Tag Archives: green building

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.

Sustainable Building Essentials from Endeavour and New Society Publishers

The Endeavour Centre is partnering with New Society Publishers to bring natural building enthusiasts a new series of books intended to cover the full spectrum of materials, systems and approaches to natural building.

Sustainable Building Essentials books

Called the Sustainable Building Essentials series, the books cover the full range of natural and green building techniques with a focus on sustainable materials and methods and code compliance. Firmly rooted in sound building science and drawing on decades of experience, these large-format, highly-illustrated manuals deliver comprehensive, practical guidance from leading experts using a well-organized step-by-step approach. Whether your interest is foundations, walls, insulation, mechanical systems or final finishes, these unique books present the essential information on each topic.

The first three titles in the series are now available for pre-order from the publisher, with a 20% discount:

Essential Hempcrete Construction

Essential Building Science

Essential Prefab Strawbale Construction

Upcoming titles in the series include:

  • Essential Straw/Clay Construction
  • Essential Green Home Design
  • Essential Rainwater Harvesting
  • Essential Natural Plasters
  • Essential Cordwood Construction
  • Essential Composting Toilet Systems
  • Essential Green Roofs
  • and many more…

We hope that this series helps continue Endeavour’s mission to bring affordable, accessible and accurate sustainable building information to a wide audience!

Light clay straw insulation

On April 10, a workshop at Endeavour led participants through the theory and practice of making wall insulation from light clay straw (also known as straw/clay, slipstraw, or EcoNestTM).

This is an insulating technique we’ve used numerous times on building projects at Endeavour, and we appreciate the extremely low carbon footprint, simplicity, lack of toxicity and simple installation process of this insulation.

Here is an introductory slide show about light straw clay insulation:

Clay slip versus dry mixing
During our workshop, we used the typical mixing approach for light clay straw insulation: mixing our clay into water until we had a thick, “melted milkshake” consistency. This slip is then poured onto the straw and mixed in until the slip evenly coats all of the straw, so that a handful of straw can be squeezed into a shape that reasonably retains its shape. Whether mixed by hand, in a mortar mixer or in a purpose made straw/clay tumbler, this is how we and other straw/clay builders typically prepare the insulation.

 

For this workshop, we also tried a mixing technique more similar to that we use for hempcrete. When mixing hempcrete, the hemp hurd and the binder are added together when dry, mixed until the powdery binder coats all the hemp, and then lightly misted with water to make the binder sticky. So we tried sprinkling dry powdered clay over the straw, stirring, and then adding water. This didn’t work so well, as the clay powdered sifted down through the straw and ended up at the bottom.

Dry mixing, version 2
For our next batch, we reversed the process and gave the straw a light misting of water and then sprinkled in the clay powder and stirred. This seemed to work very well, as we ended up with a clay coating on the straw that was much stickier than slip mix and allowed the clay/straw to be packed into the forms easily. This process used 25-50% less clay, and more importantly 25-50% less water, which should reduce drying time in the wall dramatically. Having placed both slip-mix and dry-mix side-by-side in the same wall system, there was no appreciable difference in quality in the finished appearance of the insulation, but the dry-mix showed about 25% moisture content on our moisture meter, and the slip mix was up at 36%. Given that slow drying time is the main hang-up for straw/clay insulation, we will use this technique in the future to reduce the wait for the insulation to dry!

NEXT STRAW/CLAY WORKSHOP: OCTOBER 30, 2016

Hempcrete developments

On April 9, a workshop at Endeavour brought participants together to explore hempcrete insulation materials.

The workshop looked at well-used options for these materials, but also explored some interesting new approaches.

Endeavour has continued to develop the use of homemade hydraulic lime binders as a means to eliminate carbon-heavy cement from our building materials and to create locally-sourced binders for cement replacement. At this point, our homemade hydraulic lime binder is well-tested and we feel it works as well as any of the imported (European) hempcrete binders, at a fraction of the cost and with locally-sourced ingredients.

Hempcrete mix
Our hempcrete binder is composed of 50% hydrated lime (most easily accessible to us is Graymont’s Ivory Finish Lime) and 50% Metapor metakaolin from Poraver (created as a by-product of the company’s expanded glass bead production).

We mix our hempcrete at a ratio of 1 part chopped hemp hurd by weight, with 1.5 parts of the binder by weight. After translating these weights to volume measurements, it was 4 buckets or hemp hurd going into the mixer with 1 bucket of binder (1/2 lime, 1/2 metakaolin).

 

hempcrete insulation

Weight ratios are converted to bucket measurements: 1/2 bucket of lime, 1/2 bucket of metakaolin, 4 buckets of hemp hurd

 

The hemp hurd goes into the mortar mixer first and then we sprinkle in the binder and allow it dry mix until the hurd is well coated with binder powder.

hempcrete insulation

A horizontal shaft mortar mixer is used to dry-mix the lime binder and the hemp before water is misted into the mix

Water is then misted (not sprayed) into the mixer until the mix is just moist enough that if we pack it like a snowball in our gloved hands it keeps its shape, but is still fairly fragile (ie, can be broken with a bit of a squeeze). It is important to not over-wet the hempcrete, as this will greatly extend the drying time once the hempcrete has been packed into a wall. If too much water is added, the mix can’t be recovered by adding more dry ingredients as the hemp hurd will quickly absorb excess water and there won’t be any free water for the new dry ingredients. So, add water carefully and gradually!

hempcrete insulation

When packed like a snowball, the hempcrete should just hang together

Hempcrete is placed into formwork on a frame wall, using light hand-pressure to compact the mix just enough to ensure that the binder will stick all the individual pieces of hemp together.

hempcrete construction

Hempcrete is placed into forms and lightly pressed into place. The forms are leap-frogged up the wall.

Our workshop crew was able to mix and place enough hempcrete to fill a 4-1/4 inch deep wall cavity that was 4-feet wide and 13-feet high in just under 3 hours! That’s over 6 cubic feet of material per hour!

Hempcrete recycling
We have long touted the no-waste benefits of hempcrete. We’ve speculated that even when the insulation is being removed from a building during renovations or demolition, that the hempcrete can be broken up and recycled into a new mix with new binder added. We put that theory to the test at the workshop, as we demolished one of our small sample walls and added the broken up hempcrete into our new mixes at a ratio of 3 parts new hemp to 1 part recycled hempcrete. The resulting mixes were impossible to distinguish from the all-new mixes, and confirmed that hempcrete can easily be re-used!

hempcrete insulation

Hempcrete that had already been mixed into a wall was broken up and added into a new mix… Fully recyclable!

Hempcrete book forthcoming
If you are interested in hempcrete insulation, Endeavour’s Chris Magwood has just finished a book called Essential Hempcrete Construction that will be available in June, 2016. It contains recipes, sourcing, costing, design and installation instructions and will be very valuable to anybody considering a hempcrete project.

hempcrete insulation

New book includes everything you need to know about building with hempcrete

Hemp-clay shows lots of promise!
Hempcrete insulation is almost always done using a lime-based binder. But at the Natural Building Colloquium in Kingston, New Mexico last October, we were doing a hempcrete demonstration right next to a straw/clay demonstration, and we took the opportunity to mix up a block of hemp hurds with a clay binder.

hemp clay construction

A sample block of hemp-clay showed the potential for this material combination

The success of that demo block led us to try this combination on a slightly larger scale, and we machine mixed the clay and the hemp to fill one tall wall cavity with this hybrid material. Using the same mixing methodology as typical hempcrete, we added the hemp hurd and dry bagged clay to the mixer and allowed it to dry mix, before misting with water. Interestingly, we were able to use half the amount of clay binder compared to lime binder (1/2 bucket of clay to 4 buckets of hemp hurd) and the resulting mix was stickier and easy to form and pack than with the lime, and with the addition of noticeably less water.

hemp clay construction

The hemp-clay mix has great binding power, and keeps its shape with very little pressure required

The key difference between the two binders is in their manner of setting. Hydraulic lime binders cure chemically, and consume water to change the chemical structure of the mix as it solidifies. Clay binders simply dry out and get hard. So the lime-based versions should be drier and harder sooner. However, the smaller quantity of water required in the clay-hemp mix may mean that drying times end up being similar… we’ll report back when we know.

hemp clay construction

A close-up of the hemp-clay mix formed into the wall. It keeps its shape within seconds of being placed into the forms

Clay binder with hempcrete offers some advantages over lime-based options, including a significantly lower carbon footprint and none of the caustic nature of lime that can cause skin burns when handling. The clay-based binder creates a mix that is much stickier during installation, which means less packing/tamping to get the material to cohere in the forms. Less water means that it was almost impossible to over-compact the mixture. We will definitely be exploring this option in a serious way!

hempcrete insulation

Having placed 18.5 cubic feet of hempcrete in a few hours, the crew stands in front of their work. The lighter coloured hempcrete is our homemade hydraulic binder, the darker mix is Batichanvre, a binder imported from France.

NEXT HEMPCRETE WORKSHOP: OCTOBER 29, 2016

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.

This means that if loans for people with bad credit instant decision no fees is unable to repay the loan, the lender is legally allowed to seize the collateral and sell it to recoup their losses. Typical secured loans include mortgages, car title loans, and pawnshop loans.

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!

Green & Healthy Home Renovation series

Greening Your Kitchen & Bathroom
– Tuesday, November 1

Improving Your Home’s Energy Efficiency
– Tuesday, November 8

Choosing Healthy Paints, Finishes & Flooring
– Tuesday, November 15

All presentations 6 pm to 9 pm
Endeavour Centre, Peterborough

Instructor: Chris Magwood

Are you looking to renovate your home in a greener, healthier way? There is so much conflicting information out there it can be hard to know what to do.

Don’t get your information from a salesman!
This series of evening presentations gives you a chance to learn about a wide range of options from an unbiased source – long-time sustainable builder Chris Magwood. As the author of the book Making Better Buildings, Chris has made a name for himself for giving good, well-researched and honest advice to home owners about how to make the right green choices to meet their own unique goals.

 

See and experience a wide range of options
Not only will you learn about how to assess and choose green building options, the Endeavour Centre classroom is a living laboratory of green building and you will be able to see and experience samples of materials, systems and products.

Affordable and practical green solutions
Most people think that renovating in a green and healthy way will cost them a lot more money, but that’s not necessarily the case. The Green Renovation Series offers practical advice and a real focus on affordability to help you meet your goals on your budget.

Get answers to your questions
Each presentation will include a generous amount of question-and-answer time, allowing you to get specific advice on your own projects. A hand-out will be included to help you source all the materials and systems discussed during the workshop.

Put 20 years of green building knowledge to work for you
Finding out how to make choices that are healthy for you and your family and for the planet is a lot less difficult than you might think. Each of these 3-hour presentations is lively, engaging and informative. Come to any one of the presentations for just $25, or come to all three for just $60.

Entry requirements
Open to all

Fee
Each presentation – $25
Attend all three for just $60

Net Zero Energy Certification Course

June 18-19, 2016
9 am – 5 pm, both days
Endeavour Centre, Peterborough

Instructor: Ross Elliott

Workshop Description:

Don’t miss this highly-rated, information-packed workshop, loaded with everything you need to know about the Net Zero Energy/Net Zero Ready home building and the CHBA Net Zero Energy pilot. Net Zero Energy Homes are the pinnacle of energy efficiency, and third-party verified to be ultra efficient.

Benefit from your position as one of the first Net Zero-trained home builders as part of the pilot program.

Train with one of the country’s leading building scientists, Homesol’s Ross Elliott, in conjunction with the #1 certifier of energy efficient homes in Canada, EnerQuality

Many of our builder participants are already building high performance homes.

This information-packed workshop will provide you with:

  • Unparalleled building science technical preparation for building Net Zero and Net Zero Ready homes based on the incoming CHBA Net Zero protocol
  • The ability to efficiently design and plan for the incoming Net Zero certification requirements
  • Practical understanding of how to build homes to Net Zero standards, using cost-effective technologies which are already available
  • Tips to successfully market and sell a Net Zero home by one of Canada’s most-seasoned experts
  • Entry to a community of builders who will be receiving ongoing, practical information on the development of the program, including support from EnerQuality’s administrative and Quality Assurance team
  • Certificate recognition of your training and expertise
  • Net Zero R-2000 training Manual for use during the workshop and the future reference
  • Recognition as an R-2000 trained builder and/or maintain your access status

Date/Location

Saturday-Sunday, June 18-19 2016

Endeavour Centre, 910 High St Unit 14, Peterborough, ON K9J 5RJ

Cost:

$899 + HST

HBA Members $799 + HST

The CHBA Builder’s Manual (2013) is a required text. You may purchase this through EnerQuality, or bring your own.

Please note that HBA membership is required to have homes certified under Net Zero. The Net Zero program is in development and updates and revisions to the program may be made. 

Course Content

  • Building Science Principles
  • Air Barrier Systems
  • Renewables
  • Windows
  • Foundations
  • Advanced Construction
  • Air-Sealing Techniques
  • Mechanical Systems
  • Marketing
  • R-2000 Quality Assurance Process Overview
  • CHBA NZE Labelling Program Requirements & Process Review
  • New and Better Building Techniques
  • Best Practices
  • Lessons Learned
  • Consumer Benefits
  • Networking
  • More!

This workshop satisfies OAA and OBOA Continuing Education Credits, R-2000* Builder Training and CHBA NZE Pilot Builder Training.

Instructor

Ross Elliott 2015

Ross Elliott

Ross Elliott, President and CEO of Homesol Building Solutions Inc., inspires owners, builders, designers and policymakers to create some of North America’s most energy efficient homes. He is a Certified Passive House Consultant (both iPHI and PHIUS) with over 30 years expertise in sustainable building & design. Ross and his team have completed almost 20,000 building energy evaluations, from ENERGY STAR® for New Homes, R-2000, and Home Energy Check-up Reports, to LEED, Passive House and Zero Energy+ homes. Named, for the second time in 2011, Ontario’s Energy Evaluator of the Year, and awarded EnerQuality Hall of Fame in 2014, Ross is also a LEED-Accredited Professional (Building Design & Construction), a Certified Energy Evaluator for ENERGY STAR® & R-2000 and is a qualified Air Systems & Radiant Hydronic Design Technician. He holds a BCIN Designer designation with the Ontario Ministry of Housing, and is experienced with natural building materials such as strawbale.

Active in his industry, Ross is a Director and Founding Member of Passive Buildings Canada and the Global Passive Buildings Council, a Faculty Member of the Canada Green Building Council and is a past Director of EnerQuality Corporation. He is also a Director of the Ontario Natural Building Coalition. He has provided research and training for major organizations including CMHC, Ontario First Nations Technical Services and Natural Resources Canada. Ross is completing his Masters in Ecological Design, and is currently working with dozens of sustainable building projects including a Zero Energy Passive House, a soap bubble insulated & shaded greenhouse, and his own rural home near Ottawa, recently certified as LEED Gold, R-2000, ENERGY STAR®, EnerGuide 90 and GreenHouse. He first trained as an energy auditor in 1979, worked as a Licensed Journeyman Carpenter for 10 years and operated his own construction business, specializing in Earth Friendly Homes, for seven years before starting Homesol in 1999.

Registration

Interested participants can register online.

If you have any further questions please contact our office at 416-447-0077 or via email at Jessika@EnerQuality.ca.

Cancellation Policy

EnerQuality endeavours to be as flexible as possible with our cancellation policy.  In the event you are unable to personally attend a workshop, you may, with prior notice, substitute another representative from your company. A refund (less $50 administration fee) will be issued for cancellations made up to 45 days in advance of the workshop. Contractual obligations and agreements with third parties may require for the policy to be amended or revised from time to time. EnerQuality reserves the right to reschedule, relocate, or cancel events. Should this be required, we will provide prior notice to all registrants.

 

 

Compressed Earth Block Workshop

Sunday, April 24, 2016
9.30 am – 5.00 pm
Cold Springs, Ontario

Instructors: Chris Magwood & Henry Wiersma

Workshop Description:

Learn how to work with locally-made, low-impact, durable compressed earth blocks (CEB, or rammed earth blocks) for foundations, exterior walls and interior walls.

CEB building is a low-tech building solution using basic materials and simple tools. Drawing on the age-old technique of rammed earth building, CEB uses a hydraulic press to create unfired earthen blocks.

CEB construction can often use site soils as the basis for the rammed earth mix, or local gravel, sand, clay (or other binders) can be used.

 

In this workshop you will see how an earth block press operates, and learn how to create a suitable rammed earth mix. You will learn how to mix a mortar suitable for CEB and how to lay up the blocks in a small wall project. Engineering and code approvals will also be covered.

You will be able to tour a completed earth block building with the CEB used for the walls and the floor.

At the end of this workshop, you will be ready to construct your own compressed earth block project!

Entry Requirements
Open to all

Fee
Early bird – $125
Regular – $150
Fees include healthy lunch (vegan and vegetarian options available)

Maximum class size: 12

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?

Why We Love Earthen Floors

Take one step – especially with bare feet – on an earthen floor and chances are you will be sold on the idea. You will want an earthen floor of your own. And not only will you be making happy feet when you choose an earthen floor, you’ll be making one of the most radical-yet-simple sustainable building choices… one that could dramatically reduce the environmental impacts of the built environment in a meaningful way.

earthen floor workshop and how-to

Clay, sand, fiber… that’s it!

A true game-changer
With the construction industry touting just about every option as being “eco-friendly” these days, it can be hard to know what choices really do make a difference. Earthen floors are a truly eco-friendly option. Using just four basic, natural, chemical-free and abundant materials that are minimally processed on site, an earthen floor creates a durable, healthy finished floor with the lowest possible environmental impacts. Mix the right proportions of clay, sand, natural fibers and drying oils and you’ll have a floor that is as beautiful as it is planet-friendly. The embodied energy of a 3/4″ thick earthen floor is 0.16 MJ/square foot, a tiny fraction compared to 3 MJ/square foot for hardwood, linoleum and concrete flooring of the same thickness, and 10-25 MJ/square foot for tile.

Really, a dirt floor?
It is often difficult for anybody in the “developed” world to consider an earthen floor as part of a clean, modern home. But earthen floors can be the visual showpiece of a home. A well-made earthen floor is a thing of beauty, bringing a texture and visual impact that cannot be replicated with any other material. Natural clay colours or natural pigments offer a wide palette, and a variety of fiber options can be used to great effect. And then there are the oil finishes which can add a rich lustre and additional colour options.

Are hearten floors durable?
Earthen floors are not a common option, and therefore most people do not have experience with seeing an earthen floor wear over time. In fact, these floors have very similar wear characteristics as most other natural floor materials like wood, bamboo and linoleum. All of these floor types can have a long lifespan under typical use conditions, although all are susceptible to scratching and gouging if mistreated, and all will require occasional refinishing to protect and enhance the surface of the material. Earthen floors are no different, and are quite easy to repair and refinish should some damage occur. I witnessed the earthen floor at Arts Centre Hastings spend a night under water after a large cooler full of melted ice broke, and yet after mopping up the spill the floor was not affected at all!

Place them wisely in the building
Though durable, it is wise to place them appropriately. Entryways, especially those that will see a lot of salt from snowy boots, can stress an earthen floor. Areas which will see a lot of dragging of chairs and furniture may not be appropriate. But if the use of the floor is for interior foot traffic, they hold up very well.

How does it work?
The clay/sand/fiber mix of an earthen floor may not seem like an ideal combination in a heavy-wearing scenario like a floor. These elements combine to make a substrate that can be easily packed and levelled. A typical earthen floor mix is 1 part of clay, 4 parts of sand, and 1 part of finely chopped fiber. As clays and clay soils can have different properties, it is always good to experiment with new materials before pouring an entire floor. Once this mix has been poured and troweled level, it is allowed to dry. Then the real magic occurs: several coats (anywhere from 2-6) of natural oil finish is applied to the floor. The oil penetrates into the clay/sand mixture and hardens around it, creating a tight and water-resistant finish that is very durable. The process is similar to natural linoleum, where linseed oil is mixed with sawdust. As with linoleum, the result is surprisingly solid.

Where can an earthen floor be used?
Earthen floors can be laid over many typical floor bases, including concrete slabs and plywood sub-floors. As

earthen floor clay floor how-to

A living room with a wood stove is a great place for an earthen floor

long as the floor base is stable and doesn’t have excessive flex or deflection, then an earthen floor can be laid. Typical thickness for a finished earthen floor is 3/4″, though it is possible to make them thicker. The floors can be laid over hydronic heating tubes, or used under wood stoves or other sources of heat. Simple substrate preparations are used if the base is either very smooth and shiny or if it is water absorbent.

It’s easy to learn to make an earthen floor
The steps involved in mixing, laying and finishing an earthen floor are very straightforward. If you think an earthen floor might be in your future, you can check out our upcoming earthen floor workshop, where you’ll get a chance to mix, pour, level and finish a complete earthen floor.

A PassiveHouse Heating System

Passive House is a building certification program that focuses on dramatically improving the energy efficiency of new and renovated buildings. Overseen in this country by the Canadian Passive House Institute (CanPHI), the standard originated in Germany in the late 1980s and buildings that comply with the standard will have energy use reduced by 80-90% from current Canadian code requirements. Specifically, Passive House buildings must have an annual heating and cooling demand of not more than 15 kilowatt hours per square meter of building (15 kWh/m²) per year, and total primary energy (calculated as source energy, not metered energy at the building) must not exceed 120 kWh/m² per year. In addition, an air tight building enclosure is a requirement, with leakage no greater than 0.6 times the house volume per hour as tested with a blower door (0.6 ACH/hour at 50Pa).

The teachers’ union office is our first building designed to meet the Passive House standard, though we have used the Passive House software as our energy modelling software for the past three years. Although we were not intending to have the building certified, we wanted to meet the standard and achieve the energy reductions using our low-energy, low-impact range of building materials. We worked with Rob Blakeney of Local Impact Design to model the building and advise us on insulation levels, passive solar aspects and to design the heating system.

While the term “passive house” is an attractive one, it is quite misleading as the buildings do not feature passive (ie, non-mechanical) systems. In fact, Passive House buildings typically require a mechanical ventilation system to run 24 hours a day. The leap to Passive House standards means that conventional heating systems can often be left out of the design, and instead buildings can be heated with small amounts of heat input into the ventilation air distribution system or other low-input systems.

At the teachers’s union building, a 1 kilowatt heater is used in each of the three main ventilation air supply ducts to provide heat to the three offices. In general, this is the main source of heat for the building. A ductless mini-split air source heat pump is in place in the large meeting room and can provide additional heat capacity when required (though its inclusion in the system had more to do with meeting peak cooling demands in the summer). Through this year’s very cold February weather, the system had no problem keeping the building warm and comfortable… pretty impressive given that the heat source is the equivalent of running two toasters!

We were keen to build to Passive House standards because the most typical means to reach this level of performance has been to use a lot of foam insulation to achieve the necessary R-values and air tightness. We wanted to bring our low-impact, locally-sourced material palette to the challenge, using straw bales, cellulose, clay plaster and simple air tightness detailing to the highest levels of performance. In this way, we can lower both the energy use of the building, and also the embodied energy. Walking into the building when it is -25C outside and feeling the wash of warm, fresh air and knowing that the heat source is minuscule has been very satisfying!

Final “Report Card” for Canada’s Greenest Home

In 2012, we had a vision of creating a spec-home on an urban infill lot in central Peterborough, a home that would aspire to the very highest standards of sustainable building while also achieving a modern aesthetic that would appeal to a wide range of potential homeowners. We also wanted to build the home in a way that could be easily reproduced by any conventional contractor.

One of our key goals was to ensure that we weren’t just promising improved environmental performance, but that we were achieving measurable results. Having occupied the home for just over a year, we have now had a chance to monitor its performance and calculate a variety of metrics, comparing these to the more conventional homes that share the marketplace. We couldn’t be more pleased with the results, as summarized in the graphic above.

Performance statistics for Canada's Greenest Home

While the performance of the house marks a vast improvement over current practices, perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that this level of performance was not difficult to achieve. Any builder can hit this standard of performance, and do so within the cost range that is currently acceptable in the market. While this project made some more costly investments in PV, rainwater harvesting, composting toilets and solar hot water, a home built to the same level of performance without these “add-ons” would be entirely cost-competitive. And other than the solar income, most of the metrics above would not change if we didn’t invest in these technologies.

Literally anybody can do this type of building, and do it affordably. We intentionally chose to buy off-the-shelf or easily accessible materials and products, from Durisol foundation blocks to prefabricated straw bale wall panels to ready-made clay and lime paints. Everything in this home is available to builders, and every builder already has the skills to create something like this.

This feels like good news when we’re faced with an onslaught of doom-and-gloom news about the environment. Not that this home will save the planet, but when it comes to easily achieved results that have dramatic reductions in impact, the reproduction of homes like this could be a remarkable step in the right direction. Government forecasts show that the US expects about 1,000,000 new home starts per month in 2015, and Canada expects about 190,000. If all of those homes reduced their energy use by the same amount as this project, that would be 89,250,000 gigajoules of energy savings, 189,210,000 liters of water saved, and 156,017,330 gigajoules of saved embodied energy. Those are meaningful numbers (the equivalent of the output of many nuclear generating stations!), and they are immediately achievable.

When we called this project “Canada’s Greenest Home” we were not trying to set an example that would set an untouchable record for green performance. Instead, we were trying to set a standard that would be inspirational in its final performance and entirely reproducible, so that every new home could easily be this green. We feel we’ve achieved this goal. The rest is now up to home owners, home builders and governments to take this example and adopt and improve it.

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

New system for straw bale walls

Over 20 years of building with straw bales, I have constantly experimented with new ways to integrate bale walls into buildings that are simple, cost-effective and energy/resource efficient. From load bearing to prefab panels to a variety of framing systems, I thought I’d tried them all.

But we were introduced to a new idea by the excellent builders at New Frameworks Natural Building, and we liked the idea so much we decided to try it ourselves.

Their “StrawCell” approach involves building a conventional stud frame wall for the building which acts as the exterior frame and main load bearing element. One immediate advantage is that this system fits into the regular code structure and should not require special engineering or design considerations, which can really ease the permitting process and help to lower costs. The straw bale wall is then built to the inside of the frame wall, with the bales pressed against the framing. The stud wall cavities are then insulated with dense packed cellulose, and sheathed with a permeable board material. Any kind of siding/rainscreen can be created as the final finish on the exterior.

On the interior the bales are very easy to install. The only framing that interrupts the straw is for window and door openings – very similar to the easy installation for load-bearing designs. At the top of the wall there is no beam or framing to notch around, just a plywood plate on the underside of the roof. We tied each bale through to the framing, so the wall was very straight and solid right away.

While the amount of lumber used in this system was initially a red flag for me, an actual calculation showed that we were using no more lumber than any of the other bale wall systems that use a frame of some sort. A conventional frame wall is actually a very effective and efficient way to use lumber, and only some load bearing systems actually use less lumber than this frame wall approach.

One major difference between this system and other straw bale approaches is the lack of exterior plaster. This can be seen as both a plus or a minus. We have been shying away from exterior plaster finishes for clients, especially commercial clients like the teachers’ union. While we love plaster, it is both a high maintenance finish and one that is susceptible to moisture issues unless well detailed, well protected and well maintained. While we definitely have not sworn off using exterior plaster, we are certainly glad to use siding when the client and/or conditions make it appropriate. On the plus side, this system reduces the amount of plastering material and labour required by half (actually, more than half since the interior plastering is always easier). Interior plastering can happen at any time of year, while exterior requires the right weather conditions.

The addition of the cellulose in the exterior wall brings this wall system into the super-insulated category, capable of reaching PassiveHouse standards even in our cold climate (something a single, two-string bale wall cannot do). The cost of the cellulose and siding together are quite similar to the cost of the material and labour for exterior plastering.

All in all, we like this system so far. We’ll continue to report as we finish preparing the walls for plastering and complete the remainder of the system.

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