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Tom Knezic, left, and Christine Lolley of Solares Architecture Inc. (CLAY STANG)
Tom Knezic, left, and Christine Lolley of Solares Architecture Inc. (CLAY STANG)

Mark Evans

Architects build business on sustainable design Add to ...

When Christine Lolley’s parents wanted to build a new house in Gananoque, Ont.,, she convinced them to let her and her husband, Tom Knezic, design it.

As graduates of the masters program at the University of Waterloo’s School of Architecture, Ms. Lolley and Mr. Knezic had developed a keen interest in sustainable design and more environmentally friendly houses.

The challenge they encountered, however, was finding local tradespeople who were comfortable building this type of house.

“We ended up moving to Gananoque,” Ms. Lolley said in a recent interview. “Tom, my father, James, and I built the house over the course of a year. We managed trades and did a lot of the physical labour ourselves. When we were finished, we said, ‘Let’s do it again and turn it into something great’. We were able to spin the opportunity to design a house for my parents into a business, as opposed to a one-off.”

Today, Ms. Lolley and Mr. Knezic run Solares Architecture Inc., which offers architectural, interior design, and project management services for people who want new homes with a reduced ecological footprint.

After struggling through the economic downturn in 2008 and 2009, the Toronto-based business has started to gain more traction, with a dozen projects now on the books.

Ms. Lolley said that many of Solares’s clients are people who are retiring and looking for a new home in the country to enjoy an active lifestyle.

“I think that group, they are spending money they have saved, or money they have in equity in houses in Toronto,” she said. “I think they got a little [too]nervous in 2009 and 2010 to make the big move, but even though the economy is shaky, people have got used to it. They say enough waiting, let’s [get]on with our lives and our project.”

Ms. Lolley said that if you put Solares’s clients in a room altogether, it would be a party because they have similar personalities.

“They have this inexplicable urge to an create energy-efficient home for themselves,” she said. “They see it as a commonsense approach. They see it as building green and doing it right with good-quality, smart building. They are not like tree huggers or granola-cruncher types. They are typically Canadian professionals who have a practical outlook on how a house should perform, and the idea of wasting energy does not appeal.”

Key drivers of sustainable homes, Ms. Lolley said, are lower maintenance costs and the idea of building homes that take care of their inhabitants, as opposed to them having to take care of the house. This means building a home that costs less to heat and cool, which is appealing with the rising costs of energy.

One of the challenges of sustainable design is balancing environmental benefits with building a home that is well designed functionally and ascetically.

With construction costs in the $200-a-square-foot range – the lower end of the custom home marketplace –sustainable home design can involve a reallocation of budgets to make it work economically. In particular, more money is spent on the structure and “bones” of the house, such as the heating system, insulation and windows, while less goes to the frills, such as granite countertops.

That doesn’t mean Solares’s homes aren’t attractive but there is more creativity involved.

“We use our design expertise in the interiors by not relying on glamorous, expensive interior products, but using common, off-the-shelf stuff in a clever way,” Ms. Lolley said.

“The houses are lovely but don’t take the percentage of the budget a custom house would. We use a lot of Ikea cabinetry, for example. Designed in the right way, a really nice Ikea kitchen can look like a custom kitchen that is 10 times the price. It is an important way to spend design expertise.”

With more people becoming environmentally aware, Ms. Lolley said sustainable design is starting to move into the mainstream. In particular, she said younger clients are embracing sustainable design when they do renovations because they see the value of investing money now so they can save money over the next 20 to 30 years.

“Five or six years ago, we couldn’t find a builder who would touch my parents’ house with a 10-foot pole,” Ms. Lolley said. “But [when]we finished the project, all of the locals were so excited and pleased with the project, they would have loved to work on it.

“Now, we are talking to builders who at least have the right keywords in their lingo, who are talking about reducing waste on site, increasing recycling [and]building a more energy-efficient standard. “

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Evans is the principal with ME Consulting, a communications and marketing strategic consultancy that works with startups and fast-growing companies to create compelling and effective messaging to drive their sales and marketing activities. Mark has worked with four startups – Blanketware, b5Media, PlanetEye and Sysomos. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshmarketing and meshwest conferences.

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