I’ve had the privilege and pleasure of knowing Paul Dowsett, the founding Principal Architect at SUSTAINABLE.TO Architecture + Building, for the last two years.  Since we first met, I’ve been impressed and awed with his professional and personal passion for sustainability.  His work with Passive House and Net Zero principles on both urban and rural projects shows that the implementation of sustainability is not only possible, but practical.

Paul kindly found some time in his hectic schedule to answer a couple of questions about himself, his practice, and how the two are interlinked with sustainability.

SR: How did you come to focus on sustainable and green architecture?  Was there a watershed moment, or did you always have an inclination?

I have always had an inclination toward sustainability. I grew up with parents who were very sustainably minded before it was trendy to be so. While in his 20s, my father was involved with teaching, or perhaps more correctly re-teaching, indigenous peoples in the Northwest Territories to live sustainably, showing them how to optimally use what was available to them. My mother was also sustainably minded, but in a different way. It made sense to her to save up and buy quality items, something that would last, and more importantly maintain it to last.

Because of this upbringing, I’ve never seen another way of doing things. It has been instilled in me to always use what nature provides first, to build for durability, longevity, and quality, and to care for and maintain what you have. I have brought these ideas with me as the ethos of SUSTAINABLE.TO, and all the while, the “sustainable” movement has been growing up around us.

SR: Your company has a significant focus on green architecture.  What are some of the differences between green architecture and conventional architecture?

The key difference is that green architecture utilizes a holistic and integrated design process, which means that we get everyone possible involved at the very beginning, from the client and designer to the engineer and the contractor. Careful consideration is taken during all parts of the project from the onset, to ensure that the building is designed to perform at the highest level at the most reasonable cost. Another important aspect of green architecture is that it tends to take a step back from the building and to look at the site and the surrounding context. A truly green building needs to utilize natural systems such as solar energy and wind as much as possible, and the orientation on the site plays a huge role in this.

SR: You’ve done a lot of work with single family homes here in Toronto.  In your mind, why aren’t more home-owners embracing sustainability on renovation or new build projects?

I believe there is a myth around green building and green renovations being more expensive than traditional building practices. One of the reasons that this myth exists is that companies that are selling expensive technologies, such as solar systems and geothermal, have large marketing budgets to promote them as “green”. Painting expensive technologies and the latest flash as sustainable or green is a huge barrier to widespread uptake.

SUSTAINABLE.TO has proven time and time again that sustainability is not derived from any particular material or technology, but in the thoughtful design using passive principles to reuse what nature provides for free. Although it is inevitably true that adding extra insulation will add to building costs, the benefits of reducing energy demand will payback in the long run. Simply orienting windows to the south to utilize free heat from the sun in winter, with integrated shading that blocks the higher summer sun, can have a significant positive impact on both heating and cooling requirements.

One project in particular, our Willowdale Passive Solar House, ended up costing the same to building per square foot as the neighbouring houses. The homeowners each had personal goals for the project. The husband’s mandate was that the home be as close to net-zero energy as possible. This means that as much energy that is used in the house must be equally generated on the roof using solar photovoltaic panels. His wife’s mandate was to have her family live in as healthy a home as possible. These ideas are not mutually exclusive and this home not only achieved LEED Gold, but it also won the CMHC Healthy Housing award in 2012.

SR: You’ve worked on some really amazing projects, including renovations for residential, commercial, and retail, international design competitions, and off-the-grid housing.  What project stands out the most to you and why?

Although each project is inherently unique, one project in particular stands out to me. The Hunter House is an off-grid passive solar house located just outside of Toronto. Designed by me in 2002, and completed in 2003, the home has been continuously occupied by a growing family. SUSTAINABLE.TO has been involved in the changes to the property since 2009.

The reason that this home stands out is that it truly epitomizes SUSTAINABLE.TO’s ethos of passive sustainable design – particularly that ‘Simple is the new Smart’. The walls are built of straw bale, a natural waste product from the farming industry. The house is oriented south with large windows to allow for sunlight to penetrate in the winter, while a large overhang blocks the south summer sun. The floors are poured concrete, which absorb and store heat from the sun during the day and radiate the heat at night, keeping the house warm in the winter. The concrete works inversely in the summer to keep the space feeling cool. The large windows to the south also offer psychological feelings of comfort, since in the winter the space is filled with sunlight making it feel warm, and in the summer the space is fully shaded, feeling cool and cave-like.

Hunter House Construction
Straw bale construction of the exterior walls of the Hunter House

Within the floors are radiant heating tubes that circulate hot water to warm up spaces when some extra heating is needed. On the roof, there is a small solar photovoltaic (PV) system and two solar hot water panels. The solar PV system is connected to 8 batteries that store the energy for use throughout the day. This system meets all of the home’s electricity requirements.

Solar panels and a wind turbine (backup) supply all the electricity for the Hunter House
Solar panels and a wind turbine (in the background) supply all the electricity for the Hunter House

The great thing about this project is that it is simple – an off-grid home that is comfortable, energy-efficient and sustainable. It utilizes SUSTAINABLE.TO’s reduce, reuse, recycle approach, where we first reduce energy demand with good insulation and air tightness, then reuse what nature provides for free through passive design strategies, and finally recycle renewable energy from nature (the sun in this case) to supplement the remainder of the low energy requirement.

Because there are only a few, simple mechanical systems, optimizing the building’s performance and adapting to the unpredictable is a simple exercise.  A case in point is the thermal mass, which was initially limited to the concrete floors to absorb and re-radiate the heat energy from the sun. When the house was initially occupied, we realized that it was ‘over-glassed and under-massed’, meaning that there was too much south-facing glass for the amount of concrete in the floors. The first winter proved this on cold but sunny February days, when he house over-heated just from the sun. The following summer, as planned, the homeowners collected fieldstones and built a 4,000 lb drystack halfwall to absorb and re-radiate the excess heat. Since then, the temperature balance has been great throughout all seasons.

The interior of the Hunter House is laid out to take advantage of the generous amount of daylight from the south-facing windows

SR: Do you see the focus on sustainability shifting over the next 5 years? 

We have seen an extensive shift in how sustainability is viewed and is being practiced over the past 6 years that SUSTAINABLE.TO has been in operation. I expect that over the next five years, this growth will happen more rapidly and exponentially. With the growing acceptance that climate change is a real concern and that changes need to be made in this decade, I believe we will see this have a large impact on more sustainable development for the future. This was shown by world leaders in the COP21 meeting in Paris. Also, our change in Federal Government this year will definitely see a shift in focus on sustainability over at least the next four years, and inevitably more over the next 20 years.

SR: If you could change one aspect of the industry to encourage more sustainable practices, what would it be?

In order to encourage widespread uptake of sustainable practices, the bottom line is that costs need to be reduced for certain specialty products and technologies. While sustainable practices can be cost neutral, as mentioned earlier, it would be great if the cost of products such as specialty insulation and high-performance windows could see a reduction, or even become subsidized. Additionally, we have to get away from the mentality of ‘minimum is enough’. Often when a project budget is re-evaluated, insulation above the minimum requirement is the first thing to go. However, this is arguably one of the most important materials in a building project, since it reduces energy demand, keeps occupants comfortable, and also keeps the structure of the building protected and thus more durable.

Subsidies for green technologies and products get a lot of flack from taxpayers, because they feel they are being over-taxed and that green technologies simply aren’t yet feasible. However, what many taxpayers don’t realize is the immense subsidies being given to the fossil fuel industry, which have been occurring for almost a century. Subsidizing green products and technologies to reduce energy demand and the use of fossil fuels makes sense – environmentally and financially.

SR: How would you suggest people get more involved or active in the sustainability field? 

Put pressure on your politicians at all levels of government as well as local groups to make changes, like those mentioned above, happen.

Additionally, every industry can operate more sustainably.  Look to find ways to operate more sustainably and become a champion within your industry. There are always ways to better optimize processes to be more efficient and environmentally-conscious. Prove that sustainability should not and does not cost more.

SR: It is important to find inspiration wherever you can.  Outside your practice and professional life, what are people doing that inspire you?

I have been volunteering with the Ontario Track 3 Ski Association for 28 years, teaching children with disabilities to ski and to snowboard. Last year, I was involved with the National Disabled American Veterans Association teaching disabled veterans to ski and to snowboard at a week-long Winter Sports Clinic in Colorado. Also, in the last few years, I have begun volunteering with the Queen’s Quay Disabled Sailing Program teaching kids with disabilities to sail. For each of these organizations, the volunteers inspire me in their outstanding dedication to helping others by the giving of their time and hearts. Moreso, the children and veterans inspire me in their determination and perseverance to overcome the obstacles which life has thrown in their way.

Paul (2nd from the right) and some of the SUSTAINABLE.TO team.
Paul (2nd from the right) and the SUSTAINABLE.TO team.

Principal Architect, SUSTAINABLE.TO
OAA, MRAIC, LEED AP, CanPHI Passive House Planner, Congress for The New Urbanism Advocate

Paul Dowsett (second from right) is the founding Principal Architect at SUSTAINABLE.TO Architecture + Building, a professional architecture practice established in 2009. SUSTAINABLE.TO is a leader in an emerging movement of pragmatic sustainability – simple is the new smart – specializing in affordable, healthy and energy-efficient design. With more than three decades of local and international residential, institutional and commercial sustainable design and project management experience, Paul is uniquely qualified to lead a highly collaborative design team for projects of diverse scales, types, and complexities. At the core of his philosophy and practice is the belief that design and construction solutions should be simple, sensitive, and sustainable.  To learn more about Paul or his team’s impressive work, visit their website at http://sustainable.to/