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Essential Sustainable Home Design

FREE CHAPTER OF NEW BOOK! Essential Sustainable Home Design is the latest book by Endeavour’s Chris Magwood. Get a sneak peak at the book that’s based on our popular Design Your Own Sustainable Home workshop.

Many people dream of building a beautiful, environmentally friendly home. But until now there has been no systematic guide to help potential builders work through the complete process of imagining, planning, designing, and building their ideal, sustainable home.

Essential Sustainable Home Design walks potential homebuilders through the process using key concepts, principles, and a project matrix that will guide the house to successful completion.

The book includes:

  • How to clarify your ideas and create a practical pathway to achieving your dream
  • A criteria matrix to guide design, material, and systems decisions
  • Creating a strong, integrated design team and working with professionals and code officials to keep the project on track from start to finish
  • Key building science concepts that make for a high-performance, durable building
  • Primer on building logistics, material sourcing, and protocols to ensure that the initial vision for the project comes to fruition
  • One-page summaries and ratings of popular sustainable building materials and system options.

Ideal for owner-builders and sustainable building contractors working with clients aiming to design and build a sustainable home.

Download a PDF of the Building Permits chapter.

ESSENTIAL SUSTAINABLE HOME DESIGN IS AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW!

Building Officials as Environmental Champions

After almost a decade of working with the “objective based” building code (introduced nationally in 2006), we have had many opportunities to explore the alternative compliance pathways offered by the code. A big part of doing this work is becoming familiar with the over-arching objectives that frame the entire code. There are only seven objectives behind the code:

  • Safety (OS)
  • Health (OH)
  • Accessibility (OA)
  • Protection (OP)
  • Resource Conservation (OR)
  • Environmental Integrity (OE)
  • Conservation of Buildings (OC)

Given that OA-Accessibility has nothing to do with material choices, a full 50% of the code objectives look like they were written by a natural building enthusiast! Under OH-Health, buildings should not harm their occupants in any way, including by chemical content, mold, moisture issues and thermal discomfort. Under OR-Resource Conservation, no building should deplete natural resources or the infrastructure that supports them. Under OE-Environmental Integrity, no building should expose the natural environment to degradation. I couldn’t have said this better myself!

Last month, I had a chance to speak with a local chapter of the Ontario Building Official’s Association. I took the opportunity to thank them for their work in protecting public health and safety, and to call them to action in fulfilling the environmental and health aspects of the code that currently exist in writing but not in enforcement. Here is the slide show I presented:

 

I would love to see the objectives of Health, Resource Conservation and Environmental Integrity recognized as the key risks facing building occupants, and have these objectives of the code taken every bit as seriously as the “traditional” objectives. The framework exists for building departments to lead on these important fronts, and I would love to see the professional take up the mantle of environmental heroes with the same rigour they brought to fire and structural safety over the decades!

The Carbon Elephant in the Room, pt. 2

Since posting about the “Carbon Elephant in the Room” back in November, I was asked to present on the subject of fighting climate change by using natural building materials at the BuildWell conference, with co-presenter Jacob Deva Racusin. I modelled four different house shells to establish their embodied carbon levels, and Jacob performed energy modelling on each of the four buildings in two different climatic zones to establish what the operational carbon footprint would be for 35 years.

The following slides are from our presentation, and the results are extremely interesting!

There is no reason for us to collectively be building carbon monsters anymore. The carbon elephant in the room is clear to see, and it’s up to us to make the right choices to lead that elephant away from our future! Rushing to make new buildings and renovate old ones with high carbon materials like fiberglass, foam, concrete and plastics is not going to help fight climate change. We have to take embodied carbon seriously… it is entering the atmosphere now, when we really need to make deep cuts. Low carbon materials and renewable energy are by far the best tools to use, just like natural builders have been saying for a couple decades!

Ecological Building: From Fringe to Almost-Mainstream, 1996-2016

Maybe the Weirdoes Weren’t So Weird After All

2016 marks the 20th year since the idea of building houses with straw bales completely transformed my life. Back in 1996, I wanted to build a home for my family that would achieve two seemingly simple goals:

  1. The home would make our lives financially sustainable by being affordable to build and having very low operating costs
  2. We’d have a smaller impact on the environment than conventional practices

While these were not particularly radical or even new goals, they certainly weren’t ones that we shared with many other people at the time. Our decision to go ahead and build the first code-permitted straw bale home in Ontario was met with many more quizzical looks or outright expressions of derision than interest or congratulations. Almost all of our reasons for building a low-cost, energy-efficient and environmentally friendly home where met with the question, “Why?”

cooper straw installation

Straw bales almost tripled the code requirements for wall insulation in 1996.

You’re Using R-What?
Then: The notion of insulating a home was well accepted by that time (and even mandated by the building code), but the notion of using anything more than the low code minimum was largely seen as excessive. No insulation was required for basements or under slabs, and air tightness was only being discussed in whispers. The R-2000 program had been around for a while, but even many of its proponents thought the idea of a straw bale wall’s R-40 (or so was the number used at the time) and our plans for R-48 in the roof was kind of overkill. The most receptive audience for the kind of energy efficiency promised by straw bale building was among individual homeowners eager, like us, to greatly reduce or even eliminate heating bills from our monthly overhead, effectively “buying” us a degree of freedom from financial burden.

Now: This is the one area in which conventional building has started to wholeheartedly adopt the strategies of the early green builders. The building code is on a planned pathway to ever-higher levels of insulation and energy efficiency, including targets for improved air tightness. There are numerous voluntary standards to encourage homeowners and builders to exceed code minimum efficiency (such as LEED for Homes and Energy Star), and software programs for modeling energy efficiency. The Passive House standard, nearly unthinkable back in 1996, is gaining traction and showing what’s possible when energy efficiency is taken really seriously. It won’t be long before straw bale walls at R-30 barely meet code requirements, and must already be exceeded to meet the higher standards. It has never been so easy to build a truly energy efficient home.

cooper frame

Recycling old barn timbers was just one strategy to lower the environmental impact.

Environmental Impact from Buildings?
Then: Even less understandable at the time was the urge to build with less of an “ecological footprint.” Even the term itself, which seems to have surfaced in 1992 (coined by Canadian ecologist and University of British Columbia professor William Rees), was unusual at the time, and the notion that choices regarding building materials could have a huge impact on the planet was just starting to be raised as an issue. The fledgling US Green Building Council, formed in 1993, was at the forefront of bringing this issue to light in North America… but nobody was really paying attention. And the idea that these environmental impacts could include climate change due to the high carbon output in the harvesting and production of building materials was nowhere on the public awareness radar.

Now: While there is still a long way to go to remedy the vast impacts that our building materials have on the environment, the problem is at least recognized and seems likely to start to be addressed seriously in the near future. An ever-growing body of data (ICE, EcoInvent, Green Footstep) can help to quantify environmental impacts, embodied energy and, of recent government and citizen concern, carbon footprint. I spent a year of my life writing a book called Making Better Buildings that presents data for a wide range of conventional and green building approaches. It is much easier now than ever before to have an understanding of the impact a building will have on the environment and make informed choices to minimize these impacts. Not many are making these choices, but the groundwork exists and government encouragement to make them seems likely. Advocates for materials like straw bale had a sound argument to make in 1996, and it finally seems to be catching the ear of the wider culture just now.

cooper solar gear

Home made solar thermal collectors and a cobbled PV system allowed for energy independence.

Renewable Energy?
Then: Our decision to go “off-grid” with our straw bale home wasn’t part of our original plan. But the high cost of hooking up to the grid mixed with a rapidly dwindling budget led us to live our first year or two in the home with no electricity other than a car battery hooked to the water pump. Surprised by the lack of discomfort (ample hot water came from solar collectors and a woodstove jacket), we were able to approach the idea of designing an off-grid electrical system as a way to provide “luxuries” like reading lights, a stereo and laptop computer use. Starting small, the system grew over time to include photovoltaic panels, wind and micro hydro. It was far from the slick systems that are readily available (and less expensive) today, but it met our needs and awakened my interest in examining conventional use of household energy and how high levels of personal comfort could come from vastly reduced consumption. From refrigerators that use cold air in the winter time to augment electric compressors to forays into early forms of LED lighting, the potential for minimizing needs without sacrificing amenities became a passion.

Now: The incredible drop in cost for photovoltaic panels has put renewables on a nearly even footing with fossil fuel energy… Incredible, considering the high levels of subsidies given to fossil fuels versus renewables. Here in Ontario, the MicroFIT program makes it financially prudent to put green energy onto the utility grid, and similar programs exist around North America. Energy storage is a top priority among researchers, with new battery technologies and systems beginning to make it to market. The distinction between being on- and off-grid could get blurry in the next decade as shared distribution of renewable energy on the grid combines with household storage capacity to re-shape household power solutions. This is one area where there are both improvements in the technology and more widespread adoption than twenty years ago. Codes, however, do not address these issues at all.

C&J's dining room

Non-toxic finishes were difficult to find, and often ended up being home made.

Sick Buildings and Healthy Materials?
Then: The World Health Organization coined the term “sick building syndrome” in 1984, as part of a study that found that over 30% of new or newly renovated buildings were the subject of health complaints by the occupants. The International Institute of Building Biologie and Ecology was formed in 1987. Not many people were listening. But this did not stop academic and lay researchers from questioning the ever-growing number of untested chemicals being combined in our building materials and wondering about the health impacts on building occupants. Those few who were concerned with this issue did not have a wide selection of commercially available products identified as being non-toxic to choose from. Homemade finishes were one important means of having control over what went into a building.

Now: Though an increasing volume and quality of research is showing the negative health effects of toxins in our buildings, this is an area has made very little headway into the mainstream. This despite the fact that we all have a vested interest in living and working in non-toxic buildings.

Small companies began to surface in the early 2000s dedicated to producing building materials free from proven or potentially toxic compounds. While few of these have mainstream distribution channels, it is entirely possible to build an entire house that has no or very little questionable chemical content. Programs like Declare and Cradle-to-Cradle ask manufacturers to fully disclose the ingredients for their building products, and the Living Building Challenge and other programs have chemical red lists to help homeowners and builders avoid potential toxins. There is no recognition of material toxicity in codes.

Low Cost Options
Then: A more regulated residential building sector was just a gleam in regulator’s eyes in 1996. The pathways for owner-builders to pursue innovative projects were less cluttered with requirements, and builders could operate much more informally, outside the scope of prescriptions, taxation and regulation. This meant that several layers of cost did not necessarily have to be borne by a project budget then. Building wasn’t exactly cheap twenty years ago, but the possibilities for building less expensively were there to be pursued.

Now: More regulations that are more strictly enforced have definitely raised building costs over the last two decades. And building material costs have risen at a rate that has exceeded general inflation. Many decades of treating real estate as short-term investment have raised land and building costs, making the cost of projects higher. Development charges, service fees, an increasing reliance on engineering approval and a more formalized scenario for builders have all put upward pressure on costs. It is more difficult than ever to build affordably, so even though the costs of building greener are well within the parameters of conventional costs, those conventional costs are increasingly out of the ability of a typical family to afford. There is no way my family and I could have acted on our 1996 dream if we were in the same position now in 2016. And that is saddening.

Everyone is Coming Down This Path
The forefront of ecological building is still a long way away from mainstream practice. But it’s not nearly as far away as it was twenty years ago; not a result of the leading edge practitioners being less adventurous or pushing less at the boundaries… rather, it’s the mainstream starting to pay attention. It may be a bit like watching a brontosaurus slowly turn its head to acknowledge an annoying bite on its tail, but it is starting to turning around.

Energy efficiency got the construction sector’s attention first. Material impacts on the environment (especially carbon) are increasingly gaining notice, and action on this front is likely in the near future. It won’t be long before occupant health likewise finds active proponents in government and industry, and the presence of toxins in the built environment begins to be treated as seriously as it should.

As I watch the behemoth slowly react, it seems worthwhile to acknowledge that, as with so much social change, the changes start on the fringe with creative thinkers and early adopters acting well outside the mainstream. It turns out that the weirdoes in 1996 were onto something, and that something is looking more and more like it makes “common” sense!

Top 5 Ways to Reduce Your Carbon Footrprint at Home

The climate talks in Paris have ended with an unprecedented climate agreement that saw 195 nations sign a commitment to make substantial greenhouse gas emissions. We’ll only know if these commitments are meaningful over the next few years as each country takes steps to meet reduction targets.

One of the difficulties in addressing climate change is getting past the debilitating sense that it is impossible for an individual to make a difference in the face of such vast emission problems. And while it is true that large-scale change needs to be undertaken by government and industry, there is plenty we can do individually to contribute.

Here at Endeavour, we’ve always seen the direct connection between carbon emissions and our built environment. It’s a large part of what’s driven our commitment to high levels of energy efficiency in our building projects. But energy efficiency is only one way to lower emissions when it comes to our homes.

We hear from a lot of people who say, “I’m not able to build myself a new house (or afford a major energy retrofit), so I can’t really make a difference.” It’s true that the cost hurdles to large-scale energy efficiency upgrades are high. Fortunately, there are many other meaningful and affordable ways to have a measurable impact on emissions at home:

  1. Don’t use petro-paints. It doesn’t matter if the latex paint you is regular, low-VOCNon-toxic paints or no-VOC, it’s all petrochemical based and a major source of emissions in its manufacture. The Canadian Paint and Coatings Association estimates that 129.1 million litres of architectural paint were sold in Canada in 2011. The Inventory of Carbon and Emissions (ICE) V.2 estimates that each kilogram of paint manufactured contributes 2.54 kg of CO2 (or equivalent GHGs). That means Canadians contributed 393.5 million kilograms (433,759.5 tons) of CO2 to the atmosphere just by buying petro-paint (this doesn’t include a similar amount of petro-paint for our cars, roads and other industrial uses!).
    Solution: Use natural paints! An amazing array of low-impact paints are readily available, easy to use, durable and beautiful. You can greatly reduce CO2 emissions and avoid bringing toxins into your home in one step. Endeavour works with all kinds of great paints, and you can learn about them here.
  2. Consider using wood. There are many places in our homes where wood is an excellent material choice that is often overlooked. From hard- and soft-wood flooring, to wall covering, ceilings, countertops and more, solid wood can be a durable, beautiful option. Most experts in climate changeThis is sort of FSC wood. It says FSC on it, and came from FSC forests and mills, but the retailer was not FSC certified. Not good enough for many green building rating systems...mitigation agree that planting trees is among the best things we can do to reduce atmospheric carbon. It may seem counter-intuitive to take advice to cut down trees, but harvesting mature trees and “locking up” that carbon in our homes for a long time is a good strategy. This is especially true when wood replaces high-carbon materials like plastics, drywall and concrete. Last year, North Americans used 21 billion square feet of drywall, according to the Gypsum Association. Using ICE 2.0 data, that results in 8.58 billion kilograms (9,457,831 tons) of CO2. Wood walls to cover the same surface area would emit 270 million kilograms (297,624 tons) of CO2 in production, and would sequester 540 million kilograms (595,248 tons) of carbon. The net difference? Over 10 million tons of CO2!
    Solution: Plant more trees than we use. Choosing wood that is certified to be sustainably harvested (such as FSC) means that harvested trees are replaced and forests are maintained. And you can go one step better and plant some trees yourself every time you use a wood product.
  3. Move to green energy. Renewable energy comes with a very low carbon footprint, and displaces forms of power that are some of the leading contributors to climate change. When most people hear this advice, costly rooftop solar panels are what comes to mind. And if you want to take advantage of BullfrogPower_logo_jpegOntario’s MicroFIT program to produce your own green energy, that’s great. But there’s an easier solution…
    Solution: Sign up with Bullfrog Power. Residents of Ontario have a remarkable and simple way to endorse and use green energy: a Bullfrog Power contract. Once you’re signed up with Bullfrog, they will ensure that the amount of power (electricity and natural gas) you use is put onto the grid from renewable sources. It costs just a few dollars a month more, and the transaction is quick and easy. It’s probably the single biggest impact on emissions that you can make, and it just takes a website click or a phone call.
  4. Change your energy behaviour. Most of the time, increasing energy efficiency in our homes is a proposition to throw out old appliances and buy new ones. But changing our energy behaviour can maketedprohome a powerful contribution to reductions, without throwing away anything old and buying anything new. How to make that behavioural change?
    Solution: Install a household energy monitor. A variety of studies, including an influential one here in Ontario, have shown that seeing real-time energy use data on a prominent display in the home can reduce energy use by 5-15%. No changing appliances, light bulbs or anything except our behaviour! You can explore some of the data and some of the excellent energy monitoring options on this blog by Green Building Advisor.
  5. Consider the carbon impacts of water. Water is always tied to discussions of climate change, but usually in terms of drought and water shortages. And while this is definitely an important issue, the needwater footprint to conserve water isn’t just about making sure there’s enough to go around… it’s a carbon issue too. In 2009, the River Network released a report called The Carbon Footprint of Water. Among its findings:

    “…the carbon footprint currently associated with moving, treating and heating water in the U.S. is at least 290 million metric tons a year. The CO2 embedded in the nation’s water represents 5% of all U.S. carbon emissions and is equivalent to the emissions of over 62 coal fired power plants.”

    Solution: Invest in water conservation. Dollar for dollar, the changes you can make at home to conserve water will have the best impact on carbon emissions. Putting inexpensive flow restrictors on faucets and showers (or even investing in new ones) is a small investment with real impacts. Changing to an ultra-low flush toilet costs a bit more, but certainly less than new windows or adding insulation. Add a bit of behaviour change to reduce water, maybe switch to rain catchment for lawns and gardens and suddenly you’re using a fraction of a valuable and carbon-heavy resource.

Of course, there are many other ways to lower the carbon footprint associated with your home. Sealing leaks and insulating (with carbon sequestering cellulose and NOT carbon intensive spray foam, fiberglass and rockwool) can reduce long-term emissions. Moving away from gas-powered yard tools is another sure-fire means. Moving to non-fossil fuel heating appliances (biomass or green-electricity fuelled) is expensive but has a great carbon payback.

But don’t give in to climate-change paralysis… The five ideas above are all easy, inexpensive and effective!

The (Carbon) Elephant in the Room

There is an elephant in the room when it comes to our buildings, and it’s a carbon elephant… Every time we make or renovate a building, there is a carbon footprint as a result of the harvesting and manufacturing of the materials as well as the transportation involved. If we think this carbon footprint is negligible, we’re ignoring the elephant in the room!

Embodied carbon versus operational carbon
For many years, green building advocates maintained that the embodied carbon of building materials was not as important as reducing the operational energy use and carbon footprint. By this reasoning, it was justifiable to use materials with a high carbon footprint because they would eventually “pay back” that carbon “investment” with reduced energy use over time.

It’s not a trade-off
However, it is possible to make buildings with low-carbon building materials that match the energy efficiency performance of buildings that use high-carbon solutions. It’s a win-win solution… but it takes some adjustments to our way of thinking about buildings.

The carbon elephant
A comparison of the carbon footprint of a few different types of building shows that there can be a huge difference based on just a few material selections.

 

Carbon emissions of various construction types (from Making Better Buildings)

 

This chart shows the same 1,000 square foot house (based on the model house in the book Making Better Buildings). The two conventional approaches differ only on the choice of exterior cladding, one brick and the other vinyl siding. They have a carbon footprint many times larger than a best practice home made from low-carbon materials. But surprisingly, the straw bale home using lime-cement plaster actually has a carbon footprint slightly higher than a conventional home with vinyl siding. The same bale home plastered with clay has a dramatically lower carbon footprint.

Carbon sequestration
The carbon footprint numbers shown in the chart assign a carbon footprint to the cellulose materials (wood, straw, cellulose insulation), but don’t take into account the carbon sequestration effect of bundling a lot of carbon-based material into a building for a long period of time. There are conflicting notions of how to account for this, but at the very least there seems to be agreement that the sequestration completely offsets the carbon footprint. There is some reasonable argument to be made that these materials can actually have the effect of negating some of the building’s carbon footprint… that is, create a negative amount on the building’s leger. Things look different when this is taken into account!

Carbon emission footprint with sequestration of cellulose material at 25% of material weight

Carbon emission footprint with sequestration of cellulose material at 25% of material weight

By eliminating the carbon footprint for cellulosic materials and giving a sequestration factor of 25% of the total material weight, the carbon footprint can actually be put into the negative. However, those striving for carbon neutrality must remember that sequestration relies on the growth of new bio-mass to absorb CO2… we need to plant trees to replace those we’ve used in order to ensure these figures.

Carbon footprint as demonstrated by the number of carbon elephants emitted

Carbon footprint as demonstrated by the number of carbon elephants emitted

Different approaches not equal
The world needs carbon reductions immediately. Ensuring high carbon output today with the hope of a long-term reduction is a questionable strategy; it’s better to bank on getting our carbon footprint reduced now, especially if we can do so without sacrificing future reductions in the form of energy efficiency. When we start building very efficient buildings, the carbon footprint of the materials can start to equal many years of operating energy.

Carbon footprint by embodied carbon, 1 year and 10 year operational carbon for three climate zones

Carbon footprint of a foam-home, a high performance low carbon home and an older home, by embodied carbon, 1 year and 10 year operational carbon for three climate zones

This graph shows the embodied carbon of a high performance building using foam insulation, a best-practice low-carbon building and a largely un-insulated low-carbon building in different climate zones. Note that with best practice, there can be almost 10 years of operating energy before the building has the carbon footprint of a foam-based high performance house. And that’s without taking any sequestration into account! Obviously, we want to avoid the huge footprint of poorly insulated buildings, but ideally we want to do so in a low-carbon way. If we can build a low carbon home and use it for 7-8 years before we have the carbon footprint of a foam home, this is the option we should pursue!

No small effect
There were over 220,000 new homes built in Canada in 2014. Using conventional materials, these homes account for over 3 million metric tonnes of CO2 output. Using best low-carbon building practices can eliminate that altogether, and could even contribute 0.5 million tonnes of sequestration… more than 3.5 million metric tonnes of CO2 reduction!

Canada’s commitments under the Copenhagen Accord call for us to reduce about 127 megatons of CO2 given 2013 output figures. A move to building carbon-conscious homes could get us almost 3 percent of that target, in one industry, with little need for re-tooling or re-training of trades AND using materials that are harvested and produced in Canada. As a bonus, such homes are not necessarily any more expensive or difficult to build.

Kind of puts a positive spin on things, no?

What Makes a Building Product “Green”?

The Green Glut
The past 10 years have seen an explosion of building products being marketed to designers and builders as “green.” As the immense impacts buildings have on our planet’s ecosystem started to become clear to the mainstream building industry, marketing departments went crazy to identify just about every kind of product as being “green” in some way or another.

Green?

Green?

From my position as someone advising people on green building options, this “glut of green” causes a lot of confusion. If every product is green, what does it mean to really be green?

Real Green Criteria
In order for a product to meet Endeavour’s standard for green, it has to meet several criteria:

  • Must have low ecosystem impacts in the harvesting and production of the product. This includes considering both how and where the raw materials are extracted and handled, and what kinds of pollution/emissions happen during the production processes.
  • Must have low embodied energy and carbon footprint. This means understanding how much (and what kind) of energy is used to harvest and process the product and the size of the fuel and carbon footprint.
  • If applicable, the product must positively impact the long-term energy efficiency and/or performance of the building.
  • Should not use and definitely must not emit any dangerous chemicals or off gassing, during manufacturing, use in the home, or at end-of-life.
  • Must be durable, and have a reasonable end-of-life strategy (ie, where does it go when it’s taken out of the building).
  • Upcycled, recycled and re-purposed materials are preferable.
  • Local production is preferable to long-distance shipping.

Meeting Just One Criteria = Not Good Enough
Many building products are sold as “green” if they meet any one of those criteria. Unfortunately, the majority of building products sold as “green” fail (often miserably) when examined against all of these criteria. While the sales team will glowing focus on any glimmering of green in one category, rarely does anything with the green label come close to satisfying a full range of ecological criteria.

Living Products Expo

Living Products Expo

A Materials Revolution?
The dichotomy between products posing as green and those that are truly green was on display at the recent Living Products Expo, which I attended in Pittsburgh last week. Organized by the International Living Future Institute, the event was billed as “Inspiring a Materials Revolution.” And kudos to the organizers, because this really was the intention of the event.

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What Makes Foam Green?
But at one point I found myself in a session that featured several product manufacturers presenting on their new green products. One was a rep from Johns Manville presenting a new polyisocyanurate foam insulation product that does not have added fire retardants (called Energy 3.E). Now this is an interesting achievement, since the flame retardants used in foam insulation are among some of the worst and most persistent chemicals in use on the planet, and up to 15-20% of flame retardant by weight is used in foams. The San Antonio Statement on Brominated and Chlorinated Flame Retardants should be enough to scare all of us away from using any products that use these flame retardants, so to have a foam insulation that eliminates them from its chemistry (without using questionable substitution) can be viewed as a major step, one worthy of the label “green.”

Johns Manville foamExcept that if we put even this insulation to the test of our criteria list, it still fails on many counts. The foam is still a petro-chemical product, and if we don’t like what the oil industry does to the planet (from exploration impacts to drilling sea beds or excavating tar sands to the vast amounts of energy consumed and carbon produced to spills and “toxic events”) then it’s hard to see any foam product as being green. Foam insulation has very high embodied energy and carbon output. It still uses questionable chemistry, has no end-of-life plan and is shipped long distances from a centralized factory. Energy 3.E might be “greener” than other foams, but I don’t think it can really be called green or sustainable. This despite the fact that the product has won all kinds of green awards and has been widely celebrated.

Ecovative mushroom foamReal Green Insulation
This point was driven home by the next presenter at the same session, this time from Ecovative Design. This company has developed “mushroom foam,” a material that is made from mycelium (mushroom roots) grown amongst agricultural waste fibers. Among its many uses, it can be made into an insulation product with very similar performance qualities as plastic foam. This material satisfies all of the stringent criteria we apply to products in our buildings, and it is naturally flame resistant (interestingly, it turns out that the phosphorus atom the Johns Manville scientists managed to insert into their foam occurs naturally in the mycelium). Unfortunately, Ecovative’s insulation products have not yet reached the mass market, while the foam product has. But the stark difference between the two is a perfect illustration of the difference between being “sort of green” and “really green.”Ecovative process

At the same conference, I gained a more in-depth understanding of two programs that are intended to help builders tell the difference between real green products and those that are just pretending to be green.

Cradle to Cradle products programCradle to Cradle Certification
The Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute certifies products on a scale from “bronze” to “gold” based on their satisfaction of a wide-ranging set of criteria. The C2C Products Registry allows one to select a product category (such as Building Supply and Materials) and find products that have met their very high standards. I highly recommend this when searching for truly green products to use in buildings, though the overall number of products is still relatively small.

declare labelThe Declare Label
Declare is a labelling system introduced by the Int’l Living Future Institute. The Declare label is billed as “a nutrition label for the building industry.” It focuses largely on a transparent declaration of all the ingredients in a product, and where those individual components come from. The Living Building Challenge building certification program has a “red list” of chemicals that it does not allow to be in a building. This label is a means of finding out if a product contains a red list chemical, and what things it contains that may not be desirable even if it is not on the red list. Declare does not consider ecosystem impacts, carbon emissions or other elements of manufacturing, and so is not quite as comprehensive as Cradle To Cradle, but it is still a great development and a useful tool for builders looking at green in a deeper way.

Green Chemistry and Local & Natural
green chemistry principlesAs stated in the Living Product Expo’s desire to spark a “materials revolution,” there is a real move happening toward creating and using building systems that are truly better for the planet. John Warner, a founder of the “green chemistry movement” was a speaker at the Expo, and more and more material developers are starting to use the principles of green chemistry for the built environment. Having presented to the Expo about Endeavour’s methods for prefabricating straw bale wall panels, I found it interesting that the most promising sustainable building systems are relatively low-tech, use waste streams from other processes and are simple to replicate in smaller, regional “micro-factories.” Mushroom foam, straw bale walls, cellulose insulation and so many other effective, truly green materials don’t require major industrial apparatus. To a large degree, this is what makes them truly green. Keeping it simple, local and natural is often the best way to ensure it’s green!

Getting Rid of Radon

Those of you who follow Endeavour’s work will know that we take indoor environment quality very seriously. Every material that comes into one of our buildings is carefully vetted for its chemical content, and all of our finishes are chosen to be non-toxic. We pride ourselves on making buildings that have the best possible indoor air and water quality for the occupants. This is an aspect of sustainable building that is all too often forgotten, or given minor consideration via the use of low-VOC paints or other small steps.

Radon concentrations in Southern Ontario

http://www.carexcanada.ca/en/radon/environmental_estimate/#provincial_tables_and_maps+maps

We have long been aware of the issue of radon gas; the presence of radon gas is an important consideration when trying to create excellent indoor environment quality. Health Canada says: “Radon is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas formed by the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rocks and water. It seeps from the ground, and small amounts of radon are always present in the air. If radon gas enters a closed space like a home, it can build to higher concentrations. Radon is radioactive, and potentially carcinogenic if enough of the gas builds up. It is estimated that radon exposure is responsible for about 10 per cent of lung cancer cases in Canada, second only to smoking. Health Canada estimates that 1,900 Canadians died in 2006 from lung cancer resulting from radon exposure.”

Radon measurement table

Table from http://www.carexcanada.ca/en/radon/environmental_estimate/#provincial_tables_and_maps+maps

When building our Canada’s Greenest Home project, we certainly considered the issue of radon, but after consulting some radon concentration maps and the Peterborough City-County Health Unit’s radon measurements in area homes, we didn’t think that radon would be an issue for this home. Especially considering the heavy duty vapour barrier and careful air sealing we knew we’d be doing, we thought the risk was extremely low.

However, a radon test of the basement – an integral part of getting our LEED Platinum certification – showed that we had very high levels. A long term (3-month) test gave results of 485 Bq/m3 (Becquerel per cubic metre), well above the Canadian acceptable limit of 200 Bq/m3, which itself is above the World Health Organization‘s recommended limit of 100 Bq/m3.

Despite the dangers of long-term exposure to radon gas, it is not so difficult to remedy a high reading, especially in a well-built home with a good basement.

We bought a testing device ($150) and an extraction fan ($250) from Radon Detect. The testing device can give short term (48 hour) and long term readings of radon levels. When we first plugged it in, we had readings in the 370 Bq/m3 range.

The process for lowering the radon level is to drill a hole in the basement slab to extend a 4-inch pipe down into the gravel below. This pipe is then directed out of the building through the basement wall to exhaust outside. We chose to use a fan mounted outdoors, but there are indoor options as well.

Our readings on the meter dropped by over 100 Bq/m3 to 223 Bq/m3 by just installing the 4-inch pipe, prior to hooking the fan up to the power source! Within 48 hours of turning on the fan, the meter was reading just 5 Bq/m3, well below any level of concern.

What is of concern, however, is that all the available information indicated to us that the Peterborough area is considered quite safe from radon, with the Health Unit reporting that only 8% of homes tested higher than 200 Bq/m3. However, the operator of Radon Detect told us that every home he’s ever seen tested in Peterborough has been higher than that, and certainly our readings were very high. Since radon comes from radioactive decomposition of rock and soil, this would indicated that at least our closest neighbours likely have high radon levels, and that high levels may exist in many more homes than we were led to believe. We were double the already-high allowable limit from Health Canada. At least now we own the testing equipment to help others see if they have high levels of radon.

 

 

Best New Books of 2014

As a sustainable building school, Endeavour tries to keep a well-stocked library of books for our students and workshop participants. Looking back at 2014, here are three books that I feel greatly improved our library:

Making Better Buildings bookMaking Better Buildings: A Comparative Guide to Sustainable Building, by Chris Magwood

  • Okay, perhaps it’s a bit of nepotism to include my own book on this list. But all of our work at Endeavour is aimed at helping people make good sustainable building choices. In the past, we’ve had to round up information from a wide range of sources to make comparisons between different material and system choices. This book puts all the information in one place, in as unbiased a manner as possible. Anybody thinking of undertaking a sustainable building or renovation project should spend some time with this book.

Earthen Floors bookEarthen Floors: A Modern Approach to an Ancient Practice, by Sukita Reay Crimmel and James Thomson

  • Interest in earthen floors has always been high among sustainable builders, so it’s surprising that it’s taken this long for a good resource on the subject to become available. It couldn’t have come from a better source. The authors are leading practitioners and have been setting the standard for earthen floors in modern building for many years. The lack of solid, reliable information has held a lot of people back from trying an earthen floor… that no longer needs to be the case. Everything one needs to know about sourcing materials, mixing, applying and finishing can be found here.

hempcrete bookThe Hempcrete Book: Designing and Building with Hemp-Lime, by William Stanwix and Alex Sparrow

  • The buzz that surrounds hempcrete has been amplifying in the past decade, but it’s been difficult to find trustworthy, reliable information on the technique, free from “hemp-hype” that tends to make exaggerated claims. This book is an excellent and thorough introduction to the materials, mixes and application of hemp-lime in new construction and renovations. It’s as thorough a how-to guide as is possible to write, and the reader should be ready to tackle a project having digested the information contained here.

Yes, it’s still relevant to buy books

Even though the internet has brought access to a great deal of free information about sustainable building (including here on Endeavour’s site), there is still no comparison to the depth of reliable information available in a good book. Books cover their subjects thoroughly, the authors tend to be well-regarded experts and publishers have spent time ensuring the information is accurate and reliable. The combination of a good book and a hands-on workshop can ready anybody to undertake their own project in a way that months of online surfing simply cannot.

If you are considering buying these (or any other) books this year, we’d recommend you go directly to the publishers and buy there. Online sources like Amazon provide low prices, but at a great cost to authors and publishers. Support your sustainable building authors and buy direct!

Thinking about sustainable building

There is a remarkable paradox when it comes to introducing new technologies, in construction or any other field. We expect new ideas or technologies to live up to unrealistically high standards, while at the same time we accept as normal many existing ideas or technologies that are inherently, deeply flawed.

It is a commendable tendency to try and be “objective” about new ideas and weigh as much evidence as we have at hand in deciding whether or not we think they are worthy. But we tend to be much less than objective about the ideas and technologies we use on a daily basis. Because they are normal to us, we rarely examine them in any meaningful way. A certain degree of inevitability is attributed to the ideas we’ve normalized; we don’t see them as choices in the same way we see new ideas as choices.

There are countless examples of this paradox in everything we do. In the building world, we find a great example in the use of milled lumber as our prime residential building material. Wood has every flaw imaginable for a building material. It burns; it rots; it’s insect food; it warps, twists and cracks; it’s a great medium for growing mold; its structural properties vary greatly by species, milling, drying and storing practices; it’s often grown far from where it’s needed; it’s heavy; it’s dimensionally unstable as climatic conditions change…. In fact, if an attempt were made to introduce wood as a building material in today’s building code climate, there is little chance that it would ever be approved!

And yet milled lumber has come to serve us very well as a building material. Collectively we used a natural material that was available to us and figured out how to deal with all its “micro-flaws.” In the end, we’ve normalized it and built an entire successful industry around an entirely flawed material! But if we introduce a new material that has even a small number of the flaws inherent in wood, we find ourselves up against naysayers who can only see the flaws and not the possibilities for being able to work with them. Straw bale and earthen building techniques can have many fewer flaws than wood construction, and yet are subjected to much more scrutiny.

There is no such thing as an idea or technology with no flaws. Recognizing this simple point is key to being able to consider new ideas fairly. There is an experiment I perform at public talks: I ask the audience how many of them have had to deal with a toilet backup at some point in their lives. The show of hands is almost guaranteed to be unanimous. Then I ask that same audience if they think the flush toilet is a bad, flawed idea that ”doesn’t work”; very few say Yes. And this despite having to regularly deal with some very unpleasant consequences due to an inherent flaw in the technology! We accept the micro-flaw of an occasional toilet backup as a reasonable trade-off for the convenience of using a flush toilet. However, I hear frequently that composting toilets “don’t work” based on second-hand reports of a single incidence of the composter smelling or not composting properly. There’s the paradox: the “normal” technology fails disgustingly at a rate of almost 100 percent, and yet the “alternative” is the one that gets branded as something that “doesn’t work.” In truth, both systems have some inherent flaws, and both will fail on occasion. We’ve just learned to accept the micro-flaws of one and reject the micro-flaws of the other.

Can composting toilets work? It's a question worth putting your head into!

Can composting toilets work? It’s a question worth putting your head into!

 

Every new technology a homeowner will examine when making choices has a number of micro-flaws, as do those conventional technologies they might replace. One should not attempt to gloss over any micro-flaws, as you will be living with them for a long time. But the comparisons between sustainable technologies and their conventional counterparts do not and cannot stop at the level of micro-flaws. Sustainable building strives to address the larger and much more important macro-flaws in our approach to building.

It is at the macro level that all of the materials in this book have their advantages over conventional practices. To continue the comparison between flush toilets and composting toilets, we can see that both can be practically functional but also have some micro-flaws. On the macro level, however, the flush toilet is part of a system that sees billions of gallons of untreated or partially treated sewage enter our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans, while using vast amounts of clean potable water and a very expensive public infrastructure. Meanwhile, composting toilets can turn human “waste” into a valuable fertilizer with minimal infrastructure and little to no fresh water usage. It is at this macro level that we should be assessing our building technologies. In this case, the advantages of the composting toilet should be very clear.

Sewage report card

If we can start making wise choices at the macro level, we can trust ourselves to figure out how to minimize the micro-flaws of any technology. We humans are incredibly good at refining ideas and techniques. Through repetition, we gain insights that allow us to make the process better and better each time we use it. We’re good at doing things better, but we’re not very good at doing better things. Doing better things means looking beyond the micro-flaws and basing our choices on minimizing impacts at the macro level.

One of the challenges in adopting any new technology is figuring out where we are on the learning curve, and at what point on that curve we feel comfortable jumping on board. Some of the systems we work with in sustainable building are quite well developed, with installation and maintenance instructions that are very complete and manufacturer and installer warranties that back them up. Others are relative newcomers (at least in the modern context) and the instruction manuals are literally being written and refined right now. We may not know the very best way to use some of these systems until a lot more early adopters have trial-and-errored their way to some kind of standardized practice. There are rewards to helping break new technologies, and also risks.

Figuring out what choices to make in a sustainable building project can be overwhelming. It requires a lot of level headed research, a willingness to question in cases of 2G2BT (too good to be true), and a clear understanding of your goals and your budget. Endeavour’s Plan Your Own Sustainable Home workshop is a great way to start sorting out all these choices for yourself!

(This blog is adapted from the book Making Better Buildings: A Comparative Guide to Sustainable Construction)

Making Better Buildings book by Chris Magwood

Making Better Buildings by Chris Magwood

Building Science: What every home owner and builder should know

Building Science is a relatively new field of study, emerging over the past decade as architects, engineers and builders examined the results of the new wave of highly insulated and energy efficient buildings. Building science attempts to see a building as a whole system, rather than an amalgam of different elements. Building enclosure (roofs, walls, floors, insulation, windows, doors and barriers) and heating/cooling systems as well as occupant loads and demands are examined within building science to achieve the highest levels of comfort, efficiency and building durability and serviceability.

At Endeavour, we think it’s important that building science isn’t just left to the scientists. Homeowners and tradespeople who understand the principles of building science will make better, more informed decisions at every turn in a project. Whether it’s a minor renovation or a complete new build, the lessons of building science will make the project more energy efficient, more durable and more comfortable.

The basics of heat and moisture movement and material properties are not hard to understand, and armed with an understanding of these basics, homeowners and builders will be able to have informed discussions with designers, building officials and HVAC suppliers and installers.

Builders involved in the natural building movement of the past two decades have played an interesting role in pushing the boundaries of building science. Lessons learned in straw bale, cob and adobe buildings have helped to inform the entire building science community as the field developed into its own branch of study. To date, buildings made with natural materials have often embodied the best principles of building science (whether knowingly or not!)

You can join one of North America’s leading natural building scientists for a workshop on the Fundamentals of Building Science at Endeavour to bring yourself up to speed for your home building project or to help you become a better builder. Jacob Deva Racusin is a principal at New Frameworks Natural Building in Vermont, and a co-author of The Natural Building Companion. His four day course is open to all, and is designed to introduce and develop the concepts of building science in both a theoretical and hands-on manner. You can read the course outline here.

If you intend to achieve a high level of performance in your own home or on your professional projects, this workshop is for you!

Making Better Buildings book now available

In my 10 years as a sustainable building teacher and nearly 20 years as a designer/builder, I have had the opportunity to work with a very wide range of people on a lot of different building projects. Over that time, I’ve realized that it is often difficult for people who want to make a more sustainable building to actually make the building they envision.

Two things typically stand in the way: the lack of a clear set of goals for the project and the difficulty of doing the vast amounts of research that are often required to meet those goals.

So in 2011, I set out to write a book that would help on both counts, and that book was just released this week by New Society Publishers.

The book is not an attempt to tell readers how to make one kind of “ideal” building, but rather an attempt to make clear all the available, practical options and to objectively show readers how each of those choices will affect the outcome according to 10 key criteria. By rating different options against a range of criteria, a reader can see a way to making the best building for their goals, whether those goals be low cost, low embodied energy, high energy efficiency or high durability.

So far, reviews of the book have been rave (heart-warmingly so, after all the work that went into the book!). I’ll end this post with what some reviewers have had to say, and hope that you’ll be inspired to buy a copy!

 If you’re drilling deep into sustainable building and want more than superficial details, let Chris Magwood be your guide. Making Better Buildings will help builders and homeowners quantify the green building process, and better understand the impact of their decisions. —Scott Gibson, Green Building Advisor

Chris Magwood’s new book is exciting news for builders and homeowners everywhere! This includes people who haven’t even heard yet of the ideas that Chris lays out with such accessible knowledge and clarity. As one of the most knowledgeable and experienced ecological builders in North America, practicality and efficiency is one of his prime concerns. As one of the leading natural builders in the world, his affordable ideas are offered for all scales, within his broad and creative vision. —Mark Lakeman, Design Lead at communitecture, architecture & planning. Co-Founder, The City Repair Project, Portland, Oregon

Based on Chris Magwood’s considerable experience of sustainable buildings systems, this book provides invaluable guidance for builders, designers and those thinking of building their own home. Stripping away the hype, the book provides a rational and balanced assessment of alternative options for the major components of a building. It is particularly valuable since it includes a wide range of criteria such as cost, durability, code compliance and labour intensiveness together with environmental criteria, which make it a highly useful decision support tool for many sustainable building projects. Also, we are encouraged to get beyond the bickering about different systems at the “micro” level and to focus on the bigger picture, “macro” issues, when choosing building components and systems which will lead to significant change. —Professor Mark Gorgolewski, Ryerson University

This book is an objective source of information on all aspects of home building from the foundation to the roof to the energy to the waste water systems. It’s the ultimate guide on building energy-efficient, environmentally friendly, and healthy green homes—quite possibly the most valuable book ever published on green building!  —Dan Chiras, Ph.D., Director of The Evergreen Institute and author of The Natural House, The New Ecological Home, The Solar House and many more.

Chris Magwood is such a builder geek. How many times am I surrounded by builder geeks (old curmudgeons as well as young idealists) that argue about a technology’s performance and how it stacks up against other technologies? Thank you Chris Magwood for writing “the ultimate argument settler”. Now with a quick flip to a page, I can attempt to eliminate hours of debate. —Emily Niehaus, Founding Director of Community Rebuilds

Making Better Buildings belongs in the library of every designer or builder in the green building business and should be read by every owner planning a new home. This is not simply green building – this is the future of construction! Chris has clearly described the pros and cons of the most viable natural building techniques and places them in context to create a tool that is timeless. —Jeff Ruppert, P.E. Structural and Civil Engineer, Publisher of The Last Straw Journal

At last: clarity! There are more and more people all over the world who are discovering the joy and satisfaction of building for themselves with natural materials. Very few, however, are also able to teach, communicate and inspire those around them. Of that precious few Chris Magwood is at the top of the list; his delight and mastery of the subject hums in every page. Whether you just want a broad overview, or access to high quality practical information on specific subjects, this is the book for you. —Bruce King, Ecological Building Network

Embodied Energy – Is It Important?

In my most recent book, Making Better Buildings, one of my objectives was to quantify the “embodied energy” of a wide range of building materials. Embodied energy refers to the amount of energy input to harvest and transport raw materials and process them into building components, and our conventional approaches to building tends to use a lot of materials with very high embodied energy. It has always been my goal to choose materials with the lowest possible embodied energy, which reduces the impact of the building on the planet.

Embodied energy of building materials

Embodied energy in building materials is no small matter!

In doing the research for the book, I was surprised to find a large number of sustainable building commentators who completely dismiss the importance of embodied energy in building greener homes. The argument is that the amount of embodied energy is relatively small compared to the amount of operating energy used by the building over its lifespan. Depending on who’s doing the analysis, embodied energy (EE) can be anywhere from 1/20 to 1/50 of lifetime operational energy. Therefore, the thinking is that EE isn’t really that important.

As the figures in the illustration above make abundantly clear, we use a crazy amount of energy making our buildings. Reducing this figure makes a lot of sense, especially when it is relatively easy to make material choices that can reduce EE by several orders of magnitude with little or no affect on the price or energy efficiency of the building.

Paying attention to EE makes sense in an immediate and visceral way, too. While projecting the lifetime energy use of a building is a valuable exercise, we have no way of knowing how much – or what type – of energy will actually be consumed in that building. But we know for certain that the energy used to produce materials and make buildings is being consumed right now. We know that it’s almost certainly fossil fuel energy that’s being used, and we know that the resulting carbon and other pollutions associated with that energy is entering the atmosphere right now. And we know that it is a large, concentrated amount of energy being used, likely within a year or two of the building being made. At a time when we are concerned about carbon levels in our atmosphere, the EE of buildings is low-hanging fruit. We can have a serious and meaningful impact at this level.

The choices aren’t that difficult to make. For example, the owner of a 1,000 square foot home wants to insulate the attic space. Up for consideration are three different insulation types: cellulose, mineral wool and fiberglass. All will have the same impact long-term energy reductions in the building, but look at the difference in EE figures:

  • Cellulose:  963-5,452 MJ (depending on source of cellulose)
  • Mineral wool: 14,691 MJ
  • Fiberglass: 26,040 MJ*

In gasoline equivalents, the low figure for cellulose represents 8 gallons of gas, while the figure for fiberglass represents 217 gallons! One small decision on the part of a homeowner can make a 200+ gallon difference! If you multiply that over the many decisions to be made in a single home, and then again by the number of homes and renovations that happen, this is no small amount of impact that we can make immediately by paying attention to EE. We don’t need to sacrifice the energy efficiency in the long term to have dramatic impacts right now.

Here’s another interesting example. The owner of a new straw bale house is trying to decide between different kinds of plaster. The choices won’t have any impact on energy efficiency, since the bales will provide the same level of insulation regardless of the plaster type. Look at the difference between choosing a clay plaster over a cement-based plaster:

Embodied energy comparison from the book Making Better Buildings

Embodied Energy comparison from Making Better Buildings

Again, one decision can save seven times the amount of EE!

Another problem with ignoring EE in favour of long term energy efficiency is that we cannot predict how much energy a building will use over its lifetime, or how long that lifetime will be. If, in 20 years, that home is using 100% renewable energy, then its EE suddenly represents the majority of its impact on the planet. We are also making large strides in reducing overall energy use, with PassiveHouse and other such programs showing that we can build at or close to net zero energy homes. For a net zero energy home, the EE of its materials and construction can represent the majority of its impact, so why not lower that impact?

Any builder or owner who willfully chooses to ignore EE as an important factor in making a greener building is doing so with blinders on. The choices are easy to make, the research is easy to access, and the resulting building does not have to perform any less efficiently. Choosing high EE materials is willfully neglectful, and in my experience the choice is often due to sheer laziness or an unwillingness to alter choices simply because that’s what has always been done. A builder doesn’t need to dabble on the fringes of the natural building world to drastically reduce EE. Many mainstream choices offer vastly lower EE than others. It’s just a matter of putting the effort into knowing what the EE impacts will be.

Ann Edminster, in her 1995 paper Investigation of Environmental Impacts of Straw Bale Construction, compared the EE of a conventional home versus an intentionally low-impact home of similar size and amenities.  What she found was that “The embodied energy for the conventional frame house was 509,000 KBtus. The embodied energy for the low impact straw bale house is 41,000 KBtus, or about one twelfth that of the frame house.”

If we can consciously make cost-effective, energy efficient decisions that lower our EE impacts by up to 12 times, there is no excuse to not be doing this!

*All figures from the Inventory of Carbon and Energy (ICE) V.2, University of Bath

Former Students and Their Beautiful Home

As a teacher, there is nothing more satisfying than to know that what you have taught has been absorbed, understood and sometimes even improved upon by a student.

Kate and Bernat with their amazing hybrid straw bale house

Jen and I were recently driving to Nova Scotia, and paid a surprise visit to Kate Alvo and Bernat Ferragut who were in our sustainable building program in 2009. They have designed and are close to finishing construction on their home in Port Neuf, Quebec.

They have exemplified the kind of careful planning, thoughtful research and quality building work that all add up to an excellent sustainable building project.

It was wonderful to be able to tour the home a bit ahead of its final completion, as we were still able to see the “guts” of the build. From a beautiful and functional design to the fine details of air sealing to excellent materials selection, this is exactly the kind of home that can make a real difference to our impact on the planet.

Kate and Bernat have, since 2009, run a business called Le Chantier du Bonheur, performing ecological renovations throughout Quebec.

Among the many great ideas and technologies incorporated into their home, the one I was most excited to see was the pellet boiler heating system and the deluxe hot water tank that accompanies it.

The pellet boiler on the left and the triple input hot water tank on the right should make for a very efficient and affordable heating system.

I have long been interested in pellet boiler technology, but have yet to install a system into a building. I see pellets as an excellent fuel source when made with regional waste biomass (as is widely available throughout much of Canada). The pellets burn more cleanly and efficiently than wood stoves or furnaces, and the boiler system allows easy hook up to hydronic heating systems and domestic hot water end uses. A large hopper allows enough pellets to be loaded to ensure long run time capability, so heating with biomass no longer means having to be at home all day to feed the stove.

The water tank has a triple input, allowing water in the same tank to be heated by solar, the pellet boiler and a backup electric resistance heater. The large capacity of the tank takes full advantage of solar input and the pellet boiler, and the inexpensive (to install) electric resistance heater means that the house never goes without heat, even if the boiler runs out of pellets.

The pellet boiler is from Pellmax and the tank from Aqualux. The two units were very affordable, and I’m very glad to be able to find out how they work without always being the first adopter of a new technology!

We wish Kate and Bernat all the best as they finish their home! You can follow their entire project history on their blog.

Designing Your Own Sustainable Home: A Realistic Challenge

In my fifteen years of being involved with sustainable building, I have seen many motivated owner-builders get into home building projects that spin out of control. Costs and timelines expand well beyond expectations and final performance and finish of the building doesn’t always match expectations.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. I began my building adventure as an admittedly clueless owner builder, so I understand very well how good intentions and positive energy don’t necessarily lead to the best results. As I’ve learned in the fifteen years since building my own home, the process of creating a good, environmentally-sensitive, energy-efficient home is not simple. The basic concepts are pretty easy to wrap one’s head around, but the execution involves so many decisions and choices, all of which impact each other and the final result. As soon as you throw some unconventional materials and systems into the equation, it can get even more tangled.

However, this should not prevent prospective owner-builders from designing and building their own homes. There is nothing more satisfying in life than to be responsible for the walls around and the roof over one’s family, and it is a manageable task. There are several important factors in tackling your own home:

  1. Learn from the mistakes of others. Chances are, somebody has already tried to do what you want to do, and has valuable lessons learned to share. Original mistakes are unavoidable, but repeated mistakes are just expensive and wasteful.
  2. Set clear goals for the project. Most owner-builders go into their projects with a strong sense of what it is they are trying to achieve, but often have not gone through a process of actually articulating their goals and spelling them out clearly. Doing this gives you a strong template against which to make all the myriad decisions that will arise as you go through the process.
  3. Be realistic. You know that sign you see in some workshops, the one that says: “You can have it fast, cheap or good. Pick two of the above.” That sign is true, and is very applicable to building one’s home. Another truism applies to homebuilding: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” The cheap, environmentally-sensitive, super energy efficient, code approved, heat-it-with-a-candle, build-it-out-of-scrap home is a fine dream, but not a realistic plan!
  4. Know how to ask for advice, and how to assess the advice you’re given. Everybody in home building has an opinion. From your designer to the building official to the guy at the paint store, everybody is willing to tell you how you should be doing it. They’re not all right, and they’re not all wrong, because there are lots of ways to build a house. You need to know what kind of house you want to build, and what motivation your advisors have when they share their opinions. When faced with conflicting advice, think clearly about your goals and which advisors share similar goals. When advice contradicts your chosen path, don’t ignore it completely, but don’t feel like you have to change that path either. If there is good, sound, trustable advice that supports your choices, it will likely work.
  5. No home is perfect. Building a house is really a process of making compromises and accepting imperfections. Buildings are complex objects, and custom homes are one-off creations. If you can build the same house three or four times, you’d have it all ironed out (hopefully). But since you’re probably only building it once, know now that it will have flaws that could have been avoided if only you’d known better. This is easier to swallow with some perspective… which can come from realizing that every building you’ve ever been in is probably just as flawed as your own. You usually just don’t notice it when you weren’t responsible. And lots of times your “flaws” can also be “opportunities.” Approached creatively, the unexpected in a building project can often become beautiful, unique features.
  6. It will cost more than you expect. A building that is finished for its anticipated budget is rare. So to avoid being surprised, don’t plan to build a house that will cost every penny you have. Because it will cost you all of those pennies, plus a few more. A good budget anticipates the worst and then makes additional provisions beyond the worst case scenario.

January 13 -15, 2012

Having been through this process many times on many different kinds of projects, I have a strong interest in helping people work their way through this maze and realize the best possible results from their home building projects. I enjoy sharing my experience and research into many different building materials and mechanical systems, and giving the kind of advice that has nothing to do with selling anything to anybody.
At the Design Your Own Sustainable Home workshop, the group format allows us to discuss the full range of options you’ll be facing, think through the advice you’ve already been given and the research you’ve already done, and shape all of those ideas into a sound basis for designing your home.
Homeowners expect to pay an awful lot of money for designs, labour and materials to achieve their dreams… but a little bit spent early on for advice – whether through workshops, books or consultations – can save tens or even hundreds of times the initial investment. We think this homeowners workshop will be a great investment in your future home.
The workshop runs from 7pm on Friday, January 13 until 4pm on Sunday, January 15.
Chris Magwood

Learning to Accept “No” for an Answer

Human beings are remarkable at figuring things out. Put a problem in front of us – especially one with a solution that will make us wealthier and/or more comfortable – and we’ll come up with all kinds of solutions for that problem.

Nothing triggers our collective desire to problem-solve like being told, “No, you can’t.”

The fact that we hate being told “No” is not necessarily a bad thing. Centuries of civil disobedience leading to political reform demonstrate the positive side of trying to turn a “No” into a “Yes.”

But what if it’s the earth’s ecosystem that is saying “No”?

As a designer and builder, I am constantly trying to make things possible for my clients. I am in the business of saying, “Yes.” As a sustainable designer and builder though, my attention should be firmly focused on whether or not the planet is saying “No.” And when I hear the “No” answer, I should respect it.

Every time we undertake an activity that creates polluting by-products, we should hear the implied “No” coming from the environment. Every time we gobble up resources at a rate we know outstrips the rate of re-generation, we should hear the “No.” Every time we let our desires be fulfilled at the expense of following generations, we should hear the “No.”

The building industry is in an awkward state these days. We have the ability to deliver levels of comfort inside buildings that were unthinkable a century ago. But we deliver that level of comfort at a remarkably high cost to the environment. There seems to be a general awakening to the fact that what we’re doing is not sustainable, that we contravene an enormous number of “No” answers from the planet in doing so.

Designers and builders addressing this problem are in a real bind. We’re trying to deliver in a sustainable way levels of performance that are based on unsustainable practices. Nobody wants the planet to tell them that they can’t have a home with a perfectly stable, year-round temperature of 20C. So a growing green building industry is setting about to give us the comfort levels we expect at a reduced impact on the environment.

I think that, despite all our best efforts, the planet is still going to say “No” to our current expectations of home comfort. I’m sure there is a level of sustainable energy we can make available, some mix of solar, wind, water and thermal energy that can be generated and used without widespread environmental destruction. I’m equally sure there are materials we can use to build that are renewable and reasonably harvested.

But as sure as I am of these two cornerstones of sustainable building, I’m equally certain that in order to heed the planet’s non-negotiable request for sustainability we are going to have to accept different standards of comfort. A truly sustainable building powered by truly sustainable energy will not always be the same temperature. We don’t need to freeze in the winter or swelter in the summer, but we do need to expect to be colder in the cold season and warmer in the warm season. We do need to expect to participate –physically – in the gathering of resources (water, food, fuel) and recycling of wastes. We will need to perform maintenance, live in smaller spaces, and be dependent on weather cycles.

Our ancestors accepted these parameters because they did not have the means to exceed them. We have the means to exceed, and we’ve been doing so. A move towards any kind of real sustainability has to be led by a choice to accept a life that is a bit less comfortable and requires a bit more effort. We’re clever enough to figure out ways to minimize our discomfort and effort, but only excessive amounts of energy and resources can support our current lifestyles.

As a designer and builder, I strive to achieve the highest levels of creature comfort with the lowest environmental impacts. I could build a willing client an entirely sustainable home right now, as long as they are willing to hear the planet when it says “No” and live within those means. Sooner or later, we will all become that client as we cease to be able to afford or access the energy that allows us to go beyond what the planet agrees with. But how many of us are willing to make that choice in advance of being forced to do so?

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