We found Solares Architecture on-line, in a search for a local firm that specialized in energy efficient, “net-zero” or “passive” home design and construction. It was the first firm we contacted. An exploratory office visit resulted in a 45 minute discussion about various ways we could proceed. Based on that one visit we hired Solares to assist us with site selection and then to design and administer the construction of our new house in Paris, Ontario.
We did not conduct a competitive bidding process.
We did not meet or interview any other architects.
We had met our perfect partners and we never questioned that decision. We celebrated it from beginning to end.
Solares is a small firm, the founders and principals of which are the wife and husband, Christine Lolley and Tom Knezic. Tom Knezic worked with us on site selection, which meant checking out sites that we thought had promise and pointing out the pros and cons of each. He was extremely thoughtful and instructive, which enabled us to rule out several sites independently, reducing our need to consult on only the most serious possibilities. This attention to minimizing our financial exposure was a hallmark of our overall relationship.
Christine Lolley led the design process and it started with 3 things:
1.an exercise where we each independently wrote answers to a series of questions that would help Christine understand us, our lifestyles, how we would use the house and the new community in which we would live;
2.a facility program that we wrote, that described our goals for the house, the functional spaces we wanted in the house, the ideal adjacencies of spaces where relevant, the types of construction we were interested in (based on our own research into passive construction); the types of finishes that we were interested in, and
3. the detailed articulation of our “all-in”budget, a process led by Christine and which included design, construction, fixtures, mechanical, appliances and lighting.
Each of these tasks was time consuming but all of them, done at the outset of the design process, were crucial to the ultimate success of the venture. We revisited our plans many times throughout the series of weekly design meetings that ensued, to make sure we were following our program. With third party costing sought by Christine at each critical step,we were forced to test every decision that we made against our priorities and budget. Christine was not only a brilliant designer, but a superb steward, always placing our interests at the core of her work (and many times protecting us from ourselves.) It helped that we shared aesthetic taste, so in all things we quickly came to trust her, and her team, with the biggest project of our lives.
Our goals for the house were essentially 2-fold.
1.to build a 21st century house that is environmentally, technologically, and aesthetically of our time.
2.to build a home that is well designed, comfortable, efficient to use and easy to care for and to manage well into our old age.
Here are some stories that stand out for us as we reflected on the experience of working with the remarkable Solares team:
1.Substance vs Style
We had what we imagined were simple and affordable dreams for the interior finishing of the house. We wanted polished concrete floors for example, no need for expensive hardwood. We wanted to support local artisans with custom cabinetry in natural wood, a way to warm the contemporary design. But the very first estimate of our dream house put the brakes on. Concrete floors, it turns out, are the most expensive because of the load-bearing infrastructure required, and custom cabinetry was the warmth we simply could not afford. So, Christine made the case for pre-engineered wooden floors (we agreed) and IKEA cabinetry (Hmm). When we turned up our noses at the latter, she planned a road trip. First, she took us to her own home, and then to the Solares-renovated home of a client in Guelph. Both were outfitted with IK EA cabinetry, built-in and finished to appear customized. Not only were we won over, but we also committed to assembling much of it ourselves to save substantially on installation costs.. Our main priorities were to achieve superb design and energy efficiency and that is where our money would go. That set the tone from then on in.
2.Anything is possible
Not long before we were to break ground, we called Christine in a panic. We had spent the weekend reviewing our finances against the project budget only to realize that we had not factored in taxes. It was a very big number. We thought we may have to pull out. We asked for a meeting urgently. Christine said, “Don’t worry, I have all kinds of ideas about what to do. Come in at 2pm”. Already we felt better. After the meeting, where we tweaked, value engineered and put in some delays, we were back in business. Christine was relaxed, clear, reassuring. And she never made us feel stupid for what was clearly a not-very-smart oversight. For her it was all par for the course.
3.Value engineering is an art
Finding ways to economize without compromising design, is a Solares strength. There were a number of features we were loathe to sacrifice that could have helped the budget: in-floor heating, a walk-in kitchen pantry, a main floor powder room and, my husband’s personal favourite, a urinal in the master bath. At various decision- making points, Christine would raise these items as possible targets for value engineering, but we held firm. She always found other creative ways to work with and around our stubbornness on these matters. For example, at Christine’s suggestion,we took responsibility for a big chunk of the contractor selection process. With Christine, we short listed potential builders based on their competitive bids.Then we went out on our own and interviewed each of them. We went to their offices, met with the proprietors, saw their operations, asked a lot of questions, looked at their previous work, sought references, and made our choice. Similarly, we followed through on a jointly prepared short list of window and door suppliers. Not only did we save on many hours of architect fees, but we learned a great deal, and developed important personal relationships with key people involved with the project.
4.Everyone is human
We were excited about some of the “little” things in the house. One of them was the curb-less, doorless shower. It was a “live-in-the-house-to-very-old age” feature that would also look beautiful. During the build-out of the shower, we got a phone-call from Christine. “There is a problem with the shower and it is our fault. Our drawings were incorrect and the floor is not curb-free. We can’t rebuild it without affecting the already built ceilings below. But I am going to fix it and the cost is on us.” At first, our hearts sank, but she said she was going to fix it, and we trusted her, so we relaxed, and she did. It wasn’t easy, and the plumber had to be persuaded by some creative solutions, but the job was done beautifully and seamlessly. Solares stands by their work, and takes responsibility for their errors.
5.Testing for success
We wanted the most energy efficient home we could manage within our budget and which made sense in our geographic climate. It was why we reached out to Solares in the first place. Christine walked us through all of the construction methods and materials. If built correctly we would have a well sealed home that would achieve only 1 air exchange per hour. It then became the builder’s contractual obligation to deliver on this promise. When the house was erected and fully closed, but prior to drywall and exterior cladding, the first third-party air-exchange test was conducted. It was very close at 1.4. The tester identified specific areas that could be sealed better, and assured us that once these small measures were addressed, and the house was dry-walled and clad, we would certainly achieve our goal. When the house was finished, we ordered a second test on our own, to satisfy our curiosity. It was exciting for all of us to see that the house performed even slightly better than promised!
We unreservedly recommend Solares Architecture. It was the architect-client relationship we never thought was possible. All members of the team are extremely talented, professional, accountable, up-to-date on the current science and materials, passionate, supportive and gracious. They brought superb structural and mechanical consultants to the table and they managed them, the builders and us, with a calm and reasoned demeanor.
Most important, we adore our home. It feels right in every way. We have been asked if there is anything we would do differently now that we have been living in it for several months. The answer is yes: We would chose a wall oven with a right-hinged door instead of a left-hinged door. Too bad we didn’t ask Christine about that before we placed the order.