Sustainable Q&A: Narrative Environments

For this sustainable design case study, we interviewed interdisciplinary designer John deWolf from Narrative Environments, based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. If you’d like to have your sustainable work featured, please fill out our case study Q&A.

What was your role with the project?

I was the creative director for this project. Freelancer Cameron Jantzen worked on the logotype, while I managed the project and was lead design for all experiential graphic design components. As much of this was uniquely custom, I was also the fabricator and installer for most of the EGD elements.

What was the main goal of this project and the design objective toward that goal?

Previously a horse barn, this former storage building now serves as a year-round eatery and gathering place. The venue offers food and drink for drained visitors in the summer (hikers and bikers) and winter (skiers and boarders). A significant aspect of the project was recycling: furniture, fixtures, and equipment for The Barn were gathered from other sites around the ski hill. In our view, sustainability encompasses not only protecting the environment but also preserving the history and culture of a place.

Our design team wanted to consider the hill’s history as a way to celebrate their 90th anniversary. Our storytelling work incorporates references to former landowners and trail builders. The building was once a small horse barn for Ernie Lynds. His former horse pastures are now an aptly named ski trail, and it was in this building where he kept horses and scores of barn cats. In addition to ecology and environment, we firmly believe sustainable design also includes culture and history. We believe guests are more engaged and respectful when they understand the history of place.

Red horse-shaped weather vane with an old wooden window in background

What sustainability opportunities did you see?

The project is grounded in recycling. Design, user experience, and functionality reflect the credo, “Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle.” All equipment for the restaurant was repurposed from other facilities, and there were no original decorative elements or wall coverings purchased. Through our branding, decoration, and interpretation, we pay tribute to the building’s original owner. The project team and client took pride in being able to accomplish a lot with limited resources.

Did your client come to you with sustainability requirements? If not, how did you encourage and/or support your client to make more sustainable choices?

There were no sustainability requirements as such, instead there was a focus on cost. But when framed as a sustainable practice, everyone understood the approach and looked to contribute. It was primarily the client who did the heavy lifting, so to speak. Recycled plywood was applied to interior walls and existing paint was salvaged, equipment was scrounged and moved from elsewhere onsite. The client viewed these decisions as economical, but we encouraged them to look at them through the lens of sustainability. Together, we encouraged broader adaptive reuse from that point on. Snow making nozzles and posts were turned into lamp standards, ski signs were turned into decorations, and discarded horse tackle was used to tell a story. Keeping and promoting the story of the building’s former use and owner was novel for the client.

Menu hanging ontop of a wooden board on a white door with leather handle

 “Introducing the notion of keeping local histories in the minds of new users was easier for the client to support.”

John deWolf, Narrative Environments

What sustainable choices did you make and/or advocate for?

The project focused on environmental and cultural/social pillars. The project team’s approach focused on maximizing the equipment life cycle and minimizing waste. Keeping in mind that communities change—Wentworth was a vital agricultural community that is now home to cottagers—we wanted to incorporate the history of this place into our branding and storytelling, thereby preserving its identity and extending its history.

A combination of old ski trail signs and Mr. Lynd’s horse tackle props references the ski hill’s history. We adapted storm windows to conceal storage areas, used old ski signs as decorative elements, and repurposed clear acrylic acquired for COVID-19 operations. We looked to fabricators for surplus or discarded floor stock — for example, a weather vane decoration was made from discarded plywood and overstocked black Sintra turned into the decorative cat silhouettes. Since the barn is located on a ski hill, we wanted to infuse the history of the barn with its new winter use, for example discarded snowboards were repurposed for signage. As for food service, the client has since moved away from plastic utensils.

We pay homage to its original owner through our branding. The small 16’ x 19’ building was built by local legend Ernie Lynds to house two horses. In the Wentworth Valley, Ernie was known for his love of horses and his dozens of cats. The equine narrative influences everything from the logo to the decor.

black cat cut out in front of a wooden horse-shaped weather vane on a red barn background

What challenges or barriers did you encounter in doing sustainable design, if any, and how did you overcome them?

The clients’ somewhat cost-conscious approach to the project budget meant recycling and reusing were necessary parts of the conversation. While not originally described as sustainable, once understood the project breathed back life into other previously used equipment and material. Identifying this as one of many pillars of sustainable design, we looked for additional approaches that supported an adaptive reuse focus. Introducing the notion of keeping local histories in the minds of new users was easier for the client to support.

If you had a chance to do a project like this again with unlimited funds and time, what other sustainable design choices or tactics would you pursue?

Ironically, the tight budget allowed the project—client and contractor—to view this through an adaptive reuse lens. Using this as an example for other clients to see the possibilities will go a long way in showing that creativity and product need not be limited to newbuilds and materials. If time and money were unlimited, a project like this would do well to consider where food comes from. Wentworth, being located centrally to local breweries, wineries, and food producers has much of what they need nearby. Relying less of multinational food producers and more on local producers is another way to lessen our environmental footprint. From a cultural perspective, the design team would also want to look at designing the menu in collaboration with the client and local growers and providers.

 I believe that better understanding a place’s culture and heritage makes people more willing to care for it.”

John deWolf, Narrative Environments

Any final thoughts or sustainability advice for designers, colleagues, clients, and design students?

All client-contractor conversations should include sustainability. At the start of any project, it is imperative to identify this topic, and it is equally imperative to refer to measuring performance against goals throughout the lifespan of a project. Guidance from the sustainable pillars should be applied to every project, no matter scale or budget.

What was the most insightful thing you learned practicing sustainable design on this project?

While a mainstay of the design team’s approach to sustainability, it was a surprise to learn that the client did not necessarily see the history of the place as an obvious story to tell. Another perspective taught the design team that recycling and repurposing involved a great deal of hands-on inspection of the quality of found items, that no two items are the same size, and that many items require extensive care and maintenance before being repurposed.

Please share about why sustainable design is important to you…

Sustainable design has been a priority for me for more than a decade. For this designer, sustainability lies at the intersection of ecology, economics, and culture. Ecology is vital, however economics also plays a critical role in sustainable design. In addition to curbing our increased consumption, we should likewise consider the long-term capabilities of maintaining environmentally conscious systems (often with higher price tags for initiation and maintenance). Helping clients with better approaches to limiting our environmental footprint is one thing. However, ensuring they have the capabilities to maintain and uphold an environmental vision is entirely another matter. In addition, I believe that better understanding a place’s culture and heritage makes people more willing to care for it. This creates citizens who commit to their communities.

If you’d like to have your sustainable work featured, please fill out our case study Q&A.