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A@W Newsletter

When the architect is the owner

30 November 2021

Probably one of the most difficult construction tasks for an architect is designing a house for himself. In each issue of our newsletter we show you a successful international example of an architect who has taken on this particular challenge.


Written by Catherine Osborne 
with additional translation by Helen Parton


The small house that is helping to save the planet.


The latest in ‘the architect is the owner’ series explores a two-storey family home in Toronto designed, built and owned by Solares Architects. This house is retrofitted to reduce energy consumption by up to 90%, providing a benchmark for others to follow.



Our House, by Solares Architects, uses passive design features to significantly reduce its energy consumption.
© Derek Monson



Like many architects, Christine Lolley and Tom Knezic of Toronto firm Solares decided to use their own house as a case study for potential clients. They wanted to showcase how to turn a draughty family home into a super-charged, energy-efficient machine. This retrofit required gutting the 900-square-foot interior and underpinning the main floor so the basement could be lowered to make room for a separate apartment suite. New interior walls and the upper-level ceiling were given thick layers of super-insulation. The floors were kitted out with a hydronic heating system and the windows with triple-pane glass. A solar tube, meanwhile, inserted above the staircase, harvests daylight.



An open-plan concept on the main floor makes the most of the 900-square-foot interior.
© Derek Monson



Insulation was key as air leakage means greater reliance on central heating and cooling. Once the walls were up, the couple scanned the entire house with an infrared camera to seal every hole they could find, leading to a significant drop in ACH (Air Change per Hour: how many times outside air finds a way inside and circulates throughout a house each hour), from 7.72 to just 2.0. These straightforward alterations have meant fewer technological breakdowns too, as well as less noise.



This before and after graphic reveals significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and heat loss. 
© Solares Architecture



There are a number of factors why these solutions haven’t reached a critical mass from  upfront costs to the fact fossil fuels are relatively cheap right now. But architects and engineers have long had reasons to create less fossil fuel-dependent housing typologies - indeed some of the passive design features, like the ones Solares uses, were originally developed in the wake of the early 1970s oil crisis.



Before the drywall went up, the architects used an infrared camera to ensure every potential air hole was sealed tight. 
© Solares Architecture



Another factor is that air tightness and insulation, unlike, say, a Prius car, is not so conspicuous. Because you can’t see it, it isn’t as interesting. Says Lolley, “People have this Marvel comic book cool factor image about using things like solar and geothermal. They are more attracted to what looks technologically advanced.”



The master bedroom is large enough for a queen-size bed but no additional furniture.
© Derek Monson



Fortunately, anecdotally at least, Lolley has noticed a shift in that attitude, fielding at least one enquiry every day. “Younger couples are interested in energy-efficient design for reasons including a reaction against throwaway culture,” she says. If more people are looking to build this way, on a much larger scale, the effect on the environment would be significant. In Canada, approximately 200,000 new houses are built every year while the need in England is 340,000 homes annually. Imagine if they were all as super-insulated and air tight? That would be a game-changer.

When the architect is the owner
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