In 1973, the Oil Crisis forced Canada to rethink how we consumed energy. Our future dependence on fossil fuels became unrealistic which prompted the government to invest in alternative energy sources and lifestyles that would ensure Canadians had energy security and stability. The Federal Urban Demonstration Program funded the PEI Ark which was to be used as an example of Canada’s future in sustainable housing at the 1976 United Nations Conference On Human Settlements In Vancouver.
The PEI Ark was proposed to the Urban Demonstration Program by scientists at the Cape Cod New Alchemy Institute in partnership with SolSearch architects David Bergmark and Ole Hammarlund. The idea was to design and build an off-grid, self-sustaining home that could be repeated anywhere. Spry Point, Prince Edward Island was decided as the location for the Ark because it is remote and experiences four intensely different seasons that would rigorously test the new sustainable technologies. Construction on the Ark began in 1975 and was completed for the conference in 1976.
SolSearch Architects integrated the New Alchemist technologies into the design of the Ark. These innovative sustainable technologies included:
- Heating through solar panels, a rock and water heat storage basement, super-insulated walls and roof, minimization of exterior surfaces and edges, south-facing windows, ultraviolet and infrared-permeable glazing on the greenhouse windows, angled greenhouse windows that would reflect the winter sun onto the solar panels;
- High-efficiency kitchen appliances;
- An on-site wind turbine connected to the electrical grid;
- Composting toilets;
- A greenhouse for human food, fish food, and compositing;
- Aquaculture tanks for food production, plant fertilizer, and heat retention; and
- Local wood used to frame and clad the house.
The interdependence of these technologies on each other and their integration into the home allowed the residents independence from fossil fuels and off-site sources of water, electricity, and food.
The Ark's self-sufficiency was especially revolutionary because of its ability to provide its inhabitants with year-round food. The other exemplary aspect of the Ark came with its building process. The project brought a long list of people together, including the Canadian federal government, the PEI government, the New Alchemists and people from both the science and design community, as well as SolSearch Architects, locals, tourists, and international media. It was a source of pride for each of these stakeholders which made it a landmark durable enough to be passed on for generations.
Unfortunately, the oil market recovered and the government’s interest in developing sustainable technologies and architecture halted. The Ark was loved for a decade before it was sold to become a restaurant in 1989. The next year, the Ark was demolished leaving only the footings which were used to build the inn that stands today. The remaining tribute to the bio-shelter is the name of the rural street, "Ark Lane".
The ending of the Ark’s story is disappointing because it seems that the sustainable technologies developed by the New Alchemists in the 70’s are only starting to peek into our contemporary buildings. It would be likely that if we had predicted today’s Canadian residential architecture in 1976 we would have seen fossil fuel free homes with residents who were food secure and expert recyclers of organic and inorganic waste. We should be closer to that reality than we are, and we should look to the Ark to reignite the passion to live lightly on the earth.
I encourage you to look into the PEI Ark and other projects by the New Alchemists. Please take your time browsing.
- The PEI Ark
- The Inn At Spry Point
- Canadian Architecture's Review on the Living Lightly On The Earth exhibition
- The New Alchemy Institute
- The New Alchemist Bioshelters
Architects David Bergmark and Ole Hammarlund went on to start BGHJ (Bergmark Guimond Hammarlund Jones Architects). This is now Nine Yards Studio since Bergman has retired and Hammarlund has started practicing with Hammarlund and Lips. Their websites show a very interesting evolution.
For more Houseporn.ca articles on sustainable architecture please read:
- Earthship Landing In Lake Erie Ontario By Wind Chasers
- The Castleton Residence: Ontario’s First Ever Rammed Earth Home
- Flooring, Sustainable Grounding
- It’s ‘High-Tide’ For Green Roofs In Canadian Housing
- Wood, Wood, Wood! An Architect’s Food For Thought – Part 1
Researched and written by Kate Macmillan studying at Dalhousie University in the Bachelor of Community Design program.