Dawn of next-level living has arrived
Collaboration, innovation are the building blocks for next-generation home
Imagine if your home went beyond providing shelter, and actually helped manage your well-being. A smart home with state-of-the-art inventions that provide renewable fresh air, an abundance of natural daylight (automatically activated by skylights and blinds), and temperatures that respond to weather conditions.
It sounds pretty futuristic, but it’s already here — well, at least in one home: The Great Gulf Active House, located in Thorold, Ont.
This is far more than a model home showcasing some clever new technology. This smart home is the result of groundbreaking collaboration — part of a global movement toward innovative homebuilding. It’s a positive new direction in how developers can work together to build better homes for generations to come.
The first of its kind in Canada, Great Gulf Active House is the work of homebuilder Great Gulf; superkül, a Toronto-based architecture firm; and the European-based Active House Alliance. The alliance, a Denmark-based collective — now comprising scientists, architects, engineers and building manufacturers in 50 countries — has a mission to explore ways to construct better, more sustainable homes.
For Active House Alliance members in Canada, the home in Thorold is a game-changer.
“The idea of active house is really to inspire people in terms of better quality design that has the inhabitants first in mind,” says Nels Moxness, a member of the Canadian branch of the Active House Alliance and president and CEO of Velux Canada, a skylight manufacturer.
“There’s a number of companies involved, engineers, a variety of specialists all in the building industry. And by way of networking and expertise we set out to design and build a better house.” Home of the future The 3,200-square-foot, two-storey brick-and-cedar home, located in Thorold’s Rolling Meadows subdivision, uses a combination of high- and low-tech features that ramp up human comfort and well-being while maintaining a truly green stance.
Moxness believes that Canadian homes are well built but the concepts of daylight and fresh-air ventilation are rarely key drivers in the design. That’s where the alliance starts.
“First of all we want to create a more dramatic design and in doing so, respect the need for energy use as adriver. But ultimately we’re focused on the occupants and their livability,” says Moxness, who points out that we spend 90 per cent of our lives inside houses — a stat that builders rarely consider.
At the Thorold site, environmental mindfulness began in design. To reduce energy usage, building waste and construction time, designers opted for wood-frame “panelization” — the process of using factorybuilt wood panels for the frame that, in this case, took just a week to assemble on site.
The 14 app-automated skylights and 23 windows mean the house needs minimal artificial lighting during the day. (Design tests ensured that sunlight would touch every corner of the house — even windowless rooms are lit by numerous sun-tunnels.) Wireless radio technology shuts the open windows and turns on the air conditioner if the outside temperature rises above 25 C.
The blinds have pre-set settings that allow the homeowner to roll them down to reduce the sun’s heat and glare. Each of the three levels in the home has it’s own thermostat, which can be programmed based on where people are spending their time.
Intake air is automatically activated by two heat-recovery ventilators, which boost HVAC performance and continually bring fresh air through the house, an innovation that Moxness feels is particularly important.
“We breathe 15 kilograms of air each day, but we don’t think about ventilating our house like they would in Europe,” says Moxness. Research has found pollutants such as volatile organic chemicals (typically found in carpets and glue) exist in levels twoto five times higher indoors than out. “And even more so in Canada — especially in the wintertime when we lock ourselves up so tight.”
Thanks to its rainwater cistern, the Active House consumes about 35 per cent less fresh water than a similar sized house. And with renewable energy supplied by Bullfrog Power, the house achieves full self-sufficiency. Teamwork triumphs An ambitious project like the Great Gulf Active House requires a truly collective effort. “We want to build buildings of tomorrow, today,” says Tad Putyra, founder of H+ME Tech- nology, a division of Great Gulf. “But it’s hard to do it on your own.”
It’s also challenging to organize as a group since the housing industry is quite fragmented, says Putyra, with sophisticated companies that are highly specialized.
“The average builder is building hundreds of houses on a project-by-project basis, so it’s so hard to have an idea implemented and keep improving,” he says. “You have to expect the fact that prototyping anything comes with risks, so it’s all about learning lessons from your own mistakes and good experiences, and learning from outside (sources) as well.”
Putyra’s team regularly works with Canadian firms and travels to Eu- rope to gather the latest industry technology. Recent trips abroad unearthed invaluable advancements in heating and cooling systems, in particular. “Europe seems to be way ahead (of North America) in terms of equipping houses with HVAC equipment. And the bonus: These systems are incredibly energy-efficient.”
For the alliance, the ultimate challenge may be scaling production. “We’ve accepted the fact that we have to get better at managing resources, at being more socially responsible,” he admits. “Then, the questions are: How do we make it? How do we turn it into the benefit? How do we make it attractive to our clients, to our homeowners?” Abonus for the region While the pioneers consider how to scale their innovative projects, urban planners keen to curb sprawl in the Greater Toronto Area are hungry for new ideas to meet housing needs: The region is expected to keep growing by up to100,000 people each year.
A recent change to the Ontario Building Code allowing wood frames for buildings over four storeys should signal more mixed-use housing, experts say, that should open the door to new solutions.
So the time is right in the GTA for a vision of buildings that create healthier and more comfortable lives for their residents without impacting negatively on the climate and environment: A primary goal of the alliance.
“Expect to see more five- and 12storey midrise buildings, developments that feature a mixture of employment and retail as well as residential uses, and smaller and more efficient condominium suites,” said Bryan Tuckey, President of BILD, the association that represents the GTA land development and building industry. “Such innovations will help increase housing choice for newhome buyers while adding vibrancy and character to our cities and neighbourhoods.”
The positive principles on display in Thorold are showing that the Active House can play an important role in future communities, says Putyra, whose firm is currently at work on a second Active Home, this time in Etobicoke, with an eye to doing far more.
“Having this platform is encouraging potential partners and suppliers to join us in our R&D process,” he says. “Not a week goes by that we aren’t getting inquiries about doing something together.”
“You have to expect the fact that prototyping anything comes with risks, so it’s all about learning lessons from your own mistakes and good experiences.” TAD PUTYRA FOUNDER, H+ME TECHNOLOGY