Brian was born and raised in the village of Arcadia in Southwestern Nova Scotia. He received his Bachelor of Architecture from the Technical University of Nova Scotia in 1978 where he was awarded the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada Medal. He received his Master of Architecture and Urban Design at U.C.L.A., and was awarded the Dean's Award for Design.
After studying in China, Japan, California and Italy working with Charles Moore, Barton Myers and Giancarlo De Carlo, Brian returned to Nova Scotia in 1983 to challenge the historic maritime 'brain drain' trend, and to make a cultural contribution to Nova Scotia where his Acadian and Mi'kmaq ancestors have lived for centuries. In 1985 he founded the firm Brian MacKay-Lyons Architecture Urban Design in Halifax. Twenty years later, Brian partnered with Talbot Sweetapple to form MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects Ltd. The firm has built an international reputation for Design Excellence confirmed by over 100 awards including six Governor General Medals, two American Institute of Architects Honor Awards for Architecture, 15 Lieutenant Governor's Medals of Excellence, seven Canadian Architect Awards, three Architectural Record Houses Awards, and seven North American Wood Design Awards. A fellow of the Royal Architectural Institute of Canada (FRAIC), and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (RCA), Brian was named Honorary Fellow (International) of the American Institute of Architects (Hon FAIA) in 2001.
Brian's work has been recognized by over 300 monographs, books and journal publications internationally. A third monograph of Brian's career written by architecural historian Malcolm Quantrill and published by Princeton Architecural Press in New York, Plain Modern: The Architecture of Brian MacKay-Lyons, was published in 2005. Brian is currently writing another book for Princeton Architectural Press, Local Architecture, telling the story of the Ghost 13: International Architectural Conference.
As a full professor of architecture at Dalhousie University, Brian has contributed to architectural education in the region for 30 years. He has held numerous visiting professorships and endowed academic chairs at leading universities including: The Peter Behrens School of Architecture in Dusseldorf, University of Houston, Washington University in St. Louis, University of Michigan, University of Arkansas, University of Maryland, Texas A & M University, Auburn University, Tulane University, Syracuse University, Middlebury College, University of Oklahoma, McGill University, and Harvard University. Brian has held an international summer internship called Ghost on his farm since 1994. He has given over 180 public lectures on his work internationally. The firms work has been the subject of over 100 exhibitions internationally.
Houses designed in Atlantic Canada have made Brian a leading proponent of critical regionalist architecture worldwide. This recognition has led to a transition in the practice toward increased public and international commissions, involving increased complexity in both design and project delivery. MacKay-Lyons Sweetapple Architects Limited is one of the few Canadian firms to consistently receive international critical acclaim within the discipline today.