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Toronto team designs architectural shot heard 'round the world Add to ...

It could have been called "Clam House."

Also considered were "C-Section," "Shade House," and "PHNOSS," which stands for "Passive House New Orleans Shotgun Style."

Today, despite the agreed-upon and somewhat pedestrian moniker of "Low Cost/Low Energy House," this design by local good guys Sustainable.TO can also be called No. 1 with a Bullet. Announced last month, the young firm-with the experienced "green" hands of principal Paul Dowsett at the helm-was awarded first place in an international competition hosted by websites DesignByMany.com and ArchDaily.com.

The task was to design an inexpensive single-family dwelling for residents of New Orleans' hardest-hit Lower Ninth Ward. In addition to being cheap to build and conforming to post-Katrina building codes (which states that houses be raised five or more feet above grade, among other things), the home would also conform to the Passive House Standard, "the world's most rigorous building energy standard" according to the DesignByMany website. This meant that it would be airtight, super-insulated, contain no thermal bridging (i.e. exterior building materials cannot transfer heat or cold into interior spaces), and harness the free power of the sun.

It should also use the vernacular "shotgun" form, built from the Civil War era to the 1920s: A long, narrow, corridor-less floor plan with doorways that line up in such a way that "when you open the front door and you open all the doors to the other rooms, you could fire a shotgun through the house and not hit anybody," says Mr. Dowsett with a chuckle.

Oh, and do all of this in just two weeks: "It was a very short time frame," agrees the 49-year-old, LEED-accredited architect. So, after a Friday briefing where the competition guidelines, shotgun typology and the New Orleans climate were explained (Mr. Dowsett has spent a lot of time in New Orleans), the five-person staff was sent home to doodle out ideas.

Back at Sustainable's Leslieville offices on the Monday, the team presented their ideas, and the best of each were incorporated into a "mash-up" design. "And every step along the way from that point forward was just a process of simplifying and simplifying … we as a group agreed that the winning entry was likely to be one of the most simple."

And it is simple, but brilliantly so: The gently pitched roof, north wall and floor combine to form a "C" shape. Cradled underneath the deep overhangs of this Galvalume-clad C (self-venting, corrugated Galvalume not only lasts a half-century, it reflects heat away) is a cypress-clad box with a three-sided porch. On the south, the porch is faced with a series of sliding panels, which when used in conjunction with the various sliding doors in the living/dining space of the home's mid-section, incredible seasonal adaptability is achieved. To give the shotgun model a modern twist, bedrooms have been placed on either end of the floor plan.

Instead of raising the home the standard five feet, the team raised it to seven so "you could drive a car under there, have storage under there [and]have shaded outdoor living space … because, in New Orleans, as long as you're in the shade, there are some temperate periods that are really nice," says Mr. Dowsett.

A radiant concrete floor helps with heating during inclement periods - both active heat from the imbedded tubes and passive heat from concrete's ability to trap the sun's rays - and with cooling in summer, since when shaded by the roof overhang the concrete stays cool, which in turn keeps bare homeowner feet refreshed.

"We relied on using design first to solve problems, and the simplest technology we could find second," Mr. Dowsett explains. This highly considered yet simple approach resulted in the surprise grand prize announcement a few weeks later: "We were thrilled, there's no other way to put it."

Unfortunately, that thrill might not carry over to watching their design get built, since that's not a promise of competition organizers. However, with the endorsement of the Canadian Passive House Institute (CanPHI), the networking power of the judging panel (which included a University of Louisiana architecture professor and a co-founder of the Passive House Institute United States), and the fact that the design was showcased at the American Institute of Architects' 2011 National Convention last month, it's not a stretch to suggest that Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation might decide to make it real; since the Toronto-based television personality Mike Holmes has been involved with Mr. Pitt for some years now, there is, perhaps, an even greater chance.

In any case, it couldn't have happened to a nicer firm. I've been following Mr. Dowsett's career with interest since 2006, when I toured an off-grid, straw-bale, Modernist home he designed southwest of Peterborough. In addition to the innovative projects I've seen (and covered here) since, what has also impressed me is Mr. Dowsett's continuing advocacy of green practices and his mentorship program for architecture students.

With the Low Cost/Low Energy House win, it's my hope that these critical ideas of how to build cheaper, smarter and with the least amount of harm done to the earth will be the architectural shot heard 'round the world.

 

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