Active House, a Danish concept that aims to make houses more comfortable and healthier as well as kinder on the environment, has come to Canada in a 20-unit townhouse development in downtown Toronto.

"There are people out there building single homes who are driven toward using net zero energy, for example, but they are not really focussing on the people living in the house," says Nels Moxness, CEO of Velux Canada. "The beauty of Active House is that it’s a balance of energy, indoor climate and the environment."

Moxness says Active House is an open concept that was created by "40 or 50 like-minded companies" into a not-for-profit organization to improve housing design. "There are academics, builders, architects…and we all want to build better homes and create a better living environment for the homeowner," says Moxness.

Using Active House concepts, the Lighthaus project in Toronto "combines all the elements that make us happy," says Tad Putyra, president and chief operating officer, low-rise for builder Great Gulf. Putyra is also on the Board Advisory Committee for Active House.

All the homes in Lighthaus are built around a three-storey lightwell topped by an automated skylight that moderates the air flow to provide temperature control. It has a carbon monoxide detector that will automatically open the skylight when levels reach a predetermined level. There are also skylights in other rooms in the units.

The light well is topped with a Velux VMS skylight – the first time this unit has been used in North America. Moxness says the unit is 200 times more thermally efficient than an aluminum skylight and is a "game-changer".

He says: "The key to it is its fibreglass protrusion, which allows the strength and slimness of the profiles. You are getting a very well-insulated thermally broken plane and a sophisticated look and no visually moving parts."

The units can also be combined to create, for example, an atrium, and are ideal for commercial applications. However, they are currently only available in Europe and will not likely to be offered in Canada until 2014, says Moxness.

In Lighthaus, energy-efficient building materials include advanced mechanical systems, low-e argon gas filled glazing on windows, extra insulation and superior air tightness, say the builders. The landscaping includes an underground cistern that collects rainwater and snow melt for garden irrigation.

The homes range from 2,200 to 3,386 square feet and each one comes with a two-car garage and a private backyard terrace. Prices range from $1.15 million to $1.4 million.

Putyra says the development is "a recognition that many families don’t want to have to choose between city and suburban amenities, or between luxurious living and being environmentally responsible."

The architect for the contemporary Lighthaus townhomes is Bradley Netkin of STAMP Architecture in Toronto. "We believe Toronto can handle modern architecture," he says, while acknowledging that "we did have to deal with all sorts of local issues". The designers say the homes are modeled around family interaction and individual privacy. "Every detail, down to the placement of the furniture, is integral to our design approach," say the developers.

The units also create an interaction between indoors and outdoors. Landscape architect Janet Rosenberg says the backyard terraces are designed to act as "another living room."

Interior designer Anna Simone praised Great Gulf for its approach to the project. "This is the first time that a major developer has taken the initiative to take this level of customization to the masses." Despite that fact that it’s a townhome, she says 14 people can sit around the table/work island in the kitchen area, and another 14 could be in the living room at the same time. She says the key to the success of the project is in the attention to the details of the design.

Putrya says Great Gulf is convinced that Toronto will embrace the new concepts. The company is also working on a prototype of a single-family Active House in the Niagara area, but it is not ready to release details.

"North Americans spend more than 90 per cent of our time indoors and so it is important that we maximize the amount of natural daylight in our homes," says Moxness. "Daylight and fresh air refresh us. They help us think, perform better and boost our spirits."

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