Proposed Visitor Shelter  on Sable Island Image: Matthew Griffin-Allwood
Proposed Visitor Shelter on Sable Island Image: Matthew Griffin-Allwood

Sable Island exemplifies rootlessness. Made entirely of sand, not only is the surface fluid – the island is itself on the move, as sand is washes away from the Western side and builds up on the East. Not an ideal location on which to build, one would think.

But when Matthew Griffin-Allwood was developing a thesis project for his Masters in Architecture at Dalhousie, Sable Island was an obvious choice.

“It’s a place that’s captivated humans for centuries,” he says.

Yet that fascination has had to contend with the uniquely mutable conditions of the island itself, conditions that have made development on the island all but impossible.

“Guys building on Sable Island had no idea what they were up against.”

In 2013, Sable Island was designated as Canada’s 43rd national park. Critics have raised concerns about the impact of increased visitors on the island’s fragile ecosystems. But supporters have said that flora and fauna will benefit from protected status.

Either way, the Island’s designation means that its aging infrastructure is in need of a reboot, and Griffin-Allwood says it was a stroke of luck for him that he began his thesis just as Parks Canada was ready to start thinking about its newest acquisition.

In his thesis – for which he won Canadian Architect’s 2014 Student Award of Excellence – Griffin-Allwood developed a minimally intrusive design that takes the demands of the environment into account.

Proposed Visitor Centre on Sable Island  Image: Matthew Griffin-Allwood
Proposed Visitor Centre on Sable Island Image: Matthew Griffin-Allwood

The challenges of building on Sable Island were obvious to him from the start. When Parks Canada arranged for a site visit, he couldn’t be sure how long it would take.

“I told my professors I would be gone for a bit.”

He was supposed to be on the island for three days; once he got there, it was a week before the conditions allowed him to leave.

“It’s really hard to get to.”

Sable Island is a dynamic ecosystem, says Griffin-Allwood, meaning that it changes faster than the human settlements constructed on it. Because past building designs and methods were transplants from mainland Nova Scotia, none of them have been able to withstand the conditions of a landscape in flux.

In some cases, buildings have harmed the environment by accelerating erosion.

“The buildings were static volumes in a really fluid environment.”

His design drew on an evolutionary principle, he says; looking at the ways in which past forms of settlement have failed – often literally wiped out beneath the sand – it’s possible to glean insights about what would work better in the future.

But human settlement isn’t the only form of life that inspired his design; he also drew on other kinds of habitation that exist on the island.

Take the island’s plants. Looking at the vegetation, says Griffin-Allwood, it’s obvious where you can build.

Not the beach – any settlement would be displaced by the ocean in short order, not to mention the fact that the beach itself is constantly on the move – nor the dunes, which are held together by an interlocking mesh made of the root system of Marram grass. Even walking on the dunes erodes the root system and puts the habitat at risk.

But behind the dunes there’s a trough; a protected zone in which the temperature is warmer and diverse plants can grow.

Looking at this vegetation, says Griffin-Allwood, “you automatically know where your site has to be…it has to be in the trough.”

Proposed Visitor Shelter on Sable Island Image: Matthew Griffin-Allwood
Proposed Visitor Shelter on Sable Island Image: Matthew Griffin-Allwood

When it comes to the iconic animals of Sable Island, he says that there are lessons to be learned there too.

“Looking at the plants you figure out where you can build, and looking at the animals you figure out how you can build.”

The Island’s Ipswich Sparrow has a light body with wide-spreading feet that allow it to travel over the sand. Drawing on this, Griffin-Allwood’s design proposes a broad, lightweight ski base, so that structures can move with the dunes even as sand flows easily around and underneath the frame.

As for the horses, he says that observing their movement made him think of how to stabilize a structure in motion. Horses are only ever moving on two or three legs at once. Similarly, his design includes more supports in the base of the structure than are needed at any given time, making it easier for the structure to accommodate an uneven landscape.

Griffin-Allwood says other adaptations – including sloping roofs that lean into the prevailing west wind, reducing the stress on the buildings; long-wearing aluminum exteriors instead of the standard vinyl siding, which needs to be replaced after almost every storm; and small, efficiently designed spaces that rely less on imported energy sources – would not only draw on the dynamics of the island itself, but would help tourists understand the place they’re visiting.

You can sort of unravel the island’s logic by experiencing the architecture.”

Griffin-Allwood says his thesis is currently with senior Parks Canada management as briefing package on the future of the island and that further collaboration is still in the picture. Either way, he says he’d be thrilled if his design can inspire the next generation of infrastructure.

“Maybe I’ll return as a tourist one year.”

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  1. This is really iinteresting. I visited Sable last June on a cruise expedition ship that was piloting a visitor experience project with 100+ people. One of the obvious challenges is that there are no facilities on the island, so we came with a compact port-a-potty and a privacy tent, and our on-island visits (3) were all kept to 3 hours or so. It makes sense for Parks Canada to consider having some sort of visitor centre near “the town” of Parks and Environment Canada buildings that currently house the staff and researchers. A Visitor Centre could provide protection from the elements, a gathering spot for guides and groups, and a place to leave boots and clothing among other things (like visitor information such as maps, weather conditions, interpretation resources)… We travelled by zodiac so were equipped for waves and wet landings with boots, splash pants, and jackets, but once on the island, we switched to hiking shoes and layers of lighter clothing. Everything was piled on the beach and subject to whatever weather happened in the next 3 hours. This young architect may be solving a real challenge for Parks as it considers how to manage visitor experiences while minimizing the impact on a very fragile environment.