Posts Tagged ‘green building materials’

EcoInhabit Brings You the Healthy Home

May 18th, 2011

If you were in the lucky position of being able to build from the ground up, it would be an great time to sit down and have a chat with Tim and Jan Singbeil, the new owners of EcoInhabit, a green building store located in Meaford, Ontario.

Jan and Tim have lived in Meaford for about 20 years, and during that time have been farmers and owned a cabinetry shop. They’re big believers in restoring the land and using benign materials for building. “Benign” in this case refers as much to the off-gassing potential of the product as it does its environmental impact.

When EcoInhabit’s former owners put the business up for sale, Jan and Tim decided it was a good opportunity to expand their cabinetry shop into a full-service green building shop. The store itself offers a variety of green building products, such as American Clay, zero VOC paints and stains and reclaimed flooring. They still maintain their cabinetry operation so they sell solid wood furniture made in their own shop, including kitchen cabinetry and solid wood bed frames. They also sell biodegradable cleaners, reusable produce bags and a line of eco products for babies. It’s a fun place to browse through.

But what you’re really getting when you go into EcoInhabit, is a lesson on building and maintaining a healthy, durable, low-impact home. The Singbeils’ philosophy is that using local, durable materials and building with people from within the community are two of the keys to building durable, healthy buildings. They are also lucky to be able to work with some like-minded customers in the area who are willing participants. Jan and Tim continuously seek out better building techniques so that once built, these structures consume as little energy as possible and don’t off-gas any harsh chemicals.

Tim said that once they were working with a client and their objective was to build a home that would last, at a minimum, of 100 years. Then they decided, “if we’re building a home to last 100 years, why not 300?” The consequence of that target meant that as few mechanical systems were installed as possible; low-tech and no-tech are better than mechanical systems that are definitely not going to last 300 years, or 100 years for that matter. Homes are super-insulated, oriented to take advantage of passive solar energy in the winter and shaded in summer. Heating systems are as small as possible and mechanical cooling systems are avoided as much as possible.

A healthy home is mould and mildew free, sturdy and severe-weather proof, with no off-gassing of toxic chemicals from construction. The Singbeils construct homes with Durisol blocks, and encourage clients to choose American Clay for some wall applications since it works so well with the thermal mass of the Durisol blocks and regulates relative humidity.

They put a lot of thought into home construction and source as locally as possible working with expert trades who are familiar with their green materials. Any particleboard products are NAUF (no added urea-formaldehyde), and now they’re entering a new green area which is EMR, or, electromagnetic radiation, another form of pollution in the form of electricity. I confess that I’m not that familiar with EMR and, so, need to learn a little bit more about it.

To learn more about EcoInhabit and the Singbeils’ building philosophy, visit their website, or better yet, if you happen to be in the Georgian Triangle, make sure you stop by the store.



121 Old Highway #26
Meaford, Ontario
N4L 1W7

Tel: 1.519.538.0777
Toll-free: 1.888.538.0777
Fax: 1.519.538.0778


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Durisol — Insulated Concrete Forms made from Recycled Material

May 12th, 2011

Durisol Building blocks

A few weeks ago I sat down with the new owners of EcoInhabit, a wonderful green building business located in Meaford, ON. Tim and Jan Singbeil are passionate about green building and even more than just building energy efficient homes, they are passionate about building healthy, low energy-consuming homes.

At the core of a healthy home is the use of construction materials that are durable, mould and pest resistant and help with the overall air quality. In this case, the preferred building product for Jan and Tim is Durisol blocks. I was really curious about Durisol and I’d wanted to write about it for a few years, but my biggest hesitation was the fact that Durisol, like any insulated concrete form, depends on concrete for its full benefit, and concrete isn’t exactly the green builder’s best friend with all that energy intensiveness built right in. So I looked at Tim and said, “Convince me that Durisol blocks are a green building material.”

Our conversation lasted for over two fascinating hours, and by the time I left, not only was I a believer in Durisol, I was a believer in “healthy buildings” — which is about so much more than constructing energy efficient buildings — it’s about constructing buildings that take some of the toxic burden off our already too chemically-laden bodies.

If you’re not familiar with Durisol Blocks, they are in the family of Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs), however, ironically, ICF manufacturers don’t consider them a direct competitor — and truth be told, they’re not, because they do so much more than provide a sturdy, well-insulated building. An ICF built foundation has many advantages over a simple poured concrete or block concrete foundation. An ICF consists of a “brick”, like a concrete block, typically made out of styrofoam, and filled with concrete. The advantage of this building system is that it’s easy to assemble, it’s extremely sturdy, it uses less concrete than a traditional foundation, and includes insulation so no additional insulation is necessary. It’s also mould and pest resistant.

Durisol up close.

Durisol blocks, however, go beyond ICFs. They are completely petroleum free being made from 80% recycled soft wood waste that would otherwise end up in landfill and 20% concrete. They kind of look like a concrete brick, only the holes are filled with concrete, once the forms are set in place. Imagine putting a house together like constructing with Lego blocks, and are intended to be for contractors and DIYers alike. Tim told me that learning to build with Durisol can be a bit tricky in the beginning, but that once you get the hang of fitting the blocks together, the process is pretty straightforward.*

Construction: similar to lego blocks, it means that there is no thermal bridging — heat can’t escape through the wood studs which happens in a traditional stick-built home. Buildings are solid and durable. Unlike polystyrene ICFs, which are insulated on the interior and exterior of the concrete, Durisol blocks are insulated with recycled mineral wool on the external side of the block only, allowing the other benefits of Durisol to work.


Thermal mass: because insulation is on the exterior side of the building block, the concrete within the block is able to act as a significant thermal mass which means it can regulate heating, cooling and relative humidity within a building.

In order to perform the way they were intended, Durisol works best without a vapor barrier between the finished walls and the blocks, which means that a breathable finishing coating such as American Clay or limestone are excellent complementary materials to use. There have been studies done showing the benefits of Durisol, but adding a vapor barrier prevents the walls from doing their job. The concrete won’t be able to act as a thermal mass the way it’s intended, and relative humidity won’t be regulated.

Healthy air: Durisol blocks are made with benign materials so there is no off-gassing of any harmful toxins. Further, when built with a breathable wall finish, the structure acts as an extensive relative humidity regulator because of its hygroscopic qualities. For further information on the benefits of breathing walls, Durisol has developed this comprehensive report.

Mould, pest and vermin resistance. Because these blocks are made with 20% cement, they are mould, pest and vermin resistant. Home air stays healthy. Termites aren’t an issue. Neither are hurricanes for that matter. These blocks are so sturdy when filled with concrete, they are “severe weather” proof.

R-value. Durisol makes several different blocks, narrower ones with no insulation that are good for interior walls, and thicker ones with insulation for exterior walls. The smallest block with no insulation has an R-value of 8. The thermal blocks, that is, those containing recycled mineral wool insulation, range in R value between 14 and 28. Unlike a traditional stick-built home, there is no thermal bridging in Durisol homes. For more detailed information on the block’s thermal performance, read here.

What about the concrete issue? So yes, concrete is used in the building of a Durisol-built home. However, because of the other positive properties of Durisol-built homes, and that the concrete industry is constantly working on lowering its carbon footprint, it can be considered a cost of building for the time-being. Whether or not building with concrete is sustainable, well, that’s a whole different question. The sustainability of a building method implies that it can be repeated infinitely without decreasing or degrading future populations’ needs.

Oh, and if you’re wondering if this is some new-fangled green building material, the answer is no. Durisol has been around since 1953, so its buildings have a proven track-record.

Tim and Jan have convinced me of Durisol’s “green” properties, provided the blocks are used they way they are meant, and not just for energy efficiency, but in the construction of a healthy home. Thanks so much for speaking with me Tim and Jan!

For more information on Durisol, visit the website.

For more information on Tim and Jan Singbeil’s company, visit EcoInhabit’s website.

*In an earlier version of this article I explained that Durisol was not a DIY product and that specialists were needed to build properly with it. However, Tim emailed me to let me know that, in fact, Durisol is made for home installment and only on occasion is his building team called in to help with construction involving Durisol.

Blu Homes Prefab Home Manufacturer Comes to Canada

May 6th, 2011

Last Saturday I was invited to a seminar hosted by Blu Homes. I first read about Blu Homes on Treehugger when it was announced that the company had bought Michelle Kaufmann Designs. Michelle Kaufmann is a renowned architect who had her own design/build prefab green modular home site. With the stock market crash of 2008, which decimated the housing market in the US, Kaufmann’s firm was one of its many victims.

Blu Cutaway

Blu Homes designs and builds modern, green, modular home manufacturers. There are a few significant differences between Blu Homes and other modular home manufacturers: The frames are made out of steel and an entire module can be folded into a more compact form for easier transport. This ‘folding ability’ has several advantages over the traditional modular home.  For instance, fewer transport trucks are needed to ship modules (two can fit on one flat bed) which also significantly cuts down on the cost of shipping. In fact, one of their models can be shipped to a building site on just one truck.  Using fewer trucks means lower costs and less pollution from transportation. Because the shipments are smaller, they can travel up narrow, windy roads and can be installed in more challenging spaces.

Because of the folding technique, homes are all finished within the factory, meaning they can be reassembled on-site in significantly less time. In fact, Blu Homes sends in their trained assemblers to put the home in place and finish it. Maura told us that usually a house can be delivered, assembled and finished on site in about 10 days.

Another advantage to the folding technique is that modules can be up to 21 feet wide and 18 feet high once unfolded. A traditional modular home tends to have modules that are no wider than 8 or 9 feet with ceiling heights of the same measurement. The steel framed structure also gives the homes durability to withstand severe weather events including high wind areas, flood zones and even earthquake zones.

The Blu Home philosophy is all about providing a green prefabricated home with excellent design features. They have a team of architects (including Michelle Kaufmann) who have designed the current and upcoming model homes in their inventory.

There are many “standard” green features to these houses, in other words, features that are included in the cost of building the home.


Element Model

Smart Design: Homes are designed to feel big without being big, with open plans and high ceilings. They are also designed so that they can “grow with you.” In other words, if you only have the budget for a smaller unit, but anticipate the need for more space in the future (ie., a growing family, running your business from home, etc.), homes can be designed so that more pods (units) can be added later. Rooms are often designed with multiple uses in mind. Libraries can also be extra bedrooms, office spaces, play rooms, etc.

Orientation: Like any good green home design, Blu Homes will help you site the house so that passive solar gains are maximized and wind patterns are taken into account. In addition, included in their overall fees are basic deck designs and some landscaping design.

HVAC: Maura told us that they spent significant time perfecting the installation of radiant heat flooring so that it was a standard feature in all models. Standard are 93% efficient Viessman boilers in larger models and Embassey boilers in smaller models. HRVs or ERVs (heat/energy recovery ventilator) are also built in to every model. Note, central air conditioning is not included in homes because they are built for the most part without forced air (ducted) furnaces. However, Blu Homes will design a ducted home for you. In general though, the theory of a green home is that central air conditioning should not be necessary if the building envelope and positioning are done properly, particularly in a northern climate. Homes can come with mini-split (ductless) air conditioning units.


Origin Model, Interior

Building Envelope: The tighter the building envelope the smaller the heating and cooling system that’s needed, the less money you will spend heating your home. In this case, the building envelope consists of a combination of rigid foam insulation and eco fiberglass insulation in the walls. Walls are built with an R value of 24.5, Basement with R-19 or r-29 depending on if the basement or crawl space is conditioned. The roof is put together using SIPs for an R value of 38 or 45, depending on the model.

Windows: The windows are Anderson 400 series, which are high quality windows. They are double-glazed, with a low-e coating and filled with insulating argon gas to give a U-value of 0.31 (which is the equivalent of an R value of 3.22).

Material Use: In general, to have as low an impact as possible when building these homes, thought has gone into the selection of all materials. There is extensive recycled content used within the construction of the homes, and because they are built within a factory, there is 50-75% less material waste per home than homes constructed on-site.

Water Use: All toilets, showers and faucets are low flow, and there is the option of including a living roof (or green roof), and rain water catchment systems (additional charges for these systems).

Fresh air: A typical new home can off-gas up to 22 pounds of harmful volatile organic compounds into the air, and the off-gassing can continue for years. All Blu Homes are made with products with no off-gassing potential or mould-generating potential. Indoor paints and stains are zero-VOC, flooring choices consist of wood, tile, and other hard surfaces. Note: Because the foundation is the owner’s responsibility, you should discuss different mould prevention options with your site contractor.


Origin Media Room

Energy Efficiency: With energy use in mind, provided lighting is CFL and some LED where appropriate. All included appliances are Energy Star.

Home Models: There are currently 7 different models to choose from. Many of the models are available in a “mix and match” scenario where one kind of design fits with another. The current trend on larger pieces of land is to develop different “pods”, such as a main house with a separate guest house or art studio or retreat all on the same property.

What the client is reponsible for: First, you need to have a plot of land. If you’re not sure whether it’s suitable, Blu Homes will advise you on whether one of their models can be built on it. Secondly, you are responsible for hiring a site contractor to build the foundation, as well as to get all the necessary permits. Blu Homes will send the home plans to the contractor, but the contractor is responsible for the design and construction of the foundation, whether it’s a crawl space or full basement is left up to you. You are also responsible for landscaping and deck construction, but Blu Homes will help guide you. They will do a complete landscape design for you for an additional fee.

For more information, visit the Blu Homes website, or contact them directly using their contact form.

Origin Model after a snowstorm

A Tour of the First “Passive House Certified” Residence in Canada

March 8th, 2011

First Certified Passive House Residence in Canada

We went to Ottawa for Family Day weekend to visit my husband’s family. A few weeks before this, I received a press notice that an Ottawa house had become the first Passive House certified in Canada. “Say,” I thought, “wouldn’t it be great if I could arrange for a tour of the house while I was in Ottawa?” So I did.

If you’re not familiar with the Passive House movement, houses are designed and built so that they only use 15 kwh/m2 of energy for heating and cooling and 120 kwh of electricity per month for lighting, appliances and other household uses. To give you an idea of what this means, the typical new home built in Ontario today uses about 10 times the amount of energy consumed by a Passive House certified building. If you’d like to know more about the Passive House movement in Canada, you can read about it here.

Chris Stratka of Vert Design was intent on building a super-insulated home when he bought the property in the New Edinburgh neighbourhood of Ottawa. However, when he took the design to a Passive House consultant he was told it probably wouldn’t qualify because the building materials and systems available in Canada that he had specified were seen by the consultant as inferior to those available in Europe. Although Chris was disappointed, he decided that he’d build the “best” house possible and leave it at that. Specifically, Chris is aiming for a Platinum LEED for Homes rating, with a particular emphasis on the Energy and Atmosphere section of the certification.

Chris decided that the best way to achieve his home’s performance targets was to use a modular home builder, and located one just outside Ottawa who would build to his insulation specifications. As I’ve written about before, modular home building has several environmental advantages such as the materials being protected from the elements (moisture, heat, cold, etc.), less waste in production, and less disruption to the local neighbourhood because the final product is put up so much faster. Chris’ home was assembled on site in three weeks. Yes, there was still the need for electricians, HVAC installers etc., but the major construction vehicles were on the street for a short period of time and there was never a dumpster on site.

Once the walls were assembled, insulation was added to the ceiling, caulking and sealing was done, Chris called in green building specialist, Ross Elliott from Homesol Building Solutions, a building performance consulting company that provides third-party inspection, testing and verification services. Ross performed the blower door test to identify any leaks that might have escaped the caulking and sealing. Chris said that if you’re going for energy efficiency in a new or renovated home, it’s essential to bring in the energy auditor a few times while the house is under construction. It’s much easier to fix leaks and holes in a partially built home than once the drywall is up and everything is already in place, and it will save you money in the long-run through lower energy bills. It was after the initial test that Chris and Ross believed that they just might be able to qualify for Passive House certification after all.

There are two other aspects about the house that were of primary importance to Chris:

1. He built it using only North American supplied materials in order to demonstrate that we North Americans have the resources and the technology to build super-insulated homes. All the major building materials,  hot water heaters, geothermal heating/cooling, and windows are manufactured in Canada and the US.

2. Testing for air leaks at several stages of building was essential to achieving the home’s air tightness.

In order to build a Passive House certified residence, there are several elements in addition to air-tightness that are essential to take into consideration:


Inline Fiberglass Windows

Orientation: Part of the Passive House formula is the ability to take advantage of the free heat a house can receive in the winter by orienting windows to absorb the light. In this case the house if perfectly situated, facing due south, and backs onto conservation land next to the river. It means he’ll never have to worry about another building going up that would eventually block his sunlight and heat source. The canopy in place protects the room from the heat in the summer when the sun is high in the sky.  The shading system that is currently being installed protects the rooms from the heat of the low winter sun.  In this building the issue is not getting enough heat – it is getting too much!

"Tilt" feature of "Tilt and Turn" windows

Windows: All windows are “tilt and turn” windows provided byInline Fiberglass, a window manufacturer based in Toronto, ON. They are triple-glazed, Low emissivity, argon gas filled, and the fiberglass frames themselves are insulated. The day I visited it was -15, but when I put my hand to the window pane, the glass was warm. When I do the same thing on my own home’s windows, the glass is always chilly; in fact, it’s just plain cold anywhere around any window in our house.

A nifty feature of the windows is the “tilt and turn” aspect. They tilt open at the top to let air flow in or out, or can be opened completely as a door on side hinges. This is a great feature to quickly cool down a room in the summer time, if the hot air has risen to the third floor.

Heating and Cooling System: In hindsight, Chris says, the geothermal heating and cooling system he had installed wasn’t necessary. However, when first designing the place, and being told that it would never pass Passive House certification, he figured he’d use the least intrusive HVAC system he knew of — geothermal. His particular system is made by Maritime Georthermal from New Brunswick. In future passive house designs, he would use baseboard heating in each room as Passive House homes are designed so that traditional heating methods such as central furnaces, aren’t necessary. He’s also added a Heat Recovery Ventilator (HRV), from Airia Brands from London, ON. When I asked him why he hadn’t chosen an Energy Recovery Ventilator (ERV), he replied that ERVs are more suited to humid climates where moisture is present year round.

For a complete breakdown of the specifications of the wall composition and HVAC, hotwater and windows used, please see Chris’ PDF document on his website.

Other “eco features.” Passive House certification’s focus is on energy use for heating, cooling and plug load. It does not look at other factors such as indoor air quality, water use, or minimizing the use of building materials. Chris referred to LEED criteria for these areas. Some of the more eco-friendly features of his house are:

  • Green Roof garden. Essentially his house takes up the entire plot of land, with only a small patch of property out back. Since he would like to grow some of his own food, he has designed the roof so that it can hold a substantial garden with herbs, tomatoes, beans and other vine plants, and maybe some crooked carrots (the depth of the soil will be about a foot). The green roof will also add further insulation to the home.
  • Rainwater recycling. There is a space built into the second floor that is awaiting rain barrels which will capture run-off from the eavestroughs and will be stored inside the home to feed toilets with water. The point of putting the rain barrels on the second floor is that the water is fed to the toilets through the use of gravity. That way they are unaffected if the electricity goes off.
  • Energy Star Appliances. All appliances, including washer/dryer, are Energy Star rated. The cooktop by Kenmore, uses induction heating, which is also quicker than gas.
  • No gas line to the house. Chris says that there are two reasons he relies on electricity for heating and cooling, cooking and hotwater: the first is that gas doesn’t fully combust and is not indoor air quality friendly, and secondly, to become dependent on gas means that you can never convert your home to 100% renewable electricity. Chris has plans for solar panels on the roof.

For more information on this project, visit

For more information on Passive House certification, visit the Passive House Institute US.

In Canada see: Passive Buildings, and Canadian Passive House Institute.

Deadline for the Ontario GreenSpec Home Sweet Home Competition Dec. 31/2010

December 17th, 2010

There is this neat little website out there called Ontario Green Spec. It’s an online directory that’s FREE to the public and lists companies in Ontario that specialize in different services and materials specific to building green. While the site is still in “beta” or test phase, it’s worthwhile perusing through if you’re looking for services to help you green your next home build or renovation. The really neat thing about this website is that all of the services, materials and resources listed are in Ontario.

In keeping with its green building theme, is running its second annual Home Sweet Home green building competition and  the deadline is December 31, 2010 for entries. The competition highlights fantastic green residential building projects completed in 2010. The point of the competition is to highlight the teams that have built great green homes or buildings in Ontario. There are four categories of green building that represent the different applications of residential green building. They are:

Production Home of the Year: this category is for homes that can be easily replicated. Its purpose is to encourage a fundamental shift in the way houses are built, using fewer resources, producing tighter buildings.

Custom Home of the Year: this category is for unique green homes that “push the green building envelope” so to speak. These homes tend to be highly creative in their nature and entry is often owner initiated.

Affordable Home of the Year: recognizing that building a green home has to be inclusive, this category is for homes that are built with both operating costs and initial costs in mind.

Renovated Home of the Year: renovating our current home stock into tighter, better performing buildings is likely one of the greenest measures a home owner can make. This category recognizes, and encourages, people to consider a green renovation for their older home.

All four categories will look at such factors as water and energy efficiency, waste minimization, use of third party labeling programs, use of environmentally-friendly materials, and sourcing of these materials as close to the home site as is feasibly possible.

Know of a home that might fit into one of these categories? Find out more about how to enter.

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