Ha-Ha House 2


Agassiz BC

Main House: 4000 SF
Grosi’s House: 1500 SF
Sheep / Tractor Barn: 3000 SF 

This low-slung house is located on a 14-acre farm in British Columbia’s Fraser River valley. This region is not protected with dikes, so the site was considered undesirable because bylaws require any new structure’s first floor to be 6 feet above the existing ground.  The site was considered equally undesirable because a very active railway parallels the site.  Frequent trains will vibrate a wood-frame building day and night. The site is further battered from the sky. This region has some of the most extreme ground level wind speeds in Canada, as storms funnel through the valley.  Despite these challenges the site is naturally stunning, with panoramic views of a hazelnut orchard, Mount Baker, Mount Cheam and hills that cradle thermal hot springs.  This project will transform the current farm, marrying an extended family’s organic sheep husbandry and civil construction skills with architecture that turns serious hurdles into assets.

The building’s massing is either muscularly hovering above or heavily embedded into the ground, articulating the duality of the temporary and the permanent that define farming in a harsh landscape.  Similar to traditional family farm compounds but articulated in a compact way, three generations will live under one roof in two adjoining houses.  A family member requires wheelchair access, so creating a single stair-less living plane allows her full access to the entire house.

The requirement to build the house on 6 feet of structural fill created an opportunity.  To avoid unsightly farm fences between the house’s yard and the sheep pasture, cost-effective concrete lock-block walls encircle the house. This is a modern reinterpretation of the Ha-Ha wall made famous in Capability Brown’s idyllic landscapes from the 1700’s. Sheep are so friendly they will walk inside open doors, while constantly pooping on terraces and lawns.  With this simple plane change they can be near and far simultaneously.  Extra near in the case of the main office, where a hole in the floating floor allows close views of the herd as they gather under the house to avoid the sun or rain.  Other courtyards that are rendered as “holes” in the building will each contain one lone tree, as iconic reminders of nature’s quiet insistence.

At night sheep will sleep in a space inspired by medieval farms, where the barn and house were one structure.  A green roof’s soil will protect the sheep from train noise to the north. This intentionally blank elevation also provides visual privacy from the road between the site and the railway track.  The house will be virtually invisible to traffic that passes close by.  An all-weather surface for children’s play is also protected from train noise, in a cloistered auto court open to the sky. Internally, single loaded corridors enable long one-point perspective views, inspired by the long site and the adjacent railway. Each long view is aimed at a particular natural feature or an internal courtyard.  The roof structure in the main living area is built with beams that counter-intuitively exaggerate the space’s long dimension, to enable secondary and tertiary one-point perspectives throughout the house. The result is the a feeling of expansiveness and solitude, even indoors. 

The site’s high water table enables a shallow loop geothermal field to be installed. Geothermal transfer is much more effective if the piping is within saturated soil.  The entire building envelope exceeds typical insulation levels by 200%.  Exterior finishes are all robust, left alone to patina or to be munched.  The north berm’s “cladding” is a wild grass pasture, exterior walls are untreated concrete, exterior overhangs and fascias are untreated cedar, and infill panels are untreated weathering steel.  Since the client is a civil contractor, all insulation, cladding and earthwork materials are recycled from other construction sites.

Core insulated concrete slabs that cantilever over the sheep pasture in three protruding locations rest on twin columns, identical to common highway overpasses. Concrete structure that contains interior space is sandwich panel construction, for the strongest acoustic separation. Structure that provides overhangs and weather protection is created with cedar glulam beams and soffits, like a wrap-around eyebrow or sun-visor.  Triple glazed laminated glass blocks ambient train noise that might make it past the sloped acoustic berm, built with recording studio technology. All interior partitions will be built with concrete block, to add a third layer of noise protection for a good night’s sleep.