There was passive solar design decades before there were passive houses

Lakeside view
© Lakeland House

35 years ago, Lake Wilcox was almost cottage country, a small lake with modest cabins just north of Toronto. Now it's prime Richmond Hill real estate, most of the cabins and trees are gone and it is surrounded by serious faux chateaux.

35 years ago, the Passivhaus did not exist, but a lot of people were playing with the ideas of super-insulation and passive solar design. (See the pioneering Saskatchewan house here) Designer Alan Marsh built this then- state of the art home on his lot among the trees in 1981. It had R-30 insulation in the walls when the code was R-12, R-50 in the roof when code was R-20. These levels are pretty common now but were unheard of then. The best practice at the time was to try and make a perfect vapour barrier; Alan milled the lumber from his old cottage into 1x2 strapping that he put on top of the barrier and insulation so that wires and electrical boxes were all inside the envelope, minimizing the chance of leakage.

© Lakeland House

Alan says that he and his wife liked sleeping in cool rooms, so he designed what is now called a French Farmhouse plan, where the bedrooms are downstairs and the living space above. This is extremely sensible structurally and great if you have nice views, as this house does.

© Lakeland House

The most remarkable feature of the house is its windows, or lack thereof. The south face overlooking the lake has a lot of glass, with the windows deeply recessed so that they are shaded from the high summer sun. In winter, the sun penetrates deeply and the heat is absorbed by the tile floor. This is still the best way to do passive solar design. (Alan says he was going to add shading over the ground floor windows but never got around to it.)

© 225 Toadhall

The north wall has no windows at all. This just not done in Richmond Hill mansions, but who wants to look at the street anyway? The views are in the other direction, and so is the sun. Unfortunately the use of split face block, a fad of the period that did not hold up well, makes the entry to the house a bit austere.

© 225 Toadhall

The house is for sale now; the first agent who came to see it called it a knock-down and told the owner to chop down all the trees. She called in Chris Chopik, a real estate agent specializing in green properties and who had energy assessments done to show how efficient the house is, (saving about $1500 per year in heating costs). He thinks there are purchasers out there who appreciate modern design in a retro seventies style, who actually like trees and who believe that the greenest split-face block is the one already in the wall. (here's the listing)

© Chris Chopik

I suspect it is a lost cause; this is a prime waterfront lot in monster home country, with this kind of neighbour. It's only 2500 square feet, a cottage in this part of town. Trees just block the view of such impressive facades. Who needs 'em?

Tags: Green Building | passive house | Toronto

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