One of the architects for Active House Centennial Park recently stopped by to chat with me about the design of the house. He spoke very matter of fact about proportion, alignment and getting it to feel right. He spoke with more passion about framing the view and connecting the house to the outdoors. We discussed the design’s success in daylight and fresh air but I have covered this in other blogs so will focus on the other elements. He took me through some of the design iterations that contributed to the final house. I struggled a little with the simplicity of his explanations, it all sounded too easy. Then it dawned on me. What was complex to me was clear to the architect because he has mastery of his subject. So, feeling slightly humbled, I still want to attempt to capture how the quality of the design makes the experience of the house. Let’s have a go at this.

Active House - 163[1]“Just like living outside” my middle daughter exclaimed the first time she walked into the house last January. It took a three-year-old about three seconds to sum the experience of the house. Living in this house, we have felt so connected to the movement of the sun, the clouds, the neighborhood trees, the subtle changes in weather and the slow progression of the seasons. With over 1100 square feet of glazing, of which skylights are about 10%, it really has felt like we have been living outside.

Just about every wall, window and fixture in this house seems to line up. Walls were thickened to hide ductwork, rooms adjusted to align walls and windows aligned to draw your eye to the outdoors. The courtyard tree is visible from most of the house through six large windows. Obviously, a decision was made to have this tree, but there are less obvious views captured too. Lay on the bed in the master bedroom and the windowsill height blocks off the neighbours’ rooftops and frames the treetops and big sky – that was planned. You can watch the clouds float by or the stars come out and feel like you’re at the cottage, kinda romantic. When you walk in the front door, you have a clear view straight through the house and into the backyard – that was planned too. You can see across this house, through this house to the outside and through the house from the outside, yet still feel connected to people. The open concept ground floor means there is a sight line to our kids nearly all the time.  The first floor living room visually connects to the second floor family room through the side tree courtyard. Even the top of the courtyard is connected to the sky through an oculus. Think Pantheon in Rome or an unglazed skylight. I think the small losses of floor space was a worthy sacrifice in the coliseum of housing design!

AH from front doorI am intrigued by the idea that so much goes into making a space “feel right”. What I like about that is that it doesn’t present itself all at once but grows on you, revealing elements in different light or when you take a moment to look across the house from a new angle. Bethany learned about proportion in biology as it’s found all over in nature. The architect didn’t fully agree when I suggested it was mathematical and replied it was more something they feel out. I have read about the golden ratio (visualize a snail shell) and the Modulor system etc. As an engineer, I had to measure some walls in hopes of unlocking some secrets. Of course, Bethany has teased me about this and the kids mimic me measuring when they see it. It is easy enough to look at one wall and calculate some ratios, but I quickly discovered balancing the proportion of multiple spaces mathematically would compound in difficulty. I now better understand that the architect’s approach to feeling out the design is based on a well developed instinct. Some of it can be validated mathematically but you wouldn’t design it that way.

I believe the quality of the design can contribute to the objectives of Active House. Studies done in the healthcare sector show that views are important and part of a healthy space along with daylight and fresh air. I haven’t read any studies to support how proportion and alignment contribute to comfort, but anecdotally I can share that I feel that good design can improve the comfort of a space. Architects study for years and the good ones continue to learn after they finish school on how to take so much complexity and distill it down to something that looks so simple. That’s a bit of magic in my books.