Tag Archives: natural 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.

Jumbo bales and hempcrete – together!

Fifth Wind Farms wanted to create a building that could reach the energy efficiency requirements of the Passive House standard without resorting to the use of foam, mineral wool or other materials with a high carbon footprint. While straw bale buildings can have excellent energy performance, typical straw bale construction does not meet the Passive House standard without the addition of an extra layer of insulation (see our “Straw-Cell” project for a different take on this idea).

Jumbo straw bale duplex home

First jumbo bale in place (on a bed of Poraver insulation)

The building owner proposed the use of “jumbo bales,” which are produced from the same local straw and by the same low-carbon machinery, but are of dimensions that greatly increase their thermal performance. While typical straw bales are 14″ x 18″ x 32″, the jumbo bales used for this project measure 32″ x 32″ x 60″! At a nominal R-value of 2.0 per inch, that would give a jumbo bale wall a rating in the range of R-60, more than enough to help the building meet any energy efficiency rating.

However, the jumbo bales provide some issues when it comes to window and door openings… with a wall that thick, window sills and returns are extremely deep, creating not just aesthetic concerns but also concerns about air flow in the deeply recessed bays and the likelihood of condensation forming on the windows in cold weather.

Our solution was to form the window sections at a wall depth of 16″ using double stud framing and hempcrete as the infill insulation. This would keep us on track as far as low carbon footprint is concerned, and the hempcrete would be used to create the tapered window returns to meet the full depth of the bale walls. As a bonus, the hempcrete would completely fill any voids at the ends of the jumbo bales.

One issue with using jumbo bales: they weigh over 500 pounds each! We used a boom truck to install them in the building. With the bales in place and the top plate secured over the bales, we then mixed our hempcrete (you can find our recipe here) and tamped it into the framing and around the jumbo bales. The two materials are very complimentary, with the easily-formed hempcrete able to compensate for the uneven ends of the jumbo bales and creating smooth window returns.

 

The building is currently being prepared for plastering… more posts to follow soon!

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.

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

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

Light Clay/Straw Workshop

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sunday, October 30, 2016
9.30 am to 4.30 pm
Endeavour Centre, Peterborough

Note: This workshop is being offered twice in 2016. Be sure to register for the correct date.

Instructor: Chris Magwood

Workshop Description:

Come and discover how a simple mix of low-cost natural materials can create a remarkable thermal insulation!

Light clay/straw (or slip straw or straw/clay) construction uses straw mixed with clay slip to create an insulation material with good thermal, moisture-handling and structural properties.

In this workshop, participants will learn about the components of straw/clay, see a slideshow of various Canadian and international straw/clay building projects, and gain an understanding of how, why and where straw/clay is an appropriate material choice. In the classroom, we will look at the costs, sourcing and building science of using straw/clay on new building projects and renovations.

In the hands-on component of the workshop, participants will learn how to assess the necessary materials and create a mix that is appropriate for a desired end use. We will use mixing machinery to create batches of straw/clay, and learn how to place them in a wall system. Different types of framing and shuttering (or forming) systems will be shown, and every participant will leave with a straw/clay block they cast themselves.

After this workshop, you will be able to undertake a straw/clay project of your own!

Entry Requirement
Open to all

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

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