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Under the skin: How investing in the mechanics of the home will save money

Pape village home by Solares Architecture. (Frank Crawford)

Tom Knezic, principal and co-founder of the young Toronto office Solares Architecture, told me last week that his idea of a perfect house is a “black cube.” He admires Daniel Libeskind.

We were talking in the living room of a two-storey dwelling that he and colleague Melodie Coneybeare completed a year ago in the city’s Pape Village district. The house is taller than the bungalows nearby, but its modestly modern, squared-off form fits comfortably within the old streetscape. The area is 1,750 square feet, not counting the basement.

Crafted for a couple with one child and conservative tastes, the structure is as artistically unassuming inside as it is on the exterior. Mr. Knezic and Ms. Coneybeare have made no unconventional plays with shape or colour or layout. The upstairs bathrooms (there is no powder room on the main floor) are usual. The 870-square-foot basement, while spacious and well-windowed – the main floor is lifted almost six feet above the ground at the rear – is also what you can expect to see in any new family home.

In fact, I would have almost nothing to say about this plain-Jane house, were architectural design the only thing that interests me. It isn’t. What’s invisible or tucked out of sight in a project can be as remarkable as anything visible – and such is the case with this structure, as Mr. Knezic explained it to me with tables and graphs and diagrams.

Tom Knezic and Melodie Coneybeare of Solares Architecture designed this Pape Village house. (Frank Crawford)

You start with the bones. Instead of raising a wood frame and stuffing it with insulation – the commonest way to build a Toronto house from scratch – Solares made the walls from a product called Amvic +3.3 block. Each unit is a Styrofoam form, hollow except for a plastic web. After these light elements are stacked up and locked together like so many Lego pieces, concrete is poured into the forms and allowed to set. The result, the architect said, is a very tight wall system with higher energy efficiency than a wooden framed infrastructure can provide.

Putting up the skeleton of the building in this way cost more than doing it in the customary manner – “between $20,000 and $30,000” more, Mr. Knezic said. (Total construction budget: about $622,000, including solar panels.)

But the idea, of course, is to save money over the lifespan of the house. To that end, Mr. Knezic and Ms. Coneybeare have built in a number of cost-effective devices and arrangements. Hot water, for example, is supplied to in-floor heating emplacements on the building’s three levels, and to the laundry room and taps and showers, by an on-demand boiler the size of two microwave ovens. The climate of each floor is controlled by its own thermostat. It’s nothing fancy, and certainly not “smart.” Like the other appliances in the house, it’s off-the-shelf technology. All windows are triple-glazed.

In the long haul, the house could even start earning money. The flat roof supports the five-kilowatt array of solar panels that empty their power directly into Ontario Hydro’s electrical grid. Mr. Knezic estimates that the panels will pay for themselves in seven years – the hardware and installation cost just under $23,000 – and will thereafter be spinning cash for his clients.

All of which sounds good. But will that front-end investment in Amvic block, triple-glazing and so on eventually pay off? Or are the predictions just so much “green” wishful thinking?

It will take a decade or more to obtain big-picture answers to these questions. To get a fix on the story so far, however, Solares hired Toronto-based BlueGreen Consulting Group, which specializes in energy assessments, to study this house’s performance during the first year it was lived in.

The results are interesting. Annual heat loss out all windows, doors, walls and ventilation mechanisms was half of what is allowed under Ontario’s relatively exacting building code. (The walls of an ordinary new house leak almost twice as much energy as the Amvic block ones.) Hot water consumption: down one-third. Greenhouse gas emissions were off from the permitted 10 tons a year to just over six. More than once during our conversation, Mr. Knezic insisted that his company is about making sustainable, affordable homes. BlueGreen’s findings suggest that Solares has built one here.

But couldn’t it have been done with a dash of visual flair? There’s no law, after all, that says environmental sobriety can’t dress well. The costume need not be as radical as a black cube. But if it’s going to take up residence on a Toronto street, it should add some zip to the lay of the land. Solares appears to have the science of architecture well in hand. The office now needs to get busy with the art.

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