Designing a Home and Winery on the Oak Ridges Moraine.

As an architect, I enjoy working with clients who wish to build homes that are integrated with the natural environment.  In the autumn of 2016, my firm was commissioned to design a dual-purpose building that would function as a home and family winery. Adding to the challenges of this project, was its location – just north of Toronto, on the hotly contested landscape of the Oak Ridges Moraine.

The 25 acre site is equal parts forest and fields.  From the highest elevation of the property, the extraordinary southern view extends beyond the forested slopes of the Moraine and down to the city of Toronto which sprawls relentlessly towards Lake Ontario.

Ballantrae Site Plan Flipped

The streams and rivers that have carved deep ravines into the otherwise flat landscape of Toronto, find their source in the Oak Ridges Moraine.  Its rolling hills are a patchwork of forests, kettle lakes, farms, estate properties, golf courses and a few picturesque hamlets. With its designation as a Greenbelt in 2005 in the “Places to Grow Strategy” the landscape, and all it’s uses, were to remain unchanged even as the relentless pressure to build upon it grows from the ever-expanding city of Toronto. A recent article in the Toronto Star delves into the thinking behind this initiative.

2019.02.13 GreenbeltMap_Ballantrae

The designation of the Moraine as a Greenbelt was based on a strategy that had been proven effective in protecting natural, as well as agricultural areas, throughout England.  With the creation of its system of National Parks, as well as the extensive Greenbelts which surround the city of London, England has been able to preserve some of its most beautiful countryside.

At the turn of the 20th century England had few remaining wilderness areas. Yet the agricultural uses across the island had maintained a sustainable balance between natural preservation and human use. With the arrival of modern agricultural practices, farmers were removing hedgerows and consolidating small fields into large plots with monoculture crops.  As the preservation movement grew, the thought was to retain the older agricultural regions that had not yet been affected by modern agriculture, before their natural characteristics were lost. Instead of de-populating these agricultural lands to create traditional National Parks, which under the definition of these areas should have minimal human presence, the trail-blazing approach developed in the UK was to preserve these areas and their existing sustainable balance of human habitation, local agricultural traditions and nature.

In a similar way the Greenbelt system restricted development on the edges of what seemed to be the ever-expanding radius of London.  Accordingly, small compact new towns now exist within these areas of preserved forests and fields which surround the city. These greenbelt rings have curtailed the endless expansion of suburban sprawl but have also created the much-needed separation between established urbanized areas, ensuring each town has its own unique identity and function as individual communities apart from the larger city of London.

The strategy for the Oak Ridges Moraine was based on these UK precedents as well as some more recent examples in Europe and North America. My client’s property located just outside the hamlet of Ballantrae is a current example of how these guidelines are being implemented to fulfill the “Places to Grow” strategy developed in Ontario.

My team initiated the home/winery project by reviewing the regional master plan for this site.  It stipulated that any new construction should maintain the existing land uses, as much as possible. That being the case, except for the construction of one home, half of the twenty-five-acre site was to retain its agricultural use leaving the existing forest, that occupied the other half, undisturbed.

As it had been in the Greenbelt around London, the Moraine’s designation was created to preserve not only the regions natural assets but also to maintain an important agricultural zone adjacent to Canada’s largest city.  From the outset the client had decided to transform the existing corn fields (mostly planted to supply distant farms with cattle feed) to a mixture of orchards and a small house winery.   These two uses will provide food products for the City of Toronto creating a sustainable food delivery system which builds a closer connection between the food consumed in the city and the places where it is grown. (Refer to the Farm To Table Movement)

In our initial meetings with the client we walked the property to develop a better understanding of its unique typography. The areas of the site near the regional road were flat and without character.  From these observations we purposefully designed the approach to the house through a winding lane enclosed on either side by the orchards.  These medium sized trees would provide privacy and shield the home from roadside noise.

Ballantrae Aerial Feb 5 2018 Lower Size Smaller

Our goal throughout the design process was to ensure that as much of the existing farmland was maintained and that the productive areas of the orchards and vineyards would extend as close to the home and winery as possible. This approach replaces the acres of manicured lawns that typically surround a house of this stature with productive uses that are also beautiful to look at from within the home.

Stouffville House_Interior_FamilyRoom+Kitchen_Oct_20_2016

Kitchen looking towards family room

Further south and away from the roadway a prominent feature on the agricultural half of the property is a small ridge that runs diagonally from north/east to the south/west. After much thought and consideration, we decided to place the home in this location. Here grape vines will be planted this spring on the sloped, south facing hill, which will capture the warmth of the sun throughout the summer.

Ballantrae Aerial Feb 5 2018 2 to 1 Proportion

By placing the home in this location, the change in grade created by the slope results in the house appearing to be a sprawling one floor bungalow when seen from the driveway. In contrast, when seen from the south the house is a two-storey structure, poised on a stone terrace facing the lower, private outdoor areas of the property.  Whereas from the north the home appears modest from the south expansive terraces open outward toward the landscape which slopes gradually down towards the skyline of the city far below.

Stouffville_Section_LivingRoom_ Edited Square

Building Sections-Stair and dining room above-Main entry vestibule below

The slight shifts in the angles of the massing of the house also help to ensure that the public functions of the winery are separated from the private functions of the home.  Wine storage and fermentation rooms are placed in the northern end of the plan under the family room, below grade.

Stouffville House - Section - Garage-Bunky + MB + Cellar - Nov.2.2016

Section – Garage with Bunky, Carport and Master Bedroom above wine storage areas

With the arrival of spring, the house and winery are nearing completion. The owners have mapped out the positioning of the rows of fruit trees and vines and are eager to start planting as soon as the temperatures permit. Once the plantings are established, my client can begin to harvest their land and are excited about producing their own private label. Their choice to grow produce that will be consumed by those living nearby aligns perfectly with the mandate of the Government of Ontario, and their efforts to preserve the Oak Ridges Moraine. We are particularly proud of having contributed to the ongoing effort to protect this natural region and the vital agricultural activity that supports it.

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