Jessie Hannah is no stranger to unconventional living spaces.
She describes her first home as “essentially a Quonset hut on a slab of concrete” built by her parents after they lost their previous home in a fire. This marked her first experience with a building that was made with a very specific purpose, one that would jump-start a lifelong interest in architecture and unique structures.
She reflects on this in the introduction of her new book, Small Structures of Nova Scotia, published back in October 2021 through Nimbus Publishing.
The laneway house
Hannah grew up in a small community in Lunenburg County called Barss Corner, before studying English at Mount Saint Vincent University and public relations and marketing at Simon Fraser University. She moved to British Columbia in her twenties and remained there until her thirties. It was there that her interest in small, unique structures grew and took shape.
Hannah’s home in Vancouver was a laneway house. Laneway houses are small homes built on the property of a pre-existing house near the rear of the lot, usually in lieu of where a garage would be. They’re intended to increase housing for population-dense cities.
“I lived there for quite a long time,” Hannah reflects with a smile. “And I really loved it.”
Hannah spent a lot of time outdoors with her friends. The tiny huts and cabins that dappled the hiking trails they’d travel through reminded her of home. These, in addition to her laneway house, got Hannah thinking about the backdrop of small, pragmatic structures she grew up around in Nova Scotia.
“It reminded me so much of the small spaces – the hunting and logging cabins of my youth where we would go to spend time,” she says. “And so when I came back to Nova Scotia I said, ‘You know what, I really want to put Nova Scotia on the map as a place that’s always had this culture of adapting our buildings to our requirements.’”
Hannah’s odyssey of creating Small Structures of Nova Scotia, began shortly after she moved back to the province. The entire process of writing the book, she says, took about three years.
“I got the approval from Nimbus… and I was so excited, I cried tears of joy. This has been my life’s goal, for sure,” she says.
At first, Hannah was worried she wouldn’t be able to find enough small structures to fill an entire book. However, after reaching out to the first few people, this quickly proved not to be an issue.
“Nova Scotia is one of those places where everyone is just so willing to share and connect you with somebody,” she says. “I just put it out there on social media. And honestly, it wasn’t very difficult. If anything, it was the opposite. I had so many wonderful stories I wanted to tell and not enough book to tell them!”
All kinds of spaces
Small Structures of Nova Scotia features 32 different structures, each with three to four pages containing colourful photos and a short story about the building’s history and its owner. She didn’t just write about tiny houses either, which may be the first thing that comes to mind when a person hears about “small structures.” Hannah touched on everything from businesses, to art studios, to places of worship.
She drove all over Nova Scotia to photograph these structures and speak to their owners. From Cape Breton to the South Shore, she covered virtually every corner of Nova Scotia in Small Structures, highlighting the unique communities and people she met along the way.
“I tried to include various different industries, various different regions,” she says. “And then really interesting themes came up throughout the story writing, themes related to mental health, art, history, faith and culture, food making, immigration, there’s just such a mix of the stories that came through.”
The house on stilts
One of the most poignant stories Hannah shares in Small Structures is about what she calls ‘the house on stilts.’ While Hannah doesn’t have a favourite story in the book, this one was extremely important to her.
‘The house on stilts’ is a small residential structure located on the South Shore, made with a timber frame and structural stilts. When Hannah moved back to Nova Scotia, before she’d even pitched the idea for Small Structures, she saw it being built. Once it was finished, and Hannah’s book was underway, she reached out to the owner, a woman named Sydney.
Sydney had struggled with an opioid addiction for close to eleven years prior to building the house on stilts. She moved back home to get clean, and in the process, began building the house with her father.
Hannah shares Sydney’s story about not only building her house, but her recovery process along the way and discovering she was pregnant. Now, the house is finished and she lives there with her infant son. Her living situations were always precarious in the past, so to have a home of her own was especially meaningful. Hannah outlines the journey in her book.
“The fact that this woman went from overcoming addiction to living in this home that’s her own, it’s really beautiful,” she says. “The exterior is not included in the book for privacy reasons, but the interior is beautiful. It’s filled with her art and her love. And to be able to go and do that interview, meet her baby son and then give her this book that she’s part of, it really touched my heart.”
Looking to the future
Hannah would like to continue writing and sharing the stories of small structures, and says if she ever wrote another book about them, she would expand her focus to Atlantic Canada. She’s also working on a children’s book about mental health.
Hannah stresses that although small structures may be trendy at the moment, they are nothing new to Nova Scotia. As she illustrates in her book, the people of Nova Scotia have a long history of creating small, functional structures to fit them and their communities needs. As home ownership becomes more expensive, Hannah believes small structures will become increasingly more common, since they’re more practical from an affordability standpoint, as well as for accessibility and their lower impacts on climate change.
“Nova Scotia has always had small structures, small structures aren’t anything new. And when we think about opportunities for creating solutions for housing, it’s kind of the next step.”