Peter Braithwaite couldn’t find an architecture studio that spoke to his joint love of design and carpentry. So, he started his own.
You might describe the Halifax-based architect’s career as an evolution – a slow, steady exploration of the overlap between science, craft and design. The son of two vets, Braithwaite initially spent three years studying biology at the University of British Columbia before switching to fine arts with a painting major. Though creatively satisfying, the degree wasn’t one that readily translated into employment, so he found himself working in carpentry not long after graduation.
As much as he grew to love the field, he sensed the winter months were going to take their toll. So, he needed to find a compromise – something that would allow him to design, build and create, but wouldn’t tie him to a screen all day.
With a program known for its hands-on approach to design, Dalhousie University’s School of Architecture proved to be the perfect fit. It also set Braithwaite up for gigs with two of Nova Scotia’s best-known architects after graduation – Brian MacKay-Lyons and Omar Gandhi – before he was able to strike out on his own in 2014.
His dream was a true design-build operation that would balance conceptual thinking with physical construction. His Peter Braithwaite Studio approaches design and construction as a single task, streamlining the process of creation and eliminating the adversarial relationship that can sometimes arise between designer and builder.
“My goal was to cut wood in the morning and then be in the office in the afternoon,” he sums. “Maybe it was an idealistic view of things, but I didn’t want to just sit in a chair clicking a mouse.”
Braithwaite’s first major project was his own live-work studio in Terence Bay (about a 30 minute drive south of Halifax), which quickly garnered wide praise as a modern take on traditional Atlantic wood-frame construction. The firm’s follow-ups have been just as spectacular. The Sandbox, completed last year on the New Brunswick shoreline, accents a cedar-clad box with an external Corten-steel staircase that zig-zags from the second floor up to the roof.
Not surprisingly, the studio has received numerous awards and recognitions for its work, including being recognized by Designing Canada (landing the 2022 Globe and Mail award for the Country’s Best Architecture), taking national first place in Canada’s Best New Bars via EnRoute Magazine, landing Dalhousie University’s Canadian Co-Op Design Office of the Year, and many others.
Through it all, Braithwaite says he began to appreciate the challenges that come with designing ambitious homes in difficult environments.
“During the winter, you just shouldn’t be working on the side of the ocean,” he says. “And our approach meant that our team would be away from their families, staying in a rental for a month at a time. I had to reconsider: ‘What are we doing here?’”
It was the same struggle he had faced in Vancouver – except that Braithwaite was now the one in charge. His solution: prefabricated construction, which allows his staff to build projects in a shop during the winter months and then assemble them over a condensed timeline during the summer. This new strategy inspired a studio relocation from the outskirts into Halifax proper.
“It was great when we had a studio and workshop in Terence Bay, but building what would essentially be a factory in this quiet cottage area didn’t feel right,” he said. (Interesting trivia: He now rents out his former home office as a vacation spot.)
Braithwaite is equally thoughtful when it comes to his teaching at Dalhousie, where he often leads an intensive two-week design-build course dedicated to a project with real community impact. (A recent edition involved designing a memorial to honour the SS Atlantic shipwreck.)
“Working with students is a give-and-take,” he says. “I don’t just see it as me being the holder of knowledge and passing it on. When a student asks you, ‘Why?’ you’re forced to articulate your rationale and it solidifies your ideas – or it makes you question them, which is good.”
And Braithwaite’s commitment to continuing education applies equally to himself. Having successfully mastered craft and design, he is now returning to science. In 2021, he was awarded a Killam Doctoral Scholarship to embark on an interdisciplinary PhD that will explore the relationship between the built environment and biodiversity.
“Architectural education often talks about sustainability in terms of energy modeling and a building’s envelope,” he says. “But our biodiversity is plummeting and we’re urbanizing at an alarming rate – so what’s our solution?”
If anyone can find an innovative answer that solves that riddle, our money is on him.