The Concrete House

Charles Macdonald built a very unusual house in the early 1900s, using what was then an unusual building material – reinforced concrete.

Macdonald (1874-1967) was born in Steam Mill and raised in Centreville in the Annapolis Valley. At the age of 15, he left school and learned basic carpentry skills working in, for example, a coffin factory and carriage factory. In 1898 he went to sea as a ship’s carpenter and for several years he travelled the world, recording his travels in poems, letters, drawings and watercolours. Between 1908 and 1910 Macdonald lived in Vancouver where he joined the Socialist Party of Canada.

In 1910 he returned to Nova Scotia and established a cement brick factory, Kentville Concrete Products, and operated it according to his socialist philosophy. It was a cooperative operation; workers did not receive wages but drew what funds they needed from the company. Macdonald believed so strongly in social progress that even company advertising material promoted concrete as part of a larger movement of social change.

Macdonald’s first factory was a one-story building made of reinforced concrete.

The terms cement and concrete are often used interchangeably, but cement is actually an ingredient of concrete. Concrete, which is the most widely used manufactured material on the planet, is a mixture of aggregates and paste. The aggregates are sand and gravel or crushed stone; the paste is water and portland cement. (Gravel and crushed stone are both small rocks. The difference is that gravel is broken down naturally, while crushed stone is broken down by a machine, i.e. a rock crusher.)

Cement comprises 10-15% of the concrete mix and is the key ingredient – the glue that holds concrete together. The cement and water harden and bind the aggregates into a rock-like mass. This hardening process continues for years meaning that concrete actually gets stronger as it gets older.

Reinforced concrete means the concrete is poured over a frame, usually steel bars, that give the structure greater strength. Concrete was not commonly used to erect buildings until the early 1900s when reinforced concrete became a more popular building material.

Macdonald and his wife, Mabel, lived at the factory in a tent. As the gravel pit that provided aggregate for his factory was exhausted, Macdonald and Mabel moved to the outskirts of Kentville and lived in a shack by a new gravel pit on Brooklyn Road. The area was called Yoho at the time but came to be known as Meadowview in the 1970s.

After moving the factory to Meadowview, Charles and Mabel converted the original factory into a two-story house in 1915 using concrete as the main building material. No doubt influenced by buildings Macdonald saw in ports around the world, they used bright colours, concrete stucco, tree-shaped columns, and flat roofs like those found in places like Malta, Santos and Naples. Every surface was fashioned from cement and finished smooth with paint.

At the time, Macdonald was mocked by some for building such an unusual house. However, locals now affectionately refer to it as the “concrete house with the deer in the yard,” referring to its concrete deer.

The property has changed little since its 1915 conversion to a residence and is now open to the public and operated by the Charles Macdonald Concrete House Museum.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, Kentville Concrete Products struggled to find customers. Charlie had saved some money during the 1920s, so the company did not have to let anyone go. Instead, the company built cottages where Charles and Mabel camped at Huntington Point, near Hall’s Harbour.

Five concrete cottages were built between 1934 and 1938 of concrete reinforced by iron and driftwood, brightly painted, and infused with a whimsical sensibility. A Christian Science Monitor correspondent wrote in 1941 that the cottages were the sort of houses "in which Snow White and her seven dwarfs might have lived.” Four of the cottages still stand.

Charlie oversaw the day-to-day operations of Kentville Concrete Products until one day in 1951 when he walked up to the foreman at quitting time, handed over the keys to the plant, and said, "It's yours!" He was 77 years old.

Kentville Concrete Products made a wide range of pre-cast products - pipe, blocks, well curbs, septic tanks, lawn furniture, and more. The company operated until 1978 when a Dutch firm, Bouters, bought it out.

Our thanks to the Charles Macdonald House of Centreville Society for most of the information in this post and for the excellent work it does preserving Macdonald’s story and concrete house (