Ghost Lab

ArchiTalks #7

Welcome back for another round of #ArchiTalks.  ArchiTalks is a blog movement initiated by the architect Bob Borson of Life of An Architect in which Archi-Bloggers around the world huddle together to blog about the same topic.  The topic for ArchiTalks #7 is:




Make sure to check out my fellow bloggers using the links at the bottom of this blog.  

When I started to think about my 'Crafty' blog, I immediately zero'd in on building craft.  I know right?  that's not creative at all....whatever!

During the period in which I was brain-storming ideas, I had a discussion with one of my Archi-Buddies about the Ghost Lab.  And later that day I had that 'eureka moment' and decided that I would share my experience at the Ghost Lab as my 'crafty' blog.  It is at the Ghost Lab that I was first turned on to the importance of detailing and quality building craft.

So what the heck is a Ghost Lab?

To tell you about the Ghost Lab I will need to go back in time a bit.  All the way back to the summer of 2006.  This was a milestone summer for me.  Or perhaps it would best be described as a summer of transition.  I had just completed my Masters of Architecture from the University of Maryland and would soon be starting my first real job as an intern architect with Michael Graves and Associates in Princeton, New Jersey.  This would officially be my last summer.  And my last hoorrah was the Ghost Lab.

"The Ghost Lab began as a critique of architectural education and is based on the apprenticeship model of professional education that has its roots in the medieval trade guild." - Brian MacKay-Lyons

Yeah......What he said.

The Ghost Laboratory was a design-build workshop led by the architect Brian MacKay-Lyons of MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects.  The workshop, which takes place among the ruins of a nearly 400 year old Arcadian village on the Nova Scotia coast, is attended by architects, students and professors.  The lab consists of a one week design phase and a one week building phase.  

In total, there were 13 Ghost Lab workshops.  The 13th occurred in 2011 and was a Symposium titled "Ideas in Things."  I had the privilege of participating in Ghost 8.  At Ghost 8 we were were tasked with designing and building a studio building that would be used for subsequent Ghost Labs.


So who is this Brian MacKay-Lyons fella? 

Brian MacKay-Lyons stars in "The Chainsaw Architect"

The Chainsaw Architect

We jokingly dubbed Brian the 'Chainsaw Architect' during our stay at Ghost.  He seemed to relish the opportunity to make on the fly 'corrections' through the use of a few strategic cuts via his trusty chainsaw. When not wielding a chainsaw, Brian can be found leading the firm MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.  The firm's work is regularly published and has garnered over 100 awards.  Just recently, Brian MacKay-Lyons received the 2015 RAIC Gold Medal.  In addition to his successful practice, Brian is a professor of Dalhousie University.

In short, this guy is a real bad-ass!

His Work

During our stay at Ghost, we had the opportunity to visit several houses that Brian had designed.  Brian's work is in a category that can be described as 'Modern Vernacular' and the aesthetics of his buildings have been dubbed as 'Plain Modern.'

The Kutcher House, Nova Scotia.  Exterior

The Kutcher House, Nova Scotia. Interior

The hilly coast line of Nova Scotia makes for some amazing views.

The Howard House, Nova Scotia

The Hill House, Nova Scotia.  2005 Record Houses Award (Architectural Record)

"Like many of our other houses, Hill House is primarily a landscape-viewing device." - Brian MacKay-Lyons

Hill House, Nova Scotia.  "Landscape viewing device"

This is a house that overlooked the Ghost Site.  Looking back through my notes and I cannot find the name for this house.  I would call it the Hill House if there wasn't already another house called that.  How about that sky!

"Plainness is no accident in good architecture.  You have only to think of the Karnak, the Parthenon, and those marvelous Romanesque abbeys in France." - Alvaro Siza on Portuguese Plain Architecture


Ghost 8

Purpose: Design and Build a Studio


Architect Brian MacKay Lyons

Guest Architect David Miller of The Miller Hull Partnership

Guest Architect Bob Benz of Thomas Anderson & Co

Architecture Critic Peter Buchanan

32 students (Ghosties)

The Setting for the Ghost Lab

Ghost-Town.  Image courtesy of Jonathan Healey of Ghost 9.

Kingsberg, Nova Scotia

The setting for the Ghost Lab was a strip of land overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in a place called Kingsberg, Nova Scotia.  It is a place of remarkable beauty.  The picture above was taken on a hill that overlooks the Ghost campus...or Ghost-Town.  The building on the far right is the Studio that we built at Ghost 8.  The 4 cabins were built at Ghost 7.  The wooden barn in the foreground was built at Ghost 9..  And the wooden tower in the background was from Ghost 6. 

Keep in mind that these pictures were taken 9 years ago, probably on a 4MB digital camera. There are no fancy Instagram filters on these.  These are the real deal.

The Atlantic Ocean


The Cabins

I was extremely lucky to have participated in Ghost 8.  Because the previous year at Ghost 7, the team built these 4 cabins.  Prior to that, everyone stayed in tents for the entire 2 week stay. So these cabins were a big step up. Each cabin housed 8 Ghosties.

The 4 cabins.  I stayed in the cabin on the far left.

Little did these folks know that 9 years later I would create a blog and insert this picture of them in their pajamas.  Sorry Nat, Casey and Melissa!

Yeah I know.  How lucky was I?


The Design Process

The Barn

The Barn is where all the magic happened.  This would be the setting for the 'Design' portion of Ghost.  For 3 straight days we packed into the barn and developed the design of the studio.  We would literally fill every nook and cranny of this little building.

A ping pong table was used as the main work surface.  On the far right is the architectural writer Peter Buchanan and Brian MacKay-Lyons.  

Brian's Concept

Although everyone there would participate in the design, it was no doubt a MacKay-Lyons structure.  Brian had developed a series of concept sketches for what the studio building would be prior to the workshop.  His sketchbook was littered with these beautiful sketches.  I remember being extremely envious of his sketching ability back then, and am equally awe-struck now.

Site Plan Sketch.  Courtesy of Brian MacKay-Lyons.

Brian's sketches of the studio.  

The plan can be seen in the sketch above on the right.  It was a very simple linear building with one long open space and a small 2nd floor mezzanine.

Our main task for the design portion was to translate Brian's sketches into a set of working drawings that would be used for the construction of the building.  The picture below shows the types of drawings that were created.  Everything was drawn freehand on graph paper.  

This was during one of the many pinup settings.  The working drawings were pinned up on the wall.  Scratch that.  They were nailed up on the wall.

One of the Ghosties working on the elevation drawing.


The Model

While we were building the full size studio building, some of the Ghosties were building a 1/4"=1' scale model of the Studio Building.  Or as Derek Zoolander would have called it.... "a studio for ants!"

The Ghost Studio Model.  This is what we would build.  Except at full scale.


The Build

In previous years, the 2 weeks were equally split between design and build.  Ghost 8 was the largest structure at that point so extra time was given to the build portion.  We spent about 3 days designing in the studio and 11 building.  The concrete foundation walls had been poured prior to our arrival, so step 1 was to build a floor.

Day one of build.  Create a floor.

Here is one of the ghosties tieing re-bar for one of the concrete shear walls.

Tying rebar for the concrete shear walls.

uhh......seriously.  Was that really the view?

Here you can see all of the shear wall forming.

There was no plywood on this job.  Every inch was sheathed in 1x6 tongue and groove wood.  We sheathed the corners diagonally to help provide a stronger diaphragm.  This helps with lateral stability by preventing racking.

The building materials were wood, concrete and steel.  Steel bents were constructed out of steel angles.  We built everything in pieces so that we could easily pick things up.

We had a small cantilever at the corner balcony.  

Here you can see the series of steel bents coming together.

The skeleton of the building is visible here.  

Wall framing being added.  Since the framing would be exposed, we designed everything on a grid.

Here again you can see the diagonal sheathing.

You can see how we ran the roof sheathing long and came back later to cut.

That definitely was not me out on that corner.  I'm not a fan of heights.

The first meal we had in the studio space.  Pizza!

Almost complete

Another one of Brian's initial Concept Sketches.  You can see that we moved the location of that vertical window and tweaked a few other things.  But the overall concept is remarkably intact.


A Landscape Viewing Device

Framed view 1.

Framed view 2.


Building Craft and the Importance of Details.

"God is in the details." - Ludwig Mies van der Rohe

So I haven't mentioned craft much during this post.  My goal is that the pictures would do most of the talking.

This experience instilled in me a great appreciation for building craft and detailing.  A majority of the structure was exposed, therefore we took great interest in well crafted joinery and detailing.  And when you have to build what you draw, a greater amount of attention and pride goes into every little detail.  


The steel bents.

My sketches of some of the connections.

My sketches of some of the connections.

Connection photos.

More connections.


Ghost Lab was about the people.

As I look back through all of these photos I realize that the greatest take-away from Ghost 8 was not the exposure to great architecture and famous architects.  It was not experiencing the beauty of the Nova Scotia coastline.  And it was not the thrill of constructing a building.

It was about the People.

I've gotten a little teary eyed looking back at all of this.  32 students from around the world came to this little town, lived together and managed to design and build a substantial structure.  It was pretty remarkable.  I think they call that synergy.

We were using some very primitive forms of building technology.  Other than the concrete foundations and shear walls, everything on this building was stick built.  Which was important since we didn't have any heavy equipment.  There were no nail guns on the site or electric screw drivers.  Everything had to be light and able to be connected by hand.  

Because of these primitive constraints, we all had to be very thoughtful and work together.

The model team.  These pour souls volunteered to build the scale model.  It took most of the two weeks.

Teamwork 1.

Teamwork 2.

Teamwork 3.  Photograph courtesy of Kasey Josephs.

The last supper.

The laughs.

The goofballs.

The last hoorah.


This was a time when I had a beautiful head of hair and biceps that I was equally proud of.  Oh how times have changed.


By modern standards, the building we created during that 2 weeks was not 'technically' complete.  It is what we would call a building shell.  After the ghosties went their separate ways, MacKay-Lyons would complete the studio.  There are some pretty amazing photos of the finished product on the Ghost 8 website.  Please check it out.

Thanks for joining me!

Make sure to check out the other 'Crafty' blogs from the other contributors of #ArchiTalks 7.

Bob Borson - Life of An Architect @bobborson Architects are Crafty
Matthew Stanfield - FiELD9: architecture @FiELD9arch On the Craft of Drafting: A Lament
Marica McKeel - Studio MM @ArchitectMM Why I Love My Craft: Residential Architecture
Jeff Echols - Architect Of The Internet @Jeff_Echols Master Your Craft - A Tale of Architecture and Beer
Lee Calisti, AIA - Think Architect @LeeCalisti panel craft
Mark R. LePage - Entrepreneur Architect @EntreArchitect How to Craft an Effective Blog Post in 90 Minutes or Less
Lora Teagarden - L² Design, LLC @L2DesignLLC Oh, you crafty!
Rosa Sheng - Equity by Design / The Missing 32% Project @miss32percent Which Craft?
Michele Grace Hottel - Michele Grace Hottel, Architect @mghottel krafte
Meghana Joshi - IRA Consultants, LLC @MeghanaIRA Crafty-in Architecture as a Craft
Brian Paletz - The Emerging Architect @bpaletz Underhanded Evil Schemes
Jonathan Brown - Proto-Architecture @mondo_tiki_man Crafty
Eric Wittman - intern[life] @rico_w arts and [crafty]
Cindy Black - Rick & Cindy Black Architects merging architecture and craftiness
Michael Riscica - Young Architect @YoungArchitxPDX A Crafty Architecture Round up – #ArchiTalks
Tara Imani - Tara Imani Designs, LLC @Parthenon1