This “Dumb” House is Actually Pretty Smart

Hunter 3Photo by Michael Wallace

Paul Dowsett, principal in the Toronto firm of Sustainable. TO Architecture + Building, is no Luddite, but he thinks the current “smart house” mania is more than a bit overblown. His motto is “Dumb is the new smart.” Why? As he told the Toronto Globe & Mail recently,

“Smart means a lot of technology, usually expensive to buy in the first place and expensive to maintain and operate,” he said. “So our thinking is that … the dumber we can make things, the easier they are to maintain and operate, the less expensive they are to buy. That’s the gist of it.”

One of his best known low tech homes is a 2,500 square foot structure near Peterborough, Ontario that he designed a decade ago known as the Hunter House. It is constructed of straw bales on top of a concrete slab. Amazingly enough, the so-called dumb house has no central furnace — a rarity in any Canadian home. Instead it uses a small propane heater to supply radiant heating coils embedded in the slab.

Sunshine pouring in the 50 foot long glass wall on the southern side of the house provides all the heat the house requires except on the coldest days. The genius of Dowsett’s dumb house is the incorporation of core passive principles into the structure. The concrete absorbs heat from the sun all day long and gives it up slowly overnight. But in summer, the overhanging roof blocks the sun’s rays, keeping the house cool and comfortable.

“The client’s brief to us,” he says, “was for an off-grid, passive-solar, straw-bale house that had a mid-century modern image. I missed the day in school when they told us that all straw-bale houses were supposed to look like hobbit houses. The wall system has a very high insulation value, and it’s all natural – straw, and clay-based plaster inside and out, When the house has finished its life, mother nature will take all these materials back. There are no plastics, polymers, petroleum-based products in here.”

Dowsett is a believer in the principles of the Passivhaus movement that began in Germany and Scandinavia 20 years ago, although he gives those ideas his own interpretation. Mostly, it is a way of architectural thinking that believes a properly design building shouldn’t need a lot of heating and cooling to stay comfortable. Here’s what he has to say about modern, hi-tech doodads like “smart” thermostats:

“A smart thermostat uses technology and energy to adjust a changing interior environment,” Mr. Dowsett told me. “If you installed one in a properly built passive house, it would be bored stupid, because nothing ever changes in a passive house. It’s that inert. It doesn’t have wild temperature swings. Those smart thermostats are great for making a poorly built building more energy-efficient. But in my mind, we should put the smarts into the design of the building in the first place. Then we wouldn’t need smart technology to cover up all our mistakes.”

Sounds like a dumb house is a pretty smart idea.

Hunter 1

Photo by Glen Hunter