Archive by Author

Zero House – Meet Our Team!

Every year, a wonderful and eclectic team comes together at Endeavour, and the team that is building Zero House is certainly that! Here is a quick snapshot of the students of Sustainable New Construction 2017:

 

 

Britta Anderson hails from the other side of the Great Lakes in Minneapolis MN. She is an artist, activist, youthworker, and herbalist. In 2014 she began to work in the field of conservation maintaining trails in the National forests of the US. After re-connecting with her love of the outdoors and doing hands on work she has been seeking ways to incorporate that into her life more intentionally. In 2015 she took a short building course at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, MN. This sparked her interest in the building arts and alternative learning environments. That same year she started a group in Minneapolis called Tools Not Tools to teach Women/Trans/Femme folks basic skills in the use power tools. In 2016 she worked as crew leader for a youth conservation corps serving underprivileged youth in the Twin Cities area. During this time she also completed an apprenticeship in western herbalism. She aspires to integrate her love of plants, building, and people into a practice that can be shared with her home community. In her free time she enjoys plotting her life around the wild seasonal harvests of her bioregion, riding her motorcycle, camping, making food and plenty of daydreaming with friends.

 

Hello! My name is Olivia,  I have always had a great fascination with the building and design world. We are living in a time where almost anything is possible and it’s very exciting to witness and be a part of the active change.

I think it’s so important to live in a healthy & reliable home and incorporate more intention and beauty within that.

I grew up on Salt Spring Island where I was exposed to a no “norm” style of building. Very inspired by the unique practices of building led me to finding this course. My goal is to build and be a part of the design phase in a house of my own someday. I think there is nothing more rewarding than being able to live somewhere you have influenced and feel good about its impact as well.

 

Mateo has been fascinated by sustainable construction since working on a straw bale cottage in the Laurentian Mountains in Quebec in 2009. He is stoked to be participating in the program in order to learn some of the cutting edge techniques employed by the Endeavour crew. Mateo has a particular fondness for tree houses, and is excited to bring his highly creative approach to the task of building a better world.

 

 

 

 

 

Michele Deluca drove with her friend Natasha all the way across the country in a little red car to participate in the Endeavour program. She grew up in Nelson, BC, surrounded by mountains, clear lakes, and good people. She graduated from the University of Victoria with a BSc in geography, and was following that path until she started reading about natural building and got SO excited she had to find out what it was all about! Michele followed her excitement to Endeavour, which has introduced her to so many amazing people and ways of thinking. She is looking forward to a lifelong journey of continually discovering and learning sustainable building and design practices. In her free time, she can usually be found hiking, camping, cooking, playing music or dumpster diving with Natasha.

 

Bill thought about building houses as a teenager – but it remained just a thought.

Decades later, Bill took the plunge. At The Endeavour Centre, Bill is not only learning the skills to build a Net Zero house from modules, he’s thrilled to learn design basics.

Since global warming has emerged as a prominent issue, Bill’s vision is to introduce Net Zero houses made from natural materials into the suburban market.

 

 

 

 

Hey I’m Ella, I’m from the West Coast of Canada. I love to dance, sing, travel, dress-up and be silly. I came to Sustainable Building out a love of working with my hands, living in alignment with nature and a desire for resilience in my own life and my community. After a few years growing organic veggies and selling them at the local market, I realized learning about renewable energy and green building was the next step for me. So far, Endeavour has been blowing my mind with all the current and innovative technologies we’re getting to experiment with. It is awesome to be exposed to the crossover of traditional carpentry and sustainable building and I can’t wait to see what’s next!

 

Natasha – coming soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dave – coming soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

June – coming soon!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kailee – coming soon!

Zero House – Carbon Sequestration in Building Materials

The Zero House project has three key goals: zero net energy use, zero toxins and zero carbon footprint. This blog will look at the notion of zero carbon footprint, and we’ll explore how Zero House will in fact far surpass this goal through carbon sequestration in building materials.

The notion of the embodied carbon footprint of buildings has not received much attention in the past. Even now, it’s not a consideration within any of the major green building rating systems and is not a key goal in very many sustainable building projects. But if climate change is a concern, addressing the embodied carbon within building materials may be the most important issue a designer or builder can address.

During the harvesting, processing and manufacturing of building materials, there are always greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions associated with these activities. Fuel is consumed, chemical processes unleashed and resources expended to create any building material. However, some materials have very high GHG emissions and others are very low. Typically, materials processed using a lot of heat and/or electrical energy will have higher embodied carbon than those with less intensive processing requirements. Good examples of this can be found in the open-source database called Inventory of Carbon and Energy Version 2.0, which provides amalgamated data for a wide range of building materials. Companies are also starting to produce Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs) that are third party analyses of a range of environmental impacts of particular products, including embodied carbon.

 

Calculating a building’s carbon footprint involves figuring out the weight of each material and then applying the appropriate embodied carbon factor. This will result in a tally of all the carbon emissions associated with a building. By this reckoning, Zero House has an embodied carbon footprint of 6.991 metric tons of CO2-e (which includes carbon dioxide emissions and other types of emissions expressed as units of CO2) emissions for this 1,000 square foot (92.9 m2) building. This is about 75.25 kg of emissions per square meter. This compares very favourably with the same house built to typical code standards, which would emit 134.8 kg per square meter. That’s a 56 percent reduction, which alone would be worthy of notice.

However, there is another side to carbon emissions and buildings. If a building uses plant-based materials in its construction (wood, straw, hemp, cork, bamboo, mycelium and recycled fibres of all kinds), those materials are partially made of carbon that has been taken from atmospheric CO2 and converted by the plant into its cellular makeup. Usually, the carbon in plants is released back to the atmosphere when the plant decomposes (or burns). But if we contain that plant fibre in a building for a long time, we sequester that carbon in the building. It’s the simplest form of carbon capture and storage (CCS); the plants do all the work of pulling CO2 out of the air, and we put them into buildings for a long time.

 

Zero House uses a wide range of carbon sequestering materials. In fact, the shell of the house only uses three materials that do not sequester carbon. We can tally up the amount of carbon sequestered in materials by calculating the weight of each material, factoring in the average carbon content (the Phyllis database is a good source for this). Most plants contain 40-50% carbon by weight. When this carbon is released to the atmosphere as CO2, two oxygen molecules are added to each carbon molecule, so we multiply the weight of the carbon by 3.67 to find the weight of CO2 that is being sequestered.

embodied carbon of building materials

Calculation spreadsheet for the embodied carbon of Zero House

As the table shows, the Zero House sequesters a lot of carbon: 32.26 metric tons of CO2 are effectively bundled up in this building! This offsets the embodied carbon footprint and we end up with a net sequestration of 25.26 metric tons. While a lot of this sequestration is in wooden materials, about half of what’s sequestered is in the form of “waste” fibres (straw, recycled wood fiber, recycled drink cartons, recycled newsprint, cork) that would have otherwise cycled directly back into atmospheric CO2.

This approach has great potential to help the building industry fight climate change. If all residential buildings were to take this approach, the 200,000-ish houses we build in Canada every year (at an average size of about 2,200 square feet) we’d be sequestering around 1.1 million metric tons of CO2-e per year. Add other building types (commercial and industrial) into the mix, and the construction industry could lead Canada in carbon sequestration.

With a “negative” carbon footprint from inception, Zero House also takes a zero net energy approach that will ensure that it has a tiny amount of operational carbon footprint over its lifetime. We’ll examine that in our next look at the Zero House goals…

 

 

Mycofoam Insulation for Zero House

One of the most exciting developments in the field of sustainable building is the use of biological processes to literally grow building materials. While experiments in this realm abound, the folks at Ecovative is one of the first to become available. Currently Ecovative is focused on packaging materials and other non-construction uses for Mycofoam, but its use as a building material is supported by a number of ASTM tests that show it to be a feasible building insulation material (see data sheet below). We are very excited to be an early adopter of this technology!

This spring, we acquired some bags of Ecovative’s Grow-It-Yourself material to experiment with forming our own building insulation panels. We are happy with the results, and will be casting some larger panels to be used on our Zero House project.

 

We look forward to growing the larger sheets of Mycofoam for the Zero House project. And we definitely look forward to the day when Mycofoam is widely available to builders everywhere!

Zero House prefab wall panels

The Zero House is designed to have zero net energy use, zero carbon footprint and zero toxins. But it is also designed to be completely prefabricated and modular! It features prefab wall panels, floor panels and roof panels that can be fabricated off site and assembled quickly. Prefabrication allows many benefits, including controlled conditions for construction, ease of construction and affordability.

 

The Sustainable New Construction student team is currently assembling the wall panels for Zero House. We are exploring a number of wall systems:

  • Double stud with cellulose insulation

    – This wall type is the most conventional approach, featuring:

    • 2×4 frame construction
    • Cellulose insulation from Applegate Insulation. Cellulose insulation is made from recycled newsprint and offers excellent carbon sequestration and is non-toxic, while providing excellent thermal and moisture handling properties.
    • MSL SONOclimat ECO4 wood fiber board on the exterior side. Fiber board is made from recycled wood fibers, for excellent carbon sequestration and non-toxicity. The 1.5-inch boards (which come in 4×8 and 4×9 foot sizes) offer an R-value of 4. The product has a perm rating of 25.9 perms, meeting our requirements for a vapour-open wall assembly.
    • ReWall EssentialBoard on the interior side. EssentialBoard is made from 100% recycled beverage containers, for excellent carbon sequestration and non-toxicity. The 1/2-inch boards (which come in 4×8 and 4×9 foot sizes) and meet code requirements for structural sheathing.
    • This wall assembly is 12-inches thick and offers a total R-value of R-40.

 

  • Double stud with wool insulation

    – This wall type features:

    • 2×4 frame construction
    • Wool insulation from Living Rooms. Wool is not a common insulation in North America, but has a reasonable market share in the UK and Europe. Carbon sequestering, renewable and non-toxic, wool has an excellent R-value of 4 per inch and handles moisture well.
    • Cork sheathing board on the exterior side. Cork is a renewable resource that is carbon sequestering and non-toxic, and is impervious to moisture. It offers R-4 per inch, and we are using 2-inch thick sheets.
    • ReWall EssentialBoard on the interior side. EssentialBoard is made from 100% recycled beverage containers, for excellent carbon sequestration and non-toxicity. The 1/2-inch boards (which come in 4×8 and 4×9 foot sizes) and meet code requirements for structural sheathing.
    • This wall assembly is 12-inches thick and offers a total R-value of R-42.

 

  • Prefab straw bale with fiber board

    – This wall type is a new approach to prefabricated straw bale panels, and features:

    • 2×4 framing around panel
    • Straw bale insulation. Straw is a locally available resource, composed of the dry stalks from grain crops (wheat straw, in this case). Straw is a renewable resource with remarkable carbon sequestering capacity, a good insulation value and is non-toxic with excellent moisture storage capacity.
    • MSL SONOclimat ECO4 wood fiber board on the exterior side. Fiber board is made from recycled wood fibers, for excellent carbon sequestration and non-toxicity. The 1.5-inch boards (which come in 4×8 and 4×9 foot sizes) offer an R-value of 4. The product has a perm rating of 25.9 perms, meeting our requirements for a vapour-open wall assembly.
    • ReWall EssentialBoard on the interior side. EssentialBoard is made from 100% recycled beverage containers, for excellent carbon sequestration and non-toxicity. The 1/2-inch boards (which come in 4×8 and 4×9 foot sizes) and meet code requirements for structural sheathing.
    • A small amount of cellulose insulation from Applegate Insulation provides a tight fit between the straw and the sheathing materials. Cellulose insulation is made from recycled newsprint and offers excellent carbon sequestration and is non-toxic, while providing excellent thermal and moisture handling properties.
    • This wall assembly is 17-inches thick and offers a total R-value of R-39.

 

  • Prefab straw bale with Mycofoam sheathing

    – This wall type is a radically new approach to prefabricated straw bale panels, and features:

    • 2×4 framing around panel
    • Straw bale insulation. Straw is a locally available resource, composed of the dry stalks from grain crops (wheat straw, in this case). Straw is a renewable resource with remarkable carbon sequestering capacity, a good insulation value and is non-toxic with excellent moisture storage capacity.
    • Mycofoam insulation from Ecovative on the exterior side. Mycofoam is an insulation made by growing mycelium (the roots of mushrooms) in a mixture of agricultural waste fibers. This material is one of a number of exciting developments in the field of growing building materials. Using natural processes that happen with a minimum of inputs, this type of insulation offers extremely low ecosystem impacts, carbon sequestration and a great R-value of R-4 per inch. It is natural non-toxic and fire resistant.
    • Wall EssentialBoard on the interior side. EssentialBoard is made from 100% recycled beverage containers, for excellent carbon sequestration and non-toxicity. The 1/2-inch boards (which come in 4×8 and 4×9 foot sizes) and meet code requirements for structural sheathing.
    • This wall assembly is 17-inches thick and offer a total R-value of R-41.

The panels are currently under construction, and being stored until the whole building is ready for assembly. Stay tuned for more blog posts…

Zero House: Innovative Green Building

The Zero House innovative green building project is based on three simple concepts:

  • Zero net energy use

  • Zero carbon footprint

  • Zero toxins

This joint project between The Endeavour Centre and Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science is being built for display at the EDITdx Expo for Design, Innovation and Technology in Toronto this fall, where show goers will be able to visit the home, meet the designers and builders and experience the Zero House innovative green building project for themselves.

This project is possible due to the support of a great many sponsors whose products and services make it possible to meet our high project goals.

Climate Champion Sponsors:

  • BiPVco – Providing Flextron building integrated photovoltaic modules
  • Daikin/DXS – Providing a mini-split air source heat pump
  • Inline Windows – Providing fiberglass framed, triple pane windows and exterior doors

Climate Defender Sponsors:

Climate Friend Sponsors:

Each of the materials and products used in the Zero House have been carefully selected to meet our criteria for this project, and we’re appreciative of the manufacturers and distributors of innovative green building products for making a project like this possible.

Follow this blog as construction proceeds to find out more about these products and our use of them on this innovative project!

Zero House Sneak Peak

Zero House Project sets ambitious goals

Can we build homes with a zero carbon footprint, that use net zero energy and contain zero toxins?

The Sustainable New Construction class of 2017 is undertaking to answer that question with a resounding “Yes!” And they will be doing it in a completely modular, prefabricated form, at a realistic market cost.

Zero House is a demonstration project being undertaken by Endeavour Centre and Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science. The plan originated as SolarBLOCK by ECOstudio, a multi-unit design for urban infill sites. Zero House is a scaled version of a single module of the larger plan – one piece of a potentially larger development.

Zero House is designed to consume no more electricity than it produces in a year, and will use no fossil fuels. The building will sequester more carbon in its plant-based materials (which include wood, straw, mycelium, and recycled paper) than were emitted during material production, positioning it as an important solution to climate change. No materials inside Zero House will contain any questionable chemical content and the building will have an active ventilation system to provide the highest indoor air quality for occupants.

The project will be built in Peterborough in modular components, and then dismantled and rebuilt at the EDITdx Expo for Design, Innovation and Technology in Toronto this fall, where show goers will be able to visit the home, meet the designers and builders and experience Zero House for themselves.

Zero House

The class of 2017 gathers to start Zero House by making mycelium insulation samples.

The project is being sponsored by many progressive material and system manufacturers, and we will introduce them as their components are placed in the building.

We will keep an ongoing journal of the construction of this project, so keep watching here for updates and to follow our progress!

Thatch Roof Basics

Thatch roofs may seem like a romantic and foreign notion in North America, but they are entirely feasible in a wide range of North American climates. No other roofing is annually renewable, carbon-sequestering and non-toxic. A thatch roof may not be for everybody, but it’s worth considering…

This introduction to thatch roof basics is adapted from the book Making Better Buildings by Chris Magwood:

Thatch roof basics

Applications for system

– Roofing for roofs with a minimum pitch of 10:12

– Wall cladding

Basic materials

– Long-stemmed reeds or straw

– Strapping

– Twine or wire to fasten thatch to strapping

 

How the system works

 

While it may seem strange for modern builders to think that a bunch of dried grass stems can provide a thoroughly water-resistant and long-lasting roof, thatch roofs have a long and successful history across a wide range of climatic zones. Thatching techniques have been developed worldwide, adapting the basic principle to suit available materials and to work in specific climates. Modern thatched roofs are installed in almost every region of the world, though in relatively small numbers.

The system of thatching used in many wet and/or cold climates involves fastening bundles of long, thick reeds or straw to the roof strapping in successive courses, each overlapping the preceding course. The thatch is laid at a thickness (which can range from 8–20 cm / 3–8 inch) that prevents water from working its way through the layers. Thatched roofs have very steep pitches to aid in this drainage.

Traditional thatch was hand-tied to the roof strapping using twine or rope. Modern thatchers often use screws and wire to provide attachment. Regardless of regional variations in material and technique, the thatch is held in place by securing a horizontal member across the thatch and tying that member back to the strapping through the thatch. The next course of thatch then covers the tie point as the roof is built upward. At the edges of the roof, the thatch is laid at a slight angle to encourage runoff to leave the edge of the roof and to provide a consistent appearance.

Thatching on flat sections of roof is relatively straightforward, but the same cannot be said for ridge, hip and valley sections. These areas take considerable knowledge and experience to execute in a weather-tight and long-lasting manner.

Many modern installations use a fire-resistant (often fiberglass) membrane under the roof strapping to prevent the spread of a fire from inside the building to the roof. Eavestroughs are not typically installed with thatched roofs, making them incompatible with rainwater harvesting.

 

Tips for successful installation

  1. Thatching methods vary widely with the type of thatch material being used and the tradition of thatching used in the region. Ensure that the reed or straw being used is compatible with the climate and the installation technique.
  2. Be sure you are able to obtain the material and expertise required to create a thatched roof. It is a rare type of roofing in North America, and must be well researched before deciding to proceed.
  3. Plans for a thatched roof must be properly detailed before construction. The uncommon thickness of the roofing, the steep pitch required and the particular details at hips and valleys must be incorporated into the drawings to ensure the roof will work when built.
Thatch roof Canada

Dormers, hips and valleys require much more skill than simple gable roofs

Pros and cons of thatch roofs

Environmental impacts

Harvesting — Negligible to Low. Thatch that is harvested regionally will have the lowest environmental impact of any roofing material. The plants that produce useful thatch are annual grasses, making it the only annually renewable roofing. Some reeds that are suitable for thatching do not need to be manually seeded, but occur naturally on marginal lands that are otherwise not suitable for agriculture and aren’t sprayed or treated in any way. Most modern grain plants have been bred to have much shorter, narrower stalks than their genetic ancestors and are not suitable for thatch, but less common grains (spelt, rye, etc) still have stalk lengths and diameters that may work for thatch. Farmed grains may have environmental impacts associated with the use of herbicides and/or pesticides.

Manufacturing — Negligible to Low. Thatch requires little to no processing other than cutting, cleaning and bundling. These processes are done on a small scale and with minimal machinery and fossil fuel input. There are no toxic by-products created.

At the most intensive, a thatch roof will use a small amount of metal wire and screws and a layer of fiberglass matting that has high energy input and some toxic by-products. At the least intensive, round wood strapping and natural fiber twine is used.

Transportation — Negligible to High. Some thatch projects in North America are completed using thatch imported from Europe, because there are no commercial suppliers on this continent. This adds high transportation impacts to an otherwise low-impact roof. Many thatch roofs are made with locally, manually harvested material, keeping impacts very low.

Installation — Negligible. Thatch is largely installed without the use of power tools and does not create any problematic waste or by-products.

Embodied energy & carbon

Thatch roof Canada

Waste

Compostable — All reed or straw thatching, natural fiber twine.

Recyclable — Polypropylene twine, metal wire.

Landfill — Fiberglass matt offcuts, if used. Quantities can be negligible to low.

 

Energy efficiency

Historically, thatched buildings relied on the fairly significant amount of air trapped in the thatch to insulate the roof of the building. However, thatch allows for a lot of air infiltration and would not be considered adequate insulation or airtight enough to meet codes or modern comfort levels on its own. Modern buildings with thatched roofs rely on an insulation layer independent from the roof sheathing.

A thatch roof can have some beneficial effects by reducing summertime warming of the attic space quite significantly. Thatch roofs will also eliminate the issue of condensation on the back side of the roof sheathing as the material will not have the low surface temperatures of more dense sheathing and is able to adsorb and absorb moisture without condensation.

 

Labor input

Working at heights to install roofing has inherent dangers. Proper setup and safety precautions should always be taken when working on a roof.

Thatch roofing is unique in that, for most North American builders, harvesting the material is likely to be a necessary preliminary step. While suitable materials are widely available, harvesting and preparing them can be a very labor-intensive process, easily requiring more hours than the installation itself. In areas of the world where thatch material is harvested commercially and available for delivery to a job site, the labor input is obviously much lower.

Thatching is the most labor-intensive form of roofing. An experienced thatch crew can move at a speed that approaches that of an experienced cedar shingle crew. Beginners will move a great deal slower, as the process of laying thatch is very particular and must be done accurately and correctly.

 

Skill level required for the homeowner

Thatching requires a good deal of skill. In European countries, it takes many years of apprenticeship and experience to obtain the title of “Master Thatcher.” Beginners are advised to start with a very small roof, such as a small shed, and to keep roof shapes to simple gables or sheds. Hips and valleys add a lot of complexity to the thatching process, and should be left to those with plenty of experience.

 

Sourcing/availability

Both the material and the expertise to build a thatch roof can be difficult to source in North America. A few master thatchers practice in the U.S. and they tend to import their thatch material from Europe.

A homeowner wishing to attempt a thatch roof will have to resort to harvesting thatch material locally and learn from books or by taking workshops with experienced thatchers and bringing the skill back home.

 

Durability

Thatch roofs are surprisingly durable. In northern European climates, they can last for forty to eighty years. Depending on the style of ridge cap used, the ridge may need repair or replacing every ten to twenty years. A thatched roof at the end of its lifespan is not typically replaced; rather new thatch is built over top of the existing thatch.

 

Code compliance

No building codes in North America address the use of thatch roofs. Proposing a thatch roof will likely require a fair bit of documentation and persuasion, as there are few examples of thatched roofs on which a code official can base an assessment. The historical and modern use of thatch in Europe means that a lot of code-related testing and documentation exists to support it. A building department may be willing to consider a thatch roof with the right amount of documentation and some assurance that the installation is being done properly. The few master thatchers working in North America have been able to have their work approved, as have a small number of owner-builders.

 

Future development

There is no reason for thatch to be disregarded in North America, as it is a viable, durable roofing option that is remarkably environmentally friendly. As the costs of conventional roofing materials rise with the price of fuel to make them, thatch will start to look better and better. The machinery required to mechanically harvest and bundle thatch is not complicated or expensive, and viable thatch material grows in many places on the continent. There will always be limitations to the use of thatch roofing in urban areas, as fire safety concerns would limit the density of thatched roofs. But there are many locations where thatched roofs are feasible, appropriate and the best possible environmental choice. It will take many dedicated homeowners willing to push the boundaries and create a market in which thatch may start to take the kind of foothold where it creates a viable niche market, similar to cedar shingles.

 

How does it rate?

Thatch roof Canada

 

Resources for further research

Billett, Michael. The Complete Guide to Living with Thatch. London: Robert Hale, 2003. Print.

Fearn, Jacqueline. Thatch and Thatching. Aylesbury, UK: Shire Publications, 1976. Print.

Sanders, Marjorie, and Roger Angold. Thatches and Thatching: A Handbook for Owners, Thatchers and Conservators. Ramsbury, UK: Crowood, 2012. Print.

Embodied carbon and carbon sequestration in buildings

Can buildings be an important part of the climate change solution?

The answer is Yes, and the key is using carbon sequestering materials instead of carbon-intensive materials.

Endeavour Centre director Chris Magwood is currently working on a Master’s thesis at Trent University’s Sustainability Studies program, examining the embodied carbon of building materials and the role of sequestration in drastically reducing the climate change impacts of our built environment.

On Tuesday, March 14th at 7pm, join Chris and hosts Fourth Pig Worker’s Coop, Eco-Building Resource and Green Community Hub at the Shacklands Brewing Company in Toronto to see the results of this research to date and learn more about turning our buildings into carbon sinks!

The event is free, and discussion time and beer will follow the presentation!

embodied carbon of building materials

Composting Toilet Basics

Composting toilets are the most misunderstood element of an ecologically friendly building. There’s no need to be scared!

This introduction to composting toilet basics is adapted from the book Making Better Buildings by Chris Magwood:

 

Composting Toilet Basics

Composting toilets collect urine and feces — referred to as humanure in the rest of this chapter — and treat it completely on-site, until it is transformed into useful compost or humus.

This category of treatment system does not include common pit outhouses, which do not provide ideal conditions for the conversion of humanure to compost, though given enough time the material in a pit toilet can undergo this transformation.

There are three common types of composting toilet:

 

Bucket toilet — This low-tech version of the composting toilet uses a bucket or similar portable receptacle placed under a seat/container to receive humanure deposits. Sawdust, wood shavings, chopped straw or another form of cellulose material is used to cover each deposit in the toilet, helping to reduce odor, absorb urine and provide aeration. Once full, the bucket is emptied into an outdoor compost heap. Here the material is layered and mixed and covered with more cellulose material, providing the right conditions for the natural conversion to compost/humus.

The indoor toilet construction is usually provided with passive or active ventilation, but no water connection or flushing action is used.

Self-contained toilet — These units provide a seat over an integral composting tray in a single, self-contained structure. Humanure deposits are received in the tray and provided with the appropriate conditions for composting action within the unit. These toilets all use some form of mechanical ventilation to reduce odor. Excess urine may require a separate handling system, or heat may be used to speed evaporation. Due to limited storage capacity, these toilets normally use some form of mechanical action and/or acceleration for the composting process and are only suitable for low numbers of users or for intermittent use.

The compost tray is removed from the unit when processing is complete or when the tray is full. It is often necessary to have an outdoor compost heap to receive material from these units, as it can prove difficult to complete the composting process within the unit.

Some models of self-contained toilet use chemicals or high heat to “cook” the humanure into a benign state. The material from these toilets is not useful compost, as the biological activity that creates rich, useful soil has been killed off.

Remote chamber toilet — A toilet (dry chute or low-water flush) sits above a large, enclosed chamber that receives humanure. The chamber is of sufficient capacity and design to contain and process a high volume of completed compost.

Units handle humanure in various ways. Some use heat and/or evaporation to rid the chamber of excess urine and water and speed the composting process, while others retain and process all material. Mixing or stirring capabilities, misting sprayers and rotating trays are options offered by certain manufacturers. Vacuum flush, allowing the toilet to be level with or below the height of the chamber, is also available.

Some units gather excess urine after it has passed through the bulk material in the chamber and retain this liquid as a high-quality fertilizer. This makes best use of the potential value of all material entering the toilet, as up to 80 percent of the nutrient value in toilet waste is in the urine. Once transformed into nitrites and nitrates after passing through the biologically active compost solids, the liquid can be a safe and low-odor fertilizer.

All chamber-style toilets provide humanure with enough time and adequate conditions to fully convert to compost before being removed from the unit. These are the only units that do not require additional outdoor composting capacity.

 

Types of waste handled

– Black water (though most systems are waterless)

 

Tips for successful installation

  1. Understand the maintenance requirements of any type of composting toilet before committing to installation. All require some maintenance, and dealing with humanure is not for everybody. Some units require infrequent maintenance, others daily.
  2. Check local codes before planning for a composting toilet. They are an accepted solution in some codes but not in others.
  3. Check local codes for the legal status of composted humanure. Though a good deal of documentation exists to show the material is biologically benign, some jurisdictions require compost to be treated as hazardous waste.
  4. Some types of composting toilets require specific layout arrangements that must become part of the home design.
  5. Mechanical ventilation is part of most composting toilets, requiring an exit tube that passes through the roof of the building with as straight a run as possible.
  6. Plan for an easily accessible route from the point of removal to the outdoors, to facilitate emptying of the toilet or chamber.
  7. Be sure there is sufficient provision on the property for units requiring outdoor composting facilities, and that the process of finishing humanure compost outdoors is well understood.
  8. When using commercially produced units, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for successful installation.

 

Pros and cons

Environmental impacts

Composting toilets are the only form of toilet that does not treat human excrement as waste, and rather as a potentially regenerative material for amending soils and fertilizing plants. A large environmental problem is thereby transformed into a solution to soil depletion, creating more robust growing environments.

The composting of humanure is not without issues, and untreated or partially treated material can be contaminated with pathogens that are potentially dangerous to humans and animals and can contaminate soil and ground water. There is a growing body of evidence that complete composting of humanure is relatively easy to accomplish reliably, but the correct conditions must be understood and created.

 

Material costs

Simple bucket toilets and appropriate outdoor composters can be built for as little as a hundred dollars. Complete remote chamber toilet systems can cost between four and eight thousand dollars.

 

Labor input

Depending on the type of composting toilet, labor input can vary greatly. Other toilets do not require direct ventilation, and even the simplest composting toilet has more components and longer installation times than a conventional flush toilet.

 

Skill level required for the homeowner

Installation — Moderate to Difficult. Multiple components and connections can complicate installation.

Use — Easy.

Maintenance — Moderate to Difficult. Some form of regular maintenance is inevitable with composting toilets. Bucket toilets can require daily maintenance to transfer full buckets to the compost pile. Chamber units may only need monthly inspections and annual emptying.

 

Sourcing/availability

There are many commercially available self-contained and remote chamber toilets. These are typically sold directly from the manufacturer or in specialty shops. Bucket toilets are homemade, with plans readily available online or in books.

Plumbing for any composting toilet system are standard components available through any plumbing supply outlet.

 

Durability

The simpler the toilet system, the greater the durability. Units with heaters and moving parts are more prone to durability issues. Consider the accessibility of parts that may need repair or replacement; if they are in difficult locations (especially if they require emptying of the toilet’s contents) they will be unpleasant to service.

 

Future development

Interest in composting toilets is just beginning to grow, and the technology is likely to develop rapidly in coming decades. There has been a significant shift in understanding about humanure, from a sense of revulsion and the certainty of contamination and illness to an appreciation of the simplicity and value of composting. It will be some time before this shift affects a broad constituency of builders and homeowners, but the research and experience currently being gained in this field by early adopters will be valuable contributions to a technology that is potentially transformative. There is little else in home-building practice that could so radically improve the environmental impacts of our homes.

 

Resilience

Build and operating a composting toilet system in a low- or no-energy scenario is straightforward. The bucket toilet is an excellent example of resilient technology, as it not only replaces an energy- and resource-intensive practice, but does so in a way that gives back valuable nutrients to the ecosystem.

 

Resources for further research

Jenkins, Joseph C. The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure. Grove City, PA: Joseph Jenkins, 2005. Print.

Del Porto, David, and Carol Steinfeld. The Composting Toilet System Book: A Practical Guide to Choosing, Planning and Maintaining Composting Toilet Systems, an Alternative to Septic Systems and Sewers. Concord, MA: Center for Ecological Pollution Prevention, 2007. Print.

Darby, Dave. Compost Toilets: A Practical DIY Guide. Winslow, UK: Low-Impact Living Initiative, 2012. Print.

Envirolet vacuum flush toilets

Phoenix composting toilets

Residential Heating System Basics

Residential Heating System Basics

The ability to employ mechanical systems to automatically modulate the temperature (and often humidity levels) of our homes is a radical change from the previous centuries of human habitation. Our heating and cooling systems are often complex and high performance devices that give us fingertip control over indoor climate that would have been unthinkable less than a century ago. Until quite recently, the devices we used to achieve stable temperatures were functional but quite inefficient, using large quantities of fuel to meet our thermostat settings. A lot of development has gone into increasing efficiency, and in many cases this has come with increased complexity and cost. The following residential heating systems basics will help you understand your options.

Though most heating devices are intricate systems, it is quite easy to understand the basic technology behind each of them. It is worthwhile as a homeowner to understand these systems, and not leave it to company reps or installers to provide selling points.

It is easiest to think of heating and cooling systems as falling into categories of means of heat production and means of heat delivery. From this understanding, it is possible to narrow down the pool of options to those that suit the needs of a project.

Means of Heat Production

Despite all the competing products in the heating and cooling market, there are just four kinds of heat production. Details for each system are provided individually later in the chapter.

1) Solar Heat

In effect, all sources of heat are based on solar energy, as the fuels used in every heating system are the result of captured and stored solar energy. However, this classification of heating systems is based on direct harvesting of solar energy in real time. Heat from the sun can be collected (and sometimes concentrated) in, on or near the building and distributed for use throughout the building.

There are three basic types of solar heat, which may be used in any combination.

Passive Solar – A building may be designed with sufficient glazing on the sunny side of the building to allow for a measurable increase of indoor temperature when the sun is shining.

Active Solar Air – Collector units are used to gather and concentrate the sun’s heat in a flow of air that is supplied to a heat exchanger or directly to the building.

Active Solar Water – Collector units are used to gather and concentrate the sun’s heat in a flow of liquid that is supplied to a heat exchanger or directly to the building.

This category of heating devices does not include photovoltaic cells, which use solar energy to generate electrical current, and not directly to produce heat. Heat created by solar electric current is considered in the category of electric resistance heating.

Solar energy systems may appear to have low efficiency rates, with figures ranging from 10-70%, depending on ambient temperatures and type of collector, among other factors. These figures represent the percentage of available potential energy from the sun: approximately 1000 Watts per meter squared (W/m2) for a surface perpendicular to the sun’s rays at sea level on a clear day. A reduced figure of 800 W/m2 is often used in generating comparative figures for solar devices. While it is beneficial to increase efficiency rates to produce more heat from less collector area, the efficiency rates aren’t directly comparable to those of combustion devices as no sunlight is actually “wasted” and no harmful byproducts are generated by the solar energy that is not absorbed by the collector.

Solar heating systems do not generate emissions, fuel extraction and transportation impacts or air pollution, with the exception of those systems that use non-solar energy to drive small pumps or fans.

2) Combustion Devices

This category of equipment is by far the most prevalent. Regardless of the type of system and fuel used, all combustion devices burn a fuel and extract heat from the flame. All these devices rely on a supply of oxygen to react with the fuel and create the flame, an exhaust to allow spent combustion gasses to exit the unit and the building and a heat exchanger that passes the heat from the flame to the delivery system that supplies heat to the home. There are two broad categories of combustion devices:

Gas/Liquid Fuel Combustion – These are the dominant players in the market, and include all the various forms of fossil fuel such as natural gas, propane and oil, as well as bio-fuels like biodiesel and vegetable oil.

Solid Fuel Combustion – This group includes wood burning devices, as well as those that use other forms of biomass such as compressed pellets.

Combustion devices have efficiencies that range from 50% for some wood burning devices to 98% for some new gas burning devices. This means that less than all of the heat potential of the fuel is captured and used to supply the building.

Exhaust gasses from combustion devices differ depending on the fuel used and the combustion efficiency and conditions, but all devices release CO2 and a host of other byproducts with environmental effects.

3) Heat Pumps

This category of equipment is widely used in the form of air conditioners, and has started to capture a larger portion of the heating market. These systems use the refrigerant cycle to transfer latent heat from a source and deliver it to a destination or heat sink. It can be difficult to understand exactly how a heat pump works, but it is worth figuring out the principle at work in order to decipher manufacturer claims. Heat pumps can seem like they magically make heat from no heat if the refrigerant cycle is unclear.

heat pump explained

Heat pump explained

Mechanical energy (usually in the form of an electric motor) is used to cycle a volatile refrigerant that is chemically designed to boil and condense in the expected operating temperature range of the heat pump. The refrigerant is in its liquid state when it absorbs latent heat from a source (air, ground or water for most residential purposes). This heat does not need to be in a temperature range that feels warm or hot to the touch, as the refrigerant’s chemical properties will ensure its boiling point is at or near to the source temperature. Once the refrigerant has passed through the heat collection exchanger, the electric compressor pressurizes the warmed refrigerant, which is at or close to its boiling point. The pressurization causes the refrigerant to become a hot vapour. This hot vapour passes through a heat exchanger where the heat generated from pressurization is dispersed. The refrigerant condenses as the heat is removed. Condensed refrigerant now passes through an expansion valve where the pressure is released and the refrigerant returns to its liquid state and returns again to the exchanger and repeats the cycle until a thermostat indicates the proper room temperature has been reached.

It is the process of boiling and condensing a refrigerant under different pressures that creates the heat exchange. Useful heat exists in this boiling/condensing cycle, regardless of the actual boiling point of the refrigerant. As long as heat collection side is above absolute zero, there will be heat to extract. Consider the home refrigerator: cold is not being generated in the freezer, rather heat is being extracted from the freezer and released via the heat coils on the back of the fridge.

The refrigerant cycle can happen in either direction, and some types of heat pumps are designed to work as both heating and air conditioning units by reversing the direction of flow of the refrigerant.

There are three broad categories of heat pumps for residential use:

Ground Source Heat Pumps (GSHP) – The source of heat is the stable temperature of the ground (below the frost line in cold climates). Base ground temperature is very reliable and steady, and the ground provides a large surface area and capacity for heat exchange. Most GSHPs are reversible and can provide heat and cooling.

Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHP) – The source of heat is the ambient air temperature outside the building. As this temperature can be quite variable, different refrigerants and/or pumps are used to continuously extract useful heat from changing air temperature. Most ASHPs are reversible and can provide heat and cooling.

Air Conditioners (AC) – The source of heat is the uncomfortably warm air that is affecting comfort. These units provide cooling only.

Efficiencies for heat pumps far exceed those of combustion devices. The amount of energy input to provide compression of the refrigerant is significantly lower than the amount of heat energy that is extracted from the process and this how manufacturers claim efficiencies ranging from 200-500%. The heat is not “free” as some claim, but for every one unit of electrical energy applied to the system, 2-4 units of heat are returned. The systems don’t work without the electric motors, but they are much more efficient than combustion devices.

While there is no combustion and therefore no exhaust gasses from heat pumps, environmental impacts will vary depending on the source of electricity used to power the system. The refrigerants used can also be powerful greenhouse gasses, though stricter regulations are resulting in less damaging formulations.

4) Electric Resistance Heat

Electrical current can be passed through a resistive conductor to produce heat. This type of heat production is known as resistive, Joule or ohmic heating. The heat produced is proportional to the square of the current multiplied by the electrical resistance of the wire or element. The amount of current supplied can be adjusted to vary the heat output. Heat energy may be supplied through convection and/or infrared radiation depending on the kind of heating element used.

Efficiency of electrical resistance heating is considered to be 100%, as all the potential energy in the current is converted to heat. However, many sources of electrical power are less than 100% efficient, so overall system performance must take into account the type of generation used to supply the electricity.

The type of generation will also determine the environmental impacts, which can range from high for coal-fired power plants (with delivered power efficiencies as low as 35%) to negligible for renewable energy streams like solar, wind and microhydro.

Means of Heat Delivery

Heat flow always moves from a warmer object to a colder one. Heat flow can occur in three ways:

Conduction – Heat energy is transferred from a warmer object to a colder one by direct contact.

Convection – Heat energy is transferred from a warmer object to the air surrounding the object and then to cooler objects in contact with the warmed air. Warmed air become less dense and rises, creating convection currents that affect objects in the path of the current.

Radiation – Heat energy is transferred from a warmer object to a cooler object by electromagnetic waves, caused by energy released by excited atoms.

Heat transfer

Heat transfer

These neat categorizations do not adequately describe heat delivery systems in buildings, as any heating system will warm a space in all three ways to varying degrees. Consider the element on an electric range: anything that touches the hot element will be heated by conduction. At the same time, air near the element will be warmed, become buoyant and warm objects near the range by convection and the heated element will radiate heat to nearby cooler objects, warming the surface of the range and nearby utensils that are not touching the element nor in the path of heated air.

Certain heating systems will rely on one of these methods of heat flow more than others, but cannot be categorized by a particular kind of heat flow.

Instead, it is more useful to consider heating systems in regard to the medium of delivery, of which there are two. Almost any kind of heat production can be twinned with any kind of delivery system.

1) Air Delivery

Passive Air Delivery – These systems rely only on natural convection currents to move heat from a source to the desired locations in the building. No fans or ducts are used to direct warmed air.

Active Air Delivery – These systems use some form of mechanical energy to force air movement in a desired direction. Ductwork is often used to deliver a concentrated stream of warmed air to a particular location.

Air can be an effective medium for delivering heat in some circumstances. It is not very dense, and it is therefore easy to change the temperature of a large volume of air quite quickly. The energy required to move air from one location to another is low, as it flows and changes direction easily and large volumes can be moved quickly. Natural convection loops of rising warmed air and falling cool air can be exploited to good effect to contribute some or all of the required flow.

Occupants in buildings will feel heated air against their skin and have an immediate awareness of warmth and perceived comfort.

These advantages of air as a heating medium are also the disadvantages. The low density of air means that it loses its heat very quickly to more dense objects; raising the temperature of objects in a building via air flow can take a long time, and often objects and the surfaces of the building remain significantly cooler than the ambient air temperature. This can lead to discomfort as the warm occupants in the home will unwittingly be trying to heat the building’s surfaces radiantly, one of the reasons it’s possible to feel a “chill” even in a warm building.

The convection loops associated with air delivery ensure that the warmest area of the building is at the ceiling and the coolest is at the floor. Since occupants reside on the lower side of this balance, some heat is “wasted” by being concentrated outside the contact zone for occupants. Convection loops can also cause cool air to move against occupants in some areas of the building, causing the feeling of chilly drafts even in an air tight building.

In forced air systems with ductwork and fans, the layout must be done carefully if it is going to be efficient. Limiting the number of bends and restrictions increases flow, and proper positioning of outlets can reduce unwanted convection loops and create a relatively even distribution of heat.

Air heating systems will move a significant amount of dust and allergens as it flows. In forced air systems, inline filtration is highly recommended. For natural convection systems, an active filtration system is worth considering.

2) Hydronic Delivery

Using a fluid (typically water) to transfer heat from a source to a destination is a strategy with a long history. Water has a high capacity for absorbing and releasing heat in the range of temperatures used in buildings, and its high density means it can store a lot of heat.

Hydronic heating systems are often called “radiant” heating systems, especially when the heat is delivered to an entire floor area, but this is not an accurate description. Floor heat is conducted through feet, and a very even and useful form of convection accompanies the radiant transfer of heat.

Hydronic heat delivery can be achieved via a radiator that has a lot of surface area. Radiators can be the floor, walls and/or ceilings of the building, or purpose-built radiator systems. Water-to-air systems use a radiator inside forced air ductwork to create a hybrid system.

In all of these systems, produced heat is absorbed into the transfer fluid and moved through pipes through the action of a mechanical pump. The fluid is delivered through branch pipes to the point(s) of delivery where the heat is released, before being recirculated to the heat source again.

Hydronic heating systems will take a longer time to deliver perceptible heat, as the water requires more heat input to reach a perceptible temperature change. Once delivered to the radiator, the quantity of heat in the mass of the water and radiator creates much slower release times. The mass of air (and in some systems, even people) in the building will be lower than the heated mass, and all will rapidly be warmed to the radiator’s temperature without “draining” the radiator of its stored heat, resulting in longer but less frequent cycling of the heating system compared to air systems.

The design of hydronic systems needs to account for the surface area and distribution of the radiator(s), the length of piping and head, and the temperatures required to provide comfort based on the radiator layout. Systems can be quite simple, with a single pump and just a few radiator loops, or they can be complex with multiple pumps and valves responding to individual thermostats in each radiator zone.

Heating System Design: Heat Loss Calculation

Regardless of type of heat production and means of delivery, the design of an effective heating system starts with an accurate assessment of the expected heating needs for the building. This is achieve through the completion of a heat loss calculation. Many building codes now require such a calculation, and even if it is not a legal requirement it is recommended. Oversized or undersized heating systems are not efficient, and will cost a lot more than the calculation.

There are free, simple spreadsheets that can be used for heat loss calculations. These involve gathering dimensions for wall, floor, ceiling, window and door surface areas from the building plans and assigning each its expected heat loss rate (U-value or R-value). These figures are tallied and factored with the number of degree days and minimum anticipated temperature. The results include the hourly heat loss for the coldest expected day (expressed as BTU/hr) and total yearly heat loss (in millions of BTU).

More complex and comprehensive computer modeling programs will include more variables in the calculation, giving consideration to solar gain, thermal bridging in the building enclosure, anticipated air leakage rates and occupant behaviour among other factors. The more detailed the calculation, the more useful the resulting figures for sizing heating systems.

The hourly heat loss figure determines the maximum required output of the heating system, and the total yearly heat loss helps to anticipate energy requirements and costs. Figures from a good heat loss calculation also allow the design of the building to be tweaked for maximum efficiency at the design stage, as variables can be adjusted to determine ideal levels of insulation, window size and quality and air tightness.

With the parameters established by the results of the heat loss calculation, the particulars of the system can be designed to meet these needs in the most efficient and comfortable way.

Making Better Buildings book

This content is based on the book Making Better Buildings by Chris Magwood. 

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