Months after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina, Toronto architect Paul Dowsett journeyed to New Orleans to see for himself the impact of the deadly storm and flooding on the area’s housing stock.
At first, he was surprised to see that many century-old homes had remained habitable after months of no power, while newer buildings, riddled with mold, had to be condemned. Looking more closely, he realized the older homes, designed before the electrical age, had proven more durable because they were built to provide maximum shade and take advantage of natural breezes – thus staying dryer and cooler than newer homes. Another plus: older homes were built with cypress, a local wood that naturally resists rot, fungus and decay.
Dowsett’s discovery helped hone his theory that sustainable architecture encompasses timeless designs that work with nature, using high-quality materials that are not only environmentally efficient, but resilient. His firm, SUSTAINABLE.TO Architecture + Building, won an international competition for its 2011 design of a low-cost, low-energy “passive house” that met New Orleans’ tough post-Katrina building code, while providing natural ventilation, cooling and flood protection.
Today SUSTAINABLE.TO builds environmentally-conscious and resilient buildings based on the same principle: that classic, locally-informed design and better-quality materials produce healthier, more efficient and resilient buildings. “We need to go back to designing with nature,” says Dowsett. “The essence of resilience is having materials that do their job without the injection of energy.”
In an era that’s hailed “smart” tools such as the Nest thermostat as the next step in environmental efficiency, Dowsett believes getting the design right first reduces the need for complex controls. Vindication arrived in December, 2013. While Torontonians shivered through a lengthy power outage in the days before Christmas, body heat alone kept the occupants of SUSTAINABLE.TO’s most energy-efficient homes comfortable. “People in our ‘simple’ houses took in their neighbours during the great freeze-up,” says Dowsett. “Their homes stayed livable for days.”
On March 28, Dowsett will be speaking to RSI’s AI Sustainable Futures Summit on the need for sustainability plus resilience in the urban environment. His title: “Simple is the new Smart.” Inspired by the international “Passivhaus” movement, Dowsett wants to move architecture forward by turning the clock back to a time when homes were naturally insulated and air-tight. In a passive home, he says, the environment rarely changes. “To quote Lloyd Alter, there is nothing to learn; a smart thermostat would be bored stupid.”
Dowsett acknowledges technology has an important role in design today. But he says it should be in the front end, not the back. “Artificial intelligence and data should come earlier in the process of construction,” he says, to ensure buildings are better designed for local conditions. “They won’t solve poor design problems.”
The best news is that sustainable, resilient design costs no more. Investing up-front in sounder materials, insulation and air-tightness allows builders to spend less on mechanical environmental controls. “We also save on the energy the building consumes,” says Dowsett. “So it’s a perpetual-motion machine that actually works.”
Does resiliency matter in big cities? Dowsett notes that floods, freezes and power outages are increasing problems around the world. What happens in the next sustained storm or blackout, when apartment towers lose power, heat and water? “We have a societal problem,” he says. “We have to make buildings habitable without power. We need them to have stocks of food and medicines, and access to washrooms. Technology is not always the answer.”