Does Our View of Architecture Change When We Talk Carbon, Not Energy?

A new project in Quebec raises many questions about how we look buildings.

View through window wall

Maxime Brouillet via V2com

This house looks like the most extraordinary and beautiful updated version of a Case Study House from California in the 1960s. Except it is not in California, it is on the shore of Lac-Brome, Quebec, designed by Atelier Pierre Thibault, with millwork and furniture by Kastella. It raises so many questions about how we look at architecture in the 2020s. When you look through the lens of energy consumption you see one thing, and when you look through the lens of carbon, both upfront and operating, you see another. And in Quebec, everything runs on carbon-free hydroelectricity and the house is mostly built of low-carbon materials. It is described in V2com:

"Situated on the majestic lake in the Southern Eastern Townships, Lake Brome Residence was first inspired by a large, outdoor, covered terrace where the family could live immersed in nature. The single-level dwelling, designed with floor-to-ceiling windows, takes full advantage of the sweeping lakeside views and surrounding mountainous landscape."  
View in kitchen

Maxime Brouillet via V2com

It has such wonderful mid-century modern vibes with the glass and the wood beams flying through the walls; this was my favorite style of architecture for many years. But when I became preoccupied with energy and fell in love with the concept of Passivhaus, I began to look at buildings differently. I am not alone: In an important post written in 2014 by architect Elrond Burrell, he describes how his view of architecture changed.

"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. No more! I can’t help but see the thermal bridging these details create, the resultant heat loss, material degradation risks and mould risks."
interior view from kitchen

Maxime Brouillet via V2com

The Residence du Lac-Brome could be a case study in timber beams gliding smoothly through floor-to-ceiling glazing. I had forgotten how much I used to enjoy it. But it also got me thinking about whether we have to be more sophisticated in our thinking. In 2014, Burrell asked:

"Quite frankly, we should be questioning if this type of building is acceptable at all in our day and age. 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."

But in 2021, we realize that the problem is not energy, it's carbon, and it is both the embodied or upfront carbon emissions from the materials the building is made from and the operating emissions from the fuel used to heat the building.

Wood and stone of fireplace
Maxime Brouillet via V2com

The House at Lac-Brome is built out of local wood and stone, two of the materials with the lowest upfront carbon, and which we should be using a lot more of. (See more photos of the exterior and the stone on the architect's website.) As engineer Steve Webb of Webb Yates Engineers wrote in the RIBA Journal and quoted in Treehugger:

"We’ve known for a long time that aluminium, steel, concrete and ceramics have very high embodied energy. On the other side the negative embodied carbon of timber is well known. What is less well known is that stone is low embodied carbon too, being very strong and hardly processed: a good strength to carbon ratio."

Of course, there is also a ton of glass, which has a significant upfront carbon footprint and makes a lousy wall when it comes to energy performance. As I noted in a review of another house in Quebec, "windows are not walls, but should be thought of as picture frames that enhance a view."

view of kitchen

Maxime Brouillet via V2Com

Again, this post is about having a discussion, not going through another Damascene conversion as I did in "Should We Be Building Like Grandma's House or Like Passive House?" in 2014. But I have noted many times that energy and carbon are two different problems with different solutions. I recently read and reviewed Saul Griffith's new book "Electrify" and he reiterates the point, noting that we have to stop thinking as we did in the 1970s when the U.S. had an energy supply crisis. Griffiths writes:

"But this also left Americans with a now-outdated sense that we can solve energy problems with efficiency alone. While the 1970s energy crisis was about the 10% of our energy system that used imported oil, the current crisis is about transforming nearly 100% of our energy system to clean electricity."

I have been wrestling with the issues raised by Griffith and was very critical earlier about his notion that we can have our electric cake and eat it too, the "same–sized homes. Same–sized cars. Same levels of comfort. Just electric." I countered that "the first thing we have to do is use radical building efficiency to Reduce Demand! Because otherwise, you need so much more of everything." All very true, but then there is the house at Lac-Brome.


Maxime Brouillet via V2Com

The house at Lac-Brome may well be an energy hog. But it is in Quebec, which is blessed with vast resources of carbon-free hydroelectric power. Does that give the architect and owner carte blanche to use as much of it as they want?

This is the question I am wrestling with. Here is a house that is built of low-carbon materials and is running on zero-carbon energy. I believe it is extraordinarily beautiful, even though I have, like Elrond Burell, come to look at things differently. I have even talked about beauty and about how it's time for a revolution in the way we look at buildings.

There are also issues that go beyond just carbon; there are questions of comfort in a building with so much glass. There are questions of resilience if another ice storm takes out the power for months. There is always my question of sufficiency, about how many resources, even low carbon, does anyone need, especially when electricity saved in Quebec can be sold to Americans and replace fossil fuels there.

But I still cannot help wonder if having carbon-free energy lets us rethink how we use it, and how we design our homes and buildings. Perhaps I am just reading too much Griffith, or I am just trying to justify my attraction to this house.