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A westward section drawing showing the inside of the building.

With this ingenious affordable housing concept, architecture student Nicole Cao beautifully illustrates how shelter has many meanings. Imagined for a site adjacent to Bramalea City Centre in a suburb northwest of Toronto, Solar Steps would house 100 to 150 residents in a collective living scenario that brings them together as a community, internally and with their surroundings. The design challenge became a matter of mediating environmental disruption while maintaining and strengthening social connections to the commercial activity taking place on site.

Solar Steps achieves this by redefining the thresholds between private and public spaces — while mitigating the environmental disruption of the growing commercial district in which it resides — and making them more malleable. Oriented toward the south for thermal heat gain, the building has an expressive overhang on the arterial road to the north, the result of offsetting the third floor, which reaches out over the sidewalk to engage pedestrians as a covered arcade. The ground floor is lined with small business storefronts.

A perspective illustration showing the building's south arcade.

This gesture pulls the exterior envelope threshold back from the south side, which results in a protruding volume on the private side of the building: a shared terrace and covered greenhouse that blur the boundary between interior and exterior, and between residential and public programs, in addition to being a climate strategy.

Massing diagram of Solar Steps building, showing two perspectives

In combination with the stepped massing, flexible bifold doors allow each unit to access the greenhouse, which is wrapped in an ETFE membrane. This brings warmth and daylight into the greenhouse terrace and heats the south-facing side of each unit passively; the solid floor slab acts as thermal mass.

In each individual space, an array of partitions — sliding walls, operable wall openings and swinging doors — divide the unit to suit the activities of single- or multigenerational families and co-housing groups, as well as individuals living alone. The layering of partitions, greenhouse terrace and retail arcade stimulates interactions between residents and reach outward to engage the community at the urban scale.

There’s a real grappling with the micro and macro here. You can tell it’s a passion project.
Thom Fougere, AZ Awards 2023 Juror

Giving tenants agency over how to draw (and dissolve) the boundary between personal and community space, Solar Steps’ threshold-centred narrative imagines space, a new, more layered and dynamic form of collective living that embodies housing equity and environmental justice.

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Winner: A+ Award for Student Work
Solar Steps

Solar Steps imagines a new, more layered and dynamic form of collective living that embodies housing equity and environmental justice.

Explore more Award Winners

2018
People’s ChoiceA+ Award for Student Work
Location
Maasai Mara, Kenya
School
Ryerson University, Canada
2013
Award of MeritA+ Award for Student Work
Designer
Libor Šenekel, Technical University of Liberec, Czech Republic
2015
People’s ChoiceA+ Award for Student Work
Designers
Students of Virginia Tech design/buildLAB, Blacksburg, USA