2012 SAB Awards Winning Project - Tallgrass Prairie Pavilion


The 65m2 three-season off-grid retreat sits on a 95-acre former tobacco farm in Norfolk County that is undergoing restoration by the owner to tallgrass prairie/black oak savanna, a rare habitat in North America as over 98% has been converted to farmland. The owners’ interest in both design and the conservation of natural areas provided an opportunity to explore a modern approach to sustainability that is rooted in the ecology of the site.

For this project, the approach to sustainable design was based on the principles that: restoring features of the natural ecosystem was of primary importance, and decisions about building should reflect or incorporate the long-term ecology of the site.
Modest in scale and highly conscious of its ecological footprint, the building’s architectural elements and construction techniques are adapted from the barns and greenhouses of nearby farms. Wood for the project was logged [as part of the ecological restoration] and milled on-site.

In many cases these principles led to decisions about what not to do as much as what to do.  For example, a preliminary decision was made not to build a 4-season dwelling and also to minimize the size of the building.  Not only does this reduce the need for built infrastructure and associated impact on the site, it allows the building to have a more intimate relationship with the environment around it - light, wind, sound and views.
Modest in scale and highly conscious of its ecological footprint, the building’s architectural elements and construction techniques are adapted from the barns and greenhouses of nearby farms. Wood for the project was logged [as part of the ecological restoration] and milled on-site.

As fire is a critical element in maintaining the ecology of the site, it inspired choices such as charring wood [an eco-alternative to paint], and a metal roof to protect the building during controlled burns.

The shelter is long and narrow, its long axis oriented east-west to take advantage of the angle of the sun and prevailing winds, providing shade and cool breeze in summer, and shelter and warmth in spring and fall. The post-and-beam structure is designed to be as light as possible to emphasize its connectedness with the landscape. Sliding polycarbonate panels open the walls to the landscape yet provide light and protection when closed. Lighting is achieved by candles and solar-charged LED fixtures.

Approximately 60% of wood used for the project was European Larch that was logged and milled on site as part of the ecological restoration of the site’s native woodlands.  It was used for all post and beam structural elements, interior framing, decking, and siding. The quantity of Larch was not sufficient for sub-floor or roof decking so 20% of the wood came from a mill 23 km from the site that logged and processed locally cut white pine and tulip poplar.
The remaining 20% [spruce framing, plywood] came from a local timber supplier located within 5 km, although the source of material is unknown. Water is hand pumped from ground sources, and waste water returned through shallow infiltration trenches. The building has no electrical systems, and propane [soon to be replaced with a solar-powered system] is used for cooking and heating water.

Projects credits:

  • Owner  David J Agro and Willa Wong
  • Architect  David J. Agro Architect
  • Structural Engineer  Christopher Cucco
  • General Contractor  Ivan Francis Construction
  • Photos  Tom Arban and David Agro

Jury comments: A simple structure that embodies great technical innovation, it employs the ancient technique of charring wood to increase its durability - an act that is also symbolic of the renewal of the forest and the return of the site to its natural ecology. With more than 80% of its materials sourced from within a 50 km radius, and miserly energy consumption, this is a simple and well controlled green project.

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