Archive for the ‘Construction Materials’ category

Green Building Illustrated: Book Review

September 24th, 2014
Green Building Illustrated

Green Building Illustrated

Francis Ching is a well-known author and illustrator of books on design and construction, perhaps within the building sector his most well-known book is Building Construction Illustrated. Collaborating with Ian Shapiro on this latest book, the pair have developed a good introduction to green building for those just becoming familiar with the field, but it also serves as a good reference guide to green building for those of us with more experience.

“What is green building?”

The point of the question is to highlight the reality that it is really an evolving definition. Some buildings built to a high standard, have, upon evaluation, turned out to be less green than their standard counterparts because they use more energy than the comparative standard, whereas some net-zero or close to net zero buildings aren’t classified as green because the owner has decided not to go through the hoops necessary to become classified.

Further,  the authors address why building greener buildings is important, referring to climate change effects as well as resource depletion. They also delve into the different green classification systems that are available.What I like about this book is that after reading it you gain a basic understanding of all the elements involved in building a better, more resilient, lower impact building.

Hosting a Design Charette

Shapiro and Ching emphasize that with the development, design and construction of any building, there are thousands of decisions that are made. One decision affects another, so it means that there are trade-offs for every decision. Getting the design done right at the beginning can save time and money down the road and one of the best ways to do that is to have a design charette. A charette is like a round table discussion where every involved party can have a say in how the design will affect their portion of the building from plumbing, electrical, HVAC concerns, material selection, and occupant use post construction. Ideally charettes include the architect, general contractor, sub-trades, building owner and manager, in other words, all stakeholders.

The book is clearly illustrated and dedicates a good section to design and design issues. Getting the design right is one of the best ways to have the most significant impact on constructing a lower impact building. Again the book is thought-provoking: the authors ask “green buildings are lower impact than what?” In fact Shapiro gently takes LEED to task because the system fails to give points for designing a building that has a smaller surface area (therefore less exposure to the elements), than its standard counterpart. In other words, no points are given for designing a more efficiently shaped building than might otherwise be built. The authors explain the differences between the different green building rating systems out there, including LEED, Passivhaus, Living Building Challenge, and Green Globes.

Another perspective of the book is that it teaches readers to design buildings from the outside in, in layers. So, it looks at landscaping, site and orientation and how those factors affect the design of the building. Further, Shapiro and Ching highlight with detailed drawings, the importance of surface area on the energy efficiency of a building. In general terms, the smaller the surface area, the greater the energy efficiency of the building.

It takes only one brief glance at the chapter on windows to confirm that all those glass condos going up all over Toronto and Montreal are  an energy efficiency nightmare. Windows, in addition to having terrible insulation values, also pose potential leak problems between their frames and the building. If not sealed properly there is an extra source of potential drafts and water infiltration.

The chapter on building materials emphasizes the need to consider local, recycled and other materials with a low embodied energy. There is a handy table that shows the different embodied energy of different types of wall constructions.

One of the best features of this book is that it is an all in one reference guide for looking at how to build better buildings from design through to commissioning (evaluating a building’s systems to make sure they are all functioning properly). Once read cover to cover, it can be used as a reference guide to greener building and the different factors that need to be taken into account. While the book does not delve deep into any one area, it does provide a readable and approachable overview that’s easily understood by laypersons as well as professionals familiarizing themselves with green building practices. If I have one complaint, it is that for old people like myself, the spidery, handwritten style font is difficult to read.

Green Building Illustrated is available through John Wiley and Sons, or Amazon.

A Straw Bale Home Q&A with the Fourth Pig Sustainable Builders

July 7th, 2014
Rear view, straw bale constructed home addition

Photo courtesy of Mick Paterson. Rear view, straw bale constructed home addition, before exterior cladding

 

About a month ago I posted an article written by Terrell Wong, an architect specializing in sustainable building and design, about a straw bale addition to a home she had designed. She was frustrated because the city of Toronto denied it even though the city had built a straw bale building in High Park. One of the reasons the structure was denied was because the design doesn’t use a vapour barrier. The theory regarding a vapour barrier is that it is necessary to prevent water vapour from permeating walls and getting stuck there leading to mould and mildew problems which could eventually cause significant structural deterioration — not to mention indoor health problems. But straw bale building has been around for a lot longer than vapour barriers and homes built from straw have been around for hundreds of years in Europe and still stand today. What that indicates is that as long as you know what you are doing, straw bale homes are perfectly safe, healthy and durable, contrary to what someone unfamiliar with straw bale building might think.

After I posted the article, I was contacted by Mick Paterson, a project manager with The Fourth Pig, a co-operative sustainable building not-for-profit group based in Baysville, Ontario. He is currently overseeing a straw bale addition to a house in Toronto. They received approval from the city just as he contacted me, so his project was good to go.

I took the opportunity to visit when I was briefly in Toronto in June, to get a feel for a straw bale home and to ask questions that tend to come to mind when thinking about straw bale building. After the tour, I sent the team my questions and concerns — which I think are fairly representative of straw bale novices like myself. So, below are my questions and concerns, followed by Mick’s and his team’s answers.

 

Side view of straw bale addition and original house.

Side view of straw bale addition and original house.

1. The straw goes moldy after a while and can lead to such problems as black mould and wall collapse.

Fourth Pig:  Moisture is the enemy of any type of construction. The straw bales would only become moldy once prolonged heavy exposure to moisture is seen. A straw bale home must have a breathable protective coat. Lime and clay based plasters provide protection from bulk moisture while allowing any absorbed humidity to escape from the wall.

2. Straw can’t act as an insulation material.

Fourth Pig: Straw can be classed as one of the oldest insulation types on the planet. Straw has been used in Europe for centuries for insulation in different forms but straw bales as a wall construction and insulation really took off in the US in the mid-19th century.  Its r value is dependent on the bales compaction, orientation and construction detailing. The most agreed upon r value is 30 for 2 string bales or 1.4 to 2.6 per inch.

3. Its fire rating is low and therefore unsafe to use as a building material.

Fourth Pig: Both ATSM in the US and CSIRO in Australia show testing on straw bale walls to have a high resistance to fires with a 2 hour fire rating on plastered walls and 30 minute rating on an exposed strawbale. There are several examples of commercial straw bale buildings word wide. In Australia there is a veterinary hospital and in Colorado a Waldorf school chose straw bale as the only wall material for all 22,000 sq. ft. of its classrooms.
4. You need a vapor barrier to protect the straw from moisture.

Fourth Pig: Vapor barriers are not necessary for a straw bale wall as the plaster skin provides a similar function. As an added benefit lime and clay plasters allow the straw to absorb and release water vapor on both sides of the wall, preventing damage from accumulation. This happens in cold to hot climates, and dry to humid ones.

5. What is the best material to use for covering up the straw bale and why?

Fourth Pig: Natural plasters like lime and clay provide the most benefits for straw bale walls for their breathability qualities. Various factors such as design, cost, performance and historic longevity have shown the benefits of using lime and clay and avoiding cement and acrylic based plasters or covering the straw bales with drywall.

Straw bale wall

Close-up of Straw bale wall

6. Can straw bale be used for houses that are more than one story high?

Fourth Pig: The limits to how high you may build a SB wall are the same limits all buildings face. With intelligent design a skyscraper could be constructed with a façade of strawbales. (We would like to retrofit a multiple storey building with strawbales!)

7. How long does a house made with straw bale generally last?

Strawbale walls and all buildings will last as long as the buildings inhabitants make them last. All buildings require regular maintenance and upkeep as do strawbale walls. With proper design and upkeep SB walls can last for centuries or more. There are strawbale homes in the US that are still standing and in great condition from the mid to late 1800s.
8. Is it more or less expensive than building a stick built house?

Straw bale walls can be cheaper than regular insulated wall construction but there is so much variation of wall finishes and detailing that that need to be taken into account when trying to compare apples to apples. You will not get an R30 insulation value out of a traditional stick framed wall.

 

For more information on building a straw bale home, or have more questions about the material’s durability, visit the Fourth Pig’s website, or contact them directly.

 

 

Greener Yet Stylish Ways to Renovate Your Kitchen

June 23rd, 2014

This is a guest post by Robert Kramer.

The modern kitchen is a very high-tech, power-hungry part of the household, but that doesn’t mean that it has to hurt the environment. As our homes improve and the world around us suffers, people are turning to greener solutions for modern living – from solar powered showers to composting – and things are no different in the kitchen. If you’re looking to renovate your kitchen then you don’t have to substitute style or function just to create a greener environment; this article will show you how to improve your kitchen and help the environment at the same time.

Counter Tops

Don’t worry, green countertops have nothing to do with color, but rather they indicate a product that has been created using sustainable materials and has been bound using non-toxic glues. A common misconception is that the standard of these are often on the poor side, that not only do they look cheap but they feel it as well. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Many of these products are painstakingly designed and made, ensuring that only the finest, sustainable materials have been used, and more often than not they are more durable than many of the standard countertops you can buy from your local DIY store.

A great example of this are the products produced by Green Building Supply, a company that specializes in creating highly durable and naturally beautiful countertops made from recycled glass, paper, wood and other materials.

A reclaimed and beautifully designed shelf made and sold by Squak Mountain Stone

A reclaimed and beautifully designed shelf made and sold by Squak Mountain Stone

Kitchen Sinks

Although selecting kitchen sinks of the right style is important, there are a number of options which offer sustainable use of materials.

Antique and rustic sinks are very much the “in” thing, so when selecting the design you can pick from a huge variety of refurbished sinks that suit this style. These are generally made from recycled materials, with everything from glass, ceramics and metals being used to craft the perfect environmentally friendly sink for your kitchen. Concrete sinks – from ceramic cement, which creates less carbon emissions than its age-old counterpart – are also becoming increasing popular and are easy to source, available to buy from companies such Just Manufacturing.

These aren’t just specialist manufacturers either, even the big manufacturers are following suit, and wherever you are in the world your local DIY will stock an assortment of eco-friendly cabinets, flooring, appliances, sinks and countertops. It is taking some of them longer to catch up than others, but the industry is moving at a very quick pace and many shops can provide the products that you need.

Cabinets

Green kitchen cabinets, just like countertops, are ones that have been created using sustainable and non environmentally toxic materials. Cabinets made with chipboard are commonly found in modern kitchens, but these are cheaply made and will need to be replaced or fixed (due to warping) on a regular basis. Chipboard is made using an industrial strength solvent that contains formaldehyde. This breaks down over time and is gradually released into the atmosphere, making these products as toxic as they are ineffective.

Low VOC Plywood (which stands for Volatile Organic Compound) provides a cleaner and stronger solution. As the name suggests, these materials release very small amounts of gas compared to chipboard and other woods, and they are also very durable.

Kitchen cabinets can be bought secondhand and refurbished, or they can be crafted by experts who specialize in turning old and recycled materials into new and exciting products.

Flooring

The flooring is one of the most important parts of a kitchen renovation and yet the one that many people overlook. You’re going to spend a lot of time traipsing across it and cleaning it, so you want something that looks good but is also highly durable. Linoleum is made from renewable sources and can provide a good addition to a green kitchen, but it can also be difficult to clean and require a lot of maintenance. It is prone to stains from spillages which can also warp the material, so any spilled liquids need to be mopped up quickly to prevent the linoleum from swelling.

Cork is another good choice, but it needs to be regularly treated to make sure that it stays in tip-top condition throughout the life of your kitchen. If it is not treated every few years then moisture and general wear and tear can destroy it.

floor

Treated and varnished cork floor.

Kitchen Appliances

Once the basics are done then you need to work on filling your kitchen with all of the essentials. All kitchen appliances will use a certain amount of energy, but these days you can choose from a huge number of energy efficient options.

You should always look out for the energy star rating when buying an appliance, this will tell you how much energy it consumes. The better the rating, the less energy it will use. A good rule of thumb to follow when buying new appliances for a green kitchen is that the newer they are, the more energy efficient they are likely to be. Older appliances use a lot of energy and create a hefty carbon footprint, but manufacturers are constantly devising new technologies and new ways to reduce the energy output.

appliances

A guide to the power in your home, courtesy of: http://sustain.indiana.edu/

The options are there for a completely green approach to your kitchen renovation.

Its not just specialist manufacturers supporting the movement, even the big manufacturers are following suit. Although a movement like this takes time to filter through, wherever you are in the world your local DIY will likely stock an assortment of eco-friendly cabinets, flooring, appliances, sinks and countertops.

To a greener, susustainable home!

Post written by Robert Jacob an interior renovation enthusiast who loves to blog about tips and ideas.

Straw Bale Built Home Declined by Toronto But The City Built one in High Park

April 24th, 2014

My friend, Architect Terrell Wong, a passive house and green building specialist, has been having quite the time with the City of Toronto, trying to get an addition to a home built with straw bale. She figured that since the city had built its own straw bale building in High Park, they’d be open to others building straw bale structures.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with straw bale, it is a method of home building that’s been around for hundreds of years and is still common in Europe. It has a low embodied energy, is recyclable/bio-degradable at end of life, is durable, has a good R-value because it’s so thick and doesn’t need a vapor barrier…or does it? The city denied her application for a straw bale addition to a Toronto home on several grounds, including lack of a vapor barrier. I guess with the city it’s “Do as I say and not as I do.”

» Read more: Straw Bale Built Home Declined by Toronto But The City Built one in High Park

Kitchen Renovation is Complete — Finally!!

April 8th, 2014
Kitchen renovation

View of kitchen, cabinetry, lighting, maple hardwood flooring

Well, five months after my deadline, my kitchen is finished. I’ve promised my friend Nancy Peterson, CEO of Homestars.com, that I will write a post for her called “Why I will never be my own general contractor again”. Let’s just say it was an eye opening experience. This post, however, is not about the mistakes I made (and there were plenty!), it’s about whether or not I achieved my green kitchen goals.

I would say that I accomplished some green goals but failed miserably in others, in particular with indoor air quality. For many of you, this will be the one area where you will probably not want to compromise. I, on the other hand, seem to be willing to sacrifice mine and my family’s health for the sake of aesthetics, and in some cases, durability.

» Read more: Kitchen Renovation is Complete — Finally!!

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