Euna Kang met Jesse Soneff, the guy who built her home, when she showed up at his door. In 2015, Ms. Kang, an Edmonton-based graphic designer and art director, bought a crumbling house in the Garneau, one of the city’s oldest communities. The dwelling, which once belonged to the region’s first preacher, might’ve been a candidate for heritage preservation had it not been ruined through a series of botched renovations. “I felt bad taking the old house down,” Ms. Kang says, “but, realistically, there was nothing I could do.”
In its place, she committed to building a home that would be a long-term asset to the neighbourhood. Instead of looking to the past, she looked to the future. Or rather, down the street, to a gabled duplex, which, because it was cleaner and more contemporary than its peers, seemed like a model for what she sought to do. “I knocked on the door,” Ms. Kang recalls. “When Jesse answered, I said, ‘Who built your house?’ He said, ‘I did.’ I hired him right away.”
Mr. Soneff is the project manager for ArtHouse Residential, a firm he co-founded in 2015 with his childhood friends Scott Wilson and Alex Primrose. The company does infill builds in mature Edmonton neighbourhoods and has a refreshing take on eco-friendly construction – insights they brought to bear on Ms. Kang’s house.
For Mr. Soneff, environmentally conscious design is reduceable to two principles: density and durability. When people brag about the greenness of their homes, they’re often discussing gadgetry – heat recovery ventilation systems, electric car charging stations, and other devices that can reduce day-to-day expenditures. But daily energy consumption is only part of a bigger picture. Home construction is, inescapably, a carbon-intensive undertaking. It requires energy to excavate stone, mill wood, and manufacture concrete – and to transport these materials to a building site. That’s why most houses already have a massive carbon footprint long before the first utility bill shows up in the mail.
If home construction imposes an ecological cost, Mr. Soneff argues, developers have a duty to make it worthwhile. That’s where density and durability come in. Imagine a large dwelling that houses four people at a time over a lifespan of 40 years. Now imagine a smaller dwelling with a capacity of eight or nine occupants and a lifespan of two centuries. The construction of each house would require immense energy expenditures, but the payoff on the second would be larger than on the first. It hardly matters, therefore, which home has the most high-tech systems; the second is surely greener. To work responsibly, Mr. Soneff believes, contractors must build for many people – and they must do it well.
The house he built for Ms. Kang (at a price of $780,000) is something of an outlier in the Garneau, a neighbourhood with two main typologies: craftsman homes, with hipped roofs and asymmetrical façades, which bear the influence of the Prairies and Pacific Northwest, and new builds, with kitsch dormers and stucco pillars, which bear the influence of HGTV. Mr. Wilson, who handles design for ArtHouse, steered clear of the latter aesthetic and embraced the former only subtly. The house is modern and clean, with its boxy structure and dark metal cladding, but it has folksier elements – a gabled roof, cedar slats on the front exterior – that nod to the local pioneer-craftsman aesthetic.
“I wanted the architecture to be relevant to the region, but not to imitate the streetscape,” Ms. Kang says . “The house is a Prairie barn over a box. It’s the simplest form I can think of. The wood, the heavy massing and the strong lines reference elements you see in nature: open fields and aspen forests.”
Like most ArtHouse projects, the dwelling is a duplex, or, more specifically, a pair of stacked bungalows, with a footprint of approximately 1150 square feet. There’s a ground floor–basement suite, which Ms. Kang rents to four University of Alberta students, and an upper-level home (a flat with an attic), which she shares with her boyfriend and her two sons. “Three people lived in the house that used to be here,” Mr. Soneff says . “Now there are eight people on the same piece of land.”
In a building with a low ratio of floor space to occupants, the service areas must perform double or triple duties. One enters Ms. Kang’s dwelling through a side door at the only place where the upper unit touches ground. The front foyer is also the back foyer: around the corner from the entranceway is a door leading to the yard. The second level (i.e. the main level) has a kitchen-living area in the front and bedrooms at the back; connecting these regions is an airy passageway, which is also a dining room and library. The third-floor landing doubles as a walk-in closet and links a bathroom to the master bedroom, which sits beneath the pitched attic roof.
Remarkably, the home doesn’t have hallways. Spacious rooms are necessary, because they make the interiors liveable. But empty passageways? Regions whose sole purpose is to transfer people from one room to another? Limited square footage, Mr. Wilson reasoned, can be put to better use.
Efficient space needn’t be cold. Ms. Kang arranged the interiors according to classic graphic-design principles, whereby colourful features are set against an airy, neutral background: oak floors and white walls without baseboards. The lively furnishings include a pair of Eames rocking chairs, which Ms. Kang will give to her sons when they leave home and a trio of Muuto pendant lights above the kitchen island; their jewel-toned colours match a nearby abstract painting by David Cantine, one of the greats of postwar Alberta modernists.
The standout features in the home, however, are those you don’t see. There’s gadgetry, suich as the heat-recovery system and cool-air pump, which even out temperatures and reduce energy costs. (Such features won’t turn an energy-inefficient house into a green one, but they will make a green dwelling even greener.) And then there’s the building itself, with its ultrasturdy concrete foundation, state-of-the-art water-proofing system, and tightly sealed envelope. If the house is to last, Mr. Soneff argues, the construction must be as durable as the architecture is timeless. “The greenest home,” he says, “is the one you don’t tear down.”