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The North House Project




The North House is a prefabricated solar-powered home that was researched, designed, developed and built by an interdisciplinary collaborative team that included members from the University of Waterloo, Ryerson University and Simon Fraser University. University professors and students with expertise across a range of engineering disciplines, sustainable architectural design, industrial design, responsive envelope design, interactive technology design, and building science were joined by leading industry professionals bringing software engineering, advanced custom manufacturing experience, project management, and mechanical manufacturing expertise.


Dedicated to the development of new applications of technology within the high-performance building sector, North House boasts many technical innovations, both by creating new systems and by expanding the range of use for off-the-shelf products. North House is the next generation of residential buildings designed specifically for northern climates that will produce more energy than they consume by combining active solar energy production with active building envelope assemblies, and energy efficient building systems.


In October 2009, the North House prototype was erected on the National Mall in Washington D.C., successfully competing against nineteen international university teams in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, a competition to design, build, and operate the most attractive and energy-efficient solar- powered house. The North House placed fourth overall, and during the competition was toured by over 17 thousand visitors.



Assembly Axonometrics for North House. Top Image depicts how the assembled living space fits within the constructed deck landscape. Bottom Image depicts how the densepack was assembled and what mechanical and plumbing systems are contained within.


On it’s new site at RARE, the North House will be a living laboratory for extensive performance monitoring and testing, as well as a highly visible site of public demonstration and education in solar living and energy conservation. Moreover, North House is designed to be assembled of factory-built components that combine modular and panelized assemblies. The prototype fabrication will provide research data and test the viability of producing cost-effective factory built homes based on the North House prototype, introducing a potential new sector in Ontario. All of its energy harvesting and energy conserving features are co-ordinated by an intelligent controls system which allows for optimal use of the different systems while providing owners with detailed energy consumption data.


In northern climates, space heating dominates energy demand compared to all other energy end uses in buildings. North House minimizes heating load by using a highly insulated thermal envelope and by making use of passive solar heating. While the conventional wisdom in a northern climate is that any window in a building envelope is an energy liability relative to conventional opaque insulated layers. The North House’s glazed façade passively heats the house in cold weather, and blocks unwanted heat gain using automated exterior blinds in the summer. North House is also anticipated to produce twice as much energy as it consumes annually. The design combines active high efficiency PV roof modules with an encapsulated monocrystalline* (see glossary) exterior building cladding and solar thermal systems to produce domestic hot water. Expected electricity production 10,940 kwh/yr without snow and 9,846 kwh/yr with snow, and 3900 kwh/yr of heat collected by solar thermal. This was calculated using day by day analysis - the energy models actually used hourly data collection based on the relationship of the interaction of the variables that are inputted into the energy model which included: Weather File (hourly weather data based on historical measurements), occupancy schedules,envelope/ equipment/ appliance loads, thermal mass etc. All of its energy harvesting and energy conserving features are co-ordinated by an intelligent controls system which allows for optimal use of the different systems while providing owners with detailed energy consumption data.




Assembly Axonometrics for North House. Top most Image depicts how the assembled living space fits within the constructed deck landscape. The image immediately above is an exploded axonometric of the primary living space.



The Image above depicts how the densepack was assembled and what mechanical and plumbing systems are contained within.


Glossary of Technical Terms 

hysterisis control algorithm - hysterisis is used to control the sensitivity of inputs.  A hysterisis control algorithm is the lag between making a change, such as increasing or decreasing power, and the response or effect of that change.  It typically refers to turn-on and turn-off points in electrical, electronic and mechanical systems.  For example, if a thermostat is set for 24 deg. C - it turns on when it reaches 22 deg. C and turns off when reaching 26 deg. C, the hysterisis is the range from 22 to 26 deg. C.  If one decreases the hysterisis the sensitivity of the controller is increased.

evacuated tube solar thermal collectors - one of 2 types of thermal collectors that absorb heat from the sun and transfer it to heat domestic hot water systems.  The other kind is a flat plate collector. The key in both designs is to absorb high levels of solar radiation, while minimizing losses from reflection and heat loss to the surrounding environment.  The design is at it basic as a glass tube with an absorber plate inside.  Because the space inside the tube is a vacuum, which is a far superior insulator than air, these collectors have much better heat retention than flat plate collectors.  Individual tubes can be carried to the location and assembled in place, rather than lifting the entire collector.  Evacuated tubes solar thermal collectors are more expensive than flat plate collectors, but typically work more efficiently at higher temperatures and in cloudy weather.

building integrated photovoltaics (BIPV) - are photovoltic materials that are used to replace conventional building materials in parts of a building.  They can be used anywhere in the envelope of the building, including the roof, skylights or facade.  The advantage of BIPV over non-integrated systems is that the initial cost can be offset by reducing the amount spent on building materials and labour that would normally be used to construct the part of the building the BIPV replaces.

encapsulated monocrystalline photovoltaics - a photovoltaic module is composed of interconnected cells that are encapsulated (enclosed in a protective coating) between a glass cover and weatherproof backing.  Most solar cells are made of silicon.  Monocrystalline silicon cells are made using cells saw cut from a single cylindrical crystal of silicon, this is the most efficient of all PV technologies.  The principal advantage is that the cells are highly efficient, typically up to 15%, although the manufacturing process of the monocrystalline silicon is complicated, resulting in higher costs than other technologies.

phase change material - a salt hydrate in the floor of North House captures the sun’s heat during the day and releases it during the night, regulating the home’s interior temperature.  PCMs work on the principle of latent heat, that is when matter changes phase from a solid to liquid it absorbs energy from its environment, yet it does not change in temperature.  Just like ice cubes melting in a cup, the ice remains at 0C (32F) as it melts, yet it continues to take heat from the cup thus keeping the cup cool.  The in-floor PCMs work in the same way, only its melting point is 24C (76F) instead of 0C.  PCMs reduce peak heating and cooling loads and consequently reduce the maximum capacity of the HVAC units.

Original Rendered Vision for North House.


The North House will be re-erected at the RARE Charitable Research Reserve. The RARE Charitable Research Reserve is a 913-acre land reserve along the Grand and Speed Rivers. RARE’s goal is to preserve the land for future generations by focusing on research, education, conservation, and ecological restoration. Situated in one of the fastest growing areas of Canada, RARE’s protected land is closely tied to the multitude of visitors it receives.


The project has been designed not only as a prototype to test systems and assemblies, but as a compact public venue specifically designed for visitation and knowledge dissemination. The centre intends to conduct research, seminars, interpretive activities, conferences and public forums at the site regarding environmental issues of the site and the region. North House’s placement on this site will allow it to be used not only as a research tool, but as a demonstration tool, helping its visitors to correlate broader environmental issues with the way we go about our daily lives.

Although the public display of the technologies is intended to directly impact public awareness and opinion, significant opportunity exists to impact design professionals and residential home construction sectors through design detail dissemination.


The North House works in both a rural situation like RARE and an urban situation. One of the original design ideas for North House was part of a solar village, a community of different North House configurations, each interacting with each other, producing energy and selling it back to the grid on mass. This community would provide clean and independent living for people in northern climates, by combining solar power and contemporary design with a lifestyle enhanced by mobile and interactive technologies. Each resident could live in the open concept loft layout as designed, or more modules attached together to make several bedrooms or 2-3 storey scenarios; all would be possible given the modular construction of North House. The desire to live in these situations are growing, and major growth is planned around new transit infrastructures connecting regional urbanities in all sections of Canada.

Aerial Photo of 2009 Solar Decathlon Village.


The transformation of the Ontario housing market to produce high performance sustainable housing including net-producing solar homes will be driven by key societal transformations. Increasing awareness of methods and capabilities in the production of such housing by design professionals (architects and engineers) and builders, as well as increasing market demand for sustainable energy efficient homes by Ontario home buyers.


Public exhibition of the prototype home is intended to create awareness and demonstrate the marketability and proximity to market of the technologies used in North House. The exterior deck area of the home is a landscape to raise the profile of the systems, performance, and impacts of the home’s design.


Designed as a prefabricated building, each of the envelope technologies deployed can be applied to both site-built detached housing and medium density (up to 7 storey) residential applications.

The design of the exterior deck space and gardens that are integral to the house encourage a healthy lifestyle where the resident may spend as much time as possible living outdoors. 


The North House will be situated at RARE to give the maximum amount of solar gain to allow for the greatest accuracy when it comes to continued testing of the solar panels and all other functions within the building. North House will be situated relatively perpendicular to the existing roadway so that the south side of the building will be as close to directly solar south as possible within the site. The exterior deck and gardens will be adapted to the existing site to allow for ease of visitor comfort and access, but with limited impact on the existing conditions of the site.


Exhibition Plan of North House. 2009.



The Distributive Responsive System of Skins (DReSS) is a dynamically responsive envelope systems developed by the North House team.


An ambition of the team was to Expand the inhabitants’ relationship to solar resources beyond solar power generation. This is done by introducing a broad set of lifestyle enhancements centered around solar technologies. This includes maximizing daylighting and connection with the exterior environment through the extensive use of high performance glazing and multiple views to the exterior. The responsive and layered shading allows for seasonal and diurnal variability within the interior of the house, connecting the resident in a more visceral way with the outside environment, while still allowing for a comfortable and occupant controlled interior.


During the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon one of the main questions that the public had when touring the house, was why so much glass? ‘Canada is cold in winter, (and hot in the summer), this house isn’t going to work’. This design works because the glass is highly insulated - as much as a standard solid wall when all thermal bridging is considered, R-8 (RSI-1.4) including the window fame. The North Wall which receives no direct sunlight is super insulated well above that of a standard wall, R-47 Actual (RSI-8.2). The glass and shades work together to utilize solar energy for free heating throughout the winter, while reducing overheating in the summer. Used thus, this system is more effective than having an opaque insulated wall, and the exterior blinds (DReSS) that allow for all that light are protected by a control system which is programmed to retract under high wind speed conditions.


Automated Exterior Shades control heat gain based on: Int./Ext. Temp., Wind, Sun, Time and stored Geographic Data. They opt for 1 of 4 modes: gain, block, open, closed. The user can override if they so choose.


Interior diagram denoting lighting areas.


North House uses a custom designed building automation system to manage the many sophisticated technologies in the home.  The control system monitors interior and exterior conditions, as well as occupant inputs, to determine the most energy efficient operation of the home.  It employs a hysteresis control algorithm to ensure that the operation of the exterior shades are well co-ordinated with the operation of the mechanical heating and cooling system, and to avoid unnecessary cycling between systems.  The systems of the North House can be controlled through 3 touch screens located within the house, or they can be controlled remotely through a web-application or a smart-phone.  Our specially design User Interface system, termed the Adaptive Living Interface System (ALIS) provides detailed quantitative and ambient feedback to the user.  ALIS also employs a branch circuit power meter (the first known application in a residence) to measure power consumption by individual circuit.  This allows for a very detailed energy consumption breakdown in which consumption patterns can be compared to occupant decisions, weather patterns, and operational setting.  This data will be invaluable to researchers and residents alike. The mechanical system of the North House is a highly efficient custom designed three-tank system, incorporating two advanced variable capacity heat pumps with fully modulating digital scroll compressors allowing partial loading of heat pumps to more closely match demand, reducing cycling (start-up and shut-down) losses.  These heat pumps are the first to be designed and built for use in a residential setting.  With this innovative system, heat gathered by roof-top evacuated-tube solar thermal collectors will supply up to 70% of the energy for space heating and domestic hot water production.


Diagram showing the components and operation of the DReSS envelope.



In contrast to a typical Canadian Home that consumes 30,592 kwh/yr, It is anticipated that North House residents living comfortably will consume 6,605 kwh/yr (due to passive systems and energy efficient appliances). Intensive energy modelling was done to determine the configuration of the insulated glazing units and mullion design.  North House worked with Serious Materials to manufacture the largest dimension of their quadruple-glazed unit yet produced, and the first to use a semi-insulating spacer produced.  The curtain-wall style wood mullion system was designed by the team to minimize the “frame effect” (by which most heat is conducted through the frame of a window, thus undermining overall energy performance) and achieving an overall system R-value of R-8, roughly four times the insulative capacity of conventional windows.


Solar Energy is collected using Day 4 PV panels on the roof, and Schuco BIPV (Building Integrated Photovoltaic Panels) on East, West, and South facades for electrical generation. Three tanks are used for the purposes of domestic hot water (DHW) as well as space heating. A stratified solar storage tank maintains a supply of fluid heated by the sun through Viessmann evacuated-tube solar thermal collectors.  Through the use of simple heat exchanger loops when sufficient solar energy is available, or a variable capacity water-to-water heat pump when additional energy input is needed, heat is delivered to separate space heating and domestic hot water tanks. . In this way, solar thermal energy accounts for up to 70% of the total energy consumed for both space heating and domestic hot water use. Heat from the solar hot water system is utilized for space heating, while cooling is achieved by rejection of heat to a small cooling pond via a variable water-to-water heat pump.


Phase Change Material (PCM) is incorporated in the floor and ceiling of the living, eating and sleeping area of the house, providing ‘thermal mass’. The PCM is a thermal storage material that buffers temperature fluctuation in the area and maintains thermal comfort by storing excess energy and releasing it when ambient temperatures begin to drop (usually at night). The reduction in temperature fluctuation translates to a reduction in both the heating and cooling demands. Excess power produced can be fed back to the grid to generate long-term income for the resident in Ontario.


Energy Modelling Data.


North House under Construction in Washington D.C. 2009.


North House uses forest products certified by SFI, FSC, and CSA to ensure sustainable forested products.  While the use of Canadian product has been prioritized, Team North has also embraced a range of international products and materials where these resources outperform those currently available or produced within Canada. Material selection for the North House project was determined to showcase the latest in energy efficient technologies, materials and to demonstrate how design can promote low energy use lifestyles. For example, Schuco BIPV from Germany was chosen as it was the best product on the market that met both energy and aesthetic demands, after extensive research.  Other items were sourced through substantial material donations of such advanced technologies as the exterior shading system, the photovoltaic panels, advanced glazing units, and custom fabrication.  The exhaustive process of material selection was determined by many factors: was the material correct for that application and did it work seamlessly with the rest of the North House materials already in place, was the material was the most effective, what had the best life cycle cost/durability, was it available with the correct amount of lead time, was the product approved for use according to the rules of the Solar Decathlon competition, and was the material was in keeping with the overall aesthetic and design narrative of the project.  Each product and material for North House was evaluated against the factors and only after going through this process was included.


Increasing concern over carbon footprint and rising energy costs will place increasing pressures on envelope continuity and system performance. The use of a prefabricated, factory built system for housing maximizes precision and air tightness, radically improving the energy use profile of the building, while simultaneously reducing the amount of energy used in the process of construction. North House is designed as a prototype prefabricated model, using customizable components that facilitate transport and assembly. A wide range of configurations are possible using these components.



North House Construction Process.


Rendering of Flexible Living Space with bed retracted into the ceiling. 

Rendering of Re-configurable Elements.


The North House module by its very nature consists of interchangeable parts. Moreover, as a modular design, it is designed to change with use. As a family grows or shrinks, and different options are desired, the possibility for additional space or multiple levels are always possible. The interior is open and flexible with a prefabricated service module to hold all its mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and storage. 


Within the flexible living space, reconfigurable furniture for working, sleeping or entertaining provides amenity and choice.  The furnishings are custom designed to be compact and multi-purpose.  The retractable bed disappears into the ceiling to increase floor space during the day.  Mobile work pods provide a work surface, file storage, and printer station, or fold away into a coffee table or night stand.  The entire north wall comprises what is knows as a utility wall with various storage functions such as hooks, towel racks, shelves, and shoe slots all fold out of the wall when needed.  All of the materials selected to make up each of these units was chosen for its durability and long life cycle.  For example, the bed is re-tracked using the mechanics of a garage door opener. Something that has been tested thousands of times and continues to work on a daily basis, but should it fail, parts for it are readily available.


The North House was designed to learn from mass fabrication and assembly technologies such as those currently utilized in the automobile industry and apply them to high performance housing in order to decrease costs while still maintaining quality. The aim is to eventually transform the housing industry through the development of specialized component-based manufacturing processes and technologies, making high performance sustainable housing available to the average homeowner while at the same time stimulating new industries and marketable products.



Interior View of North House.



Herb Garden and Exterior Deck.

Holistic Solar Living includes using the sun’s energy to grow food in the raised bed garden outside, which is irrigated through the proposed greywater system.  Due to limitations of the temporary site in Washington D.C. no greywater system was in place during the competition. However, there was a separation of the grey and black water collection so that implementation of a system on North House’s permanent site at RARE will be completed.  The landscape design provides space for drying and canning to preserve garden produce and limit the need for refrigeration. Species selected for the landscape have been considered for food value, seasonal variation, as well as their potential for creating micro- ecologies, inviting birds and desirable insects to the site.


North House has been tested to produce twice as much energy as it consumes annually. The design combines active high efficiency PV roof modules with an encapsulated monocrystaline exterior building cladding and PV Thermal systems to produce domestic hot water.

Integrated design process - design charrette at University of Waterloo.


It is Team North’s belief that architecture as a discipline has the capacity to gather complex interdisciplinary groups around common cultural agendas to drive innovation.  This was a starting point for the multidisciplinary team that has joined forces to deliver North House. 


Since the initiation of this project in 2008, this vision has generated immense interest and commitment across academic, industry, and professional networks linked by the team’s core members. Each is committed to this larger vision and set of goals.  The team is centred in Ontario, but brings a Canadian network of innovation to bear on this project. 

One of the unique parts about North House was that it was part of on international competition with other university teams.  And each team was comprised of students, professors, and industry partners. Some of those teams had participated in the competition before and others, like the North House team, where new.  All teams met together in Washington, D.C. in January of 2009.  They gathered information, asked questions of organizers and each other.  Throughout the next few hectic months, the team co-ordinated efforts within it’s own large group, but other with the larger Decathlon team.  Monthly group phone calls allowed teams to clarify rules, a web group allowed all members to email questions to each other.  When construction began in Washington D.C. in October of 2009, all teams worked hard to finish on time, ask questions as they went, and to help other teams out as much as they could.  When the construction was finished after 7 days, the houses were opened to the public for tours.  Each member of the public asked numerous questions about the house, some expected, some not; but all very valuable on how each member of the public viewed the house and informative on what was loved about the project and what needed more design attention.

The North House team feel that the information learned while collaborating with academic and industry partners was invaluable as a learning tool, and for furthering innovative design as the team disbands and works elsewhere.  As mentioned previously, on it’s new site at RARE,  the North House will continue to be innovative and part of the learning process for future generations.  It will be a living laboratory for extensive performance monitoring and testing, as well as a highly visible site of public demonstration and education in solar living and energy conservation.


North House presentation at bulthaup Toronto.


Team North - Top Left - Simon Fraser, Top Right - Ryerson, Bottom - Waterloo


Design Architect: Team North Inc.

Faculty Team: Kathy Velikov, OAA, Geoffrey Thun, David Lieberman, Dr. John Straube (Sustainability and Building Performance), Dr. Michael Collins, (Solar Thermal), Philip Beesley, Donald McKay, Rick Haldenby, Dr. Alan Fung, Dr. Lyn Bartram & Dr. Rob Woodbury (Interaction Design)

Graduate Student Architectural Team: Lauren Barhydt (Project Management & Engineering Systems Coordination), Chris Black (Architectural Design: Envelope), Chloe Doesburg (Architectural Design: Prefabrication Logics & Contract Administration), Maun Demchenko (Media & Public Relations), Natalie Jackson (Landscape Systems & Transportation Logistics), Jen Janzen (Interior Design), Bradley Paddock (Construction Logics & Prototyping), Matt Peddie & Allan Wilson (Ceiling System Development), Andrea Hunniford, Lindsey Nette & David Schellingerhoudt (Communications Team), Sonya Storey-Fleming (Electrical Coordination), Jamie Usas (Filmmaker) Graduate Student Engineering Team: Sebastien Brideau (Mechanical), Brent Crowhurst (Electrical & Controls), Ivan Lee (Engineering Coordination & Building Science), Bart Lomanowski (Energy Modeling), Andrew Marston (Mechanical), Toktam Saied (Mechanical), Humphrey Tse (Mechanical), Fabio Almeida, Aya Dembo, Brittany Hanam, Raqib Omer Mian, Omar Siddiqui, Interaction Design Student Team: Wade Brown, Rob MacKenzie, Kevin Muise, Johnny Rodgers, Davis Marques, Kush Bubbar, Jin Fan, Yin He, Jenny Thai

Structural: Blackwell Bowick Partnership: David Bowick, Cory Zurell

Controls Design: Chris Brandson (Vertech Solutions), Reid Blumell (Embedia Technologies)

Mechanical: Al Davies (Eco-Opions GeoSolar), Steve Davies (Ecologix Heating Technologies), Gord Walsh (Slatus Air), Aaron Goldwater (Goldwater Solar Services)

Electrical: Robin Sanders, Dan Pelkman & Nicolas Stroeder (Red Electric) Plumbing: Laurie Johnson, Wladyslaw Iwaniec

Kitchen Systems: Antje Bulthaup & Stefan Sybydlo (bulthaup Canada)

Logistics, Fabrication, Installation:  MCM 2001 Inc.  Gregory Rybak & Sean Baldwin, Jacek Debski (Project Manager & Detail Development), Witek Jasinski (Crew Lead), Mikola Minzak, Luke Statkiewicz, Lukasz Szczepanek, Maks Matuszewski, Philip Lesniak, Adam Golaszewski, Richard Pelly, Zbigniew Gembora, Ryszard Goryl, Krzyzstof Plaza, Krzyzstof Nanasek, Pawel Noga, Jan Sawczak, Piotr Dabrowski, Oleg Izvekov (Dynamic Design), Danny Pietrangelo

Controls Design: Chris Brandson (Vertech Solutions), Reid Blumell (Embedia Technologies)

In the fall of 2007 North House was selected by the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to be one of 20 finalists in the 2009 Solar Decathlon.  NREL provided $100,000 (USD) of seed funding for the North House team to deliver a fully functioning 80 sq. m. (800 sq. ft.) house to the National Mall in October of 2009.  In order to fund the project the approach was to build mutually beneficial partnerships with both internal and external constituents leading to funding and development opportunities for Team North and the North House project. Partnerships were developed through a personalized, one-on-one approach. Potential industry sponsors were seeking the opportunity for publicity, access to knowledge gained through the project, interaction with potential future employees, and connection to other sponsoring and partner organizations.  Team North’s fund-raising objective as specified by the North House project budget was $2.1 million dollars. Principle funding sources were: Contract payment from US Department of Energy, Seed money from universities, Industry cash and in-kind sponsorships, MITACS research partnerships, Technology development grants.