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Twitter, Facebook, cell phones and "crackberries" - it's no wonder high school kids are a distracted bunch.

So it was a gamble when, four years ago, Riverdale Collegiate geography teacher Paul Hackl decided to try something that would require more time and effort by his grade 12 environment and resource management class: Each group would build a model of a sustainable house, complete with the latest green technologies, site it intelligently on a lot and then present it to the others.

That first year went so well - some students went on to study architecture or engineering at university - he refined the project last fall by adding the proviso that models must be constructed with materials "right out of the blue box" (marks would be deducted for using "virgin" materials). And a guest speaker, the Architourist's resident sustainability expert, Paul Dowsett of www.sustainable.TO, was brought in to chat with the class.

Mr. Hackl also led his students on a field trip of the neighbourhood, which included sidewalk scrutiny of Martin Liefhebber's 1997 Healthy House on Sparkhall Avenue, and then of the northeast corner of Hampton and Albemarle, where students were asked to envision an empty lot (there is a house there now) on which to build: "I chose the corner lot, with its south-facing slope and big frontage to present a design challenge," the 48-year-old teacher says. "Not too hard, but not too easy either."

Mr. Hackl's handout stated that models "should retain the original design and flavour of the area" and individual members of each group must "select and research a device or system" such as heating/cooling, waste management, electrical or structural materials. Then, over the course of a number of classes in the early months of this year, students got down to brass tacks…well, down to cardboard, glue, recycled tinfoil, tin cans and the Internet.

Last month, Mr. Hackl invited Mr. Dowsett back, with your humble Architourist in tow, to review the finished work. Much more than the sum of their cardboard and tinfoil parts, each model demonstrated a comprehensive knowledge of sustainable technologies, but, more than that, group members showed an understanding of what makes a house a home. Here is what we saw:

Maximizing light

Striking for its half-gambrel roofline, the "Sea Ana" was created by Nancy, Alan, Joe, Ellen, Anita and Aivan. "I like how our house is very compact," said one group member, pointing to the sewage system tucked underneath a deck. Another demonstrated how skylights and a window-wall allow sunlight to penetrate deep into the home, reducing the need for artificial light. Working ceiling fans and shade-giving deciduous trees complete this model, which Mr. Hackl decided was "very clever."

Fitting the streetscape

Similarly, Raymond, Davina, Silvia, Fiona and Johnson placed large windows on the south wall of their detailed and very vernacular model to allow for natural daylighting. "All of these 'green' houses, they look so unique and different," said one student, "and sometimes people just want a general house." While general in appearance, hiding underfoot is a geothermal system, and inside walls and ceilings is recycled denim insulation. In addition to a greywater recycling system and other green features, there's even a small rocket ship (one of the group members got creative). "It's just such a great demonstration of collaborative teamwork," offers Mr. Dowsett.

Going off-grid

Kaela, on the other hand, embarked on a solo project. In addition to being off-grid, her home features a steeply pitched roof for rainwater collection and good solar-panel placement; windows of sandblasted glass bring light down into the kitchen. A courtyard breaks the home into two separate parts, which not only allows light penetration into the centre, it separates 'public' and 'private' zones. It's a fully articulated design from a very articulate student: "Before doing this project, when I thought of environmentally friendly houses, I thought 'ugly,' " she says, "[but]it is possible to have your dream house and for it to be environmentally friendly."

The wind factor

In addition to the usual features, such as bamboo floors and light shelves, Alex and Edward's model harnesses the wind: Like desert dwellings in the Middle East, a windcatcher on the roof helps to ventilate and cool the home without the need for air conditioning. The chimney, too, is placed in such a way that exhaust is directed away from the home: "There's a lot of understanding of prevailing winds here and how to use them," said Mr. Dowsett. A prominent home office, added Mr. Hackl, means this group is "saving energy by telecommuting to work."

Straw-bale style

Simone, Renn, Tara, Amy and Nikki's straw-bale home, "EcoTrans," is notable for its two-storey bay windows. Ample sunlight pouring through these is helped along by a lack of walls, open shelves and "hanging cupboards," said the group. A fireplace provides heating, foam-core steel doors (represented by Coke cans) and argon-filled windows keep that heat from escaping, and an induction cook-top wastes very little heat while cooking. Just the opposite, a metal roof reflects heat away (except for what's collected by the solar panels) and ivy growing up the back wall keeps the home cool in summer.

"I actually have faith in the future again," said Mr. Dowsett as Mr. Hackl excused himself to get to his next class - a class where inspiration, no doubt, is at the top of the lesson plan.