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A sustained appetite for sustainable homes Add to ...

With croaks of economic doom resounding from every corner, has the time come to give up all hope of building a perfect house?

Absolutely not, say Graham Smith and Trevor McIvor, partners in Altius Architecture, a small, well-rooted Toronto firm specializing in the design and construction of custom houses and cottages. When I talked recently with Mr. Smith and Mr. McIvor, both designers were buoyant about the prospects of their office and their art in the gloomy months ahead.

"Just about everything you could want for the perfect house is more attainable than it's been in the last couple of years," Mr. Smith said. "Commodity prices have collapsed, and a lot of what goes into house construction are commodities - steel, gypsum, timber, copper. All of that has come down in price. And a lot of American companies have been pushing products into Canada and that's been dropping prices on just about everything."

Finding the right men and women to work on construction, at the right price, is also getting easier now that the boom times are over.

"Getting people to return phone calls has been frustrating over about the last five years," Mr. McIvor said. "But a couple of months ago, I started getting phone calls from contractors and builders looking for work."

"That's not to say people are losing jobs hand over fist in the construction industry," Mr. Smith chimed in. "We certainly haven't seen that on the residential side. But when we were sending out for quotes even a year ago, we would get bids coming back that were ridiculously overpriced. Now, the bids are much more normal. Contractors are not out of work, but they are buying into the media doom and gloom and saying, hey, we should be locking in as much work as we can, and getting more aggressive on our pricing than we have been in the last couple of years."

Like many architectural firms, Altius has specialized in sustainable design over the past few years. One might think that such attention to green strategies, at least on the part of clients, would be especially menaced by an economic downturn. But here again, Altius disagrees.

"Everybody was predicting that, with the collapse of oil prices, being green would go out the window," Mr. Smith said. "We haven't seen that happen. People have realized it makes sense in good times and just as much sense in bad times. We're still forging ahead with the same kind of sustainable work we've been doing for years. Ten years ago we were modern architects, now we're green architects and we really haven't changed our style at all. Modern is green and always has been. [Clients]are realizing that a more advanced mechanical system is going to make a more comfortable home, a healthier home. It's a winner on three fronts. They're doing the right thing environmentally, they're getting a more comfortable and luxurious home and, in the long term, they're saving money."

It probably helps Altius's case (and business) that the firm is not on the hard cutting edge of contemporary architectural design. Its projects in cottage country, for example, have made mindful nods to the vernacular building traditions and materials of the district. And its city houses, such as Mr. Smith's residence in Toronto's High Park neighbourhood, are modern and sleekly styled without being in any way novel. At least in retrospect, it also seems wise that Altius chose to remain small during the boom years and to stay focused on designing one-off residences.

"Commercial and institutional projects have ground to a halt as credit markets have seized up, and a firm that does condo towers is going to feel some pain," Mr. Smith said. "Little firms like us have an advantage, especially if their overhead is low and they're diversified in the services they can offer. Being big in a good economy is great. You can rack up the revenues. But you can't be nimble on your feet."

Remaining nimble may be the key to the survival of Altius and other small architectural offices in the troublesome years ahead. But another key ingredient, Mr. Smith and Mr. McIvor believe, is a client base attuned to sustainable modern architecture.

"Clients who have stability in their employment and didn't have massive investment portfolios in the first place," Mr. Smith said, "and who were always intending to build with a conventional mortgage are stepping back and looking at this market. They are finding that mortgage rates are at historic lows and that building costs and real estate costs are coming down. It's a good time to be building the perfect house."


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