Archive for the ‘Green People’ category

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.”

Here is Terrell’s own entry regarding her frustrations with the city:

Straw bale built teaching kitchen - located in High Park, Toronto

Straw bale built teaching kitchen – located in High Park, Toronto


I assumed that since the City of Toronto owns its own straw bale building in High Park, The Children’s Teaching Kitchen that it would finally be a snap to get a permit to use straw bale as insulation.  NOT SO, from my first encounter at City Hall Dec 2013, it has been an uphill battle.  The policy at the city seems to be that straw bale should get funneled through a process called third party materials evaluation and that alternative solutions would not be appropriate.  The cost is $5000 to apply with all the additional expense of the third party testing to be borne on the applicant. This could be tens of thousands of dollars!   Even though the Ministry of Housing guide to Alternative Solutions clearly indicates straw bale as an example for the process.

Getting nowhere at the bottom, I contacted the Chief Building Official’s office and the local Councillor, Mary-Margaret McMahon.  This got me a conversation with the Deputy Chief Building Officer, Mario Angelucci.  Things seemed to go well with assurances that they would look at my alternative solutions document and get back to me shortly.  That was three weeks ago and I am impatient.  Luckily, I got the opportunity to tell my story to the Architourist  this week.  I emailed all my contacts at City Hall and here is hoping they want to contribute something to the article.  If no other story trumps it I am hoping it will be in the April 25th edition of the Globe and Mail real estate section. If I succeed in getting a building permit, I will post my entire Straw Bale Alternative Solution on my website for anyone to use to get a building permit in Ontario!


After sending it to the press the City has agreed to meet with me next week [April 28-May 1, 2014]. As of yet nothing has been sent in writing to tell me why straw bale in North York is not the same as straw bale in the Beach.  My idea is to meet the City in their own straw bale building so that they can see firsthand what it is all about.  I have invited the Natural Building Coalition, Llyod Alter, Chris Magwood, Dave LeBlanc, Ben Poley, Derek Satnik and Melinda Zytaruk.  I am hoping that local Ward 32 councillor Mary Margaret McMahon will be present to support our cause.

Terrell Wong B.Arch OAA

 Terrell Wong is an architect with over 25 years experience.  Her passion for the environment and design has greatly influenced her career.  In 2006, Terrell lead the winning team to the National Archetype Sustainable House Award.  Their “Building Blocks” modular home concept was constructed at the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority’s Kortright Centre as a showcase for sustainable design. 

 In 2009, Terrell was a founding member and President of Passive Buildings Canada, a national membership-based, non-profit organization that promotes the Passive House concept.

Terrell’s firm, Stone’s Throw Design Inc., specializes in low energy residential design.  With its focus on building science, the firm creates designs utilizing cutting edge materials and techniques.  In 2011, they completed the first insulated rammed earth house in Ontario.  Utilizing integrated design, they provide their clients with the gamut of residential services.  Our respect for natural systems guides our company philosophy: 

  • Conservation over Technology
  • Longevity over Fashion


Mission 2030 Sets An Ambitious Goal: Striving for Zero Waste from Construction and Demolition by 2030

January 16th, 2014

Photo By Ashley Felton (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In December while attending the ConstructCanada show, I went to a few seminars that I really enjoyed. At one in particular, I was so enthusiastic, I got a bit carried away and, er, interrupted the panel with my own stories, questions and conumdrums. The panel was about waste produced by the construction industry, and, if you’ve followed this blog at all, you know waste is one of my biggest pet peeves. In fact, it’s not really a pet peeve, it’s a down right BIG peeve, a major peeve, one I find so frustrating, I just want to fix it all, right now!

Anyway…one of the panelists was Renee Gratton. She is the President and co-founder of the Construction Resources Initiative Council, a group of non-partisan volunteers from the construction industry who have come together to address the growing waste problem in construction and demolition. Here’s something you may be surprised to hear: In Canada, while consumers have been doing an increasingly good job at reducing the amount of material they send to landfill, industrial, commercial and institutional operations have not fared so well. In fact, they have been progressively increasing the amount of material going to landfill. Since industry accounts for two-thirds of all waste, this is a pretty important area to address. On top of that, Canadians may generate the most garbage per capita in the world. Wow, there’s a statistic we should  want to reverse!

According to the CRI Council website, Stats Can noted that in 2008, of all the waste sent to landfill, 75% of it still had value — as in it could have been reused, recycled, repurposed or repaired. When you read a number like that, the goal of zero waste by 2030 doesn’t seem quite as unrealistic as you might have originally thought.

Achieving zero waste in the construction industry isn’t going to be an easy task. However, as Renee recounted at the seminar, a lot of waste reduction has to do with changing our mindset and perspectives. It’s about designing buildings better, increasing resource efficiency and using materials that can be reused or recycled at end of life.  The council’s short-term goal is to get three things going:

  1. Defining the goal – aiming for zero construction renovation and demolition waste to landfill by 2030,
  2. Overcoming inertia – engaging, educating and enabling people and their businesses as to why change is important, and
  3. Taking the first few steps. In this case, the council is calling to action all stakeholders to take the Mission 2030 Pledge and play their part in how building waste is viewed and dealt with, through a fundamental and strategic change management framework.

As the organization is newly established and completely volunteer-run, the website is continually being updated. It provides information on why reducing waste is critical to our planet’s future, along with support on how and where to begin. As the council becomes more established it will also begin to offer its members workshops and educational material on how to implement change. The latest support tool is an app called Waste Saver for your mobile phone (iphone or android), to help you locate companies in your neighbourhood who will   recover it, who is supporting this initiative as well as provide references and address frequently asked questions. While the app still being populated, the more people use it, the more valuable a tool it becomes for everyone.

If you are a contractor, building owner or manager, I encourage you to take a look at the website and start thinking about how you can reduce the amount of waste you send to landfill. It might be as simple as stopping by the ReStore on your way to the dump and dropping off usable construction materials, or using Craigslist or Kijiji to find someone who wants what you don’t. There are plenty of ways to prevent materials from ending up in landfill, but until you’re used to it, it takes some planning, effort and a little research. If you don’t have a resolution yet for 2014, why not make it waste reduction?

Canada’s Greenest Home is Complete!

May 24th, 2013

Canada's Greenest Home?

Chris Magwood, Executive Director of  The Endeavour Centre sent me a note letting me know that Canada’s Greenest Home is now complete and up for sale. As he mentions in his blog post on the subject, being the greenest home is not a brag per se, as those people working in the green construction industry tend to work cooperatively rather than competitively. I had a long list of questions about the home that I sent Chris’ way, and he answered each one with significant detail.

If you’re not familiar with the Endeavour Centre, is an independent school that teaches green building skills and techniques. People in the program spend half their day in the classroom and the other half building a house, getting that hands-on practical experience they need.

Using criteria from both LEED and Living Building Challenge certification systems, the team at Endeavour built what is likely to be one of the greenest homes on the market today. Not only was it built with end-use in mind, it was built with materials that have a low embodied energy. For the most part, materials come from close to home, and are made, as much as possible from renewable resources.

The house is a spacious 2300 square feet of living space on two floors. There are three bedrooms (including a Master-ensuite) on the second floor, and two bathrooms. On the main floor there is another room which can be used as a fourth bedroom, den, playroom, office, etc. in addition to the kitchen, living and dining rooms and another bathroom.

Shell: The east and west walls for both the first and second floors are made from NatureBuilt straw Structural Insulated Panels. The south side of the building is “double-framed dense packed cellulose” and the north wall is site- strawbaled. Chris estimates that the SIP walls have an R30 value, the roof has an R-80 value, the basement floor has an R-16 value, while the basement walls, built from Durisol blocks are  R-16. This is a very tight shell despite its vapour permeable walls, with an air exchange value of 0.63 ACH/hour at a standard pressure of 50 Pascal Pressure. Ross Elliot from Homesol Building Solutions  performed the energy audits throughout construction. Chris noted that the floor joists were constructed within the structure so there is no issue with having thermal bridges around the joists. Needless to say, this is a very tight building envelope!

James-St (14 of 19)

James-St (13 of 19)The windows and doors were manufactured by Inline Fiberglass. They are triple glazed (ie., three pieces of glass), argon filled with fiberglass frames. Fiberglass is one of the best materials you can use for windows and doors as the glass and fibreglass expand and contract at the same rate meaning the seal remains tight.

Because the building envelope is so tight, the house is equipped with an Air Source Heat Pump made by Mitsubishi, and an accompanying Energy Recovery Ventilator. Newer ASHPs work even in cold climates such as ours as they can find the heat in air that is -30C (provided the building envelope is tight enough). The ERV recovers heat not just from air, but also from moisture in the air so it is doubly efficient. Chris told me he wouldn’t worry about moisture in this house in any event. Because the walls are made of natural materials (straw, lime plaster, clay and wood), they are breathable and therefore can absorb moisture from the air and dry without worry of mou

Ross Eliott has estimated that with average consumption patterns the annual cost to heat the home should be about $325, taking into account average Time of Use rates in Ontario. In addition, there is a 5 kilowatt PV solar system on the roof which should generate some extra income for the homeowners as part of the microFIT program. In theory, Ross estimates that the home should run at a surplus, and that because the home is so well-insulated, it shouldn’t have any need for air conditioning (although it’s included in the ASHP). No fossil fuels are needed to run this home, and in the event that the homeowners draw more electricity than they produce, they have a contract with Bullfrog Power, a green energy retailer.

Exterior cladding is FSC pine from PurePine and are treated with Sansin stain (water-based) in the factory, and the cedar shingles were sourced in Madoc, Ontario.

Water use: There is no sewer hook-up for this home. The toilets come from a composting company in Sweden called Clivus Multrum. The system only uses 0.1L of water per flush. I’ve looked at the diagram on the Clivus website and asked Chris about it. To be honest, I was a little leery about a composting system within the home itself. The system comes with a fan, and a drainage system that separates urine from excrement and by the time the compost reaches the front of the system it is only about 10% of its original size and ready for use (it takes one to two years to reach the front of the system). My two reservations with this system are sanitation and smell. However, Clivus has been in existence since the 60s and in North America since the 70s, so maybe my reservations are unfounded. Chris noted that they have installed this system in two houses before with great success.  Despite my reservations, I can see a system such as this one being a great way for progressive cities to entice new buildings and retrofits to not use the city sewer system — provided there is a lot of training and some sort of certification system in place to make sure proper safety/sanitation measures are taken.

Because there is no need for water for the toilets, there is also no gray water system. There is a rainwater harvest system in place which can be used for any household uses including watering the garden. An overflow system lets excess rainwater  onto the front garden.

Interior finishes are a variety of materials including non-toxic acrylic paint from Mythic, AFM Safecoat Naturals paint, a homemade Clay finish, lime plaster and Kreidezeit clay. There are no toxins in this house!

Is this Canada’s Greenest house? It is durable, made of low-embodied energy, local and attractive materials, with exceptionally low running costs, that doesn’t tax the municipal sewer or electric system. Further, it blends in with its neighbours, is a reasonable size and offers typical functionality all of which are important factors in creating any “green” house. The market will decide how desirable this house is. And desirability is a key ingredient in any green house.


Urban Seedlings — Raised Bed Gardening in Your Own Backyard

April 23rd, 2013

A friend of mine told me about this great new company, Urban Seedling. The company, started three years ago by husband and wife team Tereska Gesing and Shawn Manning, specializes in planting raised bed organic vegetable gardens in people’s backyards. Imagine growing your own organic vegetables, available for your consumption for pretty much most of the three growing seasons.

Tereska, Shawn and their children, Danika and Luka

Tereska, Shawn and their children, Danika and Luka

In addition to their core business of building and planting raised bed gardens, Urban Seedlings also offers a variety of seasonal workshops.  The workshop I attended, given by Tereska, took away the mystery I’ve always considered gardening to be (despite the fact that I have a B.Sc. in Biology and technically know how everything is supposed to work). The even better news is, if you are a novice, but are determined to grow your own vegetables, they’ve got a crew of gardeners available to you for support throughout the growing season.

In fact, Urban Seedling offers several levels of service from full service where, they build, set up, and plant your garden in spring, summer and fall, to medium service where they can set it up for you in the spring, and put it to bed in winter.  For the DIYers in the crowd, the workshops are for you. They will teach you how to build your own raised beds and plant your vegetables, even if you happen to live in a condo and only have a balcony.

I had several questions about raised bed gardening, all of which were answered during the workshop:

Why raised bed gardening?: There are several advantages to raised bed gardening, but drainage is probably key. By building a bed above the earth, proper drainage is ensured. Further, by filling in your own mix of earth, compost, peat moss and vermiculite, you can ensure that you have the best soil mix that will promote maximum growth.

The raised bed: We were shown how to construct and plant a 10′x3′ bed. Using cotton twine or pieces of wood, the bed is divided into 30 1′x1′ squares, with each square dedicated to one vegetable — you can, however, plant as many squares of the same vegetable as you want.  The exception is squash: it needs a large area, so when it comes time to plant it, four squares are taken up and the seeds are planted at the intersection of the four squares. In addition to the bed itself, it’s important to provide a trellis at the long, preferably, north, end of the bed  – away from shadow casting plants. It’s also a good idea to erect a short fence that will keep squirrels and other animals out of the garden. Tereska noted that if you don’t put the fence in soon enough, and the animals in the area have tasted your yummy vegetables once they’ve sprouted, there is next to no way to prevent them from getting through. So, put the fence up as soon as you’ve planted your spring seedlings.

When are the vegetables planted?: There are three plantings during the growing season, assuming your first planting is no later than the last week in April. Admittedly the weather this year has been a little less cooperative than last year, when they were able to start planting the first week of April.

By planting new vegetables three times a season, you not only increase the variety of foods available, but also, you can maximize the number of vegetables one bed can offer. For example, peas,  spinach, kale, lettuce, arugula (roquette), and broccoli can all be planted in the spring. A few of those, such as kale and arugula will also continue to grow all season long, providing you with fresh, flavourful veggies throughout the growing season. Lettuce and peas, however, are replaced with summer plants because peas stop or slow production with the hot weather and lettuce gets bitter.

By late May, to the latest, mid-June, summer and a few fall vegetables are planted. Tomatoes, cucumbers, and other climbing vegetables are planted in the last row so they can climb up the trellis. Other vegetables are introduced such as peppers, squash and beans.

In late August, the (almost) last planting is completed: new lettuce, spinach, beets and carrots are planted. In November, the beds are prepared for winter, but it’s also the time when garlic is planted.

Seedlings started early in the season inside the warehouse. They'll go to the greenhouse next.

Seedlings started early in the season inside the warehouse. They’ll go to the greenhouse next.

 Seedling Placement: Knowing where to place your vegetable seeds or seedlings is important. Tereska suggested that if there is no way to access your raised bed from behind, it’s best to keep it to a 3×10 size. According to one of the group members, who is a client of Urban Seedlings, a 3×10 bed produces plenty of vegetables. Climbers such as peas, tomatoes and cucumbers need to be planted at the back near the trellis, the middle rows tend to be saved for the plants such as kale and arugula that stay the full season, and the front row is dedicated to changing plants.

In the spring as well, Tereska pointed out that it’s important to plant tallest to shortest so the tall plants don’t block the shorter plants’ sunlight. By summer, however, they’re all tall, so it doesn’t matter as much.

How much does it cost?: prices vary by service, from full scale to DIY workshops for $20 so you can take matters into your own hands. See their price list for specifics.

Tereska also offered us a few words of advice about the garden in general:

1. The place where you are planting your raised bed must receive at least 6 hours of full sun per day.

2. You need to check on your garden every day. This is important for a few reasons: one, because as it grows you’ll be able to tell how the garden is progressing and whether it’s healthy or if pests have discovered your veggies. Weeds need to be pulled daily and squares need thinning once seedlings have sprouted. One of the advantages of raised beds is that there tend to be fewer weeds in them.

3. Planting a bee-friendly flower and herb garden close by helps encourage pollination and vegetable production.

4. Your garden needs to be watered every day, so if you’re planning on going on vacation, arrange for a neighbour or Urban Seedling to come in and tend it for you.

You can find out more about Urban Seedling’s products and services by visiting their website. One of the things I really appreciated was that their catalogue of seeds has been put together specifically for the Island of Montreal’s climate.

You can also visit them at their new location in Ville Émard, where they’ve set up a greenhouse and have seedlings for sale as well as everything else you need to make your own vegetable garden.

Greenhouse filled with seedlings

Greenhouse filled with seedlings






Interface Flooring Strives for Complete Carbon Neutrality by 2020

August 20th, 2012

Confessions of a Radical Industrialist

As usual, being the environmental contradiction that I am (sigh), I drove our Jetta Diesel from Montreal and Toronto far too often this summer. If you’ve never done this drive along the 401 — well, you’re lucky. It’s possibly the most boring and monotonous 5 hours you’ll ever spend. I found that the best coping mechanism is listening to audio books to help get through the drive. I have taken the opportunity to listen to a bunch of books I want to read, but would likely take me several months to get through (ie., business books). One of the books I listened to was Confessions of a Radical Industrialist by Ray Anderson.

When I looked through my website to see what I’d written about Interface, it turns out not a lot. It’s possible that I overlooked it because the product (carpet tile) and company, are  just so ingrained into every eco-designer’s and builder’s psyche, that I just assumed it was like writing about air — everyone knows about it, uses it already, so it would be pointless. But then I’d be wrong. As it turns out, while people inside the green building world are familiar with the company and its founder, Ray Anderson, the majority of people outside the green building world have never even heard of the company, let alone Ray Anderson.

In a nutshell, his book is a step by step guide of how one man came to the realization that not only was humankind responsible for climate change, but that his company was part of the problem. He proceeds to describe his goal for his company (complete carbon neutrality by 2020) and how they go about achieving it.

Ray’s “aha” moment came to him after reading The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken. Hawken states that not only are companies the main contributor to climate change, but they are also the means that will find solutions and adaptations to climate change. Ray got this message. Then he realized that his company, which makes nylon carpet tiles, was a significant contributor to the pollution mess we’re in. So Ray brought all of his senior executives together in a room one day and told them that he wanted Interface flooring to become a carbon neutral company, and the faster, the better. Needless to say, at first they thought he was nuts — he’d never shown any concern for the environment before. Furthermore, Interface’s product, carpet tiles, is made out of nylon, a 100% petroleum-based product. So how in the world do you become carbon neutral when your product is 100% dependent on petroleum?

It’s a question Interface has been dealing with since 1994. The company has set a carbon neutral goal for 2020. That gives them only 26 years to eliminate carbon from their manufacturing process. The company has made great strides in decreasing its carbon content while still providing a great product. Interface has tackled lowering its use of oil in its packaging, office operations, energy for machinery, transportation, etc. It is also finding ways to reduce its waste to zero (as Ray points out numerous times: “There is no ‘away’” — meaning that all waste will go somewhere, if not into new products, then it will end up in landfill and stay there). Right now the company is looking for ways to increase its recycled content and decrease its use of virgin petroleum. It even has a take-back program for old carpet tiles.

Interface FLOR carpet tiles

Interface FLOR carpet tiles

While Interface primarily deals with commercial and business properties, it does have a line of residential carpet (Flor) as well. If you’re in the market for new carpet, it’s worth looking into, particularly if you lean towards modern tastes.

What I really like about this book is that Ray has “seen the light”. Because he is not seen as a radical, treehugger-hippie, but rather as a businessman at the top of his company, he can direct his employees to do what it takes to decrease the company’s carbon and water footprint. And, because he is so determined to achieve carbon-neutral status, his employees bring him ideas that would be nixed before they reached senior management in most other companies. Ray gives the example of one of their factories in California. There was a proposal to put solar panels on the roof of a manufacturing building. The panels would generate a small amount of the plant’s electricity needs and cost $1.2 million. Even as I was listening, I was shaking my head thinking the cost was ridiculous vis a vis the output of electricity. But Ray told them to go ahead. Why? Because it was the right thing to do. The marketing department at Interface produced an astounding campaign around the solar panels because they ended up powering one of the carpet machines providing it with 100% renewable electricity. The product that came off that machine became a major success, more than justifying the cost of the solar panels. Huh. Who’d have thought a $1.2 million investment could have made that much of a difference. And that’s the point. Ray was a leader in every sense of the word. When he asked for something to be done it was done, even if his employees might have been skeptical at first. He was willing to take risks (sometimes they didn’t pay off, but that didn’t stop him), and he remained convinced that decreasing Interface’s carbon footprint was the best business decision he’d made. It increased the company’s efficiency, decreased its waste and water use, lowered its expenses in other areas and helped make it a leader in flooring in the commercial world.

Because Ray got it, and because he was the head of the company, the sustainable directive filtered down through the organization. If employees didn’t agree with him they would either have kept it to themselves or looked for other work. But it also allowed his organization to hire innovative thinkers and people who wanted to work for a company that was striving to make the carpeting world a better place.

However — and this is a big however — a company’s sustainability goals will not be easily achieved where the CEO doesn’t have Ray’s “aha” moment. Unfortunately most captains of industry find the task of transforming their company into “Sustainable Company 2.0″ too daunting to even begin to look at and if the leaders aren’t convinced that decreasing their carbon, water and waste footprint is important, the company will never succeed in achieving sustainability. The pressure needs to come from the top.

Sadly, Ray Anderson passed away earlier this year. While his legacy and mandate continue on at Interface Flooring, his influence and sustainability leadership within the business community is greatly missed. Hopefully, other business leaders will take up his gauntlet and continue his mission towards carbon neutrality within their own companies.

For more information on Interface Flooring’s sustainability efforts, visit the website.

To see the FLOR products (residential carpet tiles), see here.



Spring Cleaning? How to keep your stuff out of landfill

May 3rd, 2012

This is the time of year when our family cleans out closets. While my husband and I are pretty good at cleaning out closets on a regular basis, somehow, our 11 year old daughter manages to need her room culled about four times a year. I don’t know what happens in there but I think her stuff is breeding! I’m not a packrat, but I confess to having plenty of stuff sitting in boxes in the basement — not because I have a sentimental attachment to it, but rather because I hate stuff going to landfill and always try to find better opportunities for it.

In this current round of spring cleaning, I have bags of clothes the kids have grown out of, paperbacks that need new homes, toys and arts and crafts galore. Yes it’s tempting to set everything out on the curb ready for landfill, but with a little effort, most of the stuff can find good homes. In this case, clothes go to Goodwill, paperbacks go to a local church book sale, and the toys and arts and crafts (all in good shape), go to my daughter’s school aftercare program — all avoiding landfill. I set aside a few hours one day to do all the drop-offs.

But what do you do about other things? You might be tempted to throw out old or broken electronics or pour turpentine down the drain, but doing so will add to groundwater and soil contamination or contaminate local rivers and lakes. There are two programs to help you safely dispose of  your electronics or hazardous waste. Visit to find out which of your old electronics can be disposed of and where to go. Items such as spare computer parts, keyboards, monitors, unidentified mysterious cords, broken wireless speakers, old broken VCRs and DVD players are all accepted by this waste management program. For hazardous waste disposal visit CFL lightbulbs, batteries, aerosol cans, paint and used turpentine should be disposed of through a specialized waste collection system usually offered by municipalities. Disposing of these products responsibly is the most important thing you can do; They contain hazardous materials such as mercury and lead, plus all kinds of metals that can be recycled into new products.

Note that there are several stores that participate in hazardous waste recycling programs, such as some Lowes, Home Depot, Home Hardware, Future Shop and Best Buy. They each recycle different items, so it’s best to check with your local store before making the trip.

If you don’t live in Ontario, check out this site which has links to programs in other provinces:

Before you go out to fill up your now empty shelves with more things, watch Annie Leonnard’s The Story of Stuff if you haven’t already seen it. It might make you think twice about what you buy







A Green Reno Can be Easier Than You Think

April 30th, 2012

Family room -- FSC cabinets in background.

There are a lot of decisions to make when you renovate.  From the design of the space to the finishing materials, you want a house that works for you and your family.  Working with an architect or a designer can help, but ultimately you have to decide what goes where.

I finally found an easy way to make those decisions.   Using sustainability as the deciding factor.   It’s not that I am “granola green”.   My love affair with green has come slowly and selfishly as I learn how important indoor air quality is.  Modern homes have become air tight for energy efficiency, but modern building practices and materials bring in a staggering number of chemicals that off-gas into our airtight homes.

Labor costs make it impractical for us to re-use much of what we tear out of an existing home, but in Canada we have the luxury of craigslist, kijiji, freecycle and Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore that help to reduce consumption and waste.   The old appliances in my house in Toronto found a new home at my daughter’s school, my basement laundry area has sliding doors reclaimed from ReStore (at only $20 each vs. $35 for new!), and I re-used the mirror from my upstairs master bath in the downstairs powder room.

PaperStone countertops.

The colours in my Toronto house are bright and beautiful…and they didn’t smell when they went up on the wall.  These days, it is simple to find non-toxic paints at your local Rona or paint store.  That ‘freshly painted smell’ is not something you want to drift into the (tightly sealed) air in your home.  Why buy toxic paint?  Yet go to your home improvement shop and the shelves are full of it.  Yes, cost is a factor.  But the $1-2 per gallon difference is worth it in my book.

The warm fuzzy feeling of carpeting under your feet is cozy and inviting.  But that eerie ‘new carpet smell’ can be eliminated if your carpeting and underlay are made of natural fibers like wool or cotton.  My builder recommended cork flooring for the basement and I love it.  It has the same sound absorbing qualities of carpeting, is soft and comfortable even in bare feet, and made of naturally re-growing cork.  Real wood floors (FSC certified of course) are gorgeous as well and you can ask for water-based sealants to keep them that way.

Formaldehyde has found its way into many of the building materials that are common in new builds and furniture.  MDF, plywood, particle board and drywall, sealants and glues all have it.  I heard a recent CBC radio report that there is even formaldehyde in consumer branded baby shampoo.   Some formaldehyde is naturally occurring, but a lot of is actually added to these products.  It reminds me of hormones in meat…I’m fine with hormones that are naturally occurring, but keep the added stuff away, please.  I eat less meat these days, but I buy the good stuff and as demand for the good stuff increases, prices will come down.   These days building materials can all be bought in versions without the added formaldehyde (it’s called “NAUF” – no added urea formaldehyde).   Just like the health benefits of non-GMO beef are worth the added price, for me, the health benefits of NAUF products rate high on my list.

Cabinets made from FSC wood, with no added urea formaldehyde interior MDF.

I didn’t know about these things before I moved to Canada last year.  I had renovated before using conventional building materials and furnishings.  It wasn’t always so easy, but these days there are ‘green’ products everywhere because most commercial construction buildings adhere to LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards.  You may work in a LEED office building and not even know it – but the materials and energy efficiency in your office mean the air quality is better at work than in your house.  Thanks to the LEED standards, the construction industry has come up with new materials to meet the standards.  LEED isn’t perfect – but it has created demand for (and lowered prices of) sustainable and healthy building materials.  This means they are also becoming more available (and affordable) for consumers.  Many of us just don’t know we should ask for them.

So how did ‘doing a green renovation’ make my reno easier?  It gave me a common denominator.  Something upon which I could base all of my decisions.  Rather than “this year’s colour” or “what’s in fashion”, I based my decisions on “what’s the healthiest and best option for my family”.  When deciding which architect and contractor to use – I went for ones that had truly green credentials.  Turns out they were also incredibly honest and conscientious people to work with.

Close up of PaperStone countertop

When choosing appliances, I only chose Energy Star rated appliances.  I thought all appliances were Energy Star, but they aren’t.    That helped narrow the choice, and then the rest was up to size and shape and cost.  When deciding which countertops to use, I experimented with one of the newer materials: Paperstone.  It’s made entirely of recycled paper.  Mine’s jet black and cut into a tear-drop shape to fit my breakfast nook perfectly.  It’s stunning and I don’t have to worry about whether or not it might be leaking radon like my old granite countertop did.


Stainless steel countertop in kitchen, cork tile backsplash

And yes, I do feel good about my reno.  The builder minimized the waste created rather than just ‘tearing it all out’ and responsibly managed what could be re-used or re-cycled.  My old cabinets went to ReStore instead of landfill.  The crew came to work on public trans or bikes and brought their coffee in re-useable containers.  Did I do a green reno to help the planet?  Nope.  I was entirely selfish about doing it for my family.  It turned out it that making every decision based on sustainability was actually easier (less is more) and I am happy I did my part for my kids’ future on this planet.

A green reno can be easier.

Bettina Hoar has become so passionate about sustainable design that she has partnered up with Amanda Levey to create Toronto-based studio called Sage, specializing in helping others integrate sustainable design, architecture and living into their homes and offices (



Becoming Green is a Process of Evolution

April 25th, 2012

For years, I gave myself “green marks” for buying tableware, décor and furniture at garage sales. But by shifting to online classified sites, I think I’ve taken a step to becoming even greener. Don’t get me wrong – buying second-hand stuff at yard sales is one the easiest, most economical ways to reduce your carbon footprint. I’m just not crazy about rising at 6 a.m. on a weekend to drive across town, only to return home without that special item I was searching for.

Kijiji Finds

I’ve tried several online selling sites, but have settled on Kijiji as a mainstay. It let me shop locally, and both “watch” an item of interest or be alerted when an item that matches my search term comes online. New categories, such as outdoor items, appliances and reno materials as distinct categories, makes searching faster and easier. Recently, I’ve had great success making home décor gems out of gently-used items easily found on Kijiji Take a look.




An old plate becomes a distinctive time piece

Individual plates can make interesting wall clocks.  Clock hands come in cute shapes, such as knives and forks, hammers and screwdrivers or fishing rods, so you can make a clock suited to an individual room or as a gift for a friend with a related hobby. Clocks hands and movements are available for less than $10 from Lee Valley , which also carries adhesive-backed numbers and dots.


Simply slowly and carefully drill a small hole in the centre of the plate. Place a piece of tape over the drill spot to keep it from cracking and add a few drops of water as you go along to keep the drill bit cool and lubricated (mineral oil works for that, too.) Okay, I admit it, I got the Man of the House (MOTH) to do this part!


Even a fabric remnant can create a one-of-a-kind vase

Used fabric can be put to good use. So don’t discount, then, that linen tablecloth just because it has a tear (although do factor that into what you’ll offer for it.) Imagine instead, as did I, making the still-good stuff into pillow shams, napkins, or tea and guest towels.







A bit of paint and some good tape - try ScotchBlue - and you have a one-of-a-kind pillow to match your other decor pieces


My secret weapon for crafting and painting!

Plain pillow shams can be dressed up with fabric paint. I tried two methods. One was to simply tape straight lines with Scotch Blue tape (my fave painter’s tape!) along a pillow and paint it out in cheery colours from Martha Stewart’s line of multi-surface satin acrylic paint (available at For another pillow, I made my own stencil by hanging a length of tape from a doorway and, using hole-punchers with two different sizes of holes, randomly punching a pattern. Fabric remnants can also turn an ho-hum glass vase into a stunning piece.




A little imagination - and a lick of paint - goes a long way. Good tape is critical for getting sharp lines so stick with a good name brand like ScotchBlue.

I couldn’t believe my luck when I found two cute little semi-circular occasional tables for $20. Perfect, I thought for my living room, especially after I painted them in an earthy Jute (Pittsburgh Paints), adding a thin strip of Charlotte’s Locks from Farrow and Ball. Now that they’re done, though, I’ve decided to cover them in exterior-grade varnish and use them on the back porch — a perfect perch for an after-work glass of wine with MOTH. What could be more stylish — and sustainable?







Vicky Sanderson

Having tried and tested just about every new home product, décor item and countertop appliance to hit the market in the last 10 years, Vicky Sanderson is an expert on all things home related. She shares this expertise in Hot Home Products, a widely-read weekly column that appears every Saturday in The Toronto Star and CasaGuru . Follow her @vickysanderson


Celebrate Earth Day

April 20th, 2012

Today’s post is a guest post from Debra Duneier, LEED AP. 

 If you have not celebrated earth day in the past, this April 22nd would be a great time to start. You may feel a little awkward at first because you just may not know what to do. Do you invite people over for a party? Does one put candles on a cake? What kind of toast would be appropriate? Can you send a card? Is buying flowers or chocolates the right touch?

The first Earth Day was in 1970 and since then it has grown to a worldwide environmental event. On this day, we celebrate our planet and its gifts of biodiversity.  It is the time of year to reinstate our commitment to protect plants, animals, soil, seas and fresh drinking water. It is also the birthday of the US Environmental Protection Agency which was created to protect our air, water and land from pollution. Senator Gaylord Nelson founded Earth Day to bring environmental concerns to the attention of the national agenda. If you ever question what one person can accomplish remember that one by one, 20 million protestors around the country came out in support of Earth Day and a cleaner and safer environment…they were heard.

Pitch in and make a big difference by making small changes in your daily life. Here are some EcoChi Green Tips to get you started:

  1.  Reduce your “product carbon footprint” by purchasing locally grown produce whenever possible.
  2. Bring reusable shopping bags with you to the supermarket, rather than having your groceries packed in plastic bags (plastics take 500 years to decompose).
  3. Keep landfills at reasonable levels by recycling your garbage as much as possible. Paper, plastics, metals and even electronic equipment can be conveniently recycled in most towns.
  4. Set your thermostat 2 degrees higher in the summer and 2 degrees lower in the winter to cut back on energy use.
  5. Do not run the water while you brush your teeth. Turn the faucet on only when needed. Help save our most precious resource, fresh drinking water.


If you decide to throw a party on April 22nd:

  • Send electronic invites
  • Use bees wax candles on the cake instead of candles made with petro fuels
  • Recycle your wine bottles
  • Send an E-card or one made of recycled paper
  • Do decorate with fresh flowers and serve chocolate which always tastes great!








Still unsure what to do on April 22nd? Get over any awkwardness that accompanies a new experience and instead create traditions for the future. After all, cleaning up our planet means we may be able to leave our Earth a better place for future generations and that’s worth celebrating!

  Debra Duneier is the Founder and President of EcoChi, LLC, a Feng Shui Master Practitioner, an accredited LEED®Green Associate and Certified Eco-Designer. Debra is the creator of the EcoChi®system of design and the author of EcoChi: Designing the Human Experience, released September, 17th 2011. Her training, background and perspective have made her a resource on topics including: Feng Shui, Green Design and Sustainability and Wellness, for media outlets including Martha Stewart Radio, Brokers Weekly, Social Life Magazine,, CNBC, MSNBC, NBC, Sierra Club, The Huffington Post and the Associated Press. In addition to her EcoChi consulting business, Debra is a keynote speaker and also runs workshops and seminars for a variety of corporations and trade organizations. Author of EcoChi: Designing the Human Experience.

She finds grounding in nature, friends and family in her North Fork, Long Island home in New York.

Aerecura Rammed Earth Home Revisited

December 19th, 2011

Completed rammed earth house, near Cobourg, ON

In October, 2010, I had the very fortunate opportunity to visit with Sylvia Cook, owner of Aerecura Rammed Earth Builders and owner of Ontario’s first rammed earth home, just after the beautiful walls had been finished. The roof, windows and main floor had yet to be installed, so it was a bit difficult to visualize the finished product. Just over a year later, Sylvia and her husband held a housewarming party so all of us interested parties could come and take a look at the finished product.

Sylvia Cook (left) Builder, Terrell Wong (right), Architect

To recap: Sylvia, a retired physics teacher, and her husband, a retired English teacher, were determined to build one of the lowest possible embodied energy homes they could. When researching materials and styles of homes, she wanted to find a material that was local, abundantly available, durable, and contained a low-embodied energy. A rammed earth fit home all of her criteria. You can read my full interview with Sylvia here, and read about the goals of the rammed earth home here.

The house itself is on two and a half levels (an open office area above the kitchen looks down onto the living room). It has a beautiful view of the hollow the house sits beside. Terrell Wong, the architect designed it to take advantage of as many passive heating and cooling features it could, so it is oriented to face southwest with large windows on the south side and smaller ones on the north side. The upper clerestory windows can be opened in summer to let the heat escape while lower floor windows will open to draw in cooler evening air.

Now that the house is completel, I asked Sylvia a few follow-up questions:

1. If you were to build again, is there anything you would do differently? ie., lessons learned.


I’m disappointed with the amount of wood used just on the relatively small section of the house between the top of the rammed earth and the roof. In order to maintain the continuous insulation layer we used a double stud wall construction. Next time I would use SIPS for this part of the house, as well as for the roof.

I would overestimate the heating needed and use a radiant infloor hydronic system for the lower floor. I made the decision not to because it was hard to justify the installation expense for the small amount of heat needed, but am now having to get creative with other methods of supplying that heat. Another time I might even consider putting hydronics inside a rammed earth wall. I think it’s important to remember that any initial expense will be amortised over a very long period of time, even though I won’t personally be around for more than a tiny fraction of that.

ERV system


Hot water tank -- used for domestic hotwater and heat pump

part of heating system









2. What in the house is salvaged (I believe the stairs and cross beams are), and where did you source your salvaged material?


The stairs originally came from the Belleville CN roundhouse, circa 1840. The wonderfully quirky welder who made the railings onsite happened to have them stored in his barn. A fantastic piece of serendipity as they fit perfectly!

Some of the beams were re-purposed from our formwork, including the open-ventilation roof support on top of the feature wall.

All of the interior doors are salvaged, collected from yard sales, flea markets, roadsides and Habitat for Humanity Restores. I have my eye on one from Legacy Vintage Building Materials in Cobourg to be used between the great room and master suite.

The supports for the deck (and the sink in the powder room) are logs from the trees removed to make the driveway.

Stairs to Office Loft area (salvaged)

Exterior southeast facing walls


Rammed Earth House by Aerecura

To see more photos of the house visit BEC Green’s Facebook page.
For more information about Aerecura Rammed Earth Homes, contact Sylvia Cook at: or 289-251-6684.
Visit Aerecura’s website for more information.

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