Are Wood Stoves and Big Windows Still the Stuff That Dreams Are Made of?

Let's look into how beautiful architecture is designed today.

looking out from living room

Valerie Lacroix

Years ago, I thought Stûv wood-burning stoves were the most beautiful things. I wrote a post that played on the last line in "The Maltese Falcon" where Ward Bond asks Humphrey Bogart what the bird is and Bogart answers, "The stuff that dreams are made of." So, of course, my title was "The Stûv That Dreams Are Made Of."

Stûvs are now made in Québec, and they just released a new model with a portfolio of absolutely stunning Québec homes displaying their stoves. Everything is beautiful: the stoves, the houses, the scenery that you can see through the windows. And what windows!

But so much has changed in the decade or so since I wrote that original post. First of all, there is the question of whether we should be burning wood. Back in 2016, after showing a beautiful straw bale Passivhaus in the woods, where the fireplace was controversial, I concluded it was fine when you were in the middle of a forest where the electricity often went out for days in winter. I quoted architect Terrell Wong, who told Treehugger: "Reducing your need for heating 90%—then occasionally having a fire in an uber-efficient German boiler is not a bad thing."

In 2019, I had second thoughts. But I still noted, "A lot of Passivhaus designers like Juraj Mikurcik and Terrell Wong, along with people like Alex Wilson, who knows more about building green than anyone, have used wood stoves for those few days a year when they need a bit of heat."

stuv overlooking lake
Stuv and lake.

Double Deezy | Hinter Company

But then we have these gorgeous homes in the woods, with walls of glass. This one reminded me of an article that Passivhaus architect Elrond Burrell wrote years ago: "10 things I hate about Passivhaus!" In it, he noted how his tastes had changed.

I See Thermal Bridges Everywhere

stove in white room

 Frédéric Blanchet

"I used to enjoy the rhythm of rafter ends projecting out around the eaves of a house. I admired timber and steel beams apparently gliding smoothly through external walls or floor-to-ceiling glazing," wrote Burrell. "No more! I can’t help but see the thermal bridging these details create, the resultant heat loss, material degradation risks and mould risks. Artful architectural devices of structure and tectonic planes floating between the inside and outside only momentarily beguile me now. Then I remember the performance gap that rages on in the construction industry. And it stares me in the face."

Many of these houses seem to have flying beams and rafters. And the glass! This is another one of Burrell's beefs—although he wasn't talking about houses here.

I’m Not Seduced by Sexy Fully Glazed Buildings

wooden room with stove

Ulysse Lemerise

Burrell wrote: "Now I see these as energy guzzling high cholesterol buildings using far more energy than is equitable or necessary! They carry a huge risk of overheating in summer, freezing in winter, and of being simply uninhabitable in a power cut. Or a reduction in available energy supplies. They are iced-tea buildings that offsetting poor performance with technology and increased energy consumption. We’ve got to ask ourselves, why do we expect our mobile phone batteries to last longer and longer each generation, but not care about the energy consumption of buildings? And I mean really care, as in care enough to do something about it. To design and deliver each generation of buildings to perform better."

View through window wall

Maxime Brouillet

On the other hand, I keep saying that energy is different from carbon and wondered while showing another Québec stunner if this was all fine because they are probably heated by zero-carbon hydroelectricity. Do we really care if they have all that glass if it is not contributing fossil carbon dioxide to run? Most readers suggested I was trying to justify the extravagance and that even Quebec electricity should be used sparingly. "Any energy in Quebec one doesn't use will displace fossil fuel generation somewhere else so yes, it matters even if local power is clean, called fungible."

Stove in corner with glass

Guillaume St-Amand | Hinter Company

Having become somewhat obsessed with climate change, efficiency, and sufficiency, I have come to look at beauty differently.

The Stûv is still a thing of beauty, and they are as efficient as they can be. According to Stûv, it has three modes of use: "The design allows users to choose the ambiance they want. A crackling open fire will create a more inviting, seductive atmosphere, while closing the glass-paned door will magnify the flames and warm the room. Closing the full door is ideal during the night, to wrap the house in a soft, comforting heat."

It's also EPA certified. Stûv notes: "This means they meet the environmental standards set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), requiring a fine particle emission rate of less than two grams per hour. Moreover, the Stûv 30's combustion techniques optimize its efficiency while eliminating its environmental impact."

Window framing a vew

Raphaël Thibodeau

And those glorious homes with the walls of glass—are they still beautiful? In architecture school, I was taught windows are not walls but should be thought of as picture frames that frame a view. I liked the way this was done in the Saltbox Passive House in Québec. But, I have to admit, some of these are stunning.

As Burrell noted, "Regardless of climate change, regardless of resource and energy scarcity, surely any decently designed building should be comfortable and use the minimum amount of energy to be so? We have the technology, the knowledge, the materials and the skills." It can also be beautiful if you have a good eye. Perhaps that is the stuff dreams are made of.