Short for ecological architecture – ecotecture is a term coined by my friend, mentor and infamous firebrand Rudolf Doernach (1929-2016). Doernach was a partner of R. Buckminster Fuller in Germany and a pioneer of the living building movement in Germany in the 1970’s. As a consummate wordsmith and eco-philosopher, Rudolf simply called BS on buildings labelled ‘environmentally friendly’.
We architects make our living now by picking the lesser of evils for our clients, when we could be asking how we might create the best possibility for current and future generations. Design thinking need not be restricted to building design but can apply to our entire economy. Ecotecture is about asking deeper questions, and only then, in the context of finding an optimal, admittedly least destructive solution, can the best practices outlined below find their proper place. Our portfolio represents a body of work that attempts to balance the greenest buildings possible, of the very highest quality, and for the least possible cost by using the least material possible, something Fuller referred to as Ephemeralization. With patience and experience, we have been rewarded with the opportunity to work on many buildings that are the best in class in each of these categories.
Ecotecture claims that one shouldn’t pay for the things that nature gives us in great abundance, namely energy, light and heat from the Sun, Air, Wind, and Water. Our projects strive to take optimal advantage of these energies and resources to reduce environmental footprint and lessen building operating costs. While there are many green building standards such as LEED, Passivhaus and many others that seek to define environmental performance in varying terms, my time in Germany and in Canada’s R2000 program taught me that it is possible to go much further than even these stringent environmental building standards, and that in fact, if we are to survive at all as a species, we ought to seriously consider ideas like Factor10 as a design strategy for almost everything – which states that a general per-capita reduction in materials and energy of 1/10th is in order to reduce developed nations’ impact on the planet and equalize the rapid growth of developing nations, such that we don’t require an untenable 10 additional planet Earths to sustain our current growth. Factor10 translated to a per-capita metric for the typical North American might look like the following;
The following features should also be given consideration (each icon represents a specific environmental goal that was initially developed with the miniHOME project, but that has subsequently expanded, text descriptions are further down):
Human beings can only occupy so much space at a given time – so why heat, light, ventilate and cool rooms that are almost never in use? This is not an argument to support smaller home design, but larger homes really ought to be zoned and modular to heat and light only rooms that are occupied at a given time. The way we design buildings is to first of all, optimize spaces, and secondarily, to optimize how smart building systems can optimize our energy based on use patterns. When spaces are well designed for several functions such as cooking, living, dining and entertaining, both energy and spatial efficiency are effected, and costs are dramatically reduced. In terms of the Three R’s, Reduce and Reuse are taken here to mean reduce building footprint, and re-use as many spaces as possible for multiple functions, and where this is not possible, then at the very least, include circulation as an integral function of a room, rather than a room itself (ie. hallways).
It’s actually easy to design projects to be at least “Net-Zero-Energy”. Net Zero simply means, buildings that produce as much electrical energy as they consume over the course of a year.
Natural Landscaping takes advantage of plants that provide shade benefit when it is wanted, and forms protective buffers from noise and airborne particulates. Plants can beneficially modify the microclimates and build soil health surrounding your home. Drought-tolerant species and techniques can be recommended for drier climates or where well supply requires prudent consumption.
It’s important to find the ideal location on your land for single homes or even entire subdivisions, keeping in mind the necessity for maintaining good solar exposure to every home (+/- 30degrees from due South), maintaining access to prevailing winds for passive ventilation, and preserving views and privacy as required.
Predictive building performance can be predicted and fine-tuned by using the latest in energy simulation software, which helps to verify assumptions and design to exact sun angles for any given time of year. This level of control means that walls, floors, windows and roofs are designed optimally with solar geometry to maximize heating season solar gains (Passive Solar Design) and minimize Summer gains (Passive Cooling). This lets the Sun contribute to 30% or more of our heating load, while shading the sun completely in the Summer to keep spaces cool. The thermal model carefully monitors the effect of every window, every surface of every shape and size on overall heating and cooling performance. If any design changes introduced lead to a net consumption of more energy, then a redesign is necessary, and this process is repeated over and over until the building is as efficient as possible for its specific climate.
Heavy materials like rammed-earth and concrete, or even cross-laminated-timber (CLT) panels can serve as ‘Thermal Batteries’. When the sun hits these batteries, they slowly warm, absorbing heat from the spaces in the daytime, only to return this heat back to the spaces when the sun goes down. This lets us balance out temperature extremes on a given day, but also over a range of days. This is not only beneficial in the Winter, when we want to store as much heat as possible inside the building, but also in Summer, when we want to absorb as much heat as possible during the daytime to keep the ambient air temperature cool and comfortable. It’s important to keep this mass interior to your insulation though!
By combining the natural air flows from cooler to warmer places (convection) and from one side of a space to another (cross ventilation) – we can anticipate how to keep warm pockets of air inside the building in the heating season, and how to move these warm air masses out of the building in the Summer. This can be as simple as locating windows on two sides of every room, but can also involve day/night cooling strategies, automatic window operators. Designing a building to accommodate these airflows means less reliance on ducted fans and their associated noise and cost, while providing greater control over the spaces and occupant comfort.
When windows are properly placed – up high to let in light, and down low – to provide views, rooms can be completely lit by the sun most days of the year. We also design architectural elements such as shading fins, light shelves, reflective pavers and even water-features to bounce as much ambient light into our spaces as possible. Sunlight has a much greater component of light:heat than any form of electric illumination – which means that spaces do not become saturated with waste heat from light sources in critical Summer months.
Providing good thermal insulation is important to prevent heat loss and gain through a building’s walls, floors and roof, but it’s useless if the building is full of cracks that allow cold or hot air to ‘infiltrate’ into the spaces at the wrong times of the day or year. That’s why we provide almost 20% more insulation than the toughest building code in the country requires, while also ensuring that our buildings pass air-tightness testing. This saves energy, but provides superior thermal comfort and eliminates upleasant drafts. We design for compliance with a stringent 1.5ACH/Hr@50Pa rating). Ventilation air is provided by another system called ‘HRV’ (see below)
Modular and/or Prefabricated Components help us to control costs, limit waste and reduce onsite labour costs. In fact, our proprietary SIPFS (Structural Insulated Panel & Finish System) reduces labour and material costs by up to 50%, and lessens our burden on the environment by using less material overall, that is designed to be both durable, impervious to moisture, and easy to disassemble and repair.
Simply stated, materials that can be readily grown such as wood, bamboo, cork, wool and stone have an innate advantage over highly processed or mediated material in that they require less energy to produce and finish, and as often available regionally. Renewability also means that the resource base regenerates with or without extensive human intervention. Wherever possible, we use renewable materials for both their aesthetic warmth and environmental characteristics.
Better than renewable and natural or other more mediated materials are materials that would otherwise end up in landfill Every year, resourceful companies are producing materials with greater portions of recycled content, and/or re-processing waste material for re-use in new applications. We search out metal, glass, concrete, plastic and composite materials with the highest percentages of recycled content available.
and Non-toxic Materials and Finishes provide us with a fresh, high quality of indoor air which lends to occupant health. The WHO (World Health Organization) recognizes that building interiors are often 5 to 20 times more polluted than outdoor air – even in urban centres. The toxic off-gassing of glues/adhesives, caulking/sealants and highly processed modern materials in general makes building occupants sick. Choosing low to zero VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) and no-added formaldehyde materials that are now readily available provide superior indoor air quality and better occupant health.
Hydronic Panels and Mass Elements (i.e. Radiant In-Floor Heating) deliver heat to the occupant directly, rather than requiring to heat the entire volume of a space. This is akin to having the sun warming your back on an otherwise freezing cold day. Wherever possible, we provide radiant heating, or we design our air-delivery systems to ‘charge’ our thermal masses with heat that subsequently radiates to the building occupants.
Heat Recovery Ventilation provides a constant supply of fresh air to building occupants, without wasting the thermal energy (heat) in the exhaust stream. A ‘recovery’ of this heat in the exhaust stream is captured by the heat exchanger’s core, which results in excellent air quality and lower heating bills. In fact, installing an HRV can save as much a 70% of the thermal energy in the heating season. We use HRV’s instead of exhaust fans in kitchens and bathrooms, which provides the same result, with considerably less noise and better performance.
Solar Hot Water Systems provide piping hot water from the sun. This system takes the form of roof mounted collector panels, a large hot-water storage tank, and a pump to circulate water or refrigerant between these two. These systems can be effective even in the dead of Winter and pay for themselves in energy savings in as few as 5 to 10 years, and have the capacity in some climates to supply as much as 70% of hot water demand. Our optional SDHW system is designed to tie in to our space heating system as well, for optimal combined performance.
Off-Grid and Grid Intertied Systems allow our buildings to be ‘Net Zero Energy’. This means, buildings that produce as much energy as they consume over the course of a given year. We have optimized all appliances and lighting fixtures in our buildings to draw the least amount of electrical energy, such that we can power our systems with much smaller, more affordable PV systems. We have systems that are designed for off-grid (batteries) use, as well as systems that result in spinning your electrical utility meter backwards – resulting in net-zero consumption, or in some cases payments from the utility company to you – the power producer!
Greywater and Tertiary Septic Systems allow us to treat wastewater on-site. In some cases, such as areas that are prone to acute water shortages or droughts, this is highly advantageous. These systems are usually provided as an aftermarket solution, as regional approvals of these systems are often taken on a case-by-case basis.
Wastewater Heat Recovery is as simple as wrapping a copper coil around wastewater drains. This captures heat from the wastewater, and preheats water entering the building’s water-heating system. Up to 30% of the wastewater heat can thus be recaptured.
Composting Toilets effectively ‘dehydrate’ human waste and eliminate odour by providing a constant negative pressure over the resulting mass while encouraging aerobic (not anaerobic or stinky) bacterial decomposition. When properly designed, composting toilets can eliminate human pathogens while reducing waste volume by as much as 95%. The resulting product, which accumulates very slowly over several months, called Humus, can be used as fertilizer for non-edible plantings. In areas where water shortages are common, composting toilets can eliminate water consumption related to toilet flushing.
Rainwater Collection and Reuse is a low-cost method for collecting water for landscape irrigation. We collect rainwater off of a single downspout, and we offer several systems for rainwater storage – where this is feasible. Caution should be exercised to prevent stagnation and/or still water that can serve as mosquito incubators – which can be limited by covering storage vessels and/or providing circulation of the water – such as small fountains or other pleasant water features.
Low Energy Lighting & Appliances are the key to reducing electrical loads that can be powered by renewable energy systems like Photovoltaics. All of our fixtures and appliances surpass best-in-class Energy Star performance by as much as a factor of 2.
Appliances & Fixtures (i.e. Low Flow Fixtures, Dual Flush Toilets). The market standard low-flush toilet is one to one-half gallon per flush. Our flush toilets use one pint or less water to flush. Low flow showerheads are usually considered optimal if they provide 1.5 or less gallons per minute of flow. Ours use 0.5 gpm. This means our fixtures use less than half of the current best-in-class.
Green roofs, or in drier climates – ‘eco-roofs’ are excellent for limiting heat-gain as well as providing natural habitat that is otherwise removed by the footprint of a building. We typically advise a system of linked-trays placed on top of a finished roof system, which helps keep maintenance low and repairs easy. We use Drought Tolerant grasses, succulents and/or Native Species in our planting schedules, as these often do well in extreme sun and in dry conditions in a wide range of climates.
Advanced Household Controls and Security Systems are something we integrate into every one of our projects – from programmable thermostats to remote/telephone controlled and online energy-monitoring systems (using smart meter technology), we feel that awareness of energy consumption is the first step towards conservation, and so we strive to make the performance metrics of our projects highly accessible and visible. We have now integrated IAQ controls with real-time monitoring of Radon, CO2, TVOC, Humidity and Passive Solar Gains so that with IFTTT we can further optimize and reduce calls to your heating and ventilation systems, further optimizing energy efficiency. We also provide optional security systems on projects that require it.
Using the latest in home entertainment and computing systems is something we encourage, by providing for conveniently located electrical and integral USB outlets and layouts that consider optimal acoustics for sound systems. For example, we provide flip-up computer workstations in several rooms, that can convert into media wall-units, such that a single LCD screen can serve as both computer display, DVD player, stereo and HD Television.
Economical, effective Wind Power is tricky to provide on a small scale, as many smaller system do not perform as advertised. We can help you to evaluate when and where wind systems are advisable, and which systems are currently performing well based on extensive installation and performance feedback we have from our sales and installation partners.
On our larger, custom projects.
Advanced Geothermal Systems – Geothermal is often extremely cost effective – but on small projects like the OHOME with its tiny energy loads, these systems are considerable overkill.
We have experience with Advanced, Clean Burning Wood Heating Systems (ie. Contraflow Masonry Heaters), and are pioneering some of these systems for use in Northern California, ask us for details.