The Old-World Style of Sam Hunter

PHOTOS BY STEVE SMITH, VISIONFIRE STUDIOS

The slate fireplace is about a third finished. The floor is concrete and doors and appliances sit up three-quarters of an inch awaiting hardwood to be laid. None of the three bathrooms are completed. Yet when you step into Sam Hunter’s home, hidden in a field of wildflowers along Oxley Brook in Tidnish Crossroads, you don’t notice
any of those things.
What you see is what he has accomplished since he began building his 2700-square foot home in September 2014.
When he realized getting a university degree wasn’t for him, Sam travelled the world and worked on a kibbutz in Israel, then returned to Canada to work on the Bluenose II. After thirteen years living and working in Lunenburg, Sam returned to the place he was born and raised with a toolbox full of skills and knowledge acquired over nearly twenty years.
“I was building all these nice houses [around Lunenburg] but I never thought I’d get to build this,” Sam said. “Coming back here was the first step. Summertime locals hired me for a post-and-beam renovation so once I knew I could support myself through the winter, I decided to stay.”
Sam eventually accumulated enough work to see him through his first three years.

Sam’s long-term project is building a floor-to-ceiling fireplace using shale rock he’s sorted and stacked outside his back door. As someone who enjoys solving problems, Sam revels in the challenge of selecting the rocks and figuring out how to get them inside (he built a special crane and wagon).

It took him three and a half months to get the exterior of his house finished, and he worked on the interior during that first winter until
it was ready to move into the following spring. At the same time, he
was working on other people’s houses for at least forty hours a week.
“In my first three-and-a-half years here, I achieved an astronomical amount even by my own standard,” he said. “It was 14 to 16-hour days just because I needed a place to live and I needed to work to finance it.”
Sam is perfectly honest about how he gained his skills: working alongside a boat builder, a stonemason and a carpenter.
“People ask me if I’m a carpenter and I say I’m a builder; I like being honest. I have no schooling, no Red Seal, no ticket, but I’ve been fortunate in the people I’ve worked with, and I think it’s safe to say
I have an aptitude for it.”
After years of building other people’s houses, Sam was able to give his aptitude, and his imagination, free reign by designing his own house. That’s part of the reason he is doing as much of the work as possible
by himself, but another reason is the way he builds.
As an example, he gestures to the pine ceiling in his kitchen and dining room and explains that in traditional building, the rule is the splices have to hit the trusses and the studs.
“I don’t do that,” he says. “I always take them off the studs; that way, it off-sets the splices, and I find if anything’s out at all, it straightens it. That’s one of the rules most people will tell you has to be followed and
I just ignore it completely.”
Not following the rules doesn’t mean he’s cutting corners and doing shoddy work, however; Sam has high standards and while he doesn’t really have a ‘philosophy’ of building, he says he likes to learn and be challenged.
“I certainly put my heart and soul into any project I do because I want it to be good. I always worry things won’t be good enough for the people I’m working for.”

Sam named his secluded woodland home Hidden Hemlocks. He designed the house himself, right down to the placement of plugs and light switches, and managed to do most of the building on his own. “I’ve had a lot of people offer help [with the building] but I haven’t wanted it because this is my project.”

Doing his best is reflected in his strong feelings about the materials he uses.
“I like natural wood so I use tongue-and-groove boards. Any of the century homes that are one hundred, two hundred years old, are all boarded in and that’s how I build,” said Sam. “In my opinion, natural wood is better, and it works for me. I’m certainly not going to change that part of how I go about things.”
Ultimately, it’s the small details that make Sam’s work stand out. When selecting the exposed beams for his kitchen, living room and loft, Sam simply went down the road to Francis Verstraten’s mill in Lorneville and discovered red and white pine beams that had been sitting in Francis’s workshop for several years.
“That worked perfectly for me,” says Sam. “You can see the grey, and the wane, which is the bark, still left on them. They’re starting to discolour because of the moisture that gets into the log and that’s exactly what I was looking for. For a lot of people who want milled pine, they want the clear, nice pine. I want the character.”
Erecting a post-and-beam house by himself presented some challenges for Sam – like how to get the huge beams up to the vaulted ceiling in the living room.

The same eye for detail that selects wood also chooses light fixtures, pottery mugs, and the shiny pots hanging in the kitchen. Sam says doing the work himself, and paying as he goes, means he had plenty of time to make the right decision about choosing black granite countertops for the kitchen.

“I had all the furniture pushed to one side and the staging on the other. I got the first beam by the dormer but I knew I couldn’t hold it. It went down, bounced off the staging and landed on the floor without hitting anything. I poured a glass of wine, sat on the step and came up with a different plan,” he says with a smile. “Once you figure out how to do things, it’s relatively easy. It’s the figuring out that is the challenge.”
He applies the same strategy to the creation of the floor-to-vaulted-ceiling fireplace. He figures it will take him twenty years to finish it but it’s the perfect example of Sam’s old-world qualities: patience, problem-solving, and an appreciation of all things handmade.
Instead of leaving a pile of shale in the backyard, Sam sorted and stacked the pieces of shale by the backdoor.
“Stacking it up does two things for me: It allows it to be accessible in the winter and it allows me to see what I have.”

And since he’s building it by himself, he designed a crane on a wheeled platform to do the heavy lifting. A wagon brings the rock inside.
“That’s part of the fun, trying to manoeuvre and get things inside that I shouldn’t be able to do. It’s a learning curve, and seeing what I can get away with.”
He’s emboldened by both his successes and his failures, and driven by his passion for building good-quality homes that will stand the test of time.
“Right now, after six years, I’m where I thought I’d be in 11 or 12 so in that respect, financially and with what I’ve finished, I’m well ahead of anything I’d imagined,” Sam says. “Then again, seven years ago, I never thought I’d be able to build this.”

As someone who creates with his hands, Sam appreciates the time and effort that goes into creating a work of art so he has a growing collection of locally-made quilts, and every painting in his home was done by his mother, Ruth Brown.

Concrete Reasons for Geothermal Heating

Sam Hunter installed a slab-on-grade concrete floor that doubles as his heating system (radiant floor heating). Sam says he chose a geothermal system because it is the cheapest and most efficient way to heat a home, even one as large as his.
Sam explains how his system works: “I have five 200-foot trenches outside that go three feet in front of my deck down to the treeline. They come into the utility room where the geothermal unit is. I have a buffer tank which the geothermal unit keeps hot. There are thermostats in each room, including the bathrooms, all controlled independently. When any of those rooms call for heat, the buffer tank will feed those rooms.”
Sam sets his thermostat at 22 degrees, and says generally, the temperature inside the house stays close to that, although it will drop on a cold, windy night, and it will rise slightly on a hot summer day.
“Coming in on a cold day when I’m chilled to the bone from being outside – and I take off my boots and socks to walk on the warm floor – I don’t think there’s anything besides a hot bath that will take the chill out of you as quickly,” Sam says.

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Sara Jewell
Sara Jewell admits that she related to this story of the quilt blocks in a weird way when she wrote about the topic of her Field Notes column. “If my friends sent me a pile of quilt blocks, I’d have no idea what to do with them!” All joking aside, since she has no skills with needles or textiles, Sara truly appreciates the tradition and the creativity of fibre arts, and was delighted to explore them as works of art.