Halifax Local Connections Magazine

The Architects – Shaking the Foundations: A New Era of Architecture in Halifax

by Lola Augustine Brown
published in ISSUE #12 – Winter 2015


Historically, Halifax has not been known for earth-shatteringly brilliant architecture and design. Happily, this is changing, and not just because of the fantastic new Halifax Central Library that shines as a glass and steel beacon of hope in the design starved downtown core, but because of several young architects and firms that are working to change the status quo.

Omar Gandhi could easily be the poster-boy for Halifax’s exciting new design movement. His firm, Omar Gandhi Architecture Inc. was formed in Halifax in 2010, and it started with him working solo in his attic. Now he has a team of five and a spacious office in the Halifax Seaport. His firm has received widespread critical acclaim, winning the 2014 Prix de Rome for outstanding achievement in Canadian architecture, and last year was selected as one of international style bible Wallpaper magazine’s top 20 young architecture practices in the world.

Gandhi’s work is beautiful. The way he designs is tied into the landscape and embraces the cultural history of Nova Scotia. “A lot of the time we start with those regional prototypes, such as a barn form or a fish shed, that we then play with and start to sculpt,” he says of his designs. His first project, Shantih, is a dramatic and modern oceanfront property in Hunts Point, which has deservedly received Gandhi a lot of attention. “It was an over-the-top design in terms of size and level of detail for incredible people,” he says.

Clients come to Gandhi because of how he designs, and generally offer little direction as they are completely infatuated with his work. Gandhi is incredibly happy that so many people are seeking him out and that his success affords him the luxury of picking the projects that he is completely enthralled with.

Typically, he has been commissioned to design places outside of the city, such as in Yarmouth, Inverness or the South Shore. We’re talking big budget properties in stunning locations outside of Halifax, never actually in the city. “But I’m working on three really big houses in Halifax right now, and that’s definitely a sign of the times,” he says. “I’d done a lot of renos and additions here, but now I’m working on dramatic projects right here in the city.”

Prepping for change
Change in Halifax’s architecture scene has been bubbling away for years, but Gandhi believes the new Halifax Central Library has really pushed things forward. “There are some great young firms here doing interesting things,” he says, “but those things added together aren’t going to make nearly the kind of impact that the library is going to make. It’s the one piece of the puzzle that was missing that is clearly going to change the way that people think about space and architecture. I always joke about the fact that I can’t believe that the library even happened—it’s almost like the person who rejects things all the time was away sick or something. How did this happen? It’s so bizarre!”

Judy Obersi, an intern architect and house designer who is a sessional teacher at the Dalhousie School of Architecture alongside Gandhi, agrees. “The buzz around the library shows us that people can be excited about something different, and that there is public support for something that is non-traditional as long as they are engaged in it,” she says. “We have to trigger that engagement in architecture because it makes developers pay attention and pushes us to the next level of quality.”

Obersi believes that there are a series of small changes happening right now that are helping to move Halifax in the right direction. “The library is one of them,” she says. “There are more younger firms, like Omar Gandhi Architect and Abbott Brown Architects and Breakhouse and a few of us who are trying to do things differently and try and get recognition. But also you see organizations like the NSAA (Nova Scotia Association of Architects) trying to come up with a strategic plan, and this self-reflection says a lot; it’s an important step towards discovering what we can do better, and differently.”

While not all of us can afford to buy a piece of land in Halifax’s South End, wipe it clean and have something fabulous designed by Gandhi or one of his contemporaries, Obersi says that their influence is important for all of us who want to look forward at how great design in Halifax could be. “People like Omar are helping to generate that buzz. We need to educate the public on design, that it’s not just this luxury thing; it doesn’t have to be expensive. Sometimes developers and home builders don’t understand the quality of life that comes with good design. But the public will start to demand that as awareness grows.”

Not that everyone embraces modern architecture, and there’s no way that suddenly, thanks to the library, the city is going allow a wave of innovative new buildings to be approved. “Part of working in the Atlantic region, and Halifax in particular, is that you’ve got an extremely conservative public, and there are tremendous challenges with the city approving anything,” says Tom Emodi, principal at TEAL Architects. Emodi spent 25 years teaching architecture, with six of those as the dean of architecture and planning at Dalhousie, so he knows the challenges that architecture firms face when trying to effect positive change for the city.

The city has to change, and it is changing despite the stumbling blocks and barriers that architects, planners and developers face. “With all the housing that is going up, there are more people going to be living downtown,” says Gandhi. “With that there are needs that have to be met on Barrington Street, which should be the most beautiful and vibrant place with the most beautiful architecture, but instead is a sore spot and a ghost town.”

Working for density
TEAL Architects is working hard to make those changes matter to people who want to live in the city but have been locked out by the high price of buying a place here. “We’re all about densifying the city, because the city cannot afford to spread,” explains Emodi. “We’re all about trying to find a way to contribute to environmental sustainability, and doing that with contemporary, high-quality architecture.” One of the ways they’ve been doing that is exploring how single-family homes on the peninsula can be turned into two-unit properties, which many are zoned for (R2 zoning).

“When we started looking into this, we discovered that in the 60s, there were about 30,000 more people living on the peninsula than there are today, and that tells us that family sizes used to be seven, eight or nine people,” explains Emily Macdonald, an urban planner who is working at TEAL after spending time working at HRM’s Planning and Development Department. “Part of what makes neighbourhoods great is having lots of people in them, and that’s how we can make them even better, by bringing more people back into them. Family sizes are more like two or three people, so to build that population back up, we need to create more units and smaller homes for people to live in.”

Considering that there are 7,250 lots on the Halifax peninsula that are zoned R2, and probably the same number in Dartmouth, this sounds like an easy fix to the lack of affordable housing (especially as TEAL has partnered with Credit Union Atlantic to create a brilliant way of funding such development, but more about that later). But it isn’t, thanks to the HRM’s land use bylaws.

“You’d think this would mean everyone could build a second unit so that their mum could live there, or that they could rent it out,” says Emodi. “But out of that number, some 6,000 can’t use the zone because the land is slightly too narrow, or slightly too small, or some other thing.” Changing a single-family house into two units can take months of wrestling with the approval process.

Recently, TEAL took a small house on North Street and added two small rooms in order to make it two units. It took 18 months to get approved. “We could have built a building twice this size, with more bedrooms in it if it was a single-family house and rented it out as a boarding house,” says Emodi. (They’ve also been refused approval on a similar project at Almon and Connolly, and Macdonald is in the middle of constructing the argument as to why the appeal should be reversed.)

Armed with the fact that this kind of densification of the peninsula could, and should, be done, TEAL went to Credit Union Atlantic to see about creating a process for people to get funded to buy properties that could be turned into two units, or turn their current property into two units. Credit Union Atlantic came onboard, allowing their clients to take out a mortgage worth more than the actual house, which would cover the construction of the unit and pay the architect. So, the Home Value Project was born, and TEAL is working with eight clients right now through the project. They hope that it will prove interesting to Dartmouth residents, too, when the same offer is made to Credit Union customers there. This will, of course, require changes to those pesky bylaws, though.

“We need to bridge that gap between the policy, meaning that the land can be used for two residences, and the reality of actually trying to do that,” says Macdonald. “What we want to do is change the land use bylaws to reflect the policies that are already there and set up to create more density.” This means attending meetings and liaising with other groups that are excited about the opportunities for increasing urban density, such as the Ecology Action Centre. There are many benefits to projects like this going ahead, and not just for TEAL. “We’re hoping that other firms will benefit from it too, and it helps stimulate growth in the city,” says Macdonald. “We want to keep people working here rather than having to go out west.”

“We have a social agenda here in being the middle man for this program,” says Emodi. “If young couples can live on the peninsula, and it becomes affordable because they have a unit, then you will get families living on the peninsula and increase numbers.” Working with the existing infrastructure here in the city rather than pushing the population out is a wise move in terms of sustainability and in terms of helping those already living here. “Infrastructure is more than just pipes and wires,” says Emodi. “There are schools, healthcare systems and all that social infrastructure. Schools on the peninsula are slowly closing, and new schools are being built in the periphery of the city because families are moving out.”

The highs and lows
The bylaw issue affecting those R2-zoned homes on the peninsula isn’t the only roadblock that architects, planners and developers come up against in Halifax. There are many more, and it can be a very frustrating city to work in.

TEAL works on projects of all sizes, including multi-story buildings and residences, for which getting approval for is rarely a simple task here. “The public are terrified of anything tall. There is no evidence that tall buildings are bad for you but that’s what the general understanding is,” says Emodi, pointing out that building up instead of out minimizes site disturbance and maximizes natural environment. “HRM by Design, which is the policy they’re working under right now, is a big improvement,” he says, “but in one way it’s an issue because of the heights that have been set are not economical for developers.”

It would be far easier for Emodi and his team to go with the flow and design outside of the city in order to avoid some of these issues. “We’d never design a suburban development or a traditional suburban house, though, because although we know we could make money doing that, but to us that’s not really achieving any of the goals we are striving for, which is greater density in the city rather than clearing land to create new developments,” he says. “We’ve tried to use the existing infrastructure everywhere we go, to maximize energy efficiency, durability, and reduce maintenance. Creating better living conditions in a more dense environment with a much better result for the client that doesn’t take as much money to operate and maintain, etc., that’s the overall goal—to give a better urban and environmental result to everything we touch.”

Despite all these issues with approvals and bylaws, you only have to look at the exciting projects currently going through the approval process or have been approved (hallelujah!) to see that there are some really interesting buildings in the works for Halifax.

And our pool of talent for creating these places is growing. It helps that we have a great architecture school right here, and the more people from those programs who want to stay in Halifax after graduating because we are a city that supports good design, the better. Gandhi came to Halifax in 2001 to study architecture at Dalhousie, met his wife here and then moved back here in 2008 after working in Toronto. “We have a son here now, and we just love it; it is such a great place,” he says. “I think it’s beautiful, and I can’t imagine being anywhere else.”

We do live in a beautiful place, and who knows, should we get a little more progressive, perhaps we can give people one more reason to stay here, and through loosening up some of those bylaws, actually have people afford to live here, too.