Nadine Martel‘s house, around the corner from Ottawa’s Westboro Beach, has impressive sustainability stats. Compared to the typical home, Ms. Martel’s place produces 65 per cent less greenhouse gases and requires 75 per cent less water to irrigate the landscaping (including the blueberry bushes on the green roof). Further helping cut carbon, it’s a mere 500 metres from the nearest public transit, although the garage also has an electric charging station for a Tesla or two. Because of the above, it’s certified LEED-Platinum, one of the country’s most stringent designations for environmental design. There are only 109 other LEED-Platinum homes in Ontario, and 845 across Canada, according to the Canada Green Building Council.
A house with such eco-credibility could only suggest two things. One, an environmentally obsessed homeowner. Which, in this case, is accurate. Ms. Martel is a management consultant who has spent much of her career focusing on energy efficiency. That’s why when she had the opportunity to build a home for herself — as well as her husband and kids — just over three years ago, she wanted to live by the ethos she professes to her clients.
Unfortunately, it might also suggest that the place looks, well, weird, possibly with the dated hippie-aesthetic that often comes part and parcel with green design (think a geodesic dome topped with straw bales and adobe). Such aesthetic drawbacks have long plagued sustainable architecture. Over the last decade, many articles have been written bemoaning that exact fact, including a 2009 piece on Treehugger.com, a champion of all things eco-friendly, simply called Why Is So Much Green Architecture So Ugly?
“We wanted the house to be LEED Platinum,” says Ms. Martel. “But we also wanted to have a comfortable, pleasant house to live in.”
To achieve the right balance, Ms. Martel engaged a LEED consultant to help with the finer points of the designation. She also started talking to a contractor, the Lake Partnership, and an architecture studio, Linebox, both of whom had worked together before to successfully build slick contemporary homes. All of this before she even found the right site.
The team helped Ms. Martel evaluate the properties she was considering, both from a sustainability as well as an aesthetic perspective. At the outset, the one she eventually bought had much higher potential for the latter, particularly because of the location. It overlooks the Ottawa River, steps from the neighbourhood beach. It is also closer to Ottawa’s financial district than Ms. Martel’s previous home, which was a key reason for moving. (“It used to take three buses to get into the core,” she says, whereas now it only takes one.)
Complicating the picture, though, was that there was an existing house on the property that was the opposite of sustainable. Originally, Ms. Martel wanted to reduce the energy required in any major construction project by renovating, not replacing. But because the pile was poorly built, with walls like sieves, it was extremely inefficient to heat and cool. Her LEED consultant told her that in the long run, it would take less GHG’s to start over than to try and fix such a big problem — advice that ultimately helped convince her to close on the property.
“It was a 1970s, suburban cut and paste bungalow,” says Andrew Reeves, Ms. Martel’s architect and the founder of Linebox. “At one point we talked about just trying to reuse the foundations, but they not well constructed enough so we had to strip them out. We did, however, go to extremes to re-use and donate as much as possible from the original house to eliminate unnecessary waste.”
In the replacement house, a lot of the sustainability features are technical and in the background — such as the heat recovery systems and grey water cisterns that reduce the amount of new energy and fresh water required to keep the place going. Likewise, with the architecture, the massing is a composition of intersection volumes, in part to match the eclectic context of the surrounding street. But the boxes also help with passive heating and cooling, creating a design of solid, sun-rebuffing cubes and more open voids that let the light pour in.
“It’s funny to me that sustainability and architecture have been separated from each other,” says Mr. Reeves. “To me, good design should automatically consider things such as heating, cooling, wind and sun. We wanted the house to fit with the neighbors, meet zoning requirements and avoid going to the committee of adjustments. We also did a lot of light studies to understand how the massing we wanted would work with the sun.”
Inside, careful attention was paid to use finishes that are both stylish and sustainable. The floors are a beautiful, blonde oak. Typically, such hardwoods take a lot of energy to grow, let alone process and ship. But Ms. Martel sourced the surface from a local shop that specializes in reclaimed lumber, hauling the timbers up from the floor of the Ottawa river, where they had been submerged, likely after falling off a logging boat over two hundred years ago. Elsewhere, ash was used that had been felled locally to limit the spread of the invasive emerald ash bore beetle, preventing the material from simple being put into a wood chipper. The distinct grey bricks that wrap around both the interior and exterior of the house were sourced locally from an Ontario masonry, cutting down on the energy to import them from Europe or America.
In addition to the home’s underlying pragmatism, there is also a poetry in the the spaces. It’s particularly evident in the central atrium, “which is the social hub of the house,” says Mr. Reeves, as it connects the upstairs bedrooms with the ground floor living areas including a music room. On one wall, stairs cascade down with a hard rail that is meant to look like piano keys, facing a wall of windows framing the river. “They’re amazing windows,” says Ms. Martel. “They’re huge and they’re triple glazed. They also look out at a beautiful view.”