ECOstudio: Building the Future of Sustainable Living

A mock-up design of the solarBLOCK house which is expected to be completed by 2018. Photo courtesy of ECOstudio.

It was during a geography lecture that Jamie Fine decided he wanted to make a difference in the world.

“We learned about the environmental impacts that humans have on the Earth, and something about that resonated with me,” Fine said.

“I really felt the need to make some sort of difference in reducing the footprint that humans have on the planet.”

So he did. Fine, now a PhD student at Ryerson, is the project manager of a group called ECOstudio that’s working to create a house completely powered by solar energy.

ECOstudio is a combination of students and faculty from Ryerson University, the University of Toronto and Seneca College. The project itself is called solarBLOCK, and it aims to provide a sustainable, urban lifestyle for modern families.

“We are building a more sustainable building type in a holistic way… And it can be a very efficient and attractive form of housing for the future,” said Cheryl Atkinson, an architectural science professor at Ryerson and architecture faculty lead with ECOstudio.

The initial plan was to build the solar-powered house for the 2017 Solar Decathlon in China, but Atkinson said it didn’t seem sustainable to build an energy efficient house just to ship it across the world and back.

“The whole point of doing a building like this is not to put it on display in another country, but to be able to test it over time,” she said.

“It is more important to focus on solarBLOCK as a research tool.”

In the end, solarBLOCK’s goal is to redesign urban housing developments to reduce average greenhouse gas emissions, paving the way for a greener future. Those working on the project hope to show Torontonians they can still live their ordinary lives using solar-powered energy, rather than natural gas.

ECOstudio’s plan is to stack these solar-powered houses on top of shops and restaurants in urban Toronto as an energy-efficient alternative to building condominium buildings.

“This is something for future residential housing in Canada, especially in urban environments,” said Alan Fung, a Ryerson mechanical engineering professor and ECOstudio mechanical lead.

“[solarBLOCK] does not look like a normal detached home, but this makes it easier to put along major roadways within the city, like King Street or Queen Street.”

Environment Canada reported Canada’s total greenhouse gas emissions in 2014 were 732 megatonnes–20 per cent above emission levels in 1990. Ontario has the second highest emission levels in Canada, next to Alberta.

Fung says statistics like that are why solarBLOCK is so important.

“Our building sector consumers roughly 30 per cent of Canada’s total fossil fuel energy and transportation is approximately 40 per cent,” he said.

“These sectors thus emit a lot of greenhouse gases, and solarBLOCK is a cost-effective solution to this.”

Atkinson said she agrees, and Toronto’s current single-family, detached homes are not models for a greener future. Having houses in the outer suburbs, requiring residents to make long commutes, only worsens the problem, she said.

“[solarBLOCK] is part of a collective building so that it is not just a single-family, free-standing house that sits in the suburbs,” she said.

“If you really want to be sustainable you don’t build detached homes. It is much more efficient urbanistically… to have a building located in the centre of the city connected into existing infrastructure.”

Philip Walsh, a faculty lead with ECOstudio and a professor at Ted Rogers School of Management, said this method of stacking the homes along urban city streets not only saves energy within the houses but also outside them. By building housing on top of existing power lines, it’s easier to get electricity to these homes.

According to Walsh, the notion of solar-powered housing would change the way Torontonians live. Current neighbourhoods could be revamped so that they’re completely emission-free.

“In terms of being able to contribute to the sustainability of the planet, the economic sustainability of the neighborhood and the social sustainability of the community, this project hits all three,” said Walsh.

The solarBLOCK project is currently in the design and prototyping phase, but the team will begin building the house this summer.

The project is set to be completed by mid-2018 and have a permanent home at the Living City Campus at the Kortright Conservation Area. The campus, which is west of Vaughn, is a leading centre for sustainability education and research.

There, the ECOstudio team will start its five-year research plan on the technologies and practices of solarBLOCK to help build sustainable cities  in the future.

The ECOstudio team. Photo courtesy of ECOstudio.

The students and faculty of ECOstudio, who are currently designing a house completely powered by solar energy Photo courtesy of ECOstudio.

For Fine, solarBLOCK is an essential first step towards pursuing renewable energy sources in creating a viable housing future in Toronto.

“Our planet’s climate is reaching some tipping points,” Fine said.

“We need to do something now to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and increase the sustainability of human life.”