By Jennifer Wood
Let us share something truly remarkable with you. Five short years after it was founded, Nova Scotia’s Peter Braithwaite Studio has been recognized by Wallpaper* magazine as being one of the most promising practices in the world.
The firm’s founder, Peter Braithwaite, who is originally from Kingsville, Ontario, is passionate about whatever he commits to and has grown comfortable taking risks to realize his evolving aspirations. While he is a highly sought-after architect, his roots lie in carpentry and construction. Earlier in his career, he recognized a deep desire to have artistic direction over the structures he was building so, in 2007, he traded in his tool belt for a laptop to study at the Dalhousie University School of Architecture in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He received the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Student Medal for achieving the highest level of academic excellence in his graduating class, and he now serves as adjunct professor at his alma mater.
During his studies Braithwaite worked at MacKay- Lyons Sweetapple Architects with Brian MacKay- Lyons (see [EDIT]’s cover story for volume 11). Following graduation, he worked as an associate at Omar Gandhi Architect. There he played a lead role in the design and execution of several award-winning projects, including Rabbit Snare Gorge ([EDIT]’s cover photo for volume 2). It was during this time that Braithwaite realized his dream of designing, building and establishing his own firm. Literally.
Set on 10 acres of craggy landscape on the breathtaking North Atlantic shoreline in Terence Bay, Nova Scotia, (30 minutes south of Halifax’s downtown core), Peter built his award-winning two-storey, 1,500-square-foot Back Bay Studio (which doubles as his one-bedroom residence) largely by himself. To accommodate his growing workforce and to manage relentless sawdust, he later added the Back Bay Joinery Shops.
“I bought an open field in Terence Bay, and I started designing and building a structure that I hoped would be a successful business,” recalls the 39-year-old from his studio. “For a long time, I questioned my decision because it was such an ambitious project to take on. I didn’t have the financial resources, and I knew that if I wanted it built, I had to do a large part of it myself. I put everything on the line for it — both fiscally and emotionally — and I got to the point that I knew I couldn’t go backwards. Sometimes it helps to not have a backup plan!”
The culmination of Braithwaite’s vision is the unique value proposition offered to the firm’s growing client base (residential and commercial customers in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario and beyond). Along with designers, his team consists of a slew of other professionals, including carpenters and project managers. Clients have the opportunity to work with the studio to design not only the bones and aesthetic of their project but also other key components such as cabinetry and even furniture.
“We are different in that everyone involved in our projects, from the person who does the first sketch to the person who drives the final nail, is on a unified team working towards the same goal. You often see builders and architects with different priorities, with the builder focused on the bottom line and the architect focused on design excellence. Because we’re all on the same team and we manage both sides, we can streamline the process of delivering design excellence while staying on budget and managing client expectations.”
Since the birth of Peter Braithwaite Studio, the firm has received numerous awards and has graced the pages of some of the world’s most prestigious architectural publications. In addition to the major kudos they received from Wallpaper*, the firm has also been awarded a Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence in Architecture and a Mayor’s Award in Architecture. Some of their most notable projects include Caribou Point Studio, Brightwood Brewery, Clifton Studio, Elm House and Attic Cottages.
[EDIT]’s Senior Editor, Jennifer Wood, recently met with Peter to discuss the evolution of his career; his firm’s rapid success and its critical acclaim by Wallpaper*; his love for the East Coast, its people and their values; and a handful of the many projects Peter Braithwaite Studio is working on now.
[EDIT]: Your career is so multi-faceted. Can you tell us more about your transition from construction to architecture?
PETER BRAITHWAITE: I have always had an appreciation for architecture. The study and design of buildings runs deep in my family. My grandfather had an interest in architecture (I inherited his extensive collection of architecture books, which are now displayed at my studio), and two of my uncles own their own practices in Toronto and Ottawa. While I was always drawn to architecture as a study of art and culture, my own path to architecture was the culmination of many years of self-development and exploration. I started my post-secondary studies in science, but after deciding that science wasn’t the path for me, I studied fine arts and majored in painting. And after graduation I went into carpentry. I loved working with my hands, and because I wanted to contribute to both the design and craftsmanship of buildings, I decided to study at Dalhousie’s School of Architecture. It was during my time there that I knew that I had finally found my home and true calling.
[EDIT]: How did you choose Dalhousie?
PETER: When I decided I wanted to study architecture, I knew I wanted to do so without sacrificing my link to carpentry and cabinet making. I had found a great appreciation for working with my hands, and I did not want to trade this in for a computer-based profession. I totally support the “master builder” tradition of architecture, where the designer is born out of the trades, and I wanted to follow this path. Dalhousie’s School of Architecture had and continues to have the most hands-on approach to both the education and practice of architecture, so I traded in the West Coast for the East and I’ve never looked back.
[EDIT]: What helped you decide to stay in Nova Scotia, and what do you enjoy most about living and working in Atlantic Canada?
PETER: I am deeply inspired by the Atlantic Canada landscape and its people. Rural Nova Scotia offers beautiful, rugged coastlines that remain largely untouched by commercial and industrialized development. I believe that simple design and humble means are the backdrop to true beauty within the East Coast. This beauty is often reflected in the fish and boat houses that have been made by honest, hardworking hands — structures that have survived the test of time. I feel grounded by the ocean, and I made the conscious decision to remain on the East Coast, in large part, because I respect the hardworking people of this province — I wanted to contribute to the Nova Scotia dialogue via my own designs and work ethic.
[EDIT]: Can you speak to the appetite for excellence in architecture in Atlantic Canada?
PETER: Atlantic Canada’s growing interest in architecture is both exciting and reflective of a new generation of Nova Scotians who are invested in the province’s success and growth. While Nova Scotia has long embraced architecture rooted in heritage and history, there is also evolution: the existing architecture landscape is being enhanced by new or re-invented buildings that enrich instead of compete with it. An example of this is the Halifax Central Library, which shows that world-class architecture does not have to take away from the heritage of a city but rather can act to support it. I truly love and respect heritage architecture, and I feel it should be preserved, but at the same time I feel that buildings must be of their time as well as their place.
[EDIT]: Congratulations on being named one of the world’s most promising practices by Wallpaper*. PETER: Thank you! Being recognized by Wallpaper* is an incredible accolade for our firm. Wallpaper* conducts an annual survey of world architecture and selects up to 15 firms that are making a difference and show promise. We were thrilled to be the only firm from Canada to be featured in the current directory. As a selected firm, we flew to Berlin for a photo shoot and met with other exceptional and groundbreaking architecture firms from around the globe. It was inspiring to speak with other young architects advocating for design excellence: we connected over the different and common experiences that young architects experience in varying cultures and geographic climates.
[EDIT]: Your Back Bay Studio and Back Bay Joinery Shops are incredible. Can you tell us more about this experience of designing and building what is now your home and studio?
PETER: They are the response to my desire to develop a unique career for myself that would enable me to continue to practise as an architect without giving up my love of carpentry, cabinetry and construction. While completing my professional architectural internship with Omar Gandhi, I realized I would need to make some bold steps for myself if I were to realize this vision of practice. When I made the move to design, build and establish my own studio, I had extremely limited resources. I built nearly the entire studio by myself (with some occasional, deeply appreciated help from a few friends along the way)! Originally, the intention was to create a space where both architecture and craft could be created in parallel, and we had our woodshop right in the studio. This worked well for about a year until our growing clientele made it clear we needed additional buildings to keep up with the workload (a good problem to have)! We built the Back Bay Joinery Shops that now house the craft aspect of our work, and the Back Bay Studio houses the architectural aspects.
[EDIT]: Can you tell us about some of the projects you are working on now?
PETER: Because our firm offers both design and construction services, we are always busy with projects in one or both aspects. We currently have several projects in construction, including two waterfront projects in rural Nova Scotia, an island project in Ontario and an innovative residence in the Halifax core. In architecture we are currently engaged in designing several projects, including an inventive compact residence in New Brunswick containing compelling steel structures, a multi-generation mixed-use farm project in rural Ontario and a meditative and restorative residence in Terence Bay.
[EDIT]: When you think back to that lonely, stressful, albeit rewarding time when you were building your firm five years ago, could you have ever imagined the success you are experiencing today?
PETER: Absolutely not! It has been a whirlwind experience that I could have never dreamed of. Of course, I envisioned success, but I didn’t fully visualize what that could look like. Today, we are growing at an exponential rate, I work with an exceptional team of talented, dedicated professionals, and we are grateful to be receiving accolades from the architecture community. I feel incredibly fortunate.