Tag Archives: sustainability

A Greener, Cheaper Home

IMG_8272With utility costs, pollution, and water consumption on the continuous rise, the task to improve the environment and lower utilities costs is often on the minds of many homeowners. While a net zero home may not be an option for everyone, there are some simple improvements and upgrades you can make to achieve a greener, cheaper home at any price point.

Rainwater Barrel

Rainwater Barrel

Rainwater Barrels – Collect free water using a rainwater barrel. At an average cost of $100, a barrel will pay for itself in 5 years, saving you about $20 a year on your water and sewer costs, depending on the size you select. Rainwater has many uses including, plant and grass watering, car and window cleaning, and all sorts of other outdoor jobs and cleanups. Many municipalities offer rainwater barrels at a discounted price during certain times of the year, so keep an eye out.

Low-Flow Toilets – In an average home more than 30% of the water consumption is literally flushed down the toilet. Today’s more modern, low-flow toilets use less than 5L of water per flush, while their older counterparts need 13L per flush on average, using unnecessary water while hiking up your bill. A good low-flow toilet will run you about $250, but will save you $100 per year on your water bill, making the investment well worth while, returning your investment in 2.5 years.

Low-flow Faucets and Shower Heads – Easily cut bathing water consumption by 50 to 70% by switching out shower heads and sink faucets. A low-flow shower head or faucet rang in price from $60 to $300 depending on make and style. By upgrading these fixtures throughout your house you will see a noticeable decrease in your bill.

Programable Thermostat – Having better control of your indoor temperature can save you a lot a cash. With the average family home saving $150 per year by decreasing/increasing the temperature at night and during the day (when no one is home). A good programable thermostat will cost roughly $75 – $150. They are easy to install and can allow you to program the temperature several times throughout the day, 7 days a week. Returning the initial investment usually within one year or less.

Energy Star Logo

Energy Star Logo

Energy Star Appliance – With appliances efficiency is key. High efficiency products help reduce greenhouse gases and lower you energy bill. There is a lot of information on Energy Star products, so do a little research before heading to the store. Be sure to purchase products with the Energy Star logo (the international symbol for energy efficiency. Here are the best rated Energy Star appliances of 2013.

http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/residential/personal/energystar/1868

Power Strip/Bar with Switch – For about $7 -$15 you can pick up a power bar with an on/off switch, allowing you to plug in any number of items. By turning the power bar off you cut down on stand by power or “vampier power”. Stand by power accounts for 5 – 10% of electrical use in a typical residential home, as many electronics continue to use energy even when the devices is turned “off”. For more information on reducing stand by power visit:  http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/equipment/manufacturers/17201

Residential Solar Roof

Residential Solar Roof

Solar Energy Systems – Yes, the initial cost of solar is hefty, anywhere from $10,000 to $45,000 for the solar panels, system, installation and connection to your local grid, depending on the size of your home and energy needs. This investment can be offset by a monthly cheque from your local hydro company by participating in the Ontario microFIT-income program. http://microfit.powerauthority.on.ca/about-microfit This programs allows hydro companies to buy clean renewable energy from home owners with excess kilowatt hours (kWh). Homeowner’s with a rooftop solar system will receive a cost per kWh for every kWh that is sold to the grid. By participating in this program the system will paying for itself in an estimated 9 to 10 years, not too bad considering you will be producing your home with your own clean renewable energy as well. 

Whether you plan for a complete home renovation or just some simple around the house improvements, incoporating a few of these features into any project will create a cheaper home. With that you can feel good about helping to improve our environment with your greener home. 

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Our House Reno has Turned Purple

Spray Insulation to Seal the top of the Foundation Wall

Our house renovation is coming along, albeit more slowly than we’d hoped. We’ve had such a busy August and September with our clients’ projects, we’ve hardly had time to attend to our own: our ongoing house renewal and renovation.

After stripping the house to its bare essentials (structure really, and not much else) we’ve spent the summer reframing and altering the building to its new configuration. Then came the windows, the plumbing and electrical rough-ins, now substantially done. So now we head into insulating and vapour barriers.

That’s why whole parts of the house are now grape purple.

This post is about the decisions we’ve made regarding sealing and insulating the house. There’s a whole variety of issues and interrelated aspects to that, so I’ll try to set them out.

First of all, we’ve got the climate to assess. Kitchener swings from over 30 degrees celsius in the height of summer to the occasional -20 winter day, with a fairly long winter heating season. The bill for heating the house is going to depend a lot on what we do under its steeply pitched roof, and how we handle sealing up the house.

One of our big design decisions was to use as much space in the small house as possible, as wisely as possible. That meant finishing the basement with some amenity, and turning the steep pitched roof areas of the second floor into a rear addition and a front set of closets and storage. that meant basement insulation and finishing, and lots of cathedral ceiling. Both situations mean careful attention to sealing and insulating are a necessity.

Insulated Exterior Sheathing with Reflective Skin

In order to ensure fuller and complete insulation, and to meet wall insulating standards while using the existing 2 by 4 walls, we removed all the old siding (both the aluminum and the older wood siding) and have sheathed the entire outside of the walls with 3/4 of an inch of isocyanurate sheathing board. We’ve taped all the joints (that’s that red tape in the photos) to create an air barrier, and we’ll be sealing any holes in this first layer of insulation (around windows and doors, for instance)  to create a good start to our envelope.

Energy gains and losses in buildings work on the basis of radiation (direct rays of radiation from hotter masses to colder masses), convection (air movement conveying the energy) and conduction (the slow, or not so slow, passage of heat along a path from hot to cold).

The reflective silvered skins on our exterior layer of insulating sheathing help to reflect radiation back onto its source. It keeps the hot surfaces and cold surfaces apart, so that’s how we help close the radiation path.

Then, we seal the building as best we can, using a combination of spray insulation and plastic vapour barrier. That’s critical, because our house is much like a hot air balloon. Since hot air rises, the winter months create a situation where the top of the house is pressurized relative to the colder exterior environment. If we allow air to escape from this envelope at the top, and enter in the basement at the bottom, we create a conveyor of energy from inside to out. That’s how old leaky houses work (and new, poorly built ones). Worse still, that warm air contains more water vapour. When the air escapes the house envelope, it cools. With the change in temperature, it has to condense some of that vapour into water (because cooler air can’t hold as much moisture). This leads to ice buildup in the upper walls and roof assemblies. That leads to damage, and even worse thermal performance. Its not a good situation.

So the vapour and air barriers are key, and that’s one of the reasons why we decided to turn the house purple.

Spray Insulation to the Rafter Areas

Well, not really purple. It’s just that the spray urethane insulation we’ve had applied comes in that colour (at lease the BASF product does). Because we’ve got so much cathedral ceiling to apply to existing rafters, the choice of spray insulation, with its complete seal and high insulating value, was a relatively easy one. It’s more expensive than traditional fibreglas batt and plastic vapour barrier, but we can get the insulating value we need in only 5 inches or so (at R-7 per inch) rather than the 10 inches that would be needed with batts. That means more space in our second floor for living.

Before spraying the underside of our roof, we install continuous vent forms between the rafters. These connect the eaves and the ridge attic, allowing air to flow just under the shingles (but outside the insulated and sealed envelope). This keeps the shingles cooler in summer, to protect against shingle curl.

Once the decision was made to spray (and in fact part of that assessment) we got a great bonus. We were able to spray the top of the foundation wall and ground floor framing, and the second floor intersection, to stop air transfer at the house perimeter. With positive pressure to the top of the house (from that hot air rises thing) comes negative pressure in the basement. To stop the ingress of air from that negative pressure, spray insulation is a great choice. For older houses, even better.

So we’re in the middle of the insulating exercise, but well on our way to a well-sealed, well-insulated envelope that will pay big dividends down the road. More comfort, and lower utility bills. A bit of trouble and expense, but really it’s a win-win.

Architecture and Externalities: Our Achilles’ Heel

I’ve been thinking lately about the relationship of our profession, architecture, with other disciplines and working methods that address themselves to solutions, recommendations, and decision-making. Specifically, I’m thinking about our profession’s attitude to “externalities” in the solutions we propose for our clients.

In earlier posts on this blog we’ve discussed the architect’s working method as one of balancing and juggling priorities. This accent on the balance of things, on relationships, distinguishes our profession from many activities, and distinguishes architecture from building. Here’s a link to that discussion, called “What is Design“, that we posted last September. We believe that our complex world needs these skills, and seek to apply them to our projects and for the benefit of both clients and the public.

There’s a fundamental flaw in our profession’s approach, however. It has to do with our attitude to issues and priorities that other participants in the project process see as outside the decision-making box, where we think they’re inside. This attitude sets us apart from many other participants in the project process, and often leads to our lack of involvement in the first place. It’s hard to hire and pay for someone who isn’t concentrating on your priorities to the exclusion of all else. That’s only fair, in a world of customer expectation.

Let’s look for a minute at this concept of “externalities“. In short, an externality is a consequence or effect that sits outside the box, not taken into account in the design of a decision, or product, or process. Classic economic examples relate to the imposition of public costs through private action, such as the air pollution caused by our decisions to commute long distances and separate land uses across our cities. The air pollution is an externality in our decision equation. Its consequences are borne by all of us, separate from my cost of commuting.

Architecture is a profession that notionally includes a role for ideas of public good and public benefit in the designs and decisions we create. We are allowed to practice as a self-regulating profession precisely because we are tasked with bringing these issues to the table in our work. Other project participants (the investor, the builder, the building inspector, the engineer for a particular piece of the building) advocate for one or two issues, and see everything else as external (and thus not taken into account in their recommendations or requirements). Architects are trained for a larger view, and mandated by law to include many issues of public good (even only if at the level of minimum standards of fire safety, energy conservation, and accessibility). Adding to this burden is our concern for the effect of our projects and decisions on the quality of our communities.

How many disciplines  allow so few “externalities” in their work? This is one of the reasons that architects are recruited for so little work in our communities. Too much baggage!

Here are some examples, even from within the public professions themselves.

The medical doctor designs solutions for a patient’s health without regard to cost. That is an externality to the public health system. The doctor doesn’t take into account that spending a public dollar on this treatment may mean that someone else gets no treatment at all. The health system is designed to make this someone else’s problem, not the doctor’s.

The lawyer advocates for her client’s point of view whether it’s a good one or not, and sometimes regardless of fact and truth. Someone else needs to argue the other point of view. If it never gets presented (think OJ Simpson), too bad. The other point of view is someone else’s responsibility. That’s the legal system. Lots of externalities there.

For building projects, investors focus on their return, often using very short term thinking. If the project is being sold immediately to others (such as a condo or flipped development project) then long term issues such as quality of construction and concern for building operating costs are treated as external to the decision-making process.

Building projects, especially private investment projects, involve a pile of external consequences:

for users, the public, for subsequent owners,

and for the sustainability of our society and planet as a whole.

Our problem as architects is that we somehow can’t stop looking at these issues, and trying to juggle them in the design solution. This is often in direct contrast to others in the decision-making team, who want the solution focused more narrowly. That’s why they don’t hire us unless they are required by law to do so.

This is the fundamental tension in our profession. We spend large amounts of time and resource to juggle issues in design solutions that others, including our paying customers, see as externalities. Our fundamental flaw (the Achilles’ Heel of the profession) is that our advocacy for integrated, quality, balanced solutions means we pay attention to things that others do not see as important to the task at hand. Given this approach, and the largely capital-investment-driven world we live in today, why would we be hired at all?

As we move forward in building our communities using private investment initiative, this dilemma isn’t going away. It’s likely to get worse. My only consolation is that the architect’s method of integrated, holistic thinking, and our ability to juggle lots of often contradictory externalities, is going to be needed at some point. I hope we get there before a system based on isolated solutions collapses under the weight of its external effects. Wish us all luck.

We’d like to know your thoughts on this subject. It applies to many circumstances and projects, in all kinds of sectors. I’m sure we’re not alone in balancing and thinking about these challenges.

Designing Our Way Forward

I recently reviewed some of the documentation we produced last year while searching for a new team member for our design firm. As part of the exercise, we asked our shortlisted candidates to submit questions to us, and we shared our answers with all candidates during that phase of the search (which they found refreshing and interesting).

One of the questions put to us was about the downturn of 08 and 09, and how we saw ourselves going forward as a firm. In rereading it this week, I find our answer as apt as ever, so I thought I’d share it.

The recent uncertainty of our economy affected everyone …….

what would you say are the significant strengths, challenges, opportunities

and threats your firm faces within the next five years

and what strategic plans have been set to address them?

My answer at the time, and even now, is this.

I believe the strength we have, as a profession and particularly as a design firm, is our ability to think strategically and see possibilities for relationships and integration that others may not see. Others are trained differently, and often concentrate on a linear, causal linking of things rather than striving for non-linear, integrated relationships. I think the future is bright for our profession, and for design as a way of creating solutions. To succeed, however, we must pursue the opportunities where they arise, and expand the types of projects and situations where our skills can be brought to bear. Since our firm enjoys learning in all its forms, I think we are suited to this.

Our indebted and unsustainable society needs solutions that are integrated, that balance priorities rather than accomplish them individually, and that can make 3 out of 1 and 1 more than ever. Our resources will get scarcer and we will realize that wasteful solutions in whatever field, and solutions that simply pass along problems to others, no longer be sustained. I think we are well-placed to use our skills, as long as they can be appreciated in the marketplace for the value they have. Everyone values product, but great processes are not always supported willingly. We have to make a living to be able to continue offering service.

Architects love what they do, and price themselves very cheaply. We often fight over the work and undercut one another on fees. We really enjoy and believe in what we do, so sometimes we give it away. That’s an enormous problem. The profession often overpromises and constantly overdelivers on important project issues that the client may not even be aware of, while potentially underdelivering on some significant and obvious issues. Think of how consumers buy a house. It’s not usually for the great (or not so great) but unseen construction. It’s often for the skin deep finishes. The appearance of quality can be different from real, longlasting value, but the architect has to deliver them both. Our project role is very central and we are often imposed upon by all sides in the construction equation, from contractor to owner to authority to technical subconsultants. Economic downturns cause everyone in the project chain to cut things even closer to the bone, and cause clients to look for the cheapest way forward in the short term. Those two actions don’t make for longlasting, sustainable buildings and cities of quality.

Our strategy is to consistently seek opportunities (whether in building projects, urban projects, development, or even object and graphic design) that allow us to demonstrate the value of “thinking better, to build better, to enjoy the benefits”. Our clients work hard, and appreciate the indepth understanding that they get from rolling up their sleeves alongside us. The pool of activities that architects are involved with is so small that we are better off pursuing projects at the pool’s edge, and enlarging the pool, than fighting over the contents of the present pool. Our strategies are hopefully tuned to do that.

What are your experiences in the face of these challenges? We’d love your feedback.

We Are What We Measure

The media runs a business story every so often about how the growth in consumption of oil or some other commodity was down some enormous percentage. Yeegads! It has a graph and everything, so it must be true. It takes a while to extract some facts from the dour headline, storyline, graph, and article itself. Underlying it all is that world consumption of the item had risen once again. It just hasn’t risen as quickly as it had the year before. No mention as to whether the previous year was a historical anomaly, or what the continued growth in consumption might mean. But the tone in these articles is always glum. The news? That growth has taken a nose-dive through one statistical unit measure, one year-over-year. Why exactly would we present a story about one of our planet’s more pressing matters (consumption and resources) in this way?

The old adage: “You get what you measure!” might well apply to these “rate of change” statistics. Might the media be debasing our sense of real value, our connection to real issues? No longer content with its moniker as “dismal science”; or even to measuring a real and even-handed relation between real people, their needs and their means; economic reporting and statistics are now rife with sophisticated “moving averages” and tracks of trends. The up and down of it all no longer seems to matter. It’s whether the up is more upper! It’s not the getting from here to there, or even the speed at which we’re moving. It’s about the trend, the acceleration! Our economic attention span has shifted from planning the quality of our future to planning for speculation. The year-over-year is becoming the thing itself, because the only decision is whether to buy or sell.

There are very few places in a mature and stable system (whether an eco-system, an economy or a community) where a focus on acceleration, where a perception that moving is standing still, is a good thing. A start-up company, an emerging market, a child’s learning; sure, we can understand that zoomier is better.

But once up to speed, is it logical or even safe to continue this focus not just on growth, but on rate of growth?

When forecasts predict fewer cars on the road, That’s a “negative growth” in yesterday’s terms, and a practical free-fall on the year-over-year growth chart, if we use our handy “change in growth” graph. But do all of these statistical trends, no longer climbing so optimistically, really spell doom for our quality of life?

Grow or die!! Growth is inevitable! No growth means no jobs for our children, no increase in tax revenue. These are the mantras of planning, chanted religiously at shareholders’ and council meetings alike. But perhaps, just perhaps, these are the chants of the speculators rather than the true stakeholders.

Those who focus on year-over-year statistics; changes in car sales, housing starts, or increases in tax revenue to name a few; have an overriding interest in acceleration rather than the quality of the thing itself.

We’d all love a little 7% return on our investments. It’s a modest year-over-year increase that will keep pace with inflation and leave a little something to increase our spending power through the “magic of compounding” with which our mutual funds have made us so familiar.

Consider this rate of growth in a community context, however, and it may not seem quite so modest. 7% per year growth means roughly a doubling each 10 years. Regional population 500,000 to a million by 2015. Two million by 2025, four by 2035. Bigger certainly, but better? Shall we double our water consumption each ten years, double the footprint of the cities on our landscape? Double the services or pollution needed to support a quality of life just to the level we enjoy today? Every ten years? Our Region faces the possibility that water consumption will hit a supply wall. Ditto for converting rural to sprawl (although not anytime soon, and over quite a few dead bodies). Setting aside the question of whether we should, is it even possible?

And yet in spite of it all, growth is still our great sacred cow.

Do we make our plans for balance, stability, or maturity?

No, we worship quantifiable, compounded growth, using an ROI-al mentality. We measure it and report it and graph it ad nauseam. By doing so we embed in our decision-making a conventional belief in the power of numerical acceleration to change our lives for the better, to increase the quality of our lives.

The factual evidence for this belief, some would argue, is really quite scarce. Eben Fodor, in his 1999 American study “Better Not Bigger: How to Take Control of Urban Growth and Improve Your Community”, takes issue with whether the urban growth machine really lowers taxes for individuals, makes more or better jobs and housing available to them, or creates a better quality of life. The logical extension of the “Bigger is Better” argument is that more of things makes for better things. Where we measure some items but ignore others, the statistics are used to prop up the conventional wisdom of growth. Yes growth has impact (so the explanation goes), but to others! To us, the benefits! The costs will fall elsewhere.

This is the illusion of economics, where the “externalities” are never measured, and the qualitative ignored where it cannot fit.

In a world of finite resources, in a regional landscape of finite size needing careful balance, as we increasingly turn to issues of quality over quantity, the growth in statistics of growth will hopefully take a downturn. We will no longer be persuaded by “intensity reductions” that plan for increased pollution at, wait for it…, a slower rate each year per unit produced. We will finally start to ask “Is it better?” rather than “Is it bigger?”

Working with Waterfront

Brantford has approved a Waterfront Master Plan. Hopefully it’s a strategic plan more than a master plan. Master plans envision futures that never appear. First phases of master plans do get pursued, however, so let’s hope the first phases are strategic and beneficial, and provide flexibility for inevitable change.

Brantford’s Waterfront Master Plan

The goals (from the Report introduction):

“The Grand River and its tributaries are the lifeblood and a defining image of the City of Brantford. The Grand River valley has a great diversity of natural features and is enriched with an extraordinary historic legacy, evident of the aboriginal and european cultures that have settled this land for over 11,000 years. The Waterfront Master Plan will respect and reinforce this legacy and will define bold new directions that build on the tremendous successes of the City and its partners, who together have established 70 km of trails and hundreds of acres of public space.

  • The waterfront Master Plan will set forth a framework to protect the Grand River and its tributaries as a fundamental public resource for the residents of Brantford.
  • Natural features will be protected and enhanced and the cultural heritage will be interpreted so that all can understand and appreciate this area’s rich history.
  • The trails will be easily identified and accessed, and the network will become a widely recognized destination.
  • A diversity of places to access the water will be offered, providing for a variety of educational, recreational and leisurely activities that celebrate the Grand River and that will engage residents and visitors alike.
  • Appropriate development on adjacent lands will recognize the significance of these locations; be rooted in best practices in city building; strive for design excellence; and contribute positively to the waterfront and Brantford’s image.

And finally, the Waterfront Master Plan will inspire all residents to embrace this vision for sustainability and become stewards of this vital environment.”

Are all communities along the Grand working as hard to build upon this central and defining feature of our region?

Kitchener is working on a park master plan, available here but I’m not sure that the Grand River is properly viewed in the context of a parks plan. The river itself is obviously more central to Brantford and Galt, as the Speed is to Guelph, but the Grand River has the potential to unite us as a significant region in Southern Ontario.

Fool Me Once, Shame On Me: The Real Case for Quality

Some tidbits from our lives as architects, consultants, and designers.

The diagram above shows the inverse relation between changing your mind at the beginning of a project and changing your mind after you’ve built it. Just so you know!

That’s why thinking about what you’re going to do, and testing it, and investing in that thinking, makes a lot of sense. The farther down the road you go, the harder it is to make changes, and the more expensive it is to even make those small gains.

The  diagrams below illustrate a rough relation between your facility choices and your overall business or life cycle occupancy and project costs. Decide what to build. Build those decisions. Live with them for 20 years. What’s that like, in total cost terms? Analysis of that is called life cycle costing. It can get very complex, but hopefully these diagrams will illustrate why quality decisions and quality building are necessary if our built environment is going to get off the build-it-and-scrap-it treadmill.

Let’s assume the total cost of your facility, over its life span, is $1. Where does that buck go? We’ve prepared some diagrams to help. They’re based upon research into facility life cycle cost over 20 year periods, some studies coming out of California, and some elsewhere. Although the climate is different in California, the operating costs for our heat are replaced with their air conditioning, so the studies are somewhat applicable here in Southern Ontario too. And for the cogniscenti, no, they don’t include project wrap-up residual values!

The first diagram shows the relation we’ve accepted, whether as home or business owner, for every facility dollar: spend two pennies thinking (or often less, or nothing at all); spend a quarter building the decisions; and inherit 73 cents in operating and maintenance costs.

The next diagram shows what can happen if an additional 3 pennies are wisely spent on better thinking and better building (a further 1/2 cent more in the thinking, perhaps 2 1/2 cents more in building).

That 73¢ cost for operating and maintenance for most building types can drop by 10¢ or more. That saving pays for a third of the whole building project (and many times the additional investment in thinking and better construction), without even considering the higher value of the 20 year old asset that you own at the end (residual value).

But wait, buy now and get a free bonus offer!! Better buildings increase staff productivity through reduced absenteeism, staff turnover, job performance and satisfaction, estimated at about 7% across many building types both public and private.

Your bill for productivity (as salary and benefits) over that same 20 year period, the real reason you built the facility in the first place, is about nine times the facility dollar.

So that 7% productivity gain translates into a dollar in your jeans for every 10 dollars of salaries and benefits, courtesy of the careful and responsible project you constructed with the savings.

Oh, and what does your architect spend your thinking cent on? That’s the last diagram.

Think Better. Build Better. Enjoy Forever! It’s worth a cent!