Design

Rethinking the Art of Living Green | Rammed-earth dwelling home to three generations

Building with the environment in mind isn’t just about using green materials, using land efficiently, and reducing waste. It’s also about lifestyle. Whether we’re talking a multi-generational farmhouse, an urban co-operative created for retirees, or a development based on villages of years past, these new builds laud the notion that there are no rules when it comes to rethinking how we want to live. Each design speaks  to new — or revisited — approaches in construction while making  community the central focus:Fostering community in Hendrick Farm’s new old village; Sustainable living with friends in your golden yearsJuniper Farm’s rammed-earth dwelling

Three generations come together under one roof and prove that a blend of shared and private spaces can make for a harmonious lifestyle 

Juniper Farm is both a thriving business and home to three generations of one family
Juniper Farm is both a thriving business and home to three generations of one family

The Gatineau Hills feature the kind of landscape that most associate with cottage country: rocky forests leading down to waterfront. But just northwest of Wakefield, a community of young farmers has taken over the rolling pastureland. Among them are Alex Mackay-Smith and Juniper Turgeon, whose Juniper Farm is one of the go-to sources for chefs across the city — it supplies 40 restaurants with fresh produce. The couple first took up farming on a small plot near Lac Bernard in 2005, then launched the much larger property in 2010. They see it as a way to realize their dream of making a connection between food and the environment in their way of life.

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Juniper Farm now stands out for another reason: a new rammed-earth house looks out over the fields. It is home to Alex, Juniper, and their two kids. It’s also home to Alex’s parents, Sandy and Gwen Mackay-Smith. Three generations are now living communally on the property, with the middle generation managing the farm. An original farmhouse, likely dating from the 1880s, still stands there as well. The family initially looked to renovate it so that the whole family could live there, but they quickly realized that the cost to retrofit the old building was much higher than building new.

Crafted by local builder Ben Chicoine, the main house embraces new technologies with rustic beauty — beautifully patterned rammed-earth walls, reclaimed wood, and triple-glazed windows
Crafted by local builder Ben Chicoine, the main house embraces new technologies with rustic beauty — beautifully patterned rammed-earth walls, reclaimed wood, and triple-glazed windows

That’s when they came up with the idea of their rammed-earth house. Rammed earth is a sustainable building technique that involves pressing a suitable mixture of earth to create solid walls. “It was a great compromise,” says Turgeon of the new building, reflecting, as it does, their determination to create something that represents real sustainability. Working with local contractor Ben Chicoine, the family took their time deciding exactly what they wanted. “We made the kitchen and mudroom as communal spaces,” says Alex. “We all have the attitude of contributing and helping each other out.” There are also private quarters — a one-bedroom apartment on the main floor for Sandy and Gwen and a larger second-storey apartment for the rest of the clan. On the main level, a huge screened-in porch serves as a meeting place.

Photography by Justin Van Leeuwen
Photography by Justin Van Leeuwen

And what’s it like having three generations working and playing together? “We worked with Alex and Juniper at their first farm,” says Sandy. “We got the boundaries sorted out then.” Sandy and Gwen have friends who have a similar arrangement with their kids, except in that case, it’s the elder parents who own the farm. “That leads to a struggle of wills,” says Sandy. “This is Juniper and Alex’s farm.”

Photography by Justin Van Leeuwen
Photography by Justin Van Leeuwen

“It’s wonderful,” adds Gwen. “In order for the kids to come into our private space, they have to be invited. And the same goes for us.”

Rammed-earth construction is still a new concept in much of Canada. The skills involved take time to perfect. “It’s labour-intensive,” says Chicoine, “but it’s so rewarding.” Each wall, both inside and out, is like a work of art — unique in terms of texture and colour. The actual structure is conventional timber frame, and some of the wood to build it came from a barn that previously occupied the same spot. The barn also provided all the wood used for the interior cabinetry, each surface seeming to tell a story from when the land was first settled.

Photography by Justin Van Leeuwen
Photography by Justin Van Leeuwen

While making the most of what could be recycled, Chicoine sourced everything else with the future in mind. The average Canadian house is built to last just a few decades. This one will stand for many generations to come. The windows were imported from Austria — they are triple-glazed. “This kind of glass just isn’t available in Canada,” says Chicoine.

His attention to detail and passion for quality are evident everywhere. The kitchen’s custom stainless counters can take a beating and then some. The flooring can handle any number of troops. But there’s no shortage of mod cons and clever ideas — radiant heating is supplied by an electric boiler, and the house faces east, meaning the sun keeps the house warm in winter. As Chicoine says, “It’s all about innovation,” adding that the family’s rammed-earth house is about 80 percent more efficient than the standard.

Filled with fresh vegetables, the farm’s store, which is separate from the main house, attracts buyers from across the region. Dozens of local chefs also liaise with Juniper Farm to get regular produce deliveries throughout the growing season. Photography by Justin Van Leeuwen
Filled with fresh vegetables, the farm’s store, which is separate from the main house, attracts buyers from across the region. Dozens of local chefs also liaise with Juniper Farm to get regular produce deliveries throughout the growing season. Photography by Justin Van Leeuwen

Moving into an assisted-living facility is not something that appealed to Sandy and Gwen, who had given up their much larger house long before this was on the horizon. “It was totally by happenstance,” says Sandy of how things evolved, but it has worked out very well for all concerned. This recent move, he says confidently, is their last. “We’re leaving this house feet first.”

The fact that they made the choice to shack up with the kids and grandkids means that each generation can help the next and vice versa. It’s not the kind of scenario that would work for everyone — but this family is not everyone.