Green Dreamers

Some may think the exhortation to “Reduce, Re-use, and Recycle” a tired catch-phrase. Not so graduate architects Peter Duckworth-Pilkington and Suzanne Cheng, who have taken the formula to heart in designing their new three-storey, 1,500 square-foot laneway house in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood.

Building your own house, once the most basic way to make a place to live, has priced itself out of the range of all but the wealthy, or the most dedicated. Put our young idealists in the latter camp. Theirs is a story of an unserviced $50,000 lot, and how the dream of green architecture meets contractor snafus, rezoning battles and outdated building code strictures to result in a $350,000 house. It’s an example of how the system creates tremendous hurdles for an ecological practice.

“There’s a lot of proven green technology out there, but legislation has not caught up,” explains Cheng. “On one level the government is saying ‘we support green technology and urban densification,’ but when you really get down to the nitty-gritty, at provincial and municipal levels, the mechanism’s not there. You’re getting resistance from public officials about garbage pickup, about water and sewage–from everybody on the ground.”

Resistance came first to the very idea of a laneway house. It required seven zoning variances. The designers canvassed the neighbourhood for support. A few unhappy neighbours appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board, where the designers finally won: meanwhile, legal fees and permit costs reached $14,000. But their laneway-associated problems had only begun. Besides issues of garbage pick-up and mail delivery, they had to sprinkler their house: the nearest fire hydrant is farther than acceptable. Sprinklers added $5,000.

Then there was sewer and water. Duckworth-Pilkington, who interned with Toronto architect Martin Liefhebber on the CMHC-sponsored Healthy House (see CA February 1997) knows as much as anyone about proven technologies for off-the-grid water collection and sewer treatment. No matter. Building codes still call for municipal connections or septic systems. Trenching in from the main sewer 35 metres north cost a whopping $46,000.

The house is built hard by the north lot line of the 48′ x 52′ site. Its south faade is mostly glass set in dark grey fibreglas frames. A sleek marine plywood rainscreen wraps the boxy forms. Jutting fins of galvanized steel will receive minimal wood framing for brise soleil and guard rails. The effect: decorative and functional in equal measure.

Entry is via an open portico at grade. The front door, a drab pre-painted metal number, panelled, with a mock-Palladian half-lite, is an example of the communication issues faced by the designers. Cheng explains: “We told our [contractor] we wanted something plain, a steel door with a small vision light. He does commercial projects so we trusted his judgement.” The mistake will be fixed.

Inside, the house seems airy. One reason is the 9′-6″ ceilings. Another is a two-storey atrium at the house’s centre. The desire to “Reduce” limits materials and colours to red rust-proofed steel framing, a web of wiring and ducts exposed above, concrete slab floors and grey concrete block walls. Galvanized steel decking remains exposed, providing another glimpse into the clash of standard construction and green design: the steel decking, cinched onto a flat-bed truck for transport to the site, received little crimps. These buckled and dribbled when the deck was poured. “They just weren’t used to the notion of the underside being exposed,” Duckworth-Pilkington says.

It wasn’t just what’s seen that concerned the designers: “we specified galvanized electrical conduit throughout, and the contractor assured us this would be done. Then they were almost finished and they’d used PVC conduit in the wall cavities. ‘What’s wrong?’ they asked us, ‘you’ll never see it.’ But the point was to avoid PVC completely, something the contractor understood–but then he leaves for an afternoon and the guys on the site just do it the way they always do.” The same thing happened with plumbing: ABS was replaced with PVC above the slab. “We could have had them rip it all out, but it would have just gone to landfill. It’s better from an ecological standpoint that it stays there once it’s done.”

The house’s flat roofs will be landscaped to both insulate and reduce rainwater runoff. What does run off will be stored and recycled. The house is highly insulated, air-tight and comfortable. Heat is a combination of a hydronic radiant system in the floor and solar gain through the high windows. “We thought we would heat our house with passive solar and wood stove back-up,” says Duckworth-Pilkington. “It’s proven technology, and our heat load analysis showed it would work, but the building code doesn’t allow it. The building department considers solar unreliable–although if the sun goes out we’ve got a lot more to worry about than being cold!” The required “automatic heating system” added $15,000.

If exposed innards demonstrate a resolve to “Reduce,” the second R, “Re-use” is harder. Duckworth-Pilkington explains: “For the major components there isn’t a reliable supplier of re-used materials. It comes down to going to the scrap yard and hoping they have it when you need it. This made it pretty well impossible to put it into the specifications.” He and Cheng are making up for it on the interior, which they are completing themselves. “The local lumberyard and scrap dealers have gotten used to me rolling in with my bike trailer.”

Like many in Toronto, this household is car-free. How do they manage a building project without a car. As Cheng says, “We try to shop local. And that means five kilometres, not 20, if you can avoid it. Everyone thinks you have to go to the big box stores for supplies, but the local yards have the same selection, better service–and they deliver.”

As for the third R, “Recycle,” here the project is subtler. As Duckworth-Pilkington points out, the steel, the concrete blocks, in fact all the basic structure of the house has high embodied energy, and is “theoretically recyclable. It’s material that will be around long after the usefulness of the house passes.”

Thinking about recycling a project that’s just begun may seem morbid to some, but to an ecological practice it’s necessary. Everything must end. Let its end serve a greater good.

Jacob Allderdice, M. Arch., teaches drafting while he earns a Master of Urban Design at the University of Toronto.