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A sense of place

Every place has a story to tell, but be in the moment to enjoy it

We’ve all been struck sometime, visiting a place where the buildings and landscaping just seem to feel right, where there is a sense of harmony and flow.

Creating that sense of place doesn’t just happen, says Stratford, Ont. architect Krista Hulshof, who specializes in designs for rural properties.

Every place has a story to tell, but it takes time to discover it. “You have to turn off your phone and sit and listen,” she says, adding that it’s best if you can observe the property in all four seasons.”

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Ask yourself, what is it that makes the property special? Then make sure you capture that. Is it the view? Is it the old bank barn?

And then take that message home, she says, “Don’t spoil what makes the place special.”

Every landscape is a unique, unfolding story, agrees King City, Ont. landscape designer Jean-Marc Daigle, owner of Genus Loci Ecological Landscapes Inc. To capture the spirit of a place is to open your eyes and mind to this multifaceted story and to derive meaning from its natural and cultural elements.

Daigle sounds poetic as he describes the factors that contribute to each property’s unique history. “Over time the forces of nature and culture conspire to create ever more complex tapestries of artifacts and stories, old and new. As landscapes mature, they accumulate natural and cultural layers that are chapters in the story of that place,” he says.

“It’s about the natural processes that gave it form and continue to shape it, and of the people who settled and inhabited it,” says Daigle. A landscape’s natural history is defined by the environmental and geological processes that formed its terrain, soils and hydrology, and by the plants, animals and ecological communities that are, or once were, indigenous to the geophysical landscape.

The cultural history is imprinted by the people who historically or currently live there, who have stewarded, cultivated, developed and reshaped the land.

Daigle offers practical advice for translating the story of a landscape into design considerations.

First off, decide which natural and cultural chapters of the property’s unique story are most significant and important to you.

Daigle then says you should become familiar with the tree, shrub and wildflower species that are indigenous to your area and growing on your property.

Survey the property and map out the property’s natural features such as forests, streams, or prairie meadows that occur naturally and which have historically preceded the clearing and cultivation of the land, or which are re-occupying the land that is no longer cultivated.

Learn about the native wildlife that inhabit and depend on the natural ecosystem, and also review the site’s hydrology, drainage patterns and catchment areas.

Research the cultural history of the property and the local area including its aboriginal history, the history of settlers who cleared and occupied the land, the ruins of buildings and structures on the property such as barn foundations, stone walls, orchards gone wild, stone piles, farm ponds, and abandoned farm equipment. Wagon wheels, mill stones and old machinery can create tangible connections to the past.

Are there unique geological features such as drumlins, eskers, cliffs, moraines or rock outcrops that can offer design insights and inspirations? Consider incorporating creeks, ponds, wetlands or other water elements into the design.

Are there other cultural aspects that are unique to your area such as local building practices, design styles or construction materials?

The larger picture

Before beginning the design process, develop design themes, goals and objectives that highlight the unique qualities and characteristics of your property. With this knowledge, sensibility and creativity, new designs can be imbued with themes, styles, elements or symbols to reveal this story.

“When the design effectively captures the spirit of a place, it is bound to look and feel harmonious,” says Daigle.

Native plants and native stone will help you connect to the spirit of a place. In particular, Daigle cautions that the market has been flooded in recent years with cheap imports of sandstone, granite and limestone from China. Unfortunately, imported stone makes no connection whatsoever with the spirit of a place, he says.

Your architectural style should also support your business plan, advises Hulshof. If it is important that you portray a prosperous image, then your buildings should reflect that. If you want to show that it is important to you that you live in and enjoy the landscape, use your buildings to highlight and amplify that landscape.

Appealing to the emotional side is what makes your place memorable, she says.

Most of all, be authentic. A little creativity can go a long way towards giving a functional site an aesthetic appeal but she warns against simply slapping on some shutters and repurposed timbers. “You need to be authentic,” she says. “Create a whole experience from the laneway.”

Bonnieheath Estate

Anita and Steve Buehner, owners of Bonnieheath Estate Lavender & Winery near Simcoe, Ont., have worked hard to create a sense of place since transitioning from tobacco to an agritourism destination about a decade ago.

Working with a local graphic artist and artist, the Buehners took their inspiration from the farm’s history. At the turn of the 20th century, the farm was owned by Colonel William Heath. Farm records found in the attic of the century home built by Heath indicate that the farm produced various small fruits as part of the Bonnieheath Fruit Farm.

Red barn boards from the original bank barn which was torn down in 1976 were repurposed by Anita’s father to make tobacco boxes, and now have been repurposed again to make a welcome sign.

The Buehners have created a museum inside the barn that depicts the natural and cultural history of the property dating back to when the glaciers receded about 13,000 years ago, including fossils and aboriginal artifacts such as arrow heads, grinding stones and axe heads. Old photos of the Colonel, his family and the buildings on the property are also on display.

An old brick silo that was slated for demolition on a neighbouring property was salvaged by the Buehners. A portion of the silo was reconstructed at their farm to make a new entrance for the store and tasting area located in a former tobacco pack barn. The history of the silo and the farm where it was originally located are captured in a display inside the silo.

The Buehners also encourage visitors to enjoy the natural features of their property. A walking trail takes visitors by the Buehner’s environmental projects that promote biodiversity, an area planted to native prairie grasses and a wetland, and anyone can sit in the gazebo and take in the buzzing of the bees and the sounds of the birds.


  • Gardens in the Spirit of Place by Page Dickey (2005).
  • The Authentic Garden: Five Principles for Cultivating a Sense of Place by Claire E. Sawyers (2007).

About the author


Helen Lammers-Helps

Freelance Writer

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