The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence
Berkeley Prize 2024

[ID:1889] Community Rejuvenation in A Newfoundland Outport


Off the east coast of Canada lies an island where water ruled before roads, where houses face the ocean, and where a rich vernacular design tradition persists. The people along Newfoundland’s shore defied the mid-20th century governmental pressure to move to regional centers. They clung to their coves through the fat years of the fishery and the thin, only to watch their children and grandchildren go west. This proud population lost their livelihood fifteen years ago when the government implemented a moratorium on the cod fishery, but the tenacious stayed on in the outports while their communities emptied around them.

Today, many of these communities are struggling to address issues of underemployment, out-migration, and an ageing population. There are two areas that need immediate attention in these communities: economic revitalization, and support for the ageing population. A multi-phase project will address these issues by celebrating individuals’ ties to their community and culture, while contributing to the sustainability of the community by providing social and economic benefits to the town. The challenge is to preserve a rural way of life that is economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable, regionally relevant, and that incorporates modern development opportunities.

Newfoundlanders have always been creative and resourceful. Many adults still practice skills that let their families to survive in the harsh environment for five hundred years. In recent years, some communities have begun to apply their resourcefulness to modern issues through innovative, but inconsistent initiatives.

Greenspond, one small island that is home to about 600 people on the north shore of Bonavista Bay about 400 kilometers north of St. John’s, has begun to invest in some attractions and public infrastructure - the Courthouse, built in 1901, has been restored, and now houses the town museum. A walking trail around the island was recently revitalized, and is maintained in the summers by students working on government grants. There is also a lookout point that honors local sealing captains, and a war monument.

Phase one of my proposal will address the immediate needs of the residents by improving access to education opportunities for underemployed adults, creatively adapting existing housing stock to make it more accessible for the ageing population, stimulating economic activity through construction projects, and increasing tourism by condensing available information into a single facility.

Phase two will usher in design projects that go beyond the economic and pragmatic problems in the community and begin to address the social and cultural aspects of living in an outport. In this phase, a seniors’ facility and a community workshop will be built, and an online virtual village will be designed.

Finally, phase three will explore the viability of opportunities arising from the work done in phases one and two, primarily in the area of conservation and construction, and a plan for future community development will be created in consultation with community members.

The social fabric of the outports relies heavily on chance meetings. The jumble of wharves and store-houses for nets and gear (locally known as ‘stores’) at the waters edge provide endless opportunity for conversation. With the collapse of the fishery and continuing out-migration, the importance of the stores as a meeting place is waning, and so phase one of my design proposal for Greenspond would begin with the restoration and conservation of the old post office building. Built around 1888, the two-story post office is crowned with a distinctive mansard roof that proclaims its status as a public building to the community. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the post office in these remote communities as traditional gathering places and the historical point of contact with the outside world. As such, the post office holds a special place within the community which transcends the denominational nature of church-run gathering places.

The program of the revitalized post office building would strengthen existing associations that people have with the space, and encourage new activities within the community. The second floor of the post office building is currently vacant, or used for storage by the existing post office which occupies the ground floor. The proposed restoration would incorporate an interpretation space with resources for visitors to the town into the existing ground floor. The interpretation space would help to link together the existing elements in the town, by providing background knowledge about the community’s history (recounted in greater detail at the museum in the Courthouse) as well as maps of the walking trail and the town, and natural features of the island. During the summer, additional part-time staff would be needed for the interpretation space to address the influx of tourists, much in the same way the Courthouse currently employs summer students.

While most outports have small libraries and public internet facilities, opening hours are often limited, and so gaining access is difficult for both residents and visitors. The second floor of the post office would provide public internet access in a café-type setting, as well as support and instruction for continuing and distance education courses and adult education. The second floor café would also contain a multi-purpose space for use as a classroom or workshop space, and provide a temporary gathering place for seniors in the community until phase two is constructed. Part of the post office renovation would include the installation of an elevator to make the second floor accessible to all members of the community. Assembling several functions in one location increases the likelihood that people will visit the post office for things other than merely collecting their mail. By including facilities for tourists as well as locals, and facilities that serve more than one generation, the post office would restore to the community one of its traditional meeting places.

The renovation and conservation of the building would be undertaken by community members under the supervision of the project supervisor – ideally a Design Fellow with the Design Corps. Community members who already have experience in construction would be sought out to fulfill these roles initially, and the community members involved with the project will gain valuable experience in the preservation and conservation of historic structures, as well as an appreciation for the unique vernacular design tradition of Canada’s East Coast.

These skills would then be applied to the other aspect of phase one: upgrading existing residential structures to be more accessible for the ageing population. The Design Fellow would help seek out candidates for the program, and the workers trained during the post office project would carry out the needed alterations. Traditional housing stock in Newfoundland typically has very small bathrooms and bedrooms only on the second floor. The older houses especially also have small windows to reduce heat loss. Historically, the high price of glass and the difficulty in transporting it to remote locations kept the use of glass to a minimum. In order to make these houses more appropriate residences for the ageing population, modifications could include access ramps, enlarging bathrooms and doorways, creating a bedroom on the main floor, and enlarging windows to allow for more natural light. All work would be done with the intention of preserving the historical and vernacular character of the buildings – the exterior proportions and massing, for example, could remain essentially unchanged - and each individual program of alterations would be determined in consultation with the Design Fellow and the resident.

In phase one; design’s role was relegated to conveying to the resident population the unique value of their local architecture through the conservation of the post office and the careful adaptation of existing homes. However, the potential that new designs have to celebrate the spectacular landscape through views, orientation, and materials (polished local granite, for example) should also be explored in any design proposal for the town. In phase two, the post office would be extended with an addition that would house a seniors’ centre and workshop for the community.

This facility would be a showcase for place-appropriate, innovative, and cost-effective sustainable design solutions. Harnessing the winds that wrack the island is one possible alternative energy solution, and given that the town is oriented to the south of Greenspond Island, passive solar strategies could also be easily employed. Though Greenspond has no source of fresh water on the island, the once ubiquitous rain barrels have vanished from the town’s front porches, replaced by pipes from the mainland. Visible water conservation strategies – once so familiar to the community – could be re-incorporated in the post office extension.

Outport residents have always been resourceful by necessity – an attitude that has been partially lost as disposable culture encroaches on traditional ways of life. The post office extension would celebrate the environmentally sustainable aspects of traditional outport life through contemporary design strategies, and the socially sustainable culture of the outport through its functions as a community workshop where traditional crafts such as boat-building and net knitting could be practiced and shared with visitors, and a seniors’ gathering place. This aspect of the proposal would help restore the seniors’ pride and independence by providing them with a more visible presence in the community.

Phase two would also incorporate the creation of a virtual online community, designed and maintained by the town’s youth. This online community would have several functions, including documentation of existing buildings on the island through photography and 3D models, forming part of a larger network of rural Canadian communities, and existing as a tourism portal on the internet which would stimulate the town’s economy by attracting tourists. Like the post office, the online community would bring existing elements (some documentation of Greenspond’s Courthouse already exists online) together into a cohesive, accessible resource.

Following the completion of phase two, the community would look to the future with the creation of a community development plan designed to take advantage of the skills generated by the work done in phases one and two. There is a small but growing market for new and restored houses in Greenspond - in the past few years several new houses have been built by non-residents of the community as summer homes or cottages. Phase three would explore the potential of this market as an opportunity generator for the construction and conservation crews trained in phase one.

Not all the houses on Greenspond are currently inhabited, and so the rather than expending energy on new construction, the conservation crew could advise potential builders about possible alternatives already built in the community. They could then assist with the renovation and conservation process. Another potential project would be the construction of several multi-unit assisted-living structures. As Greenspond’s population continues to age, the need for assisted living facilities and accessible housing will increase, and so providing for that eventuality early in the process makes sense. The experience gained by the builders through this process would be easily applied to projects in other communities, and over time Greenspond could begin to regain some regional importance in terms of design, conservation and restoration expertise.

The team I have selected to help with the implementation of my project is Design Corp, because I believe that Design Corps’ experience with rural communities and a community-based design approach would be easily transferable and appropriate to Newfoundland’s community-focused culture. I am especially inspired by the dedication of the Design Corps to “providing an underserved population with access to the design arts” (Design Corps, 2007). This is a theme that permeates much of their work, and the variety of ways in which Design Corps engages with the community (community-defined goals developed by residents’ committees and local elementary school participation) makes it evident that they are making a concerted effort to reach these underserved groups.

Design Corps has taken on projects in the past that are comparable to elements of my proposal. For example, the Seaboard, North Carolina, community-design studio and Seaboard ROAD crew have similar goals to those of my proposal for Greenspond: “design, derived from clear community-defined goals, will accommodate residents in their day-to-day lives. The results can add greatly to the quality of life and to the sense of place and pride in a community” (Design Corps, 2007). The Seaboard projects (like all of Design Corps’ work) involve a high level of community participation and support, help stimulate economic activity, and strengthen the community.

Two other projects that are similar in scope to my proposal are the TUCCA community centre in Alabama, and the Job Training Centre, also in Alabama. The Job Training Centre targets the same issues of education, access to information, and resource distribution that my phase one proposal for the post office does. The incorporation of the daycare in the Job Training Centre project addresses one of the practical, small-scale needs of the community in the same way that the phase one home alterations for accessibility will address the needs of individuals. The TUCCA Community Centre is much broader in scope, and incorporates an elaborate future vision of what the site could become, just as the Greenspond proposal incorporates a future development plan for the community.

The development of the community plan and the post office renovation and addition for Greenspond would be done with the help and guidance of a Design Corps Design Fellow. The fellowship positions are one year in duration, however frequently a project can be handed off from one fellow to the next over the course of several years. I envision the Greenspond project unfolding over a three to five year period, under the supervision of a series of Fellows. My desire to share and sustain the culture of the outports and my design training make me an ideal advocate for this project. I have intimate knowledge of Greenspond from having spent my childhood summers and countless university breaks there, and as such I would like to be the first Design Fellow to work with the community. The Design Fellow model is appropriate for Greenspond primarily because the fellowship program is designed to “explore the relationship between design and community needs” (Design Corps, 2007). I believe that Greenspond presents unique design and cultural challenges exacerbated by Greenspond’s remote location, strong vernacular design tradition, and proud population. The guidance of a design professional would be instrumental in creating a concise and architecturally sensitive plan for the town’s future.

For generations before sustainability became a buzzword, Newfoundlanders lived in relative harmony with their environment. This traditional, sustainable lifestyle, evolved due to the experimental and adventurous nature of the first European settlers, and the modern residents of Greenspond are still adept at using the resources they have around them to create a rich life on the east coast of Canada. The Greenspond proposal allows for the manifestation of this entrepreneurial spirit at each step of the way, and the design expertise possessed by the Design Fellow would be augmented by the contributions of community members. The common goal of community enhancement and the potential for economic gains will help to restore pride and purpose to the residents of Greenspond, and help them become a modern, rural, sustainable community.

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