sustainable home Archives | Vancouver Architect

What is Urban Organic Architecture?

Urban organic architecture as a concept is not new, but we need to utilize modern ways to revive it in our 21-century architecture and design.

Organic shapes, inspired by nature, are the most soothing shapes existing. The foundation of organic architecture is rooted in the waking time of human civilization. The history of architecture is the fruit of instincts, just like the beehives or ant habitats. Cappadocia is an excellent example of an organically grown settlement based on intuition, without any centralized planning. We still admire the monuments to progressive design exploration in the legacies of Frank Lloyd Wright, Alvar Aalto, Antoni Gaudi, or Friedensreich Hundertwasser. 

natural architecture
natural architecture

Yet we keep building our shelters in a rigid, restrictive manner believing it’s the most economical and spacious way possible.

Organic Architecture as a Way to Reconnect 

To revive organic architecture in our homes, we need designs with natural features within the structure, or/and shaped in harmony with landscaping. Until recently, such buildings required larger lot sizes, which proved as a somewhat limiting factor in individual housing.

What urban organic architecture differs from other forms of organic architecture is the possibility to implement natural shapes and elements within smaller civil lots. A building can be an eco-friendly, sustainable structure with a psychologically harmonizing ambiance without wasting the space or compromising the economic aspect. Bringing natural elements into the living area or incorporating them into the building’s core is the first step. 

Seachelt Cabin
Seachelt Cabin

For example, green roofs communicate harmony with nature while also helping with sustainability. Chinese Feng Shui incorporates plants and water as a necessary element in their spiritual philosophy of architecture. Japanese gardens also bring natural elements to the door front to get inspired and soothe the soul. Finally, hexagonal shapes can make an ideal base in achieving zero-net levels of insulation, and a possible future of the passive houses concept.

But still, we live in cubes. Urban living implies a set of lines and forms bent in a perfect 90 degrees angle, manufactured to function as a house, office, or any place we live and work in. We call it “urban jungle” while it more resembles an industrial line.

Why?

Rectangles and cubes are perceived as the most cost-effective shape to build. It’s a practical solution that minimizes the waste of space.

But is that true?

From one point of view, if such a claim is right, then bees are all wrong. But if these hard workers, the epitome of efficiency, are right, then perhaps we need to revisit the whole concept of urban living we know today.

Cluster of Hexagon Lights

The honeycombs are marvels of precision engineering, an assemblage of prism-shaped cells in a hexagonal cross-section. The wax walls are made with accurate, adequate dimensions, with the cells gently tilted to prevent the honey from running out. Moreover, the entire comb aligns with the Earth’s magnetic field. Bees do not use any blueprint but still somehow manage to achieve geometry, symmetry, and create an efficient space. Nature is wrong much less often than we are, yet we still do not learn enough from it.

Organic Architecture is Intuitive

Bees are able to build perfect honeycombs based on evolved and inherited instincts. Simple as that. If you want to pack together identical cells so that they can fill a flat plane, only three regular shapes will work: equilateral triangles, squares, and hexagons. Now, here is one interesting thing: hexagons require the least total length of the wall, compared with triangles or squares. If bees choose hexagons to save the energy for making wax, does that mean that urban construction could be more cost-efficient based on the same principle?

Organic architecture
Organic architecture

The answer dates back to the 18th century. Charles Darwin declared that the hexagonal honeycomb is absolute perfection in economizing both labor and material.

The hexagonal grid’s efficiency demonstrates in each line being as short as possible to fill a large area with the fewest number of units. That means the honeycombs require less wax to construct while utilizing strength under compression. Simultaneously, it is one of the only shapes that tessellate perfectly, providing additional insulation benefits. 

Organic Architecture - facade
Modern Urban Organic Facade

Not Just the Bees

Hexagonal shapes are everywhere in nature. Blowing some air to the surface of the water creates a layer of bubbles. While the bubbles may appear spherical to the eye, they are more of a hexagonal shape—not always perfect 6-siders, but never square. Now, if four bubble walls come together, they rearrange into three-wall junctions. All of those are threefold, intersecting at angles of about 120 degrees.

Blowing air through a straw into a bowl of soapy water will pile up bubbles in three dimensions, creating a four-way union. The angles between the intersection planes closest resemble a tetrahedron. Very efficient, but still no squares.

Foam
Foam Structure

A single thing guiding all those patterns are the laws of physics. Nature knows its economy, being developing it far longer than humans. A water bubble’s surface tension stretches the wall to cover as much area as possible while remaining mechanically stable and in a perfect balance.

Look closely at a cluster of bubbles in a foam, and you’ll see that their edges are always curved. The pressure of the gas inside the cell changes, and the cells adapt accordingly. Some facets have three sides, some six, yet together they still acquire the tetrahedral arrangement needed for mechanical stability. This tells us that flexibility in shapes doesn’t necessarily imply disorder and loss of function—quite the contrary.

The Water Cube Project

The superior creative intelligence of nature is embodied, among others, in the Water Cube, the swimming stadium built for the Olympic Games in Beijing 2008. Yes, it appears square; however, this highly sustainable structure features several cutting-edge moments. It’s clad with translucent ETFE (ethyl tetra fluoro ethylene), a sturdy, recyclable, and ultra-lightweight material. ETFE weighs just one percent of a standard glass panel in a comparable size. The bubble cladding streams more light than glass. It acts better as an insulator, more resistant to the weathering effects of sunlight. Furthermore, it cleans itself with every rain shower.

Despite the lightweight, fragile appearance, this structural form is durable, extremely sturdy, and resistant to seismic conditions found in Beijing. 

The Water Cube is also a greenhouse. Its design allows high levels of natural daylight so that the sun’s power can passively heat the building and water in the pools. This sustainable concept reduced energy consumption by up to 30 percent. In short, the structure acts like it’s covered with photovoltaic panels, equally effective but far more beautiful. 

The Water Cube inside
The Water Cube, now a water park (Source: Aqua Center)

The Water Cube shows us how a sheet can be full of curvature without being obvious. It’s a great way to translate the traditional urban design into a smarter, more sustainable era. A minimally curved surface can turn an ordinary space into an orderly network of passageways known as periodic minimal surfaces. Just like a honeycomb or soap foam, the periodical pattern of cells repeats identically. Think of it as an upgraded train of square apartments or offices, the same model but with far more benefits.

Lessons from Nature

Just like in a foam cluster, the surface tension is stretching the foam film across a wire loop. Where the wireframe is bent, the film also bends, forming an elegant contour. This lightweight concept exists literally everywhere in nature: wings of insects, eyes, fragile exoskeletons… It’s a way to cover any space enclosed by the frame and solve the complicated structuring using the least amount of material. These minimalistic designs bear a lot of potential in terms of sustainability, beauty, and effectiveness. 

Honeycomb Stairways, Organic Architecture
Honeycomb Stairways

Tension force is what pull stretches an object to try to make it bigger or longer. Strength marks the ability of a material to resist breaking under such a force. In terms of mass to strength ratio, combining modern technologies with established organic forms is the right path to substantial architectural design improvements. Eventually, that leads us to a better overall quality of life. 

To make functional, organized networks from stiff minerals, nature makes a mold. It takes soft, flexible membranes and then crystallizes the hard material inside one of the concentrated networks. Depending on the composition, such elements can strongly bounce off the light, acting like mirrors which guide and confine. Resembling natural optical fibers, architectural structures designed on the same principles can raise energy efficiency to new levels. At the same time, it’s possible to achieve astonishing appearance effects with color changes and optical illusions.

Gardens by the Bay, Singapore - organic architecture
Gardens by the Bay, Singapore

Wright’s Principles of Organic Architecture

Frank Lloyd Wright’s organic architecture was a reinterpretation of nature’s principles. It marks a design filtered through humans’ intelligent minds to remember that they can build forms more natural than nature itself. Over a century, it reminds us to respect the harmonious relationship between the form and the function, integrating the indoor and outdoor spaces into a coherent whole.

Wright’s organic architecture principles bring harmony between shelter and nature, drawing inspiration from the natural surroundings instead of opposing or imitation. Its goal should be to secure peacefulness through simplicity. 

Lamp by Frank Lloyd Wright
Lamp by Frank Lloyd Wright

Patterns and forms present the grammar in Wright’s building’s language. This concept gives the building its unique voice. Ornamentation also serves to follow the function as a logical part of the structure, seamlessly integrated with its form.

Furniture, light fixtures, appliances, furnaces, and plumbing should be considered part of the space itself, literally growing from the design itself wherever possible.

La Sagrada Familia, ceiling detail
La Sagrada Familia, Antoni Gaudí

Urban, Organic and Human

Organic architecture is as old as civilization itself. It represents the true marriage between nature and technology, a harmony between progress and humanism. Organic architecture is a philosophy that asks questions about life itself, offering inspiration. It champions well-being, by addressing the unique needs of the individuals and society as a whole, over a soulless, uniform machinarium.

Instead of austere functionalism, we need to employ a diversity of materials, shapes, styles, and visions. Our goal should be in harmony with nature, complementing it as much as possible. It’s the idea of idealistic urban planning ideology that can lead to a happier, healthier society, inspired by beauty and well-being.

By Aryo Falakrou (My Home Designer)

Passive Houses, the Concept for the Future

The best approach to modern housing is the one which saves both your money and energy. One of the ways to get there is to improve your home’s insulation. Energy-efficient design concepts, also known as passive houses or zero-emissions homes, are great for the environment and even better for your pocket.

While it’s well known that better insulation leads to less heat loss, the passive house concept takes that further, straight into the 21st century.

Air temperature flows from warmer to cooler until the difference equalizes. When you try to heat your room, the hot wave eventually reaches all adjacent unheated spaces, sometimes getting even outdoors. It will move through ceilings, walls, and floors, towards any place where the temperature is uneven. During the cooling season, you get the same effect, always the opposite of the one you want to achieve.

Proper insulation must work to decrease this flow by providing effective resistance. Perfect insulation works with the rest of the house to turn the whole process head-to-toe and make the house self-sufficient.

sunshine coast cabin, a passive house
sunshine coast cabin

What Is a Passive House?

The Passive House concept of isolation was established by the Passivhaus Institute in Darmstadt, Germany in 1996, as a pioneering enterprise in building low-energy houses. The guiding idea was to use all common heating influences in a building – like sunshine and various daily life byproducts, as passive sources which can efficiently replace some active systems. When combined with superior insulation values, thermal bridges, and airtightness, such a system makes a significant difference, lowering typical energy consumption for over 90%.

Consistent temperatures and good air quality secure exceptional indoor comfort. Additionally, high levels of insulation reduce both external and internal noise. The vast number of benefits made the passive house concept a leading building standard of today.

Passivhaus Germany governs the global application of the concept, through the Passive House International with a subgroup organization in every country. The Passive House Canada takes care of certification, regulations, and standards for all approved buildings in its territory.

Passive house vancouver
Passive house Vancouver

Requirements for Building a Passive House

If you want a 100% successful project, you need to choose carefully. Every architect or engineer knows how to make a blueprint, but only some of them are familiar with the concept of passive objects. Even fewer know the rules and the ways to apply them.

How to know if your designer is the right one? Start by conversation. Make sure your chosen designer is not only knowledgeable but also ready to go back and forth with you and other associated parties, in order to achieve a satisfactory result.

Your designer must be able to demonstrate his knowledge in the field of passive houses. He or she has to keep all active factors in mind when designing your home, to secure the final result within the framework and PH standards. Besides that, your architect/designer will be the person responsible for coordination with all other consultants, so hiring a real expert is a crucial first step.

Who Else Involves in the Project?

  • Energy Modeler: to help with specific design details
  • Building Envelope Consultant: to oversee the building envelope details and installation
  • Passive House Certifier: to certify the valid Passive Housing process
  • Structure Engineer: to secure stability, take care of thermal bridges and other construction details
  • Survey Engineer: to collect, analyze, and manage the infrastructure details
  • Consultant Engineers: to take care of electrical, mechanical, geotechnical, and other aspects
  • Interior Designer: to adapt the layout in coordination with the concept
  • Contractors and Traders: to supply and execute, they need to be familiar with the requirements of the passive objects
Passive house West Vancouver
Passive House West Vancouver

Unlike conventional methods where contractors are chosen through tenders after the initial project phase, here it is better to have everyone engaged from the start. The design must go through energy modeling to ensure everything will meet the requirements. All the coordination with the city stuff happens within this stage. All the parties involved, including contractors and suppliers, should be informed about the details before finalizing project documentation. It will ensure that everyone knows its exact role, and help to avoid subsequent risks.

Several Phases

The final architectural construction details need adjustment by a knowledgeable structural engineer and revised to avoid any thermal bridges. In this phase, all consultants submit their drawings and calculations to the architect and ensure there’s no conflict. The final draft goes to the certifier for approval, together with all inspection reports. A person in charge of the process of getting building permits is usually the architect.

In order to assemble the proper project documentation file, coordination is essential. Not only will it secure the smooth process of getting a building permit, but also it will help in presenting the tasks to the contractor. If the interior designer, architectural designer, detail designer, and contractors manage to cover every single possible issue, it’s possible to achieve the premium (net-zero house) level of energy efficiency. That means you will receive a self-sufficient object, fully independent of a power grid.

Passive house North Vancouver
Passive House North Vancouver

Building a Passive House

The first meeting on-site happens prior to the beginning of the construction. All parties involved should be present to coordinate work and inspection schedules. After the excavation, the second meeting occurs, so that the builder can present a mock-up of the wall and roof assembly to the traders.

Upon completion of the framing, the architect should inspect the work, check for thermal bridges, and provide alternative solutions for any possible issue that occurred during this phase. Next comes the insulation with a vapor barrier installation, followed by the energy advisor performing a door blow test. Depending on the object size, this phase might stretch through several stages. This is only the first part of the test—the second one is necessary after the installation of drywall, cabinets, dry mirrors, and all finishings. The former one will confirm that all holes and penetrations have been adequately handled to minimize the possibility of leakage or the creation of new thermal bridges.

After that, all remaining tests and inspections are the same as for conventional buildings.

Passive Houses Certification Process

The central certification authority is in Germany. However, Passive House Canada will execute the whole process, and all you have to do is to show up to take over your new, future-proof, and market-friendly structure. You will receive a Certification Plaque to proudly showcase achievement and accomplishment. The plaque is like a gold medal in energy efficiency and environmental conscience. It secures the place for your passive building in the official worldwide register and adds a stamp on its market value.

Burnaby modern designer
Burnaby modern designer

Passive Houses vs Net-Zero Buildings

There are three levels of passive house standards. The first level is Standard or Classic, followed by Plus and topped with a premium, also known as Net-Zero. A Premium Passive House is independent of a power grid and entirely self-sufficient in its energy consumption.

However, not all Net Zero buildings are Passive Houses. It’s possible for a less efficient building to achieve Net Zero level as well. The key feature of a passive house is minimized/neutralized energy loss, followed by minimized energy requirements. A net-zero house is any building with self-sustainable energy production higher than its overall energy loss. 

sunshine coast modern homes
sunshine coast modern homes

Do I Have to Build an Entirely New Construction to Achieve a Passive/Net Zero Home?

Great news: you don’t! There is a program called EnterPHit, created specifically for retrofit projects and refurbishing. Through this program, it’s possible to achieve passive levels even with old objects. However, be ready for a bit more complicated process compared to the new construction. Even though all initial steps and phases are the same, the existing limits could represent obstacles that require additional solutions. All slab and wall insulation will pass through review and upgrade, in order to improve the object’s status. Windows and doors will probably have to be replaced, and any thermal bridges eliminated or at least minimized. You will have to prepare for significant changes in the interior, too.

Passive house burnaby
Passive House Burnaby

Passive Houses Price: Worth the Upfront Cost

The initial investment is, on average, up to 15-20% higher compared to the conventional building. Hiring specialized designers and workers, conducting tests and inspections, and acquiring certifications all come with additional costs. The HRV unit, functional doors, and windows are also more expensive than those commonly used.

However, there’s a different side to every coin. While all construction projects require some upfront investment, not all of them bring back some ROI. The passive house concept is a smart long-term investment which leads to lower energy consumption, less maintenance, and lower global expenses. It doesn’t improve just heating, but cooling and overall comfort, too. Last but not least, the market value of passive objects is projected to grow in the foreseeable future.

In short, the upfront cost will pay-off significantly and actually save you plenty of money in the long run.

Passive houses provide year-round stable indoor air temperature and quality. It doesn’t allow any discomfort during changing seasons. Simple and durable, this concept delivers more than a substantial reduction in energy use and operating costs—it gives you a peace of mind knowing that you do your part to save the environment and build a better world.