Adapting Mind-Sets to Nature

The La Fort de Marie-Victorin project began when Jean-Marie Lavoie and Paul Brassard, retired architects from the Quebec City area purchased a 41-hectare (102-acre) plot of densely-forested land in a town called Saint-Nicolas. Proximity to the Saint Lawrence River with a view of the city in the far distance made the site a prime location for a residential development.

When Lavoie and Brassard contemplated their approach to the site design and the type of homes they wished to build, they realized that they must apply unconventional thinking to their decisions. They recognized that common approaches to contemporary development-those that involve clearing the forest and building wide boulevards-would destroy the natural beauty of the site. The homes, they also decided, should not be sprawling suburban dwellings whose construction would mean extensive alteration of the landscape. They instead agreed that adaptability to the topography needed to play a pivotal role in both urban planning and unit design. In their search for a housing prototype that would satisfy these requirements, they became familiar with my work and invited me to collaborate with them in the design of both the community and the homes. A set goal was to promote sustainable living and create a community that contributed to such a mind-set.

Sustainable Living

The notion of sustainable development was introduced in the seventies as a result of recognition of the environmental harm that current development practices had caused. Authors like Schumacher in his 1973 book Small is Beautiful warned of actions that, if pursued further, could endanger the delicate balance between people and nature. Years later, this reflection led to the establishment of several international organizations that attempted to outline specific actions to remedy the situation. In their 1987 report, Our Common Future, the Brundland Commission defined sustainable development as “development that meets the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” A conceptual approach whereby every present action has to be taken while considering its future effect on the environment was put in place.

When broken into sub-components, three main aspects were seen as influencing the functioning of a sustainable community. The first is society itself: the people who reside in the development, on their demographic make-up, and their lifestyles. The economic vitality of the development is also an essential aspect, since monetary failure will cause the enterprise to cease to exist. The final issue is the environment itself-with its many facets which include the built components and nature. Only when a balance is struck between these three elements, a balance that considers the future, is sustainable development possible.

Since the turn of the twentieth century, and especially after World War II, bad development practices have begun to take their toll. There were many ramifications to such practices in which the environment was one of the main casualties. Forested landscape was cleared to make room for wide roads. Vast green spaces were covered with sod that needed large quantities of fresh water during dry summer months. The homes themselves swelled in size. North America consumed domestic space much like any other product. The design of homes became more intricate and complex, leading to the use of many scarce natural resources, of which lumber was the main one.

It was recognized that old practices needed to be abandoned and that new ones had to be put in place. Sustainable residential development set out to reduce reliance on cars by encouraging pedestrian movements and a mix of commercial and residential uses. Alternative building products and practices that consume fewer natural resources are becoming widespread. Attention is being paid to constructing better-insulated homes that consume less energy, and designers position the houses better to maximize passive solar gain. The proliferation of telecommunications and the popularity of working at home have also reduced travel time and enabled the mixing of commercial and domestic activities within the same residence.

These processes all demonstrate that what is needed and has perhaps begun is an adaptable mind-set, one that recognizes that present actions bear future consequences. We employed such a mind-set in the design of La Fort de Marie-Victorin.

Seeing the Forest and the Trees

The first stage in the development of the master plan began by taking stock of the site’s existing conditions. There were small- and large-scale aspects that were considered in the design. Two areas with dense concentrations of trees were documented: the first was on the northern edge of the site and the second in a ravine in the middle. Both areas run in an east-west direction. On a small scale, throughout the site there were many impressive rocky areas with large visible boulders that created a magnificent formation worth preserving. Many trees on the site were old growth.

After the recording of site characteristics was completed, objectives were set for the design of the roads. In order to keep nature intact, it was decided that circulation should be as short as possible. Also, unlike typical suburban streets measuring 12.2 meters (40 feet) wide, a 6.1-meter (20-foot) road was designed. The sidewalks were only 455mm (18 inches) wide and were at the same level as the street’s asphalt surface, letting rain water return to nature where it belonged. The street path was routed according to the site elevations, bypassing boulders and refraining from cutting trees. During construction, all the services were buried under the road, again to maintain the natural beauty of the place.

The land subdivision was another design aspect that required deviation from the common approach. Rather than create lots with 18.3 x 30.5 meter (60 x 100 foot) dimensions, it was recognized that long, narrow lots would be more suitable for the site. Smaller homes in denser configurations could be assembled rather than encouraging the building of large units. While considering the design, we recognized that the practice of clearing trees from the entire lot should be discouraged by enacting a requirement in the deed of sale that only those trees that grew on the footprint of the home would be cut. The rest would be protected during construction and would remain untouched. The dense areas in the middle and at the top of the site, it was decided, would be turned into a communal park to be used by all the inhabitants.

Another important decision that helped preserve the site was to place the homes as close as possible to the road, thereby further preventing cutting down of trees. Carports were offered as an option and would be placed in front of the house or next to it. In order to reduce the need for utility poles to carry telephone, electricity, and cable TV, a service column was constructed in front of each house. The column would be the exit for all the underground services that were placed under the road. It would also be the place where a domestic recycling box would be located for general collection.

Fitting Homes to the Landscape

The quest for a home with a long and narrow footprint that would prevent the clearing of many trees led to the development of a unit measuring 6.1 x 9.8 meters (20 x 32 feet). The design created floors of 64 square meters (640 square feet), each of which could become a self-contained, one-bedroom apartment. Here, too, a variety of typologies was offered. Units could be built as two- or three-story structures to accommodate one or several households. When a three-story home was offered, it too could be divided into one or more units. There could also be a range of internal configurations to accommodate a variety of household compositions.

Recognizing the effect that extensive excavation and dynamiting would have on the environment, the construction of a basement level was avoided. A shallow foundation was constructed, and the attic of the structure was taken advantage of instead. A special truss w
as selected, one that allowed the maximum use of the space under the roof. Turning the attic into a habitable space also aided in resource conservation. Since warm air rises, there would be a reduced need to heat the upper floors during winter months. Special precautions were taken during construction to protect the tree trunks, which were wrapped guarded against damage caused by heavy machinery.

Keeping the Options Open

In order to maximize choice and adaptability in the unit design, an appropriate floor plan had to be created. Locating all the unit’s wet functions and services along one of the walls proved to be a suitable strategy, as it freed the rest of the space for interior partitioning that fit the occupants’ needs and budgets. As a result, the stairs, kitchen, bathrooms, and utilities were all placed against the north wall. This strategy had another advantage: preventing the fenestration of that wall reduced energy losses. It also contributed to increased privacy from the neighboring home. The openings were placed instead on the other faades and mostly on the southern elevation to maximize passive solar gain.

The open-ended approach to the design provided an opportunity to create a variety of interior configurations and develop a range of layout options for each floor. The options created a possible scenario whereby the ground floor could be used as an independent dwelling unit to house an elderly member of the family. Alternatively, the floor could become a home office for a household that would reside on the upper two floors. It was expected that buyers would use these options as a menu from which they will select their needed number of floors, desired interior layout, and suitable finishes.

In order to maximize the flexibility of the overall space arrangement, two front doors were designed. This provided the opportunity to have the structure function as a single- or multi-family home. Also, the configuration of the stairs permitted the installation of an internal elevator to let a disabled person reach all the levels.

As we make our way through the new century, a number of societal signs indicate that the design ideas that foster sustainable living begin to make sense. The reasons for adopting them have their foundation not only in the goodness of our hearts, but in social and economic common sense.

Excerpted from Avi Friedman’s book The Adaptable House: Designing Homes for Change, published this year by McGraw-Hill. Avi Friedman is an Associate Profesor Architecture at McGill University and Director of its Affordable Homes Program.