lisa Tondino and the new Kentville Library

Community pride was the driving factor in another Nova Scotian project that began with an existing building: the new Kentville Library serving the Annapolis Valley. “We knew we wanted a new library,” says Rachel Bedingfield, Director of Parks and Recreation for the Town of Kentville. “We hadto get a new library, because a bridge construction project forced us to take down the old one.”

First, the Funding

Knowing a move was imminent, the town began fundraising—an effort that demanded a huge investment of time, money and energy from the entire town. “It was an incredible story of community coming together to support something that was really important to them,” says Sarah Leslie, Chair of the Friends of the Kentville Library, the group that spearheaded the effort. The community’s dedication to winning a national competition—which eventually netted a sizeable grant for a new youth reading room—demonstrated its enthusiasm for the project, in turn spurring other successful fundraising efforts.

“This community rallied around this library,” confirms Bedingfield. “Our community of 6,400 people raised over $100,000 for their library in about 6 months. It was just phenomenal.”

After witnessing the town’s dedication to the project, the leadership team knew they were under great pressure to deliver something that would please everyone—a task that seemed nearly impossible, given the number of stakeholders. We have seven different groups involved, Leslie remembers thinking, including her own fundraising team, two additional donor groups*, the property owner, and the library itself.How are we going to make sure that it doesn’t look like it’s been designed by seven different groups?

[*The Friends of the Kentville Library had fundraised specifically for a children’s story area. Killam Corner, the national competition, granted money for a teen area. The local Rotary Club donated money earmarked for the Community Room.]

We’ve got the Site!  Now, what?

Once the site was selected—a deconsecrated church in the heart of downtown—it became clear that they’d need to hire an experienced architect, not only to draw up a design, but to manage the seven-way decision-making process. Following a request for proposals, Canning-based architect Lisa Tondino of Houdini Design Architectswas hired to manage the process. “There were a lot of conflicting opinions,” Bedingfield says, “and I told Lisa, ‘We’ve hired you for your vision; what I need you to do is take everyone else’s ideas and thoughts and visions into consideration, and let that inform the decisions that you make.’”

Without hiring an architect, Bedingfield says, “We certainly would have gotten a space that held books. But as soon as Lisa came in, we instantly felt confident. I knew things were going to be great—even on the really hard days when opinions were flying, we knew it was going to be awesome. She could see things that none of us could see.”

“It was absolutely a justifiable expense,” agrees Leslie. “It’s a necessaryexpense. We would not have achieved this level of beauty or functionality without Lisa’s expertise. She thought about things that none of us would have thought about. Each group was focused on its particular areas of expertise, but Lisa was able to step back and look at the whole project.”

From the beginning, it was clear to Tondino that she was serving an entire community. “Because it’s a library, it attracted a lot of controversy. There was a lot of dialog around what the space should be, so it took a lot of time to reach a resolution,” she says. “It’s a challenge. Everyone has requirements that need to be met; how do they all come together in 3,000 square feet? It’s a pretty amazing piece of architecture to start off with—how do you do it without compromising what’s there?”

Constructing the Vision

By necessity, the construction phase happened quickly—innumerable changes and additions that all had to come together to turn a historic church into a modern library and community hub. “Our design strategy is often to have as little impact on an existing historical building as possible,” Tondino explains. “In the library, we wanted to make simple moves that really transform the space.”

“Lisa went above and beyond just the design,” Bedingfield says. “She helped me create the RFP for furniture, she and I picked through everything, she helped me maintain a budget—all these pieces. I really depended on her. In the thick of it all, we were speaking at least once a day. If I wasn’t on site, she was.”

Today, the interior of the church has been completely reprogrammed, even while the original structure shines through. “There’s an incredible quality of light in that space,” Tondino says, “and a connection between ground and sky which we thought was ideal for a place of contemplation, and also for community gathering space.” With that in mind, the Community Room was the first piece to fall into place: where the chancel once was, elevated more than a metre above the rest of the interior, there is now a gathering space separated from the library by a glazed wall and topped by decorative acoustic panels studded with recessed lights. The Community Room can be entered from the library floor only by ascending a ramp, completely democratizing its accessibility.

Custom-designed library shelves now fill the former nave, taking the place of the pews. Between them are reading and computer stations, while the teens’ and children’s areas lie in opposite corners of the room. The children’s area is enclosed by custom curving shelves that can be moved to form a perimeter around a sinuous bench hand-made by Michael DeLuca, while a mobile of origami cranes identifies the spot from anywhere in the room.

Public Reaction

The community’s response has been overwhelming. “I could spend three hours walking someone through it, talking about every single element that has gone into making it feel so comfortable,” says Leslie, of the Friends of the Kentville Library. “I’m still hearing about the beauty and wonder of this space. My favourite thing about being there is watching people walk through the doors: they just gasp, or their jaw will drop open. They’ll get emotional. The gratitude that our community has expressed over not only saving this building, but repurposing it in such an incredibly respectful way….That’s where Lisa has been key. It’s come together so beautifully.”

“When I knew that we were on the right track is when we had people who had been members of the church visit, and they were in tears,” says Bedingfield from Parks and Recreation. “Because they’d thought that we were going to come in and destroy everything. But Lisa, through her design, really held true to the integrity of the space. But we also have visitors who had never been in there, yet feel comfortable coming in, and are just in awe with the beauty of it.”

“If I can get into dollars and cents,” Bedingfield continues, “we’re already seeing the economic spinoff. Now, people are actually travelling to Kentville, just to be in this space. That alone is putting us on the map. I wouldn’t have felt comfortable spending the amount of money we spent, and moving in the direction we did, if I didn’t have someone like Lisa at the table throughout the whole process. But having an expert provided a sense of comfort. Not once did she ever waver on the fact that this would be a great space.”

The library—and the work it took to complete it—has left a mark on the entire community. “Kentville has, through this process, really started to discover itself,” Bedingfield says. “We always knew that we’re a community that wants to invest in historic properties, in modernization, in art—but we didn’t know what any of that looked like. This library is a piece of art. It’s pulling people in, and whether it’s a politician or a local businessperson or a student, they come in and find a space where they feel welcome.”

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