WORDS BY DANI KUEPFER; PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN & JASON HARTOG
‘People know what it’s like to live in a house that’s uncomfortable,’ James tells me, and I nod, maybe a bit too eagerly, ‘but they don’t often make a connection between the absence of comfort and environmental inefficiencies.’ He continues: ‘Our goal is to build sustainable and energy-efficient homes that will also ensure that our clients are comfortable in their everyday lives.’
It’s later afternoon, early June, and James Savoie and I are sitting across the kitchen table from one another at his home in Arkell – just outside Guelph. From my perch near the window, I can see the swelling wave of rush-hour traffic backed up from a nearby four-way stop – Arkell’s main intersection. A gaggle of cyclists cruises past – no doubt on their way to Flow State Bicycle Company (just out of my line of vision) for coffee and a treat. Two dog walkers mosey by, canine pals straining at their leashes. It’s a hustle-bustle world out there, yet I hear nothing. Indeed, the entire scene plays out like a silent movie. In fact, the only sounds I hear are the soft laughter of James’ wife, Katherine, and the gentle pitter-patter of their toddler Brooks’ feet coming down the hallway towards us.
‘It’s all in the insulation and windows,’ James tells me when I ask how things inside James’ and Katherine’s house can be so eerily-quiet – despite the action just outside their kitchen window. ‘Watch this,’ he instructs, while he gets up from the table. He cracks the window open a touch. Instantly, the house – set back only a few feet from busy Arkell Road – is filled with the outside clamber of the day. Honking. Barking. Chatter. James seals the window, and the place goes quiet, restful, calm again.
Comfort in the everyday.
Before James and Katherine purchased this Arkell home back in 2018, it was a quintessential small hamlet abode. Reasonably cozy. Over a hundred and fifty years old. A bit run down. And just perfect for an intensive (and extensive) overhaul by James and the company he co-owns, Frontiers Design + Build, that could put into practice a philosophy in homebuilding near and dear to James’ heart: deep energy retrofitting. James and his business partners, Doug and Adam Taylor, started Frontiers in 2008 as a landscaping company, but eventually converted it into an enterprise focusing on renovations and custom builds. By 2018 the Frontiers crew knew they wanted to focus on radically energy- efficient homes – and that they wanted to emphasize the element of comfort in these homes as a selling point. And so they began with James’ and Katherine’s home in Arkell.
At first glance, the place doesn’t give away any hints that it’s undergone a deep energy retrofit. Not that it doesn’t show signs of Frontiers’ fantastic design and build work – because it does. The exterior of the house is wrapped in streamlined horizontal wood siding, for starters, signaling to passersby that it’s undergone renovations. It’s the inside of the building that really highlights Frontiers’ work, though. The main house – once a myriad of tiny rooms – has been completely opened up into a single open concept space that combines living room and kitchen (including the table where James and I chat). It’s a perfect mix of calm, contemporary finishes and thoughtfully-preserved century features. The modern kitchen featuring earthy tan and matte black, for instance, is complemented by the building’s original rafters and brick walls dipped in a fresh coat of white paint. A floating staircase, all raw iron and wood, cuts diagonally across that painted brick wall. Clean. Simple. Plain gorgeous.
Walk through the kitchen and you’ll find yourself in an expansive addition at the back of the house. Featuring a cathedral ceiling, moody black walls (which contrast elegantly with the lighter tones at the front), and a fireplace, this back room has a chalet feel that just begs for relaxing with a book and a glass of wine after a day’s work.
Every bit of James’ and Katherine’s house looks and feels snug, cozy, restful. Comfortable. I tell James that I could picture living here – unwinding in this kitchen, or in the cathedral ceiling addition, forever. ‘It’s so easy on the eyes,’ I hear myself saying – taking it all in. He nods, before remarking that ‘it’s actually what you can’t see that makes it most appealing.’ Indeed, behind these fantastic finishes is the true magic of the place – and what actually has me feeling so serene. ‘Besides the triple pane windows,’ James explains, ‘we built a continuous air barrier around the exterior of the entire home. And we built in mechanical ventilation with heat recovery for continuous fresh filtered air.’
While James did not end up certifying the building as a Passive House, he is strongly in favour of certification. ‘We definitely encourage our clients to certify,’ he says, ‘and aim to build Passive Houses in our work.’
Passive Houses. If you’re even vaguely interested in design trends, green tech, or German engineering, you’ve probably heard of this technology. Passive House (or Passivhaus) is a construction concept that refers to a super-sealed home that requires significantly less energy to maintain. An ‘envelope- first approach,’ as James explains, calls for a high-quality layer of insulation that wraps the home as a single piece, sans gaps. Add in triple pane windows, strategically positioned to maximize the sun’s energy, and airtight seals throughout, and you have a superiorly-insulated home. In addition to this envelope, Passive Houses employ a heat-recovering ventilation system (HRV) that squeezes even more out of what little energy the home does use. An airtight home maintains its temperature better, not only saving energy and lowering utility bills, but preserving the structure itself for centuries to come. Without thermal gaps, the home is more resilient both to condensation and to expanding and contracting through the dramatic temperature changes of Ontario’s summers and winters.
Passive Houses are built with meticulous attention to detail and unparalleled quality materials; they require less to operate on a daily basis and less maintenance over time. ‘Energy savings are intrinsic to better building physics,’ James explains. ‘We’re not building spaceships here – just really good homes.’ And, of course, Passive House principles lead to more comfortable homes. In the calm of James’ kitchen, for example, it’s hard to ignore the immediate value – luxurious, inimitable comfort – of things well built. Moreover, high performance homes, thanks to their ultra- sealed container, maintain temperature better and reduce cold spots, allowing you to fully utilize every nook and corner of your home throughout the seasons. They’re also incredibly quiet, as I’ve already observed, thanks to doors and window panes that measure nearly three inches thick. The ventilation system provides clean, healthy air, free of pollutants and allergens.
‘We want to encourage homeowners to see this technology as an investment in their family’s wellbeing,’ James tells me, ‘and a realistic option for the immediate future.’ Frontiers and other builders in town are also looking to see legislative change that supports the integration of this technology into our region’s growth plans. Cities like Vancouver have Passive House concepts such as airtightness already built into their building code; Ontario’s standards, on the other hand, are due for a much-needed update – especially in light of the ongoing climate crisis and the uncertainty of energy costs. The technologies used in high performance homes go well beyond the minimum standard required by Ontario’s building code, framing energy efficiency as a luxury option for the socially- conscious homebuyer rather than part of a long-term housing strategy.
James likens Passive House technologies to popular home upgrades like quartz countertops and hardwood floors, rather than to a full-blown lifestyle change. The key difference, though, is that this five to ten percent increase in upfront cost begins paying off the day you move in, as homeowners see a sixty to eighty percent reduction in their home’s energy use. And while building this technology in from the start is most ideal, the Frontiers team has had great success with high performance renovations.
Environmental efficiency is often associated solely with new products – from luxury EVs to trendy reusable versions of household products. But this view hugely undervalues the potential to get more out of what we already own – homes included. The Savoies’ century home renovation is just one shining example of the possibilities embedded in technologies that allow us to make better what we already have. Imagine your home office impermeable to outside noise, or your workshop temperature controlled through the seasons – all this while using ninety percent less energy for heating and cooling. Or, even better, experience it for yourself in one of south Guelph’s favourite neighbourhoods, just steps from Preservation Park, where Frontiers is soon breaking ground on three certified Passive Houses.
We’re lucky to live in a place where respite from the vibrations of the city is only a short drive away. At the same time, while we might love any opportunity for a change of scenery, there’s something deeply comforting about the possibility of creating respite within the walls of our own homes – while investing in the earth that our homes rest upon.