Sunday, August 26, 2007

House of Tomorrow Still Ahead of Its Time

Built in 1996, the house of tomorrow is still ahead of its time

A major Midwest newspaper recently offered its readers "Home Sweet Home 2037," an illustrated story about a house of the future, as imagined by the paper's staff and a panel of experts

Faced with the threat of global warming, the home would reduce its draw on city water by collecting rainwater in a cistern to use for flushing, bathing and irrigation, and then reclaim that water by treating its own sewage and recycling it for flushing, bathing and irrigation.

Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp.
An architect's sketch of the pair of environmental-minded houses built side by side in a Toronto in 1996.
Other systems would infuse interior spaces with fresh air filtered from outside, use the power of wind and sun to generate electricity and keep the family in healthy touch with itself, its home and its neighbors through the magic of computer electronics.

But a funny thing happened on the way to that future.

It began happening in Toronto -- 10 years ago.

Challenging Canada's building community to design a "healthy house," a government panel picked two designs, one from Vancouver, the other from Toronto. But only the Toronto design, by architect Martin Liefhebber, eventually found traction -- thanks mostly to builder Rolf Paloheimo.

The way the deal was structured originally, Paloheimo said in a recent telephone interview, "no builder in his right mind wanted to get involved, and they were about ready to cancel, when I suggested that if they'd do some things slightly differently, that I'd do it.

"So we changed the concept from a one-bedroom into a three-bedroom, went up a story, and acquired a piece of land where we could build two houses at the same time, and that's what we wound up doing."

The project took shape as a pair of houses built side by side in a choice Toronto neighborhood. The site, he said, was perfect -- a back-alley lot without the possibility of any utility service.

The two houses were completed in November 1996, amid great media attention, and 12 days later -- to more public scrutiny and coverage -- Paloheimo moved into one of the houses with his wife and their year-old daughter.

In the series of open houses to follow, 17,000 people showed enough interest to walk through the project.

It was a hit, Paloheimo said.

Paloheimo's second house initially was rented to the government, but in 2001 it was sold by Paloheimo to a family that still lives there.

The Paloheimos, too, have stayed put, a typical Canadian family grown from three to four with a second daughter.

Unlike that Midwest home of the future, Paloheimo's do not use city water but rely wholly on rainwater from cisterns under the house.

That filtered water appears first at kitchen and bathroom taps for drinking, then is reclaimed in a wastewater-treatment system. What has been flushed, bathed in or used for laundry, is then recycled for future flushing, bathing and laundry, and for use in the garden.

The solids are composted by the same system, also for use in the garden.

And they still use the sun for heat and electric power, Paloheimo said.

There has been some tinkering.

For example, he said, the ultraviolet light originally used to sanitize water was chucked in favor of an ozone-based system.

"We found that the UV system would slime up," Paloheimo said. "But the ozone breaks down all those (slime) molecules in addition to the lignins and tannins that gave it a brownish color, so now what we have is water that is clear and sparkling."

The financial bottom line?

In mid-1990 Canadian dollars, the two projects, including land acquisition costs, totaled about $500,000, an amount he figures was about $60,000 to $70,000 less than what the homes would have fetched on the market had they been sold at the time.

That slim profit margin may not encourage the average developer, Paloheimo said, "but what we were doing was groundbreaking, so I wasn't unhappy with that."

Home Sweet Home 2037 --

Toronto's Healthy House:

Heat --

Water --

P-I reporter Gordy Holt can be reached at 206-448-8356 or

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