By Phil Roberts…
We can sometimes overlook the familiar in our constant search for something new. Architect Dominique Laroche believes this is true for the material of wood. “I’m very big on wood,” he says with earnest. “Wood is a carbon sink, widely available in Canada, many local artisans use wood. It’s a tactile material that people like to touch, more so than gypsum. People relate to wood, because it has an important historical usage.”
His own residence, Refuge à Saint-Calixte just north of Montréal, fits so perfectly into its site that it almost disappears into the surrounding dense forests. He describes the house in sharp detail:
“Most of the window openings are located on the south façade to harness the sun’s energy during the winter (deciduous forest), making the house incredibly luminous and naturally warm in the cold seasons. Starting in the spring, the trees block an important proportion of direct sunlight and prevent overheating during the warmer seasons. Even though direct sunlight is thus reduced during summer, indirect daylight still gets deep into the space since the windows are mostly floor to ceilings, and the ceilings in the main spaces average about 12′ in height. In addition to this, summer setting sun penetrates directly through the very high northern clerestory windows and hit the surface of the inclined roof, thereby illuminating the main spaces until late evening, all summer.”
He tells me about a day when it was -25°C for most of the day, but he only had to use the heating for 4 to 5 hours. “Even in a Nordic climate like ours, it is possible to do things like that.”
For Dominique, sustainability should be seen as an integral part of a building’s design, and not merely seen as a voluntary add-on. His Bibliothèque Net Zéro in Varennes, east of Montréal, will be a net zero building and he has a condo project going up in Old Montreal that will have solar shading on the Western side to reduce over-heating from sunset light.
Unfortunately, he has never been approached by residential clients looking to do a LEED project, except for one project in Ottawa, though he thinks that the certification is getting more well known. Cost, he says, might be part of the reason.
Dominique has studied and practised architecture in India, Colombia and England, but has an strong sense of attachment to his native Quebec.
“In Quebec, a lot of homes are not designed by architects. Home builders and companies who sell ready-made plans do that. Here, architect-design homes are not sought after, like in other places. People just don’t see the value.” He praises Lucie Lavigne, a journalist for one of Montréal’s French-language newspapers, La Presse, who writes a weekly column on homes in the area designed by architects, and hopes that more Quebecers will see the value in commissioning an architect to design their next home. “What she is doing has been very encouraging to some of my colleagues and to myself.”
Dominique desires to see a time when more people appreciate the expertise that an architect can bring to a home. Structures that hit all the standards of comfort and well being of the occupants, and turn away from the mass-produces homes which can take issues of sustainability for granted. “Passive solar buildings are in my opinion massively underrated,” he opines. “Putting windows on the right side of a house is important, and some people still don’t understand that. Developers don’t get it either. When I start a project, the first thing that I look at is how it can be naturally heated.”
Phil Roberts is the creative director of sixty7 Architecture Road.