Calgary designers take interest in ‘slow architecture’
It takes time to cook a roast chicken to perfection, and it takes time to build or renovate the perfect house.
That’s the thinking behind slow architecture, a growing movement that has sprouted up alongside the slow food movement (see p. 8). Here in Calgary, John Brown, a registered architect and professor of architecture at the University of Calgary, is at the forefront of the cultural shift which leans away from super-sized suburbia.
Photos courtesy of Bathory Associates Architecture & Interior Design
“My sister is a chef and so she told me about slow food several years ago,” says Brown. “We were talking about the principles of slow food – thoughtful preparation, carefully choosing your ingredients and enjoyment in the act of eating – and it seemed to me there was a relationship between those principles and the way architects design custom houses.”
Four years ago, Brown and his associate, Matthew North, co-created a non-profit educational website, TheSlowHome.com, to promote intuitive home design instead of the cookie-cutter style associated with urban sprawl.
In their philosophy, a “slow home” uses space and energy efficiently, is attractive, harmonizes with the surrounding area, and creates a smaller carbon footprint.
“We’ve been researching this for 10 years,” says Brown. “A ‘fast house’ is designed to be sold. It’s designed as a marketing event, just like a Doritos corn chip is designed to be eaten. It’s designed to be so irresistible that you can’t eat just one, even if it’s bad for you. You want to consume it.”
A home is a sanctuary from the frenetic pace of the world we live in, continues Brown, and if it’s a “fast house” that hasn’t been carefully thought out for long-term liveability, it doesn’t work as a place to retreat to and relax in.
“It’s like wearing a bad pair of shoes, it just hurts,” he says.
Some common problems Brown notes in a “fast house” include poor quality of materials, poor use of space (i.e. formal dining rooms that never get used) and insufficient natural lighting.
Beyond just the interior, location is also a key component in a “slow home,” describes Brown. It should be close to the important things in your life, and it should be within walking distance of amenities so you don’t have to use fossil fuels every time you need to go somewhere.
The Infinity Bridgeland project includes historic brick gardens (top left) and rooftop gardens (above).
Brown does point out, however, that a “slow home” doesn’t have to cost a fortune.
“It has nothing to do with cost. It has to do with the care and attention to the way things are arranged,” Brown says.
“Just like slow food: a good homemade soup can be less expensive than fast food.”
Not only are designers and trades people who take pride in their craft excited to have attention drawn to this issue around sensitivity to quality, says Brown, design students are also taking note.
Gabriel Didiano, former president of the Environmental Design Students’ Association at the University of Calgary, has taken some courses with Brown and says slow architecture principles pique attention because they focus on what students aspire to – good, quality design – and not just in regards to creating homes.
“When you put a building on the street, it becomes part of the built environment, the landscape. The community interacts with it,” says Didiano, adding that North America’s fast-paced culture and economy often drives builders to create buildings to suit a need, rather than structures that will endure over time.
Anita Gunther, a master’s of architecture student at the University of Calgary, says she believes a shift in public perspective needs to change before greater importance is placed on long-term investment, for houses and buildings alike.
“It’s obviously easier to do things quicker, cheaper and dirtier, but that’s not always best and it’s evident because our buildings aren’t lasting,” she says.
Dennis Bathory, an architect with his own firm in Calgary for over two decades, agrees. “I’ve been living and breathing the principles of slow architecture for years.”
A recent example of Bathory’s work is the 2008 Infinity Bridgeland condominium project. It went above and beyond standard requirements, which he says will put the building life well past 100 years, a significant difference from the typical 40-to-50-year lifespan many buildings bear before needing extensive renovations.
Built on a lot where there used to be two houses, Bathory designed the four-storey, 16-unit condominium project using recycled materials, minimal waste, recycled excavated gravel, and insulation almost 35 per cent higher than industry standard.
The condominium’s features include historic brick, rooftop gardens, large windows that let in huge amounts of sunlight, a wind turbine that produces 15 per cent of the electricity required for heat and water, and a community lane on one side of the building.
Bathory admits that planning for long-term ownership can mean higher initial costs. “I see suburbia continuing because of its immediate and practical market appeal for half of the population.”
Also, he raises the point that slow architecture is hard for some to embrace, purely because of the terminology.
“My clients don’t want ‘slow,’” Bathory says. “They want performance and professionalism. When you say ‘slow,’ it relates to the pace. It’s not about pace, but the sensitivity and the connection of the intrinsic beauty of the building to the user.
“I think Calgary would benefit from a little slow.”