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Steven Soderbergh’s 1989 movie Sex, Lies, and Videotape opens with Andie MacDowell’s character sitting on her therapist’s couch, sharing her worries about the amount of garbage in the world. “I remember watching that thinking, ‘That’s me — I relate to that,’ ” says Evonne Levy, a professor of art history specializing in baroque art at the University of Toronto. Sure enough, sustainability is a core component of Levy’s mass-timber Algonquin Highlands retreat, currently pending Passive House certification following its second successful blower door test this past fall.

A view towards the stairs and upstairs loft in a pending Passive House in Ontario that features glulam rafters that grow gradually steeper.
A staircase ascends to a flexible loft space, while the left hallway leads to the main and guest bedrooms and 1½ bathrooms.
Two people sitting on lounge chairs underneath a pitched wood ceiling looking out the window at the snowy forest.
Glulam timber rafters and CLT wall panels (all shipped from Austria) delivered the precision demanded by the design’s bold geometry.

Designed by architects Richard Unterthiner and Geoffrey Turnbull, the all-season residence swaps a furnace or boiler for a Zehnder heat recovery ventilation system with an electric post heater attached to it. “It’s essentially a hair dryer hooked up to a ventilator,” explains Turnbull. Working in tandem with hefty insulation, ultra tight sealing and strategic window placements, the set-up promises to keep the home’s annual thermal energy demand around nine kilowatt hours per square metre — well below the Passive House threshold of 15.

A view of the dining area (and its supersized ENERsign windows) from the upstairs loft.

But the project also includes another key twist — or rather, a pinch. Along the top of the cross-laminated timber structure, 26 unique pairs of glulam rafters become progressively steeper as they march from the home’s gently peaked western gable to a much sharper pitch at its eastern end. Besides carving out space for an upstairs loft that acts as a flexible reading, working or sleeping area, this rhythmic gesture also gives the home its name: Angle of Repose.

The moniker has its origins in an early project by Levy’s friend Julie Bargmann, the landscape architect who founded and leads D.I.R.T. studio in Virginia. As a fellow at the American Academy in Rome back in 1990, Bargmann dug up the institution’s backyard to build a pitched mound of soil inside a lead-lined timber tomb modelled after an Etruscan necropolis bed. (The poetic installation played on the idea of an angle of repose being the steepest incline at which a material remains at rest.) Now collaborating with Levy as her landscape architect for this spiritual follow-up, Bargmann plans to accentuate a sloped pathway down to the water this spring. “It will be a kind of zigzag of the roofline into the landscape,” Levy explains.

The all-black front facade of an Ontario Passive House, featuring diamond-shaped cladding, a black door and one small window.
The home’s northern facade presents a full wall of black Diamond Steel Roofing shingles that extend up to the distinctive roofline.

Angle of Repose’s facade, meanwhile, works to address the second part of Levy’s brief, which called for a building that would feel “inscrutable.” Sure enough, visitors initially arrive to find a monolithic form that is as commanding as it is perplexing. Apart from a camouflaged door and a single tiny window above the kitchen sink, black shingles from Diamond Steel Roofing wrap the entire northern elevation in a quilted pattern that evokes a sleek winter puffer coat. This cladding continues along the rest of the building’s exterior, including its distinctive hyperbolic paraboloid roof. 

The wood-clad kitchen of an Ontario Passive House, featuring a steep triangular exhaust hood.
A triangular range hood and circular door cut-outs give the kitchen, by SmithBuilt Custom Cabinetry, a sculptural identity. Many of the appliances are second-hand (but like new).

But as you step inside, the home undergoes a dramatic shift — “from ash to almond,” as Unterthiner puts it. The nearly all-wood interior (even the kitchen backsplash is done up in tempered transparent glass so as to not distract from the timber walls behind it) reflects Levy’s desire for a “homogeneous object” while also speaking to the surrounding forest, framed within the supersized windows installed along the home’s southern and western elevations to harness the free heat offered by the sun. “When you approach the house from the north, you get the object reading,” says Levy. “And then you go around the corner to the south, and that’s the working side that allows it to operate as a Passive House.”

The southern facade of an Ontario Passive House, featuring black diamond steel cladding panels and extra-large windows.
Viewed from the south, the home is defined by its ENERsign windows, manufactured in Germany and situated to maximize solar gain.

Granted, the building’s performance also depended on rigorous sealing. To help with the Passive House learning curve, contractor Thomas J. Stead (virtually) attended a British Columbia Institute of Technology construction course taught by Joshua Vanwyck, the project’s Vancouver-based sustainability consultant. It also helped that the home’s key structural elements arrived from Austria in a kit of parts. “Digitally fabricated components gave us the level of control that we needed over the base geometry,” Turnbull explains. “[Mass timber] requires so much prep, but then it shows up and fits together like Lego,” adds Unterthiner.

The team also took embodied carbon seriously, using cellulose insulation rather than foam, for instance, to lower emissions. Turnbull points to the home’s insulated slab-on-grade foundation and metal cladding as the two biggest contributors to its carbon footprint, but says the emissions associated with its construction are still less than half those associated with a typical residential new build in Ontario — and, of course, from here on out, “its operating emissions are going to be five per cent of what a typical house would produce.”

The dining table in an Ontario Passive House, looking out to the forest through an extra-large window.
Levy’s dining table, Artemide pendants and china cabinet were all Kijiji or Facebook Marketplace finds.
A closeup of the exterior cladding featuring diamond steel panels.
The super-insulated, seven-layer wall assembly is approximately three-quarters of a metre thick.

Despite her career in art history, Levy was clear from the project’s inception that she wouldn’t be hanging anything on the walls. “The windows are the art — the landscape is the art,” she says. She is similarly resistant to drawing links between the design and the baroque focus of her studies. “I worked on a dissertation topic about the late-17th-century chapel of St. Ignatius, and people have said that this house feels like a cathedral, which I’m ambivalent about. But maybe that just means that they feel uplifted by it.”

Still, there is one connection to Levy’s job: Unterthiner is the partner of one of her former PhD students. (Now based in New York, he works as the design director at EDG Architecture and Engineering. Turnbull, a schoolmate of Unterthiner’s who at one point overlapped with him at KPMB, worked on this as part of his independent practice, Reasonable Projects.) 

A side elevation of an Ontario Passive House, featuring two windows.
The house’s western elevation features a gently pitched roof…
A view of the pitched roof as seen through the woods.
…while the eastern elevation features a much more dramatic peak.

Levy hopes that the completed project might just prompt a few of her future guests to rethink their own relationships to the environment. “If this can help people imagine how to build a Passive House, that would be very exciting,” she says. While the baroque period was defined by over-the-top extravagance, this quiet, modern sanctuary is instead a sensitive tribute to its natural setting. Like the spine of rafters that runs along Angle of Repose, design marches forward.

An architectural plan by Reasonable Projects showing the layout of an Ontario Passive House.
Sustainability and Beauty Converge in a (Pending) Passive House

Glulam rafters march between steep and gently sloped roof pitches in an “inscrutable” retreat in Ontario’s Algonquin Highlands.

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