Nature and Nurture - In conversation with sustainable architect Paul Raff

From the Spring 2021 issue of Maple

By Sara Harowitz | Photos by Ben Rahn

As an architect, Paul Raff helps shape how we experience indoor space. But in all honesty, he prefers the outdoors.

“I’d rather be going for a walk than sitting on my sofa,” he admits. “I’d rather be out in the sun than reading by a lamp.”

It might seem like a disconnect—that is, until you see his designs. While each build is, of course, unique to the brief, an artful throughline in all Paul Raff Studio homes is their ability to play off of the landscape that surrounds them.

“A good house is one where you feel connected to the cycles of the day, to natural light, to the cycles of the seasons,” Toronto-based Raff says via video. “There’s research about natural light and the real benefits on human health.”

As such, Raff’s homes open up to their outside world at every opportunity. In Cascade House, a home surrounded by old-growth forest, Raff and his team positioned the build on a Cartesian axis to maximize opportunities for natural light to stream in. Massive windows that showcase the property’s private outdoor space also work to speckle light inside the home; the use of multiple panes and frames creates an ethereal mix of brightness and shadow. In an upstairs bathroom, a long, thin, rectangular window sits in line with the tub—so that when you are soaking after a long day, you are quite literally among the trees.

Or there is Echo House, a renovation project that looks at once sculptural and soft; creative placement of lines, layers, and windows in the main living area create a geometric exploration that surprises and delights. The revamp also resulted in the home’s energy consumption dropping by an estimated 50 percent, which brings forth the other main element present in all Paul Raff Studio builds: sustainability. But this isn’t showy, performative, retrofitted sustainability—instead, this part of the process is paramount and carefully considered. For Raff, it’s always been this way.

“I became aware, very early on in practicing architecture, that nearly 40 percent of the world’s energy consumption—including Canadian energy consumption—is attributable to buildings and construction,” he says. “And as an architect, I was just shocked. It’s greater than the transportation sector. So I started out with ideas about better use of energy, and not wasting energy, and reducing carbon footprints as a real driver in our architectural practice; it started at the very outset of our firm 17 years ago and has been integral to the practice ever since.”

That means everything from using the latest solar technology to warm the house, sourcing recyclable and local materials, and creating innovative rainwater management solutions. But Raff’s approach to creating a truly healthy home is actually twofold: his firm factors in what is good not only for the planet but for its people. From non-toxic materials to proper ventilation, to paint with low amounts of volatile organic compounds, every aspect is strategically and holistically planned.

“My firm’s been working a lot on indoor air quality,” Raff says of projects that have come through since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Suddenly, people are very, very aware of indoor air quality because there’s an airborne virus. And because you’re spending an extra 10 hours of waking time at home, if there’s some indoor air quality issue—whether it’s mould or poor ventilation or some toxin that you might not know—it’s of much greater concern. The pandemic is accelerating our awareness in caring about these things.”

The pandemic is also challenging and morphing our very definition of home. What was once the place where we went to escape the world has become the place we want to escape the most. Beyond that, our homes used mostly be our sanctuaries; now, they are also our makeshift conference rooms and workout studios and study halls.

“My kid’s at school right now in our living room,” Raff says. “And my wife is at work right now using a bedroom in our home.” We’re spending more time than ever indoors, which makes Raff’s mission to create homes that are safe for us and the earth hit with a poignant urgency. It makes perfect sense: if we want to be well ourselves, our homes need to be well, too.

For Raff’s own wellness, he has kept grounded through the pandemic by going for rides on his bike. He also religiously checks the weather to find out when solar noon is each day, making a point to spend a bit of time outside during peak sun (even if it’s cloudy). It’s clearly his form of meditation, his way of finding peace; it’s also undoubtedly what makes him so good at his job. Surrounding himself in nature whenever possible, Raff opens up his mind to its untamed wonders. He is then able to channel that sense of awe into his designs, and from there into each home’s inhabitants. When done right, it’s essentially bringing the outdoors inside. No wonder he wanted to be an architect.

Sara Harowitz lives in East Vancouver. She studied journalism at Ryerson University and has written for publications including The Globe And Mail, Toronto Star, and Montecristo magazine. She has a very large magazine collection and thinks about Mexican food way too often.