Sustainable, green housing is no longer just the domain of wealthy builders in cottage country. Builders in the city are starting to take notice of the benefits of going green. Altius Architecture, Inc. has always been at the forefront of new technologies in construction and is currently undertaking work with new performance standards, such as the ‘passive house’ building methods, developed in Germany. It is also incorporating speculative work and pre-fabricated structures into its repertoire. Once again, we spoke with Altius Principal Graham Smith.
The transition to green housing has been happening rapidly. In the 1990s and 2000s, many renovations in Toronto were more cosmetic. Now consumers are more concerned about the quality of the building envelope and its mechanical systems.
“There has definitely been a change in consumer awareness of being energy efficient. It is seen as healthy living and more luxurious to not be in a house that has drafts and is cold, damp and dry. There is a switch in consumer awareness across the board,” says Graham.
In the city, natural gas heating is still relatively inexpensive. The big push for energy efficiency is coming from cottage and chalet country, where, for the most part, people still heat homes and water with propane or electricity. Those bills can be staggeringly expensive.
In Germany a building standard called Passivhaus – which translates as ‘passive house’ – was developed to create building envelopes that are as airtight and well-insulated as possible to use very little energy for heating and cooling. Staff at Altius have taken up passive house training, and this energy efficiency standard for housing is far and away above any energy code in North America.
These are extremely high-performance buildings. California and Ontario have some of the strictest energy codes, but passive house building takes it to a level where the annual heating and cooling energy used are up to 90 percent less than in average homes in Canada, and total energy consumption is often 50 percent less than average, which is not insignificant. “In training our staff, it changes not only the way we build but also how we design. We are starting to make those changes because we see the writing on the wall,” says Graham.
Graham believes that in ten to fifteen years, this will probably become mandated, so it is best to hone the company’s skills now. The passive house standard is being taken up across Canada by architects in a very limited capacity, but it is happening more in the U.S. where it is being used in New York City on high-rise condominiums.
Altius is working on a multi-use, six-storey, wood-framed condominium in Whitby that will incorporate the passive house standards. “It’s better to get ahead of the curve on this, and we have certainly embraced it. We’ve gone back to past projects to see where it would have made a difference,” says Graham. Altius is putting in an enormous amount of insulation and performing detailing on the building which can be expensive. The moves will increase the price by ten percent compared to a typical home.
Much of the developments in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) have been high-density, ten-storey to fifty-storey condominium tower developments. “Beyond that, it’s been suburban, tract home, subdivision building. That includes detached houses and townhomes. The mid-rise area at four to six storeys will redefine some of the fringes of the GTA. Look at any main street in Toronto – whether it be Dundas or Yonge. They are principally two-storeys all the way out. I think that four-to-six-storey, mid-size, wood construction is going to define residential development in big cities going forward,” says Graham.
The Whitby project will be an interesting one to keep an eye on because many developers will be switching gears. All the suburban land has been used for single-family housing, and there can be only so many towers downtown.
“It’s time to turn attention to the entire area between downtown and the suburbs and determine where we can set the parcels of land that we can put four to six storeys on. This is a real game-changer over the next ten to fifteen years,” says Graham.
Altius is featuring two projects that are being built via hybrid methods of pre-fabricated modules with components of site-built work. One is a cottage on Whitefish Lake in Muskoka. The other is on Ferry Lake, within the municipal boundaries of Huntsville.
“What they have in common is that the pre-fab components address two things. It speeds up the construction schedule because entire sections of the building are being built offsite, while site work is taking place,” says Graham. It is also a little easier to control labour costs because the company is dealing with one crew.
Site building up north is still very expensive, and there is less available labour, but huge demand. “If I was a young person now and knew how to sling a hammer, I would move up north because there is good money to be made and lifestyle to be had,” says Graham.
Finding skilled help is a problem especially with the big lakes where there are people for whom money is no object. They want to build quickly and will bid well above market price to get the sub-trades and contractors. For the average person, building up north is very expensive with the cost of labour taken into account. There is an inefficiency that goes with building in a remote or rural location.
Workers might have to travel for forty-five minutes to an hour to get to the property. They will charge for that time, so there are projects where ten to fifteen percent of labour costs are taken up with transportation. That becomes a big problem compared to an urban site.
“Both of the projects we are doing address that issue by having a large part of the buildings fabricated offsite. It promotes a lot more efficiency,” says Graham.
There are two pushes for Altius, and the first involves a speculative project. Altius is purchasing a property, building in it, and it will then be sold as an Altius project rather than a service. It has been an exciting endeavour for the firm as it has total control over the whole process. Two of these projects will be on Lake Joseph, and will come to market in the late fall of 2019 to the spring of 2020. Speculative work by architects is highly unusual in the residential field. Altius is breaking out in a way that few others would be.
“In addition to these two projects, we have a couple more of the hybrids being worked on at Pointe au Baril on Georgian Bay. It is on two remote island sites, which pre-fabs are perfect for. If driving to a site is bad, boating to an island is even worse in terms of transportation time. Island sites are notoriously expensive to do, and these two pre-fab projects are a little more efficient,” says Graham.
Altus is excited about advancing the prefabricated and hybrid work further along with the passive house jobs and site-build projects. It is a totally different direction for the firm, compared to the last twenty years.
Altius also has a few large cottages on the go in Southern Ontario. One is on Lake Muskoka, and a couple are on Chandos Lake, keeping the company busy. Altius is one of very few firms doing prefabricated home building in Ontario. Other companies in North America are doing it, but in Ontario, they are rare.