The division between the outskirts of Gatineau and the municipality of Chelsea to the north has narrowed considerably over the past two decades. Vince Hendrick worked the last undeveloped piece of land between the two regions until just a few years ago, having inherited it when he was 15. Now nearing 90, he’s no longer farming, but the land is still producing an abundance of food.
When Sean McAdam first approached the Hendrick family in 2004 about buying the farm, he did so with a plan that throws the idea of a suburb on its ear. Most developers scoop up acres of green space, raze it, and then fill it with dozens of identical townhouses. The Hendrick Farm development leaves that concept in the dust.
McAdam, who is president of Landlab developments, was determined to do things differently. “I wanted to see if there was a way we could preserve the agricultural heritage,” he says. He also thought about how communities grew organically in centuries past, before everything was designed around the car. “We spent a lot of time looking at old villages,” he says. “What makes you feel like you’re almost at home, even if you’ve never been there?”
Most suburban planning results in neighbourhoods built in concentric circles. They are car-reliant, with the garage as the main feature. Many don’t have sidewalks. McAdam takes issue with how this came about. “Zoning is what started a downward cycle in development. The first thing a developer does is go to city hall for a zoning code for that piece of land. You look at the rulebook and plan accordingly. You end up with this plan that’s not based on how people live.”
That said, working with the municipality of Chelsea turned out to be a very positive experience. “We’re lucky,” says McAdam. “We have [in the municipality] two planners who are also architects. So aesthetics are important. Walkability is important.” If McAdam was prepared to break the mould of the proverbial suburb, Chelsea was prepared to go along for the ride.
McAdam started the design process from an unusual point of view, asking what the land was saying rather than what conventional zoning might dictate. In the pre-suburb era, communities most often began with a farm. Then a church would be built on the land. Then houses would begin to appear. “There was no overall plan,” says McAdam. Starting from that notion, the concept for Hendrick Farm began to emerge, and it came with three distinct ideas for housing: those within the village proper; the farm properties that look out over the working farm; and the park properties, the most separate and private of the houses.
The houses themselves are also designed to foster community. Think front porches and garages that are separate from the houses. “In a typical suburb, you come home from work, drive into your garage, and disappear,” explains McAdam. “But with the garage being separate, you have to get out of your car, then go outside to get to your house, meaning you will likely interact with your neighbours.”
McAdam says he has been dreaming about creating a community like Hendrick Farm for 15 years. “I was never trained as a developer or planner or architect or farmer,” he says, “and I think that helps.” He may be onto something. By focusing on efficiency, good design, and lifestyle — rather than just the bottom line — McAdam had people buying into the 300-house development four years before the first house was ready in October 2016 (the full community is scheduled to be completed by 2026).
It isn’t hard to see why. The floors, baseboards, banisters, front porches, and even the porch ceilings are real wood. The ceilings are nine feet high, so even though the biggest house in the development is a modest 2,250 square feet, it feels much larger. The builder is local, while key materials and cabinetry were sourced from local suppliers. The price of the houses starts at just under $600,000.
The idea is that residents aren’t simply buying a house but will be moving into a vibrant community surrounded by amenities. The farm store is within walking distance of everyone, as is the village of Old Chelsea. The Gatineau Park trail system is within spitting distance, and Ottawa is less than a 15-minute drive away.
Hendrick Farm started off as a farm and is about to become a full-fledged community that lives on a farm. McAdam may not be a developer or planner or architect or farmer (“I’m constantly embarrassing the farm team because I’ll look at a zucchini and call it a cucumber”), but he is a forward thinker. Others would do well to look at what can be accomplished with some innovative thinking and chutzpah.