Letter to the Editor: Declaring—and Acting

Kawartha Highlands Net Zero House, designed by Solares Architecture

I am encouraged to see so many architects signing the Architects Declare statement, and your ongoing coverage of the climate change emergency. It has inspired our office to take stock of our current action, and deeply consider what we can do as a business, and as architects involved in single-family residential. Houses may be smaller buildings, but they cover our country in multitudes!

We would love to hear more about the practical actions our fellow architects across the country are taking, and what other actions, small and large, we can take to limit our impact and build more sustainable homes. In our office, we have a set of principles that we discuss among ourselves and with all our clients:

Build only what you really need, once. What do you truly need to be happy in your home? It might be less extensive than you think. At the beginning of our projects, we do an in-depth journalling exercise to gain insight into what our clients need now, and how they envision their life in the future. This way, we are designing a home that will last, and not need reworking or rebuilding in the future.

Build Small. How small is NOT too small?  Let’s make our homes only the size we truly need, and no bigger. If we simply start by building less, then less materials need to be produced and shipped, less packaging is used and discarded, and less energy is consumed at all stages of the process. By building small we also leave more natural environment intact. This principle releases budget that would have otherwise been spent on building large.

Prioritize the “Invisible.” How much of your budget do you mind not seeing? Let’s spend more on insulation, air tightness, and super efficient windows and mechanical systems. We are lucky that most of our clients already think this way, even if it means spending less on the visible things like interiors. It also means we get published in the media less, because oftentimes our projects don’t look “fancy” enough. We would love to see more super-efficient homes get published in mainstream journals, but that’s a whole other Letter to the Editor.

Go all-electric. Electric heating no longer means inefficient baseboards. With super efficient, air-tight buildings, we can build homes that use only a small amount of electricity and don’t rely on non-renewable fossil-fuels like natural gas. We can work towards a net-zero electricity grid, making all-electric homes net-zero too.

Whenever you can build with wood, you should. Some clients come to us with a pre-set idea of what makes a sustainable home. For example, ICFs are popular, but many people don’t realize that concrete is very carbon intensive to produce. We counsel our clients about these issues, and, for instance, limit use of ICFs to foundations only. By carefully specifying sustainable wood products (structural and non-structural), we can support a sustainable forestry industry and move away from fossil-fuel-heavy materials like concrete.

Run a resource-efficient office. We try to do as much as we can in our office to limit our impact. We are almost completely paper-free for all our admin. We keep office Tupperware for neighbourhood take-out lunches, and have a full complement of dishes, cutlery, and cloth napkins to make bringing lunch easy. We make French press coffee with fair trade, organic grounds. We use toilet paper with 100 percent
recycled content, which meets Green Seal standards for chlorine-free processing, and energy and water efficiency.

We are meticulous about waste sorting, and make sure all recyclables and compost go in the right bins, always checking for cross-contamination. In our project work, we try to do as much on our screens as possible. We only print on paper when absolutely necessary, and we use FSC-certified paper with 100 percent post-consumer recycled content.

These activities seem basic and almost silly to claim as initiatives, but we often see people not doing them, so we still need to talk about it.

Offset unavoidable emissions. As hard as we try, we still contribute to carbon emissions. For the past decade, we have been annually offsetting our whole building’s electricity consumption with Bullfrog Power; that includes our office and two apartment units. We are also now offsetting our driving and natural gas consumption as well. Our Principals Tom and Christine own two all-electric triplexes in Toronto and are offsetting the consumption for those buildings as well.

We continue to make every effort to reduce our corporate footprint, and the impacts of our projects. Please keep this conversation going in your magazine. We would love to continue learning from the collective experience and wisdom of our peers across the country.

Carla Crawford, M. Arch, Solares Architecture / LNWY