“I always thought living in a fishbowl would be weird,” says Bethany Foster of her new home in the Toronto suburbs. It’s modern and boxy with a large, projected window that floods the interior with natural light. “You see those houses and think, ‘How do people live like that? Everybody can see in!’ But now that I’ve lived in one, I’ve surprised myself.”
It’s not just the oversized windows that have put Foster and her family on display — they’ve been chosen for a case study of the world’s first certified Active House. Sleek and minimal on the outside, the home provides energy-saving and environmentally conscious features. But what separates it from the ever-growing pack of net zero homes is its focus on comfortability.
The design concept for Active House originated in Europe, but has been brought to fruition by GTA developer Great Gulf. The interplay of skylights, double-height living spaces and a C-shaped courtyard has created a living environment that promotes the wellbeing of its residents.
For six months, mom Bethany Foster, dad Russell Ibbotson and their three young daughters will call the Active House ‘home’ — all the while collecting data, blogging about their experiences and sharing everyday moments on social media. Through Instagram, we see a rainy day as the perfect excuse for a picnic on the covered deck, or track the impact of airings on CO2 levels in the house.
By bringing in a test family, Great Gulf is hoping to learn more about the impact of the design from a homeowner’s perspective. “They’re looking at this as the evolution of high-efficiency housing,” says Russell Ibbotson. “I feel like Great Gulf is ahead of the curve on that.”
Comfort above all else
What makes a home truly livable? Is it the layout, the furniture, the amount of natural light? In planning the design of the Active House, architecture firm superkül Inc. considered all of these factors, holding the comfort of its residents above all else. Energy efficiency and fancy gadgets are all well and good, but if the house didn’t promote the well-being of its inhabitants, it wasn’t going to work.
“I was really impressed by being able to see a tree in the courtyard right away. You can see all the way into the backyard, and it gives you a sense of things to come when you walk in,” says Bethany.
While the two-storey house measures approximately 3,221 square feet, it feels much larger thanks to its floor-to-ceiling windows and ten foot ceiling heights. A double-height living area creates a feeling of connectedness between the upstairs and downstairs. Even the gas fireplace is two-sided, establishing visual flow between the living and dining areas.
In addition to lowering energy bills, maximizing natural light improves concentration, mood and regulates our circadian rhythm. “There’s less stress and you feel more relaxed in the space,” notes Russell.
With expansive windows, reflective surfaces and operable VELUX skylights, the architects were able to balance lighting levels. Even on a cloudy day, it’s rarely necessary to flip on a light switch. “Because everything is so well-lit, we can turn the lights off earlier in the morning, and we turn them on later at night than we did in our previous home,” says Bethany. “For me, the lighting is what makes this house so comfortable.”
Air quality was another important design element. It’s an often overlooked problem, but one that can cause illness and aggravate allergies. The Active House Centennial Park features both natural ventilation and a fan system to circulate the air. “I’m measuring CO2 in the house as an indicator for indoor air quality,” says Russell. “What surprised me is that even with all these measures in place, we still need to do airings — opening up all the windows. Doing so has really impacted how I feel,” he adds.
The home’s VELUX skylights are among its most interesting features. Russell, who manages the technical department at VELUX, noticed that his daughters seemed “more content” in the space. At their former residence in Dundas, Ontario, the girls would cluster around the large window in their living room. In Active House Centennial Park, they are apt to spread out, designing their own play.
The operable skylights are controlled by an intelligent touchscreen remote that allows the user to open and close them with ease. Each skylight has an insect screen, as well as an integrated rain sensor that will shut it automatically in case of inclement weather.
“Living in the Active House Centennial Park has made me appreciate big volumes of space. It’s not necessarily the square footage, but the proportionality. It’s very well-proportioned, and those windows — I don’t know how I’m going to go back to my house without floor-to-ceiling windows!” laughs Bethany.
Unlike other energy efficient homes, one of the objectives of the Centennial Park Active House was to provide easy-to-use technology. In their research, the developers found that homeowners are far more likely to give up on tech features if they are difficult to manage.
As a result, Great Gulf chose only home technology systems that were practical and efficient, like Tesla’s Powerwall rechargeable lithium-ion battery system for the home. The battery pulls electricity from its energy provider (in this case, Bullfrog Power, whose grid is 100 per cent renewable) during off-peak hours. “If you’re able to store that electricity in the Tesla battery and use it during the day, you’re saving money and reducing pollution,” explains Russell. The battery also acts as a backup electricity supply, so there’s no need for a noisy generator.
The Centennial Park Active House is equipped with a Rogers Smart Home Monitoring System, including WiFi thermostats, wireless lighting controls and a sensor that detects the presence of a water leak. The family has complete control over the security of the house, with WiFi-connected cameras, motion sensors and alarm systems.
The developer also integrated intelligent design, like thermostats hidden from direct sunlight, low-flow toilets and faucets, on-demand hot water and an HVAC system that focuses on heating or cooling bedrooms at night, rather than wasting power on unused living spaces.
In a well-insulated and airtight building, the Ibbotsons have been able to significantly reduce their energy consumption. Triple-pane windows provide a comfortable indoor temperature and an abundance of sunlight. “When you walk past [the triple-pane windows] you don’t feel that same chill we often feel with double-pane windows. That was super noticeable, there’s no draft at all,” says Russell.
Anyone with a compost bin can be “environmentally friendly,” but the builders of Centennial Park Active House took the term to a whole new level. A whopping 89.5 per cent of the materials in the house will have a recycling potential — far exceeding the Canadian average.
Its construction was an exercise in sustainability. The components of the house were built by H+ME Technology in an advanced indoor automated manufacturing plant. The walls and flooring were built as integrated panels in a controlled environment to ensure the quality of craftsmanship. This practice guarantees that the pre-assembled components fit together with greater precision, and results in less material waste diverted to landfill.
Additionally, 80 per cent of the wooden products used are SFI certified, which means they are derived from responsible sources. Using high-quality building products presents a better value for the consumer in the future, as the home will require less upkeep.
Plans for the future
Great Gulf intends to apply the data and insights gained from the Ibbotson’s six-month occupancy to their design strategies. It won’t just be for single-family homes either, there’s potential to integrate various Active House concepts across all types of dwellings.
“For me, it’s really great to feel like I’m on the ground with Great Gulf, conducting an experiment that will have a big impact,” says Russell. “That’s why I so quickly said yes to this project. If I hadn’t been asked, I would have been so jealous of the family that was chosen!”
For more information, please visit activehouse.ca.