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A rendering of North House.
A rendering of North House.

Architecture

North House waves the flag Add to ...

This morning in Washington, the stately National Mall is aclatter and abuzz with teams of academics and student architects and engineers from across America, Canada and the world, all making ready to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy's 2009 Solar Decathlon.

This biennial Olympics of sustainability will showcase 20 prototype houses designed by university and college teachers and students, each intended to convince the judges it's got everything: artistic excellence plus energy efficiency, adaptability to the requirements of industrial-scale production, and popular appeal.

Whoever walks away with the Decathlon's prestigious grand prize, I'm rooting for the team that's done North House.







This $1.3-million project, the collaborative handiwork of the University of Waterloo, Ryerson University, and Simon Fraser University, has been the focus of a large array of talent. Some 80 graduate students, adept in specialties ranging from software design and architecture to electrical engineering and robotics, have been involved. MCM 2001, a custom fabricator based in Toronto, constructed the bones of the building in its final form. And the many participants went about their work under the overall supervision of a sizable leadership group that included architects Geoffrey Thün and Kathy Velikov, until recently teachers at Waterloo and now at the University of Michigan.

The result of their collective exertion is the 800 square-foot dwelling I saw shortly before it was shipped off to Washington.

North House is, in one sense, the sum of its very sophisticated eco-sensitive gadgetry (which I'll describe in a moment). It's also the realization of a fugitive vision that has haunted modern architecture for more than a century: a handsome factory-built house, easy to transport and assemble. More recently, this dream has been expanded to include a wish for a zero-energy footprint.

But coming upon North House installed in an West-end Toronto industrial lot on a sunny autumn afternoon, I wasn't immediately impressed by the house's intense concentration of technology: If this was a "machine for living" the kind Le Corbusier might have dreamed up, the building didn't look very much like a machine. Rather, the beauty of this small pavilion struck me first, and stayed with me - its minimal proportions and geometry, the way its shiny, black energy-gathering skin gleamed in the sunshine, and the elegant power with which it rose from and commanded its cedar platform.

Fortunately for North House and its designers, beauty is one attribute the judges of the Solar Decathlon will be looking at. But it's only one in a list of contests that includes, as you might expect from the name of the competition, ten categories. The judges will weigh the building's market viability (organizers estimate a mass-produced North House would retail for about $400,000), its lighting design, comfort level, hot water usage, overall energy performance, and so on.





North House is ready to go up against anybody in the category of efficiency. Functioning at the top capacity of its technical outfitting, North House will produce more than twice as much energy as its lighting, cooling and heating and appliances consume, even in a cold climate like Canada's. Water is heated by the sun. Advanced photo-voltaic panels, arrayed around three sides of the building in a frieze-like sequence and set on the roof, supply all the electricity needed, and then some.

A piece of thinking architecture, North House continually responds to the environment. The black exterior blinds open and shut according to the rhythm of sunlight and shade. A visual read-out about energy usage appears on the embedded touch-screen that controls the systems in this complex structure, giving the residents instant feedback, as well as opportunities for altering the operation of the house.

These residents would likely be a couple without children, or a single person. (It could serve as a cottage for more people, but that would be a squeeze.) The interior of North House, which consists principally of one large room for living, sleeping, dining and cooking, is open and uncrowded, since all the energy infrastructure has been pushed out to the perimeter or secreted (along with the washroom) behind the north wall of the main area. The general sense of this interior is hard, though it is softened a little by a fanciful ceiling-canopy composed of white, drooping fabric cones that have been created, of course, by very smart computers.

The toughness of that interior makes me wonder how North House will fare in the comfort contest of the Decathlon. But never mind: The house makes its point, which is that mass-manufactured, high-performance dwelling is now feasible within the limits of current technology. That's a large step forward toward the ultimate goal, which is the provision of the perfect energy-efficient house for the millions.

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