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Bringing down the cost of being green

By Mark Hacking | January 3, 2014
Bringing down the cost of being green

The idea of launching a business as the worst economic downturn in history is playing out is either inspired … or insane. Choosing to start said business with just one client – particularly when that sole client becomes one of the partners in the new venture – adds another layer of challenge.

To top it all off, when your core purpose is to provide cutting-edge environmental solutions of an architectural kind, there’s a fair amount of misinformation and some resistance to cut through. Yet, since 2009, Sustainable.TO has managed to overcome all these obstacles and, in the process, become one of the most innovative and respected architectural firms in the country.

The strategy

Principal architect Paul Dowsett has forged a reputation for listening to his clients. While this seems obvious, an established architect often possesses a healthy ego and strong convictions. A bemused Dowsett begins many stories with, “This client called because his architect wasn’t giving him what he wanted.”

When looking for an architect to renovate his 1935 art deco home and to make it more eco-friendly, David Daniels found Dowsett, who was with another firm at the time. Nearing the end of the project, Dowsett decided that it was time to strike out on his own and, pleased with their working success together, Daniels suggested they become business partners. The result is Sustainable.TO.

Although a cornerstone of the business is environmental sustainability, even here the firm’s approach differs, by leading with simpler solutions drawn from nature before involving more expensive, more technology-intensive systems. The firm takes a three-step approach with each new project: reduce the energy demand of the building, rely on passive sources of energy and then incorporate active technologies to provide any renewable energy that may be required. “The perception is that sustainability is expensive,” Dowsett explains. “But to be effective, sustainability has to come from the ground up: that means it has to be affordable for the average homeowner.”

A new home build in Willowdale, Ont., completed in 2012, provides the evidence. Named the “Willowdale Passive Solar House,” this project features solar panels to provide electricity, along with geothermal heating and cooling. But it also incorporates an airtight envelope, a self-venting and highly reflective metal roof, sun shading, rainwater collection and grey water reuse. This list of innovations may sound wildly expensive, but the costs came in at just $165 per square foot – less than the average new home build. The clients, a couple of actuaries, were very pleased with the outcome, particularly as their monthly energy bills are $0.

The results

The company has experienced impressive year-over-year growth right from the start (the partners estimate 50 per cent a year since 2009) and has expanded from being a two-man operation to a firm that employs 10 people. Furthermore, the firm has received significant recognition in its brief history. Last year, Dowsett became the first architect to receive Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation’s (CMHC) Healthy Housing Recognition for a lifetime commitment to healthy housing practices. In 2011, the firm won a prestigious international competition for designing a passive house for New Orleans, a response to the devastation from Hurricane Katrina, in a very challenging building climate. Earlier this year, they won another big competition, this one to design a home suited to helping reestablish the Far Rockaway neighbourhood of Queens, New York, the area hit hard by Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Looking forward

The message of “affordable sustainability” is gaining traction, particularly in areas where recovery is a key consideration. Building on its successes with the New Orleans and the New York projects, Sustinable.TO is embarking on what could well be its most promising venture yet: affordable, healthy, sustainable housing for Canada’s native communities. Dowsett and Daniels are in the process of bringing together all the key stakeholders to work on a solution to this complex, politically charged situation. 

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