Trendsetter: Mike Burns

Mike Burns. Photo: Rachel Shrum

Inspired by his grandfather who worked as a carpenter, Burns got an early start in construction, and started working full time at the age of 16. After studying with and working beside his mentor David Watts, Burns opened MRB with the mandate of combining modern urban design with traditional construction methods. His building philosophy is seen in the homes he builds called “100-year homes.” “A place that’s built should outlast a couple of generations of families living in it,” Burns says. “That’s not how things are set up now.”

If you had a piece of land in the HRM to develop, what would you do with it? 

It would definitely be more of a nod to the historic but in a modern way. I love the farmers’ market and the Halifax Seaport and Pier 21, that sort of design. So if I was going to build something it would be a nod to Halifax with a modern aesthetic, that’s for sure.

Development is a loaded word in Halifax. What does it mean to you?

It conjures up images of quick builds and economically viable building, quicker and cheaper. But there are a lot of good developers out there that are doing conscious development.

What about downtown? 

I do think we need to go taller, but still sticking with what we have is great. The building they are doing down there now—I can’t remember the name of the development [Armour Group’s Waterside Centre]—but the one that is right across the street from the Historic Properties, that they are saving the front faces and then they are building on top of it. That is a great project for what development should be in this city. But when you look at the library and other things that are going on, too, I think that Halifax still needs a more modern aesthetic to it in some of its structures.

How would you help move that along?

I can definitely see the frustration that other developers see in dealing with the city. There are some really good examples of good development like the Q Lofts across from our office right now (at the corner of James and Roberts). Great building. It has good design. It’s going for LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification. It’s a really good building, but I know he had a lot of trouble getting that approved.

Do you have any new favourite spots in the city?

Edna. I was down there the other day and it was absolutely fantastic. It’s on Gottingen Street. Now, Gottingen Street: I would consider that a good development area and what’s going on down there. I know that is a really hot button because Gottingen is the core of gentrification and how people view that and what’s going on. But the street is a lot more lively.

What would you like to see in the city?

I’d like to see more density in what’s going on and stopping the kind of sprawl out to the suburbs. That is a big hurt on Halifax. If we do condos and high rises properly, we bring more people in. We need better public transportation; that’s a huge thing for what we have going on right now. But that’s what I would like to see. I’d like to see more density, more people downtown. The bars and everything are full on Saturday nights, the restaurants, but if there’s more people down there, there will be more action, more community.

Architect Omar Gandhi says:

Our first project, (the Moore Studio) was a huge test for his young crew (all under 30 years of age at the time) but where they lacked experience they made up for it with preparation, hard work and extremely high personal expectations. The project was a major success critically for both of us, and was the first time in my career that I witnessed a crew of craftsmen so personally attached to the project. MRB Contracting is both a company dedicated to old world craft, and new world management technologies. You don’t often see that.

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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