Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape
Designed by architects Richard Unterthiner and Geoffrey Turnbull, the all-season residence swaps a furnace or boiler for a Zehnder heat recovery ventilation system with an electric post heater attached to it. “It’s essentially a hair dryer hooked up to a ventilator,” explains Turnbull. Working in tandem with hefty insulation, ultra tight sealing and strategic window placements, the set-up promises to keep the home’s annual thermal energy demand around nine kilowatt hours per square metre — well below the Passive House threshold of 15.
But the project also includes another key twist — or rather, a pinch. Along the top of the cross-laminated timber structure, 26 unique pairs of glulam rafters become progressively steeper as they march from the home’s gently peaked western gable to a much sharper pitch at its eastern end. Besides carving out space for an upstairs loft that acts as a flexible reading, working or sleeping area, this rhythmic gesture also gives the home its name: Angle of Repose.
The moniker has its origins in an early project by Levy’s friend Julie Bargmann, the landscape architect who founded and leads
Angle of Repose’s facade, meanwhile, works to address the second part of Levy’s brief, which called for a building that would feel “inscrutable.” Sure enough, visitors initially arrive to find a monolithic form that is as commanding as it is perplexing. Apart from a camouflaged door and a single tiny window above the kitchen sink, black shingles from Diamond Steel Roofing wrap the entire northern elevation in a quilted pattern that evokes a sleek winter puffer coat. This cladding continues along the rest of the building’s exterior, including its distinctive hyperbolic paraboloid roof.
But as you step inside, the home undergoes a dramatic shift — “from ash to almond,” as Unterthiner puts it. The nearly all-wood interior (even the kitchen backsplash is done up in tempered transparent glass so as to not distract from the timber walls behind it) reflects Levy’s desire for a “homogeneous object” while also speaking to the surrounding forest, framed within the supersized windows installed along the home’s southern and western elevations to harness the free heat offered by the sun. “When you approach the house from the north, you get the object reading,” says Levy. “And then you go around the corner to the south, and that’s the working side that allows it to operate as a Passive House.”
Granted, the building’s performance also depended on rigorous sealing. To help with the Passive House learning curve, contractor
The team also took embodied carbon seriously, using cellulose insulation rather than foam, for instance, to lower emissions. Turnbull points to the home’s insulated slab-on-grade foundation and metal cladding as the two biggest contributors to its carbon footprint, but says the emissions associated with its construction are still less than half those associated with a typical residential new build in Ontario — and, of course, from here on out, “its operating emissions are going to be five per cent of what a typical house would produce.”
Despite her career in art history, Levy was clear from the project’s inception that she wouldn’t be hanging anything on the walls. “The windows are the art — the landscape is the art,” she says. She is similarly resistant to drawing links between the design and the baroque focus of her studies. “I worked on a dissertation topic about the late-17th-century chapel of St. Ignatius, and people have said that this house feels like a cathedral, which I’m ambivalent about. But maybe that just means that they feel uplifted by it.”
Still, there is one connection to Levy’s job: Unterthiner is the partner of one of her former PhD students. (Now based in New York, he works as the design director at
Levy hopes that the completed project might just prompt a few of her future guests to rethink their own relationships to the environment. “If this can help people imagine how to build a Passive House, that would be very exciting,” she says. While the baroque period was defined by over-the-top extravagance, this quiet, modern sanctuary is instead a sensitive tribute to its natural setting. Like the spine of rafters that runs along Angle of Repose, design marches forward.