Posts Tagged ‘green design’

mobEE Strawbale School Portables are a low impact breath of fresh air

February 11th, 2015
Straw Bale Portable mobEE

Straw Bale Portable mobEE


I met Ben Polley on the trip to Poland in October, 2014, but his company, Evolve Builders had been on my list of ones to contact for awhile. Evolve Builders builds low impact houses and buildings from straw, earth and wood. The company is divided into various divisions each of which specialize in a particular area of green building ranging from green design to “biological based building systems” (dealing with gray and black water and the like) through the Torus division.

mobEE, the prefabricated straw bale school portable system has recently signed a contract with the Pinoleville Pomo Nation to provide six mobEE units for the aboriginal group. What is unusual about this contract is that this nation is based in northern California. You might be wondering, like I did, why this group from northern California selected a southern  Ontario-based natural builder to build these school buildings for them. The questions was answered in Evolve’s press release:

After extended bid requests for a strawbale constructed portable school structure failed to garner interest locally or elsewhere across the U.S., determined Pinoleville Native American Head Start program representatives discovered Evolve’s mobEE eco-portables. Both parties came to learn that they held in common many organizational values, including support for local jobs, environmental stewardship, healthy buildings and energy efficiency. This inspired a joint effort that ultimately will meet Pinoleville Pomo Nation’s ideals, needs and budget.

Construction of the walls will take place in the Durham, Ontario factory then the parts will be shipped to California where they will be assembled by local trades, overseen by the mobEE group.

» Read more: mobEE Strawbale School Portables are a low impact breath of fresh air

A “Green” Kitchen Renovation

September 9th, 2013


Kitchen "before"

Kitchen “before”

The current version of our kitchen in our new-to-us 1928 house has a Band-Aid solution going on — you can tell that they were going to get to the kitchen eventually, but they ran out of time, money or patience (renovations will do that to you).  They put nice handles and hinges on the original cupboards and bought top of the line appliances. Somewhere along the way, someone ripped up the original linoleum flooring to expose and stain the beautiful original pine sub-floor. But they left the pantry in, which takes up about a third of the kitchen. There is also a significant functional problem, if you’re a cook like I am, which is that the kitchen has zero counter space, so prep work is a challenge at best. I often use the stove as a counter — not a particularly safe idea!

Pantry and doorway to diningroom.

Pantry and doorway to diningroom.


Pantry - notice small window

Pantry – notice small window

In the grand scheme of things, I suppose that not renovating  is likely the greenest thing I can do. It would create no waste and use no new materials. It would also mean that I’d have to put up with a sub-standard set-up. Besides, renovating the kitchen means I will be employing local trades to make cabinets, refinish the floor, do the electrical and plumbing work, etc. We are putting money into the local economy and improving the value of our home (I can hear my husband’s eyes rolling).

Patio doors and wonderful radiator that is being saved.

Patio doors and wonderful radiator that is being saved.

Here are the areas I’m addressing:


That's it for counter space, plus the microwave sat beside the fridge.

That’s it for counter space, plus the microwave sat beside the fridge.

1. Footprint and design: As I’ve mentioned in numerous posts, design is the most important part of any successful renovation. A thoughtful design will produce a functional space that will last well into the future. I spent a lot of time with my kitchen designer, making sure the design was what we needed. Surprisingly, the final design kept the layout similar to what it currently is, except that we added significant counter space by putting in an island, and more natural light by taking down the pantry and exposing a window. However, the sink, stove and fridge will all remain within a few feet of their current locations, which also keeps construction costs down too.

2. Waste generation (both during the renovation and once the kitchen is completed): My goal is to avoid landfill wherever possible. That involves recycling what can’t be reused, and finding homes for what can be reused.

3. Material Selection other than cabinets: I am looking to use materials that are as locally made as possible, from companies that have sustainability practices in place. My goal is to support local companies to support the local economy and keep transportation miles low. But I will also be choosing materials that have a significant amount of recycled material in them and/or can be recycled at end of life. All paints, sealants and adhesives will be low or zero VOC, and water and/or plant-based where possible.

4. Cabinet selection: admittedly, this is not easy. There are so many pros and cons to choosing the right type of kitchen cabinets it’s not even funny. Do you go with No Urea Formaldehyde Added Medium Density Fibreboard (NAUF MDF), local FSC (Forestry Stewardship Council Certified) solid wood, local FSC Plywood or engineered wood, wood alternatives such as wheat board, soy board or sugarcane board? What about metal? Or some combination thereof. You see what I mean? There are no real measuring sticks to choose something that is “better” than the next.

5. Lighting: The kitchen is probably the one area I can justify the expense of LED lighting. In the winter the lights are on all the time, especially when it also doubles as my office. All undermount lighting will be LED strips, and I will replace the overhead 50W halogen potlights with equivalent LED lights. To give you an example of the difference, I installed 8 LED potlights in the living room (formerly no overhead lighting at all). Each light uses 4 Watts of electricity — so 32 Watts altogether. If I had used halogen, it would have been 400 Watts, and the bulbs would have needed constant enough replacement.

6. Indoor Air Quality: this is an area to consider both during construction and after completion. We will get an overhead vent as I haven’t been impressed with the in-stove vent that came with the stove. For one thing, it sucks the gas flame towards it at the back of the stove, so I’m sure we’re even less efficient than a gas stove is already (only 40% of the energy produced by a gas stove ends up cooking the food). For another, it doesn’t even seem to capture the front burners.  I should change out the gas stove as well, but I can’t get rid of such a good quality (Thermador) appliance. I will have to wait for it to wear out.  I’ve also requested low and zero VOC adhesives and paints.

So, there you go, my adventure for the next….month (?). That’s wishful thinking, isn’t it?


A Tour of Maison de Développement Durable, Equiterre’s Headquarters

November 26th, 2012

Living wall in lobby of Maison de Development Durable

Maison de Développement Durable” (MDD) Centre for Sustainable Development is a 6 storey office building a little to the east of Place des Arts on Ste. Catherine in Montreal. Equiterre, the not-for-profit foundation behind the development of this LEED Platinum certified building, wanted to show what could be built from an environmental perspective so they set out to build the most energy efficient and least energy intensive building in Canada. Complete data isn’t in yet, but Ricardo Leoto, technical adviser, for the building, says the data is showing that per square foot it is the most energy efficient office building in Canada.

This building took almost ten years to come to realization. The Equiterre Foundation, originally located in the east end of Montreal started looking for more centrally located office space and decided that they wanted to build the most efficient building possible using today’s technology. All in all, it was a project that started in 2001 and was completed in 2011.

Here are some of the features of the building:

  • Hydro Quebec owns the land and gave it to the MDD to build the building. The land is leased for 50 years.
  • The concrete contains 25% fly ash, which helps lower the embodied energy of the concrete.
  • Rainwater is used for the toilets, collected from the roof, supplemented with city water when necessary.
  • A daycare within the building with a small playground on the roof is used by building tenants and Hydro Quebec employees.
  • A mini “test” wind monitor on the roof, installed by students at Concordia University, to see if a wind turbine can be installed on site.
  • Wiring is fed under an accessible floor making repairs or movement much easier than if it is behind walls.
  • CO2 sensors are installed in meeting rooms to make sure there is always fresh air in the rooms.
  • A deposit bin in the lobby for old batteries, cellphones and CDs.
  • Le Commensal a vegetarian (recently flexitarian) restaurant.

Green (vegetative) roof plus, salvaged window washer scaffolding hooks


wind turbine test site monitored by Concordia University


Rainwater capture system, for use in the toilets

Heating and cooling: The building uses a complex system of geothermal heating and cooling. However, when the temperature drops below -30 a gas heating system will kick in order to ease electricity demand. There is also a Heat Recovery Ventilating (HRV) system, which captures the waste heat and uses it to prewarm cool outdoor air before it goes through the heating system.

The distribution system is designed so that vents are built into the floors with adjustable openings to control the amount of air entering a room. The air released into the building is at a constant temperature of 20C, winter or summer. I asked Ricardo if they’d had any adjustment issues when they first put the system into operation and he said that the system was so efficient that for the first little while, the indoor temperature was 25C (during the winter) because the HRV was so good at collecting and transferring the waste heat to the incoming cold air. They adjusted the controls and haven’t had any trouble since. In fact, the gas furnace hasn’t been activated yet because the temperature hasn’t been cold enough in the one winter the building’s HVAC system’s been in operation.

The entire system works in reverse in the summer time. In addition, although more expensive, the geothermal tubes are individually controllable within the main floor furnace room, that way, it there is a problem with one pipe, the entire system doesn’t need to be shut down.

Ricardo confessed to me that although they’ve had no issues with the HVAC equipment, the building itself could be more efficient because, as it is elsewhere, plug load is still an issue — yes, even in a building full of environmental organizations, lights, computers and other plugged in equipment are still left on when not in use. Just goes to show you — even environmentalists aren’t perfect (myself included).

On the other hand, it’s important to note that while Equiterre had the option to purchase spaces in the parking garage for its office space, they actually pay not to have access to them, so everyone uses alternative methods to get to work. The St Laurent metro stop and the de Maisonneuve bike path are both a block away, and because of its central location, it is well suited to be a carless office.

Venting for geothermal HVAC equipment


individual geothermal tubes


All air vents are located in the floors with manual flow controls

Green Roof: it  absorbs water and provides insulation in the summer. Indigenous plants that don’t need watering are used. The rain water is collected through a tube at the other end of the building and provides water for the toilets in the building (supplemented by city water).

Living wall: a vegetative wall that maintains moisture levels for the lobby at an ideal state as well as purifying the air. A green wall can absorb up to ten times the pollutants that a mechanical system can. A simple circulation system consisting of a pump, directs the air towards the green wall and the plants purify the air which is circulated throughout the building.

Reused materials were an important part of this building. Tables in board rooms are made from bowling alley lane wood put together with a base by a local metalworker. Kitchen counters are made of concrete and recycled glass come from a local Quebec manufacturer. One piece of feedback they’ve had is that the counter can chip where pieces of glass are located leaving a divot, particularly on the edges. On the roof the window washing hooks (for the window washing equipment were salvaged from a neighbouring building that was being destroyed.

recycled bowling alley lane wood -- into table top

Salvaged wood from Logs End


Recycled glass in concrete - Quebec manufacturer


Equiterre Green Building Materials Library

Public education: There are monitors and information screens throughout the building that visitors can look at to find out how the building is performing versus expectations. Further, there is a library of materials used in construction at the far end of the main floor, where visitors can learn about what kinds of green building materials were used and what are their benefits.

All tenants are paying the exact same rent that they were in their previous buildings while getting a more comfortable and lighter footprint building in which to work.

For more information on Equiterre or the Centre for Sustainable Development, visit their websites.

Accessible wires under flooring plate. Carpet by Interface Flooring


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Watch Construction of the Nexterra Prefab Home in 3 minutes

March 1st, 2012

Here’s one of the other great things about modular homes — because believe me, there are a lot of great things about them. The majority of the construction can be done inside a warehouse protected from the elements, then shipped to the site (foundation already prepared) and assembled in about 2 days to a week, depending on the home’s complexity. There is less waste of materials since leftovers can be used on the next job in the warehouse. Further, more and more modular homes have a green bent to them and are constructed using zero and low-VOC emitting materials, include materials made from renewable resources and are highly energy efficient.
Nexterra filmed the assembly process of their first home being built in North York. If you’re interested in reading about all the green features, you can read this earlier post about Nexterra and LivingHomes here.
If you want to watch a building go up in three minutes, watch the short video below:

Nexterra Module Installation from Nexterra Green Homes on Vimeo.

WalkTO: Green Toronto Walking Tour

August 18th, 2011

start of tour, view of CN Tower

WalkT.O. is a different kind of walking tour company. Started by a teacher/entrepreneur, Michelle Galea, and travel/environmental journalist, Crystal Luxmore, the company focuses on a different Toronto by looking at issues from our environment to the vibrant cultural mix of our neighbourhoods, as well as art and architecture through guided walks. Another unique aspect of these tours is that they are for groups of 10 or more, so you can’t just show up and hope to get on the next tour.  Their primary market right now is school groups and many of their tour guides are teachers, teaching students, or grad students who are very familiar with the Ontario curriculum requirements — hence, their ability to make the walking tours relevant to the geography, history and environmental curriculum. But these are also interesting tours for a variety of non-school related reasons. The tours delve into the physical and historical foundation of Toronto and help us learn about how the city has developed over its relatively young life.

Our Green TO walk was led by Master’s in Teaching grad student, Kim, who in addition to teaching, has also worked with Greenpeace and Mountain Equipment Co-op. She knows a thing or two about the environment and points out practical examples of what’s good and what maybe needs some improvement in our fair city. Below are some of the highlights of our tour:

Entrance to Metro Hall

Metro Hall. I know, Metro Hall in itself is no big deal, just a building that houses the resulting amalgamated municipal government –EXCEPT for the fact that it is also a customer of Enwave, a district heating and cooling utility company. In fact, Enwave provides heating and cooling for over 30 downtown buildings.Its system of underground pipes supplies steam heat in the winter and cooled water in the summer and tap water year round and the buildings it services have no need for boilers and chillers which frees up space and manpower in their facilities.

District heating isn’t new and has been in use in Canada for over 100 years, but what is new is the deep water cooling method Enwave developed. By bringing in 4C water from the bottom of Lake Ontario and using this water to provide cooling for all the buildings it supplies, the system provides benefits not only for the building owners and managers, but also for the local workday and residential population. Specifically, deep water district cooling

  • is 90% more efficient than chilling systems installed in individual buildings
  • reduces electricity demand by 61 MW annually
  • reduces coal-fired electricity demand, which in turn means that 145 tonnes of nitrogen oxide and 318 tonnes of sulfur oxide are not produced annually resulting in increased air quality (it’s like 20,000 cars off the road)
  • eliminates the need for CFCs because of the absence of individual chillers
  • reduces CO2 emissions by 79,000 tonnes/year.

To find out more about Enwave, visit their website.

Outside Mountain Equipment Co-op

Mountain Equipment Co-op: Probably the most successful retail co-op company in Canada, MEC is also a leader in corporate social responsibility. The company has been walking the environmental walk since its inception. Its flagship store at 400 King West, in the entertainment district, would likely qualify for LEED Gold, except that it was built in 1994, before the environmental certification system was even established. In this building over 55% of the the materials are recycled. Red steel beams come from an old radio tower that was being dismantled, the concrete pillars contain a mixture of Portland cement and slag from steel manufacturing (reducing the energy-intensive cement component), wood beams and flooring come from buildings about to be torn down, and it has Toronto’s first green roof (which isn’t accessible to the public). We didn’t get to see the roof, but the store itself is pretty neat. The latest MEC store, built in Montreal last year, contains over 90% recycled material.

The last two buildings on our tour are owned by a progressive development company called Urbanspace Property Group, founded and owned by Margie Zeidler. In this day and age when every old — not historical, just old — building in Toronto is being acquired by developers to be torn down and replaced with yet another glass condo (how many do we really need in this city anyway?), Margie’s vision is so enlightened because of a clear lack of greed and a complete understanding of how good spaces can promote creativity and collaboration amongst burgeoning businesses, social groups and artists.

401 Richmond: Urbanspace bought 401 Richmond in the 1990s when a developer was going to demolish it and turn it into condo towers. In the end the developer couldn’t do it and sold the building to Urbanspace. Urbanspace needed to do very little work to restore the building. It is a beautiful structure with wide hallways, high ceilings and deliberately developed in the warehouse model to allow flexibility for each tenant, as well as new tenants coming in. The purpose of this building and The Robertson Building up the street, is to provide low-cost, beautiful spaces for artists, NGOs, start-ups, entrepreneurs, and the like, to do their work. All tenants fit within this philosophy, and you can clearly see that on the wall in the lobby of the building where tenants are listed. The building contains a lot of galleries, as well as a great coffee shop, a daycare, and a fantastic Rooftop Garden which is open to the public. It’s a great building to go and poke around and explore the different art galleries. Kim pointed out Musideum to us, which houses all kinds of different instruments, and great for kids. Unfortunately it was closed for summer break when we were there.

The Roof top garden has slowly evolved over the years. According to Kim, the caretaker has a love of plants and once the warmer weather hit, wanted to give the building’s plants some fresh air. He suggested the roof, Urbanspace said yes, it grew from there. Now the roof is a wonderful garden deck with plants, a long trellis providing shade, tables and chairs. There is also a greenhouse up there now where some of the plants are stored in winter. On the part of the roof that is structurally not able to hold the weight of the deck, it is covered with seedum, providing both an additional insulation factor for the building below, as well as absorbing rainwater, preventing less runoff into sewers.

Seedum on foreground structure, greenhouse in back (white dome), on 401 Richmond's roof

Seedum on Roof of 401 Richmond, looking east.

Trellised and shaded rooftop garden on 401 Richmond

Before we entered the building, which we did from the back instead of the usual entrance at Richmond and Spadina, Kim showed us an experimental new driveway system the building’s put in place. A company in Oshawa is providing strong plastic grid work, embedded in the ground. Between the plastic grid grass grows. The benefit is three-fold: pavement can be converted into green space which helps reduce heat island effect in the city, the permeability allows for water to be reabsorbed into the ground instead of run-off into sewers, and it still provides a place for cars to park without impacting the soil. It’s still in experimental stages, but it could be a significant, low cost alternative to paved parking lots in downtown areas.

Early stages of plastic grid embedded parking space. Grass is just beginning to grow.

The Robertson Building: In 2002 Urbanspace bought the Robertson Building, yet another building that was slated for demolition but offered up by the developer at the last minute when funding fell through. Urbanspace’s tenants are again a variety of NGOs, start-up companies, and other small, progressive businesses that benefit from being in the same building.

Living wall in the lobby of The Robertson Bldg

Marshland "development" on The Robertson Bldg Rooftop

There is a living wall in the lobby providing fresh oxygen and moisture. Fans circulate the oxygen produced by the plants amongst the first floor. Across from the living wall is a list of tenants, many of whom are inspiring and doing great things such as Carbon Zero, Playwrights Canada Press, and the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.

The Green Roof on this building is different from the one on 401 Richmond. There is less room for congregating and it is used for some experimental plantings. For instance, the roof actually  looks like Ontario marshland. Marshland provides many benefits to local ecosystems providing habitats for wildlife and acting as a filter for freshwater. It is also the fastest disappearing part of the Ontario landscape. Research is being done on a rooftop in downtown Toronto, that will benefit our natural environment.

As with both buildings, rent is kept low in order to allow for these kinds of businesses to afford creative and beautiful spaces in which to work. In a witness statement in which Ms. Zeidler testified before the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB) about the fate of another building back in 2006, she noted that her buildings make enough of a profit for her to live on, the tenants are responsible about paying their rent and there is a waiting list to get into both buildings. If you have a chance, read her witness statement as it talks about the importance and value of rehabilitating old buildings, and not just the historical or pretty ones, but ones with years more useful life in them, it’s very inspiring.

This is where the tour ends. We said our goodbyes, and I popped in to the Dark Horse Cafe, one of my favourite coffee spots in the city, which also happens to be a tenant of The Robertson Building. While I ordered my small latte disguised as a cappucino, I had a lesson from the well-spoken barista on the difference between a machiato, cappuccino, and latte. While each has two ounces of espresso, the amount of milk increases per drink. Aha. I never knew that either.

For more information about WalkT.O., visit their website.

For more pictures from the tour, visit BEC Green’s Facebook Page.

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