Category Archives: Articles

Articles written by Ann or Gord

Trim Tab Magazine – Article on Living Buildings

Case study on three registered Living Building Projects.  Read Trim Tab online or just peek at the PDF for this article.  201101 Ecosense Trim Tab

Full case study on the ILBI website:  here

Interview questions from Custom Home Builder Magazine about the “Living Building Challenge”

Home is constructed out of very similar materials to the food gardens.

Who designed the house’s plan and overall aesthetic? The shape of the house was determined by the site orientation, the previous damage on the land, and the existing bedrock.  A Geotechnical engineer mapped out where we could build and then we transposed this to paper.  We divided the house into two living spaces, one on the east, and one on the west.  The East side had to include a one level suite for my parents, and the west side included the living space for Gord and I and the kids with our bedrooms upstairs.  It was all very practical…Nature was the head architect, and we designed the space for Function and Beauty with the help of a friend (Cindy McCaugherty of who translated all our drawings into AutoCad for the Structural Engineer.   Cindy helped a great deal with many of the details…both structural and the functional layout of the rooms.  The layout of our living/dinning area was in all honesty inspired by a big slug that our daughter Emily (7 at the time) proudly showed off wrapped around her little hand in a beautiful “S” shape.  I saw this and immediately made the connection and translated this shape into our home.  I’ll never forget that moment as we had struggled for quite some time as to how to lay out the space to create the feel that we desired.  As far as the overall aesthetic goes…we didn’t plan it…it just kind of evolved.  The odd thing is that Gord and I never considered ourselves to be creative…we are actually kind of techie/ science nerds.

Why did you decide to pursue the Living Building Challenge?  We had already broken ground when the LBC was launched.  When we heard of it we realized that we already had the same vision.  Up until then we had felt kind all alone in our ideals, but then suddenly there was a name for our dream and a sense of belonging to a wider community that understood the same basic ideals.  We had looked into the LEED program but there was nothing yet in Canada for homes.  The LEED for homes pilot program was just getting going in the US and not yet in Canada.  The LEED program also seemed  too commercial and prescriptive for our approach.  The beauty of the LBC is that it is not prescriptive in the petals or prerequisites.  The visionary LBC program itself was actually more like an ecosystem, which from a systems perspective IS the only type of proven long term sustainable system.  The Eco-Sense home and all of the systems were not fully designed before we started building…they evolved.  System integration has become our specialty as we design with a whole systems approach which is very much in line with the LBC.  Because we were mostly just the two of us and we had limited prior knowledge of how things were SUPPOSED to be done it enabled a creatively and systems thinking approach that was very original.  Like I said earlier, nature was the architect, and we designed following this lead with a whole systems ecological approach without any preconceived ideas of how things were supposed to be done.

Was it difficult to incorporate the challenge’s requirements into Eco-Sense’s design/building plan? Nope, it all made sense.  We didn’t change very much.

Your house achieved 4 of the 6 “petals” in the challenge–What could you have done differently to achieve the remaining two petals: energy and materials? Would you have done this if you’d been able to? We met the requirement for 12 of the 16 prerequisites.  The energy petal was not possible for us at the time.  Our family is net zero electricity selling excess to BC Hydro and we have 60 solar thermal hot water tubes for domestic hot water and in floor hydronic heating, but we still use propane for cooking and wood gassification for extra winter heating.  To meet the challenge, combustion or fossil fuels are simply not permitted.  We could have tripled our 2 kW solar PV array, and put in two electric cooking ranges.  This also would have enabled the use of a heat pump powered by solar PV.  For us at the time using a wood gassifier (smokeless, and 85% efficient) was a good local choice as we live on 8 acres surrounded by trees.  However saying this we do agree with the requirements of the LBC for NO COMBUSTION.   If we were to do it again, we now have the knowledge/ability to design from the ground up a much more efficient envelope with expanded solar thermal heating and possibly, very small heat pump back up.

The MATERIALS petal also proved to be problematic…see details of the 5 prerequisites in this petal:

  • PR05 Materials RED List:  YES!  We successfully avoided the toxic materials red list (the toughest of all prerequisites).
  • PR06 Construction Carbon Footprint: YES!  Eco-Sense home has a ZERO carbon footprint…no carbon offset payment required.
  • PR07 Responsible Industry:  NO! 100% of wood must be FSC, recycled, or milled on site.  But alas, we only achieved 90%.  (We tried but couldn’t at the time source FSC certified local plywood.)
  • PR08 Materials service radius:  NO!  Scored perfect…except for the imported Bamboo.  (better planning on our part…our focus at this time was to get our family into the house and not spend another winter in the trailer).
  • PR09 Leadership in Construction Waste:  NO!  The three generation family of six produced one can of garbage every two weeks during the build (includes domestic garbage and construction waste)…but alas, we did not fully document our achievements.  We also gassified all the wood waste from all the recycled wood for winter heating.  Combustion not allowed.  (but we did compost all the sawdust)

Why did you choose cob construction? Beauty, local, affordable, fun to build, minimal carbon footprint, 500+ lifespan, healthy, no plastic in the walls, no mould, thermal mass, cool in the summer, very quiet, excellent acoustics, seismically engineered,  healthy natural non toxic materials, temperature and humidity moderation, proven in our climate which is similar to the UK. etc…i could go on.

Did you complete it by yourselves, or did you have some professionals helping out on some aspects? We had an electrician, a plumber, a structural engineer, and a friend to help with framing the roof and other jobs.  We did a couple of cob building workshops, but these were more fun/ teaching events as we would actually get more done just the two of us.  We have made life long friends from these workshops.  Met some great people.

It’s a beautiful house, and a fine example of truly sustainable living, although most people would consider it far from the mainstream. Why is this the right house for your family, as opposed to a more conventionally constructed sustainable home? The home fits our family and values…we simply love our home.  The home was also $148 per sqft including $80K in sustainable energy technologies and our own labour.  Yes, this is not right for everyone.  Our homes should reflect the inhabitants.  DIVERSITY is essential in natural systems, in people, and in ecological design.  A truly sustainable home is going to look very different depending on the occupants, the function, the climate, the site, and the creative preference of the occupants.  We are all different and our homes should reflect this.  Our homes should reflect who we are, our values, and not what industry tries to sell us or is the latest fashion.

What on Earth is a “Living Building”…reposted from
By Ann Baird on October 21, 2010

The BCSEA has many friends and allies, whose work we support and promote. Two of these are Ann and Gord Baird, who walk the talk of sustainable living in the multi-generational cob home they have built in the Highlands, just west of Victoria. Its features include passive solar design, solar PV with grid tie, net zero electricity, energy and water conservation, and solar thermal hot water.

It also includes composting (no flush) toilets, rainwater harvesting, grey water re-use, a living roof, earthen floors, and natural finishes into their exceptionally beautiful, modern and affordable version of earthen architecture.

Their Eco-Sense home has been called “The Earth’s Greenest Modern House”.

So what is a Living Building? Ann writes. . .

A Living Building is a human created structure that functions as if it evolved in place. Because a Living Building is site, climate and occupant specific, there is no limit to creativity in the form and ingenuity of the integrated systems. The building actually participates within its eco-system where energy, water, and resources are shared for mutual benefit.

What a concept eh? But is it possible? You’re damn right it is! Three projects in North America have achieved this visionary ideal…and Eco-Sense, right here in the Highlands near Victoria, BC, is demonstrating one of these exciting possibilities.

“The Living Building Challenge (LBC) calls for a fundamental shift in how we conceive of the built environment,” said Jason F. McLennan, CEO of the International Living Building Institute. “These three projects…are quite simply the greenest buildings in the world.” See full press release PDF.

To achieve their ‘Living’ status, all program requirements must be met and proven through a full year of operation. Eco-Sense was the first completed project, the first to be audited, and the only family home so far. The LBC has taken off and now has over 70 projects registered globally.

A Living Building is rated in 6 areas or petals (for LBC version 1.3), which includes meeting 16 prerequisites. The six petals are: Site; Net Zero Energy; Net Zero Water; Materials; Healthy Indoor Quality; And Beauty & Inspiration. For LBC version 2.0 a seventh petal, Equity, has been added.

Ann and Gord Baird, the owner/builders for their Eco-Sense home achieved 4 of the 6 petals by meeting the requirements for 12 of the 16 prerequisites. Jason McLennan referred their home as “The Earth’s Greenest Modern House”. Eco-Sense has earned “partial” Living Building Certification or “petal recognition” for site, water, beauty & inspiration, and healthy indoor quality.

The Baird’s didn’t fully meet the net zero energy requirement. The family uses net zero electricity, selling its excess to BC Hydro, and it has 60 solar thermal hot water tubes, but they still use propane for cooking and wood gasification for winter heating. To meet the challenge, combustion or fossil fuels are simply not permitted.

The MATERIALS petal also proved to be problematic.
• Materials RED List: YES! They successfully avoided the toxic materials red list (the toughest of all prerequisites).
• Responsible Industry: NO! 100% of wood must be Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), recycled, or milled on site. But alas, they only achieved 90%.
• Materials service radius: NO! Scored perfect…except for the imported Bamboo.
• Leadership in Construction Waste: NO! The three generation family of six produced one can of garbage every two weeks during the build…but alas, they did not fully document their achievements. They also gasified all the wood waste from all the recycled wood for winter heating. Combustion not allowed. (But they did compost all the sawdust.)

So, if a couple of passionate and driven people without engineering and architectural degrees can pull this off, just think what is possible if we collectively take our heads out of the box, unleash our individual creativity, and get to work employing NATURE as our lead architect…just think…

The Bairds’ passion and knowledge is expressed in their work consulting, building, advancing policy, researching, and in the hundreds of tours they have given through their home. They teach that if it isn’t affordable it isn’t sustainable, and they live their motto “Less life stuff…More life style!”

For more media links, click here.

Unacceptably Sick Environmental Destruction (USED)

The tides have turned as we approach the strongest predicted hurricane season in the Gulf of Mexico. And with 5000 barrels a day spewing into the ocean with no end in site, it’s sure to be a sickening environmental catastrophe as we helplessly document all the damage to ecosystems and human lives.

We all wag our angry fingers of judgement at BP, the offshore oil drilling regulations, the US government, and even the chemical companies raking in the profits from the toxic chemical dispersants.

So while we are all busy pointing and blaming lets considers that this 5000 gallons per day is only accounting for 2 minutes (yes 120 seconds) of oil consumption in the state of Texas.

As we ponder the magnitude of our planets total oil consumption that finger pointing is shifting from outward… to inward.  The GAS shift (Give-A-Shit shift) is finally happening.  Regular people are hitting the wall of realization that we are the primary cause of this…WE are the the consumer of all this oil.

It is no longer acceptable to waste energy.  Big vehicles, flaunting excess, and luxury homes are now being viewed with distain by many and the fingers are starting to point at each other.

Anyone who now chooses to hop on a plane for their “deserved” vacation after witnessing this catastrophe is now the subject of finger pointing.  We have all been ignorant of the hidden consequences of our actions in the past and we have to accept that, but seeing what is happening in the Gulf of Mexico now, there is absolutely no excuse for selfish indulgence at the expense of everything else.

With this “Oh Shit” moment also comes the power.  The power to not waste, the power to vacation locally, the power to eat local food, the power to help create stronger communities, the power to help others make the GAS Shift, the power to force our governments to shift to sustainable energy, the power to live better.

Do you feel Powerful or USED?

The Energy Journey…Combustion and “The Living Building Challenge”

Solar PV, Methane, and The Living Building Challenge

Thursday, February 25, 2010 at 9:30am

Our Energy Journey Continues:

Despite our Eco-Sense home using a fraction of the energy of a regular BC home, and our lifestyle choices for conservation, we are still challenged as to how to cook our food sustainably.

We produce the majority of our food onsite, cook from scratch, and process much of our winter food. In this past year we have consumed propane for a total energy of 1890 kWhrs. (two kitchens and 6 family members).

The Living Building Challenge 2.0 does not allow any form of combustion, however Eco-Sense registered for version 1.3 which did allow biogas. But, as we just discovered, this biogas is only allowed for heating/energy production and NOT for cooking. We had planned on designing and building an onsite biogas digester fed from the organic wastes locally available to produce methane for cooking. The fact that thais was not allowed was our misunderstanding.

The standards for the Living Building Challenge (LBC) are indeed hard to reach. This vision is admirable indeed…and hard to achieve, which is the whole point.

Eco-Sense is net zero electricity, but currently is not net zero energy. In order for us to provide the additional 1890 kWhrs from solar PV for electric cooking we would need to install 6.9 new panels. (round up to the nearest two is 8) If we didn’t cook from scratch, and purchased processed foods from elsewhere we would probably need two or three less panels, and if we were only one family we would already be producing enough energy to be totally net zero energy.

Here’s the calculation:

total produced/12 existing solar panels = 195 kWhrs/panel

new energy required – excess already produced = 1351 kWhrs

1351/195 = 6.9 solar panels

So lets explore this to identify the barriers for eco-sense to become truly net zero energy for the purposes of the LBC.

If BC Hydro had a better net metering program, many of the cost barriers would be overcome. BC Hydro is WAY behind as they only pay 8.2 cents per kWhr. Shameful for a province that claims to be leading the way towards sustainability.

Embodied energy (tGHGe produced) to mine, manufacture, and transport the solar PV panels, aluminum frames, and all the other bits and pieces is still VERY high. We compare the solar panels of today to the first computers that came out…they are big, heavy and require lots of stuff to connect up. The future of solar PV is more like a leaf…very small and lightweight.

Currently, we think that producing our own biogas onsite (for cooking) from chicken manure and broom would have a lower carbon footprint – any thoughts on this????

Removal of all the current tax disincentives to solar PV. (Here are a few of them)

  1. HST on solar technologies
  2. building permit fees on entire solar installations
  3. increase in municipal taxation because of property value increases due to BC Assessment of all future energy energy production

Eco-Sense pays an extra $400 per year in municipal taxes because we generate sustainable energy (works out to $10,000 over the 25 year life cycle of the system)

We recently discussed this issue with the BC Assessment appeal board and MLA John Horgan, and everyone agrees that this is wrong. Solution involves changing the Legislation with the BC Minister of Finance.

Education: Require more public pressure to push governments to create meaningful incentives for solar technologies AND support for research to fast track technology.

So, to sum up, It doesn’t look like Eco-Sense will be able to fully meet the Living Building Challenge, but we are are still applying. Our community of the Highlands has chipped in the $1000 registration fee for our home to be assessed for all six categories.

There is much to be learned and contributed from our application to the Living Building Challenge. Let the assessment begin.

Ann and Gord Baird

Friday March 12, 2010

Gord and I had a conversation about COMBUSTION with Jason McLennon who is the CEO of the Cascadia chapter of the US and Canadian Green Building Council.  He is also the lead author of the Living Building Challenge (LBC)…A building system well beyond LEED platinum.  Combustion is not seen as a sustainable option under the Living Building Challenge.  This conversation arose when Gord and I were considering using a biogas digester from waste (broom and goat manure) to produce methane for cooking. Since our Eco-Sense home is a registered Living Building Project this issue of combustion is very important to us. Below is an email conversation I had with Brian (a local mechanical engineer).  We are still thinking about which route to go.

Brian: While nature does not burn fuel to get energy, it does set itself on fire all the time. Forest fires are natural and essential for healthy forest growth. Not to mention volcanoes will decimate hundreds of square kilometres but deposit phosphorous rich ash that improves soil fertility. Both of these processes burn and destroy, but they also revive and renew.

I agree with the desire to mimic the natural world but we don’t yet have the ability do perform perfect Biomimicry; and I fear that this no-combustion rule is letting perfect be the enemy of good.

Ann Baird: Great points Brian. The conversation with Jason went well and we discussed many things including combustion. Here is the summary as I understood it of the LBC reasoning for NO COMBUSTION:

  1. Combustion uses fuel which can change or run out at any time. Since the equipment (infrastructure) has quite an upfront cost it is not likely to be changed if the “green” fuel supply changes. This could lead to perhaps raw wood being used or crops grown to produce the fuel to justify the infrastructure.
  2. Particulates.  Using combustion for cooking or energy production releases other waste gasses and particulates into the home or the community. If everyone was doing this it would lead to reduced air quality in the environment or the home. Ever notice how having a propane stove in the kitchen makes everything in your kitchen slightly sticky over time…some of this comes from the burning of propane. There is also an increased risk of uncontrolled combustion (explosion) occurring from human error…no matter how good the system is engineered. (but in all reality the risk of damages from climate change from doing nothing is much greater and I totally hear your point about perfect being the enemy of good…very wise comment)
  3. What would nature do? This input comes from Biomimicry expert Janine Benyus. Humans are the only species to directly use fire for cooking, heating etc…all other creatures use chemical forms of energy from their environment…ie photosynthesis, etc.

For the LBC, the only exceptions are for laboratory bunsen burners, and possibly in the future the family hearth for cultural purposes…we evolved with fire…but using it to heat our homes is somewhat primitive.

We also chatted about resiliency and how we felt strongly about utilizing simpler technologies.

Although resistive cooking may not be the most efficient (in fact it’s pretty poor), it may ultimately be a better choice…so I think the LBC folks get your point about perfect being the enemy of good.

All in all we had to agree with Jason. We are now thinking about putting a few more solar panels on the roof and setting ourselves up for more solar cooking, but lots to consider.  We had an initial visit with a engineering PHD student from UBC who is interested in working with us to design and build an onsite digester if we go that route.

As far as our wood gassification boiler goes, we are thinking of getting an electric chipper, and pellet maker for converting boom into pellets for the stove. This still wont qualify under the LBC, but all agreed that is a good local solution.

We will be including these comments on the BCSEA at some point and our blog. thanks again Brian for your input.