Cliff House by Altius Architecture


Altius Architecture designed the Cliff House in Muskoka Lakes, Ontario, Canada.

Set on the Cliffside of a much-cherished lake, this cottage seeks to enhance the extraordinary surrounding scenery through the thoughtful integration of building elements with the natural assets of the site and terrain. This dwelling emerges form the rock formation of the cliff using the same local granite to form its base. A central core acts as an anchor that circulates movement, light and air into the living spaces that pinwheel and cantilever off into the landscape. In spite of its modest scale, the residence easily accommodates the family of four by providing amenity for dinning, cooking, living, reading and sleeping which are each carefully tuned to the unique view, light and breezes of the cliff. To balance the heavy mass derived from the fireplaces; cantilevered volumes, flying roofs and floor to ceiling glass are used to achieve a lightness of form as it works to bring the lake into the living spaces.

Living lightly on the site was important to the owners due to their strong mandate for sustainability. As a retreat from urban life, the desire to become completely self sufficient and independent from external infrastructure became critical in the design of a completely off grid residence. A two tiered approach is implemented to take advantage of both passive strategies which work to reduce energy loads and augment comfort so that the active strategies are sufficient to provide for the remaining energy needs. Energy efficient design in this case is not divorced from the experiential qualities of the dwelling but is used to enhance the unification of building to the landscape for the pleasure of its owners.

This system implements a passive gain and solar mass strategy that takes advantage of the sun’s daily passage and the movement of air in different seasons for each space. In summer, solar shading limits heat gain while operable windows are orientated to take advantage of natural ventilation. The operable windows in the central circulation space are designed to make use of the stack effect so that hot stale air is vented out and cool fresh air is drawn in. Green roofs are designed to mediate temperatures and control runoff while connecting the building foreground with the distant landscape. In winter, optimized glazing and solar orientation are used in conjunction with thermal mass in the form of concrete slabs and stone walls and the two interior fireplaces to store the sun’s radiant energy to form the base of the heating system. A high performance envelope design also works to limit unfavorable heat loss and gains all year round.

Evacuated tube solar arrays are used collect the sun’s energy to collect hot water that is stored in 10 thermal mass tanks. The hot water collected through the panels then feed into a hydronic radiant floor system to ensure a highly efficient use of technology. A series of photovoltaic panels are used to provide the buildings on the property with electricity. To ensure their success, the electrical loads are carefully managed and are minimized by selecting energy efficient appliances and LED lighting. To round out the supply of heat in the residence, advanced geothermal systems with masonry heaters are used to take full advantage of abundant biomass and latent heat available on site.

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