Verbatim: Brian MacKay-Lyons on Horizon at Powder Mountain

Brian MacKay-Lyons, FRAIC, is busier than ever these days exploring opportunities for the firm he founded in 1985. In addition to being a full professor of architecture at Dalhousie University, he oversees a staff of 23 in Halifax; has a small studio in Kingsburg at Shobac, the working family farm he’s developing with his trademark modern, fishing-village-like cottages; and is building a satellite office for six people in nearby Lunenburg, a UNESCO World Heritage town. Last September the firm also established a permanent presence in the U.S., where, among other commissions, MacKay-Lyons is bringing his ethic of vernacular economy to the design of a socially minded ski resort community at Powder Mountain in Eden, Utah. We caught up with him to learn more about these recent developments.

RD: Last September, you opened an office in Denver. Tell us why you wanted a U.S. presence.

BML: More than half of our work is in the U.S., and we needed an office closer to our clients. I think creativity is valued more in some parts of the U.S. than in Canada. The culture of architecture patrons fueled development of the modern architectural movement in the U.S.—people like Frank Lloyd Wright had careers that could only have happened there, designing custom homes for people who are intellectually curious. Halifax is very conservative. Many clients we get to work for here in Canada have left and are returning home more worldly and a little more creative. At the end of the day, we just want good opportunities to make architecture and get paid for it. We’re Canadians— we’re not going anywhere, but it’s a global world now.

RD: Why Denver?

BML: We wanted to be in the mountains of the West because that’s where a lot of our work is these days. We thought Denver would be a great city to do it in because it’s very progressive, and there’s a school of architecture there that I’ve lectured at several times. So there’s good access to potential employees, and Denver is a place where you can keep employees because it’s a great place for them to live.

RD: How big will the Denver office be?

BML: It’s pretty small at this point, but as more contracts are signed, more people will be hired. Currently we have two employees in Denver and plan to hire maybe three more in the next short while. We have Americans working there, and people from Halifax go down there to work on specific things. We’re renting space in a co-op building downtown. If the office grows to a certain point, we will build something. We don’t have a design on being a big firm; we just want to go where people want to do something exciting.

RD: What U.S. projects are in the pipeline now?

BML: My background is in urban design, so we’re designing sometimes individual homes and sometimes communities, like the Horizon neighborhood at the top of Powder Mountain in Utah, part of the Summit development. There are 30 houses at Horizon and they’re ticking along—eight will be done in the next couple of weeks. We’re also doing several custom homes for folks nearby, and we have clients in other places too. We’re designing a ranch for one of the owners of Summit.

RD: You’ve said that you see architecture as having a culti- vating influence on the landscape, like a sustainable farmer, so it looks like something that’s always been there. What vernacular traditions and archetypes are you excited about exploring in this location?

BML: People interpret regionalism as a limited perspective; it’s not a style, but a professional skill. There’s a famous book called Ways of Seeing, by John Berger, about how you develop your instinct for seeing place, your skills of observation. When you travel to a place, you see it clearer than the locals do. I’ve lived in Japan, Tuscany, California. We’re kind of like travelers who have an eye for place, like climate, culture, landscape. At Horizon, community and privacy have to be in balance. Buildings are jammed together in the positive sense of creating community, courtyards, and microclimates. The commu- nity aspect is one of those things that’s more or less universal. Ironically, it looks like a fishing village in Nova Scotia.

RD: What is distinctive about Horizon’s climate and landscape?

BML: It is high desert, 9,000 feet, with incredible solar gain, and bright because of the sun reflecting off the snow. Horizon is on a very steep mountainside that gets 60 feet of snowfall each winter and has some of the highest wind loads in North America. The units are on stilts because if you have 60 feet of snow during the winter, you can’t get into the house except from the second level. We used the topography to create 40- foot bridges that take you into the house without huffing and puffing or shoveling the staircases. Or you can drive straight into the second level and sleep down below. You want the bedrooms below because you’ve got partitions, which are good for resisting wind loads. You want glass high up and cross walls down low. You’re not trying to resist nature but work with it.

We’ve developed a pedestrian path system and places to do things together, like fire pits. The paths crisscross under the bridges a bit like Snakes and Ladders, so people get to say hello—community through circulation.

RD: You’ve developed four cabin types ranging from 1,291 square feet to 3,009 square feet, and are also designing a lodge. What are the go-to building materials in this location?

BML: We spend a lot of time in Nova Scotia worrying about building envelopes because we have condensation problems and the highest weathering rate with 265 freeze/thaw cycles a year, so materials are torn apart by climate. When we got out to Utah, we realized that materials dry out rather than staying wet and rotting, which is a liberating thing. But it’s really hard to build at 9,000 feet. The season is short, like in Canada, and it’s difficult to get materials there. The desert doesn’t have lumber to speak of—the vernacular was corrugated iron flown in from Europe. We’re bringing cedar in from the Pacific Northwest. We try to be locavores, but it’s not a religion.

RD: What attracted you to the Powder Mountain development?

BML: We started out thinking it was a place for privileged people, but you get there and realize that there’s no Kool-Aid, no cult. It’s public, not a closed community; many of the people who are there are impact investors with social agency on their mind. We’re doing a house for clients who build schools in the nine poorest countries in the world, for families that make less than a dollar a day.

Summit Powder Mountain is home base for the Summit Series, kind of like TED Talks. It is an intentional mixed-use community, and the founders are interested in all kinds of diversity—gender, racial, religious, and price point, so that people who work there can afford to live there. In Jackson Hole, servers in restaurants have to come over a mountain pass from adjoining states because they can’t afford to live in the area, and people die doing that. This is something the owners at Powder Mountain are very aware of and trying to solve. And they are determined to build on only a couple hundred of the 10,000 acres, ever—to create community/density and leave most of it alone. We identify with many of the things they’re trying to do.




Powder Mountain, Eden, Utah

Renderings, drawings, and photos: Courtesy MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects

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