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The resurgence of traditional architectural styles in Canada

Energy-Efficient Design and the Resurgence of Traditional Architectural Styles in Canada

The need for sustainable living has become top of mind for many Canadians over the past few years, but most energy-efficient homes tend to have compact, box-like shapes due to the thick super-insulated walls, and compact minimalistic design that reduces the amount of energy needed for heating and cooling.

Rectangular or square-shaped homes are structurally sound and easier to build while providing strength and stability. The heightened ceilings and open concept spaces often found in modern eco-friendly homes, with mechanical ventilation systems, encourage smooth airflow and better air circulation.

Cube homes aren’t for everyone, and traditional architectural styles are experiencing a renaissance in Canada, captivating the imaginations of homeowners, architects, and communities alike. This renewed interest in designs from the past stems from a desire to connect with cultural roots, celebrate history, and create spaces that transcend the transient nature of contemporary designs.

This growing trend has given rise to a fascinating intersection, where historical charm meets cutting-edge technology, inspiring homes that not only tell a story but also embody a commitment to a greener, more sustainable future. We’re seeing a meticulous integration of energy-efficient elements into the fabric of traditional Canadian architecture.

Traditional architectural styles in Canada

Whether designing a new custom home, or retrofitting an existing property, we’re seeing solar panels being mounted on the roofs of Gothic, Victorian, Tudor, Craftsman and Bungalow variations, and on Modern designs like the West Coast Style and Modern Farmhouse.

Tudor Revival, or ‘mock Tudor’ style homes became popular in the early 19th century. Drawing inspiration from homes built in the Tudor period between 1485 and 1603, they are characterized by their embellished off-centre doorways, steeply pitched gable roofs, half-timbering, masonry and stucco exteriors, decorative chimneys, and leaded glass windows.

It’s a timeless and picturesque architectural style, known for its steeply pitched slate gable roofs, small dormers and front-facing gables that create a distinctive and dramatic look. These homes often include half-timbering, combining plaster or brick with wood elements that are both decorative and structural.

Inside, builders often included stone hearths, wood panelling, with arched doorways and ornate mouldings, with exposed beams. Tudor floor plans typically had many small, formal rooms that offered privacy.

The Tudor Era was characterized by significant political and religious upheaval, which is reflected in the practicality of the homes. Tudor design elements have become quite popular in the architectural design of energy-efficient passive houses and net zero homes. Tudor style houses have steeply pitched gable roofs, but the walls typically are long straight runs, making it relatively easy to apply thick, continuous insulation, either for a new build or retrofit.

By the time Queen Victoria came to the throne, the United Kingdom had evolved into a Parliamentary Monarchy where Parliament ruled in the name of the sovereign, and architectural design focused more on the aesthetic, with complex floor plans and multi-pitch roofs.

Victorian style homes are another classic style in Canadian architecture that is seeing a resurgence in new home builds as well as remodels. These homes are known for their distinctive features, both on the exterior and interior, that reflect the grandeur and complexity of the Victorian era. They typically have two to three stories with steep, gabled roofs and round towers. Also common are wide wraparound porches with ornate woodwork, and decorative trim around rooflines, windows, and doors. Victorian homes were commonly built on narrow plots of land.

Victorian homes typically had closed floor plans to accommodate a formal lifestyle. Inside, you can expect to find grand staircases and high ceilings, with complicated layouts with multiple rooms including formal dining rooms, libraries, and parlours. Geometric tile in the hallways, ornately carved wood panelling, decorative fireplaces, stained glass and large bay windows, and hardwood floors covered with rugs.

Victorian homes often have symmetrical and complex shapes like round turrets, resembling small castles. Turrets are a key feature of Queen Anne sub-style homes in particular. While charming, these complex features can make it very challenging to integrate an authentic Victorian feel with the airtight building envelope, minimal thermal bridging and thick continuous insulation of an energy-efficient home. As the building codes and standards evolve in Canadian cities and municipalities, towards net zero ready homes by 2030-2032, the Victorian style may not be practical or cost-effective.

Gothic Revival style homes have become popular with homeowners who want to rediscover the beauty of this style that originated in the 1800s. Gothic homes are a sub-style of Victorian and can look like castles or churches built in the Middle Ages, or cozy gingerbread houses. Gothic Revival homes have been increasing in popularity, in particular the Carpenter Gothic style, which features vertical board and batten wooden siding, pointed arches and incised wooden trim.

Gothic homes were very popular in generations that preferred smaller homes, making the style a great compliment to the compact size of many energy-efficient homes. While many traditional Gothic homes included ornate features like turrets and stained glass windows, switching the doors and windows to a gothic or pointed shape, and perhaps adding a transom decorative window, and then cladding the exterior with natural limestone veneers or batten wooden siding, can give a cube-shaped, super-insulated energy-efficient home a splash of authentic Gothic charm. Despite their unique shape, well-made and properly installed arched windows can offer the same U-values as rectangular triple-glazed units.

Popular architectural styles on Canada’s West Coast

Arts and Crafts houses were mostly built pre-WWI, part of the English movement that was popularized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When the war broke out, the style’s popularity faded quickly. Arts and Crafts homes are symmetrical, focusing on structural authenticity, with steeply pitched hipped roofs, strong posts, wide unenclosed eave overhangs, with exposed beams.

The houses are typically wide and set low to the ground and often feature prominent chimneys. They typically featured Tudor style half-timbering on their top floors, built-ins and porches with thick, square or round columns. The use of local materials such as wooden shingles, siding, brick, stone, and stucco, was encouraged.

The hand of the artist lends character to each building, often in the form of handmade tiles, hand-hammered metals or hand-hewn beams, imperfections and all. The style is closely associated with the Craftsman and Bungalow architectural movements, with an emphasis being placed on efficient use of space and minimal upkeep.

In British Columbia, the Arts and Crafts architecture features an amalgam of British and American Pacific Coast architectural styles, along with contemporary influences. The West Coast Arts and Crafts adaptation emphasizes the use of natural materials, and the blending of indoor and outdoor space through the usage of semi-enclosed ‘sleeping porches’, and the concept of designing from the inside out to achieve the best return on form and function. In Vancouver, this style was most often seen in the stately homes of the wealthy.

The Arts and Crafts style homes typically are not simple box-like structures, but rather they are known for their thoughtful and often complex designs. There have been some passive house projects built in the Arts and Crafts style, complete with a sustainable energy source, but integrating energy-efficient principles into the Arts and Crafts style could be quite challenging.

Craftsman style homes were built to last and the style has endured for over a century. The style was considered the height of modernity when it was introduced in the late 19th century, breaking away from the ornate Victorian style, with an emphasis on horizontal lines in its siding and stonework, and often a lower roof. Double-hung windows are a hallmark of the design.

These homes are inspired by nature and are designed to blend into the landscape, with attention to detail, the use of local materials such as wood, stone and brick, and superior craftsmanship. There are four Craftsman sub-styles – the Bungalow, Mission Revival, Four Square and Prairie.

It has been referred to as the “architecture of abundance”, due to the oversized beams and posts, exposed roof rafters, deep eaves and decorative knee brackets. Front porches often add charm to the home and an inviting quality. The low-pitched, gabled roof will often have decorative supports and sturdy tapered columns.

Inside, Craftsman homes feature open floor plans and built-in features such as cabinetry, bookcases, nooks and window seats, as well as prominent integral fireplaces.

Craftsman style homes tend to have simple cube shapes, with a smaller footprint than many new homes, resulting in a low surface area to floor area ratio. The boxy, symmetrical design and compact two-story structure make this style an excellent choice for integration with high-performance building practices. Craftsman style homes can make exceptionally comfortable, energy-efficient and sustainable homes.

West Coast style: BC homes are characterized by their integration of natural elements, extensive use of wood, open floor plans, and a focus on maximizing the connection with the surrounding landscape through design elements such as extensive glazing and flat or minimally canted roofs.

West Coast style homes often feature post and beam construction, drawing attention to the use of the large, solid wood beams that support the structure. They make use of extensive glazing and skylights to maximize natural light while providing a seamless connection with the surrounding landscape. Wood stains are selected to enhance the natural beauty of the wood.

The clean simple lines of West Coast style homes tend to work very well with sealed building envelopes, thick super-insulated walls and expansive triple-pane, argon or krypton gas-filled windows, providing shading is taken into consideration, due to the number of large windows.

The takeaway

The resurgence of traditional architectural styles does not imply a strict adherence to historical replication. Instead, architects and designer-builders are skillfully adapting traditional elements to meet the needs and aesthetics of contemporary energy-efficient living. This fusion of old and new allows for the preservation of cultural heritage while accommodating modern lifestyles and technological advancements. Striking the right balance between tradition and modernity requires a deep understanding of both architectural styles, as well as the technical aspects of meeting energy targets.

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