How to change the world one green building at a time
Imagine a home that is completely self-reliant; one that creates its own energy and captures its own water. Imagine a home free of harmful chemicals; one that is built and furnished using only sustainable and responsibly sourced materials. It may seem like a thing of the future, but such a home is under construction right now in Alberta as part of a green building rating system called the Living Building Challenge (LBC).
Environmental scientist Tracey Chala (Architectural Technologies ’01) is one of a team of researchers helping homeowner Gerton Molenaar as he works to achieve this challenge. Chala is a Principal Investigator with the Green Building Technologies (GBT) Lab and Demonstration Centre in SAIT’s Applied Research and Innovation Services (ARIS) department.
“I’ve worked on LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification projects before and I thought they were pretty stringent — and then I learned about this challenge,” she says. “This is off the charts.”
If the team is successful in meeting all LBC criteria, Molenaar’s home will be only the third residential project in the world to achieve Certified Living Building status.
“When I first heard about the LBC in 2014, it appealed to me because it takes all areas of green building into account,” Molenaar says. He approached SAIT with the idea of participating in the challenge, which is run by the International Living Future Institute in Seattle.
Molenaar’s goal: to build the best possible home he could for the enjoyment, comfort and health of his wife and three children as well as for future generations.
Seven areas of sustainability
“With the exception of the south-facing roof being covered by solar panels, this will be a regular looking house,” Chala says. Located in the foothills west of Calgary, the two-storey, four-bedroom home will be approximately 2,200 square feet and is being built by Woodpecker European Timber Framing.
Although some mainstream builders are beginning to incorporate green building technologies, most homes consume energy, water and other resources to provide shelter. But this Living Building will be a regenerative, self-sufficient dwelling that will also give to its surroundings.
As construction progresses, Molenaar, his builder and the SAIT team must all follow strict LBC guidelines. Once the house is complete and the Molenaar family moves in, its systems will be monitored for 12 months, final LBC documentation will be compiled, and an audit will occur before receiving official certification.
“The world is moving away from systems requiring perpetual fuel costs", Avis says. "Within the decade, renewable energy such as solar panels will be the norm.”
Seven specific areas of sustainability, referred to as petals, must be adhered to: materials, equity, place, water, beauty, health and happiness, and energy. The energy petal is being managed by Rob Avis, an engineer and the GBT’s Principal Investigator of Net Zero Energy and Carbon.
Turning architects into environmental activists
A major component of the project is something known as the LBC ‘red list.’ It names approximately 815 known toxic chemicals (such as halogenated flame retardants, Bisphenol A and neoprene) that must be avoided in every material used to build or furnish the home.
These chemicals have the potential to pose toxic effects on human and ecosystem health through direct exposure or through off-gassing, a process in which the chemicals emit harmful gases.
For months, a core team of four GBT researchers has been contacting manufacturers and suppliers to obtain information on every piece and part used to produce each item of, and in, the home.
“Many products like paint, drywall and flooring are quite easy for us to vet for red list chemicals, but ingredient lists for items like washers and dryers are not readily accessible to the public,” says Chala.
“So this process has been more challenging and resource-intensive than we anticipated, resulting in a longer design and construction period. But we are at the forefront of pushing for market transformation, and that is a worthwhile investment of our time.”
Avis adds that this part of the challenge is, in essence, turning architects and engineers into environmental activists.
“As part of the challenge, when we can’t use a product, we’re told to go back to industry and tell them we can’t use it because it doesn’t meet LBC requirements.”
This step has the potential to put pressure on industry to reevaluate the production of their materials and consider less toxic and more sustainable alternatives.
For instance, Molenaar points to the home’s septic tank. Made in Edmonton, it has been manufactured without using the synthetic plastic polymer PVC, making it compliant with the LBC. This is something the manufacturer is proud of and plans to use in future projects.
“That is the essence of the LBC,” says Molenaar. “To change the world one green building at a time.”
Becoming the norm
Each LBC petal is multi-faceted, focusing not only on individual resiliency but supporting ecological services and providing an overall societal benefit.
To qualify, a Living Building must produce 105% of its own energy, leaving a small reserve on an annual basis that is returned to the electrical grid.
Molenaar’s home will also have battery storage, likely from its array of solar panels, to provide power during an outage.
“A house built with electrical storage is not just beneficial to the homeowner, but the electrical grid is being reinforced,” says Avis. “This will also maximize the amount of power the home uses from renewable sources.”
And while Living Buildings aren’t necessarily realistic for the average person today, their focus on energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases will be something all homeowners will need to address by 2030, when new Canadian building codes come into effect. Avis says there are upgrades homeowners can do to start making their homes more energy-efficient, such as new windows or insulation.
“People are often concerned with the look of a home, such as adding granite countertops or top-of-the-line appliances,” adds Chala, “but the first priority should always be the structure: the walls, the roof, the openings.”
Sustainable energy as a multi-faceted issue
Avis says while most greenhouse gas emissions are blamed on the oil, gas, and coal industries, it’s time to also look at the energy required for food production. In Alberta, it takes twice as much energy to feed one human for a year as it does to heat the typical home.
“The difference between our world and Mars is photosynthesis,” Avis says. “When you plough grassland that supports thousands of plant and animal species, it oxidizes the soil and releases carbon. When you plant an annual crop that will photosynthesize for a month and a half versus grass that will photosynthesize for six months, you’ve basically taken a natural solar panel and cut its effectiveness down by a factor of four.
“It’s our photosynthetic systems that actually put carbon back into the soil and clean out the air,” he says.
Taking all these factors, and more, into consideration, Avis says sustainability involves looking at energy in a very holistic way.
While this may sound daunting, Avis says the good news is that the technologies we need for this to happen already exist.
At this point, he says, it’s about believing we can do it. As more homes, commercial and industrial buildings get built to a sustainable standard, LBC concepts will become commonplace and just as cost-effective as standard construction.
Starting a bold conversation
“Gerton and his builder are taking a huge risk-taking on this project,” says Avis. “But their risk will have cascading implications in greening and cleaning up the building industry in Canada and around the world. We need to celebrate their boldness in starting this conversation.”
Molenaar adds, “Leading by example is a powerful way — and perhaps the only way — to educate and show how all of us can make sound choices. I hope this building can be an inspiration for others to incorporate affordable green choices into new homes.”
For an update on the Molenaar home, you can read The house green tech built or take a tour at sait.ca/livingbuilding.
This story was originally written for the Fall 2019 issue of LINK magazine — The Energy Issue.