New modern "Active House" built in traditional Toronto subdivision

Active House front
© Shai Gil

Active House is described as “a vision of buildings that create healthier and more comfortable lives for their occupants without impacting negatively on the climate – moving us towards a cleaner, healthier and safer world.” In some ways it is the antithesis of the Passive House that we show so often on TreeHugger, and which has lots of insulation but not too many big windows (and rarely skylights). Sponsored by Velux, it is no surprise that the Active House has lots of natural light, big windows and a boatload of skylights.

presentation introDanish Embassy Invitation/CC BY 2.0

At a recent presentation in Toronto sponsored by the Danish Embassy (Active House started in Denmark, home of Velux) the most recent House built by developer/builder Great Gulf was shown. It is on a normal lot in a Great Gulf subdivision and is supposed to show how the active house could fit right in as a part of Great Gulf’s offerings. It is designed by Superkul’s Andre Delia and like all of the firm’s work, is lovely to look at, and very cleverly designed.

active house kithcen© Shai Gil

It is a very modern house, and there are Scandinavian influences in the plan, all very open and white, with a giant combined living room, dining room and kitchen stretching across the rear of the house. There is a little niche on the side with a tree growing, which is lovely to look at for now, until it gets too big and fills the whole niche. The architects write:

Active House Plan© Great Gulf

An open-plan configuration with double-height spaces connects all areas of the house without sacrificing privacy, removing visual barriers while creating a greater sense of engagement between family members. Consequently, the home feels far more spacious than its 2,900 square feet. Light and nature is brought further into the house through the provision of a small C-shaped courtyard, with views from all three sides outside to the surrounding flora and fauna.

specifications© Great Gulf

The house is energy efficient; the specs are good but not great, and there is a lot of glass to get all that fabulous natural light. There is also a lot of buzzy smart house technology, including a Tesla Powerwall system (but no solar panels) that provides energy management and emergency backup, which probably is needed just to operate all the “WiFi thermostats, wireless lighting controls, various motion and alarm systems, and a sensor that can help limit costly water damage by triggering an alert when a leak is detected. And as for controlling natural daylight and fresh air, the fully programmable VELUX skylights are designed with an intelligent touchscreen remote control that can open and close the skylights as needed.”

Randek © Great Gulf/ Randek tools in factory

The house is built very tightly and well put together, with panelized walls built by Great Gulf’s H+me Technology subsidiary, formerly known as Brockport, using the first North American installation of Swedish Randek technology (seen here in use at Lindbäcks in Sweden). One really hopes that this is the future of house construction in Ontario.

Russel and family© Great gulf/ Russel and family

But it is hard to figure out what the priorities are here. The Active House stands out in this subdivision not because of its technology, but because of its style. The presentation was all about the style. Russell Ibbotson, who has been living in the house for six months, talked about comfort but went on about how nice it was to jump on the sofa, to live in such a bright modern space, and how when he returned to his own house he was going to get rid of everything and go modern minimalist.

lviing area© Shai Gil

There is nothing wrong about this; I have been promoting good modern Scandinavian design and have been crapping on traditional subdivisions forever. It has a very talented architect in Andre, and a design that is clearly not the normal North American traditional production builder’s product.

Active House radar© Great Gulf/ Active House radar

I have also been going on about how we should be emphasizing the three most important things: comfort, comfort and comfort. Active Houses put comfort on top of the radar, with Russell noting that he can sit right by the triple glazed windows. It stresses indoor air quality, thermal environment and of course, daylight, preferably from the top down. But they don't forget about energy efficiency or the environment.

Chris WeinLloyd Alter/ Chris Wein, President, Great Gulf/CC BY 2.0

I asked Chris Wein of Great Gulf what they were selling, design or technology, and he responded to my question by noting that they are following the path of Tesla, which started with a high end, expensive model and is moving downmarket to the less expensive Model 3; he expects Active House features to roll out to other styles of house. (I was rude and called his more conventional designs “tacky”. I apologize.)

I have been critical of Active House in the past, thinking it had too much expensive smart tech and too many skylights. On the other hand, it really is bright and airy and looks like a wonderful place to live, and it doesn’t have to be over the top. In their thorough and informative brochure, Great Gulf concludes:

One of Centennial Park Residence’s most significant achievements is its ability to offer an energy- efficient home that blends manufacturing efficiency with affordability. Another important cost-related feature is the potential to successfully offer the Active House concept on smaller lot sizes, and in configurations such as a semi-detached or townhouse design.

house rear© Shai Gil

That would be wonderful. The Active House label promotes a mix of environmental responsibility, energy efficiency and comfort. With a tacky American exception, it tends to promote good modern design. Great Gulf has added sophisticated prefabrication technology to build what is perhaps the most interesting and sophisticated subdivision house in North America. Chris Wein and Andre D’Elia have done great things here, and I hope they print a million of them.

Tags: Green Building | Toronto

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