GREEN DESIGN: More than a decade’s worth of planning and dreaming went into renovating this family’s Alta Vista home

GREEN DESIGN: More than a decade’s worth of planning and dreaming went into renovating this family’s Alta Vista home

By Amélie Crosson; Photography by Marc Fowler

For Kristina Rudnitski and Chris Cooper, “It’s not about size — it’s about how you use it.” They’re talking about their house, of course, which they built on Cunningham Avenue in Alta Vista.  Though it looks quite expansive from the street, the north-facing house is fairly compact, built in a C shape with a courtyard at the back. The shape opens up the dwelling to take advantage of sunlight streaming in from the south. This is a project that has been a long time in the planning — more than a decade, in fact. Long before they started their family, Kristina started building this house in her imagination — a house that reflects her professional interest in environmental science and her passion for design. Today the space is beautifully set up for both family and work time, accommodating lively young children and two professionals who work out of the house. In the future, it can evolve as the family grows.

From the street, the house belonging to Kristina Rudnitski and Chris Cooper can best be described as part castle, part Roman villa. Because the house faces north, the larger windows are concentrated on the back side of the house to allow light to flood through the space. Photography by Marc Fowler.

The planning and building of the house — best described as part castle, part Roman villa — was no easy task. “Harder than birthing a child,” says Kristina, who provided her architect with a file folder fat with photos, sketches, and ideas of what she wanted. But it was all worth it when their house was finished — a unique structure that marries outdoor living with an open-concept interior and well-delineated spaces. Their house is a reminder that being green isn’t always about gadgets and technology. Being green also means a thoughtful design that takes into account location, placement on the building site, soaking up solar energy, and using simple, quality, durable materials from local and regional sources. For Kristina and Chris, these elements combine to create a beautiful space for living, playing, working, and growing while being kind to the planet.

How did you come up with the design?
“Design is paramount,” Kristina explains. “That’s where green begins.” The couple situated the house so that it could soak up solar energy. In winter months, when the sun is low, the light strikes the back of the house and reaches all the way to the interior front walls, warming concrete floors along the way. In summer, extended cedar overhangs prevent sun from entering the house while allowing in filtered light. Windows on at least two walls of every room create delicious cross breezes. Openings high on the walls of the north face — as well as a spiral staircase — flush out hot air. With lots of mature maples on the lot, air conditioning is required only when the humidex reaches more than 40 degrees.

How did you choose your builder/architect?
Very methodically. “None of our family or friends had built a green house,” Kristina says. She scanned databases and interviewed potential designers to find a professional with the cred for residential sustainable design. She ended up with Jane Thompson Architect, calling Thompson “an obvious choice,” with lots of sustainable design experience, excellent listening skills, and “a very lovely team.” The general contractor, Adam Gooderham from GCG Construction, has more than 25 years of experience in residential construction in Ottawa. “He showed that he would not be put off by me being very involved. I love design and environmental problem solving. This understanding was important, considering all the time we were going to spend together.”

Floor-to-ceiling windows flood the dining room with light and warm the concrete floors. Photography by Marc Fowler.

What specific green elements did you know you wanted?
The number one green design element for the couple was being part of a city community. By living close to both work and amenities, they reduced their dependency on their car.

What materials did you know you wanted to use?
Kristina and Chris sourced products locally and regionally. To avoid VOCs (volatile organic compounds), they looked for durable products that didn’t require finishes. That meant unfinished cedar decking and cabinets, unpainted cement panels on the exterior of the house, and hardwood floors on the second floor recovered from the bottom of the Ottawa River. (The hardwood floors used a water-based finish instead of a traditional oil-based finish to minimize VOCs.) “Everything was chosen for durability as well as the aesthetic, which is honest to me. It doesn’t require embellishment,” Kristina explains.

A coat of paint renewed an old fridge and offered a creative and green solution for a modern kitchen design aesthetic. Because the couple already owned an energy-efficient fridge when construction started, they were loathe to replace it. Kristina did some research and discovered a company that would paint her old fridge to match the new cabinets. Problem solved. Photography by Marc Fowler.

What are your favourite green features? 
“People love the Brac tank, because it’s sexy,” Kristina says, laughing. The Brac tank, combined with a drain-water heat recovery unit, strips heat from waste hot water from showers and reuses it to flush the toilets. But Kristina’s overall favourite green item is a repainted fridge. She already owned a perfectly good energy-efficient fridge and didn’t want to replace it just to suit the design aesthetic of the new house. “So I found a company to spray my old fridge the same colour as my new cabinets. I liked that I could just paint it for $200 and not spend $10,000 for a new fridge I didn’t need.”

What was your biggest hurdle/challenge? 
The couple found the process of planning, as well as sourcing materials and products and getting together for team meetings, to be incredibly time-consuming. They recall spending at least 15 to 30 hours a week researching and selecting products in the run-up to and during the build. “I agonized over light fixtures, toilet selections, tiles, not to mention the kitchen design,” Kristina says. “It took time to make decisions that I knew I would be happy with.” That’s when the experience and advice of her architect and builder really counted. “We iterated and found what worked.”

Looking into the children’s rooms on the second floor. After researching many flooring options, the owners settled on the sunny, natural look of birch for the second floor. The wood, reclaimed from the bottom of the Ottawa River, is both beautiful and durable. Photography by Marc Fowler.

What green elements did you spend the most money on?
The design. Though many people think that green is all about technology — solar panels and water tanks — the couple were most focused on ensuring that the house would be both usable today and easily adapted to take into account future needs. “I’m so happy with the house, I don’t feel a need to travel,” says Kristina, which, of course, means a smaller carbon footprint.

A view of the house from the backyard provides a good look at the cedar decking and trim, designed to integrate the house into its urban woodland setting. Because the house faces north, the couple designed it in a C shape with a courtyard at the back. The shape opens up the dwelling to take advantage of sunlight streaming in from the south. Photography by Marc Fowler.