'This Old Sustainable House'

By , csmonitor.com

Wouldn't it be nice to have your own little cabin on a lake, away from man-made noises, powered by wind and sun, and heated by the earth itself? And wouldn't it be nice to know that the construction of that home had done minimal damage to the surrounding environment? The Tofte Project achieved all these goals - and chronicles the process in a website with a unique look and plenty of inspiration for people trying to reduce their own environmental footprint. Welcome to "This Old Sustainable House."

Named after a 50-year-old cabin on the north shore of Lake Superior, the Tofte (rhymes with "lofty") Project follows the redesign and reconstruction of a summer residence as it is turned into a year-round private home - all the while taking the principles of sustainable architecture from theory to practice. The Web side of the enterprise records and illuminates the physical project in more than 50 short Flash-animated presentations, and covers subjects that range from the history of the location, to aspects of sustainable design and specifics about the cabin's construction, to such details as the five separate ecosystems that surround the building. Before getting into the particulars though, the Project offers a pair of introductions - the first being a few lines of text (on a home page which makes an immediate visual impact through the designer's use of muted colors and a natural media look), and the second in the form of a Flash-based prologue (which almost imperceptibly morphs a photograph of the old cabin into the new one, as the voice of the owner, Medora Woods, welcomes visitors).

After the introductions are complete, the visitor is presented with several alternatives for exploring the site - and the (web)site - and the primary option might best be described as 'poking around.' (A common enough pastime for someone when alone in someone else's home.) In a system that is anything but linear, guests are offered a partial selection from the available catalog of Flash presentations through a scattering of thumbnail images - with such titles as, "We Are Not Alone," "Who Owns The Land," and "Head Over Heart" serving to pique the visitor's curiosity.

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When selected, each image launches an embedded animation, opening with a - usually sobering - environmental statistic (e.g., the proportion of fish in the Great Lakes that are native species has dropped from 82 percent in 1900 to 0.2 percent in 1996) , and proceeding to slide shows or interactive maps. Narrations by one or more of the people involved in the project explore assorted aspects of the undertaking - such as the fact that between geothermal heat, and wind and solar power, the cabin actually sells electricity back to the local utility company during periods of low consumption. After each episode is finished, a new option takes its place among the thumbnails, and the just-viewed chapter is added to a retraceable series of icons at the bottom of the page.

(Individual presentations also commonly conclude with direct links to related episodes, so viewers can choose to follow paths recommended by the webmaster.)

If you'd prefer a more predictable method of exploration - or are returning in search of a specific installment - a menu in the upper left corner of the screen holds a categorized index (which marks the presentations you've already seen, in case you lose track). The menu also offers introductions to the voices heard on the website, a listing of architectural awards, and dozens of offsite resources for those interested in trying their own hand at sustainable architecture. Finally, at the bottom right of the browser window, is a trio of interactive maps where visitors can access subsets of the website's presentations - collected under the themes of "Land," "Site," and "Cabin."

The substance of the site is as intriguing as its presentation - concentrating as much on the intangibles of the undertaking as on the proverbial 'bricks and mortar' - but it's the design which draws the visitor in. The Tofte Project displays both originality and good looks, and then adds to those positive first impressions with easily accessible content and such touches as text cues that identify each narrator during the Flash presentations. Even if you have no interest in sustainable architecture, the website is worth a quick visit for the simple originality and appeal of its execution. And if that visit also raises your environmental consciousness by a notch or two, so much the better.

The Tofte Project can be found at http://www.tofteproject.org/.

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