Leading green builders encourage Ontario to improve building rebate program

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An effective green building program will help homeowners save money.

While disappointed that the Ontario government cancelled the newly minted GreenON rebate program, we urge the government to replace it with a reinstated Eco-Energy Audit program, an effective approach that will help homeowners reduce energy bills in addition to greenhouse gas emissions.

The GreenON program provided rebates for insulation, windows, geothermal, and air source heat pumps. While it offered homeowners an opportunity to offset capital costs to save money in the long-term, the program was limited in what it covered and required no third-party verification. Most concerning was the program’s support for high-carbon products rather than healthier, more low carbon and effective alternatives. Had GreenON continued, we would have strongly encouraged specific improvements.

The Ontario PC Party’s platform earmarked more than $500 million for environmental efforts. We encourage the new government to prioritize building retrofits. Buildings are the third largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in Ontario due to the energy used for heating and cooling and the embodied energy in building materials. Helping homeowners reduce their homes’ carbon footprint represents an opportunity to help them be part of the solution, while reducing their energy bills and contributing to local economies throughout the province. As the UN has stated: ‘Sustainable Buildings are the most cost effective solution to climate change’”.

By reinstating and modernizing the Eco-Energy Audit program, the province will offer homeowners cost and environmentally effective solutions to improve their home’s energy performance. Trained and certified energy auditors will provide third-party advice on “best-bang-for-your-buck” actions that homeowners share with their contractors to improve energy efficiency, home comfort and health. Work will be confirmed and tested by Energy Auditors to determine the rebate amount. Their oversight will ensure that energy retrofits are implemented effectively.

In addition to the Eco-Energy Audit program, we encourage the government to implement mandatory energy rating as a pre-sale requirement of homes. The Home Energy Rating and Disclosure (or HER&D) is a policy that is supported by the Ontario Home Builders Association among others. 

To reduce the embodied carbon in buildings, we ask the government to start a Life Cycle Assessment, which is a means of carbon accounting, as part of the building permit process.  

We have seen firsthand the effectiveness of Ontario’s former Eco-Energy program as a transparent, accountable and effective means to reduce a home’s carbon footprint and energy bills. We ask the government to reinstate it as soon as possible.

Signed:

Fourth Pig Green & Natural Construction and Greening Homes Ltd. 

New "Force of Nature" focuses on Living Building Challenge

We are passionate about sustainable building and like to share the stories we are reading with the world through our newsletter Force of Nature. Our most recent edition features a few stories about the Living Building Challenge plus events and more. 

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Rising to the challenge

Recently stories about the Living Building Challenge have been popping up, probably a good sign for one of the world's toughest building standards, and we have three Living Building Challenge stories here. We also have video on a Passive House affordable housing project (that we are proud to have worked on), an exciting event announcement and more. 

Thanks for reading!

Georgia Tech going down the Living Building Challenge path

The Kendeda Building for Sustainable Innovative Design at Georgia Tech is under construction and will be picking up some Living Building Challenge petals. Daniel Matisof, associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, reported that Georgia Tech will be pursuing certification. "A new certification program inevitably involves increased challenges and costs associated with documentation and verification of performance. Significant investments in human knowledge and know-how need to occur in order to reach certification. By laying out a path to achieve Living Building certification, Georgia Tech can reduce costs for future adopters and increases the probability that other organizations undertake similar efforts," said Matisof. 

The aim is to be the first major Living Building Challenge 3.0 certified education and research facility in the American southeast. You can learn more and follow the progress of the building here. Also see this short video on the project:
The Kendeda Building For Innovative Sustainable Design

Difficult marriage: project goes for Passive House and Living Building Challenge certifications

In the fall when the Fourth Pig was tabling at an event there were a few exhibitors with composting toilets and we asked them about how the venting worked with a Passive House and they weren't sure. Now, as Lloyd Alter reports in TreeHugger, the issue has come to, ahem, a head.

The Nuthatch Hollow building at Binghampton University is small but dreams big. As Alter says "They are trying to certify the building for both Passive House (PHIUS) and Living Building Challenge, and the two programs don't always play nice with each other. . . it is a little building, a lab and a multifunction room and some washrooms. But in the Living Building Challenge you can't have regular washrooms; you have to process all your waste on site, so many LBC buildings have composting toilets. These Clivus Multrum composters require lots of air to keep them from smelling, but Passive House buildings control the volume of air. So they have to put Heat Recovery Ventilators on the exhaust for the toilets and treat them as their own little separate world. (I asked why they couldn't run the toilet exhaust through the main HRV and was told that they were using ERVs or energy recovery ventilators, which can leak a bit.)"

There are also issues of materials that can and cannot be used in the Living Building Challenge and the challenge of getting what is needed for Passive House. Hats off to Ashley McGraw for the marriage of PH and LBC!

Image:  Ashley McGraw

Winery tasting room awarded Living building Challenge

Last year we reported that the Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden in Oregon was built to the Living Building Challenge. Now it has received certification, making it one of twenty buildings in the world with that distinction according to a report in the DJC Oregon. “We’re the first tasting room in the world, and the first business to achieve it in Oregon,” Cowhorn owner Bill Steele said. “We’re the only small business in the world to have achieved the materials petal, which means everything, down to the last screw, was vetted.”

Latin America looking to bio-based building materials

According to Youris.com, Latin America is turning to bio-materials in buildings. Citing a recent study, Youris.com says "Brazil, Mexico, Colombia, Chile and Peru have carried out different measures ranging from relevant tax cuts to soft loans for sustainable construction." As readers know bio-based materials, such as straw bales, can sequester carbon and are highly sustainable. Projects in Latin America have ranged from straw bale to "super-adobe" earth bag buildings

Affordable Passive House buildings

One of the reasons we at the Fourth Pig are fans and practitioners of the Passive House approach is that it has great potential for affordable housing. With very low and very predictable energy bills, lower-income folks have a significant housing barrier removed. The Fourth Pig has acted as the envelope consultant for the Parkdale Landing project in Hamilton Ontario (plus we installed a bunch of windows). Check out this video on the whole project:
Boots on the Ground: Graham and Emma Cubitt on Passive House multi-residential affordable housing

How Buildings Can (Help) Save The World

Save the date! September 11 in Toronto come hear Chis Magood in a free talk: "How Buildings Can (Help) Save The World"

Climate change, indoor environment quality and ecosystem depletion are three major issues for the building industry and Chris Magwood has spent his career working toward practical, affordable solutions. Come and learn how the answers to these pressing concerns overlap nearly perfectly, solving any one of these issues conveniently creates solutions for all three.

Chris Magwood is currently the executive director of The Endeavour Centre, a not-for-profit sustainable building school in Peterborough, Ontario. He is co-editor of the Sustainable Building Essentials series from New Society Publishers, and is a past editor of The Last Straw Journal, an international quarterly of straw bale and natural building. 

This talk is part of the Fourth Pig's speaker series "Pig Tales"

Don't forget that great places to check for environmental workshops and educational opportunities include: People and Planet Calendar, the Green Building Council, Flemming College, the Endeavour Centre, the Kortright Centre for Conservation, Passive Buildings Canada, Algonquin College, and Oakanagan College.

 
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Go behind the scenes for passive house multi-residential affordable housing project

The Fourth Pig has been acting as an air-tightness consultant (including doing some air sealing and window installs) for Indwell's Parkdale Landing project (architects: Invizij) It will include 57 units of affordable housing, a neighbourhood Food Centre and commercial space.

Get the details on this project from a presentation at Passive Buildings Canada's event Boots on the Ground:

We are hiring (Muskoka)

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Passionate about green building? Want to build better buildings? Want to be part of a growing mission-based organization? Fourth Pig Green & Natural Construction is hiring. Successful candidates for all of these positions are keenly interested in environmentally, natural, sustainable and energy efficient building techniques.

We are hiring in Muskoka (usually within an hour of Huntsville). 

Muskoka
We are hiring for the following positions:

  • Carpenter
  • Skilled Labourer

Detailed descriptions of the positions are listed below.

Please note all positions require a smart phone. 

Our mission is to foster ecologically balanced methods of construction and energy production in order to promote more sustainable and healthy communities. The Fourth Pig consults on, renovates and builds low-carbon, energy efficient buildings. We work primarily in the GTA, the Golden Horseshoe and Muskoka areas.

To apply please send resume and cover letter to info@fourthpig.org. Your cover letter should include a statement of your environmental interest/experience. The Fourth Pig offers competitive wages commensurate with experience/expertise. Please include your wage expectations.  Please include the job title (or titles) in your subject line and please no calls.  

This is a rolling call for positions and they will be filled ASAP. 

Workers in the Fourth Pig may be eligible to become worker-owners after a period of work.   The Fourth Pig encourages members of equity seeking groups to apply. We are an LGBTQ positive environment. 



Muskoka: Carpenter

Wage range: $25-35/hour

Responsibilities:

The carpenter position focuses on performing a range of carpentry and construction related tasks.  The carpenter may also lead apprentice carpenters in tasks. The carpenter will assist in maintaining a safe and efficient job site and take on tasks as needed. Work includes building foundations, installing floor beams, laying sub-flooring and installing walls and roofing systems;
fitting and installing trim, doors, stairs, moulding and hardware; measuring, cutting and joining materials made of wood or wood substitutes, metal, straw and other building materials;  repairing and renovating wooden and other structures; erect scaffolding, site cleaning. Finish carpentry, framing and other construction skills related to renovations, additions and new builds

Skills/Requirements:
 

  • Have 10+  years construction site experience, with strong skills in framing, finish carpentry, and experience in renovations and additions
  • Knowledge of and experience in green and natural  building techniques and products an asset
  • Experience and knowledge of Passive House techniques is an asset
  • Comfortable reading and interpreting floor plans and blueprints
  • Strong ability to do take offs and order materials
  • Knowledge of the current Ontario Building Code as it applies to residential low-rise and light-commercial construction 
  • Fall protection, WHMIS and first aid training.  Additional related training an asset
  • Own a full compliment of tools
  • Posses a valid Class G driver’s license with insurance
  • Posses a reliable vehicle, (possession of a vehicle capable of moving large materials, such as lumber)
  • Ability to arrive reliably on time to job sites in the Huntsville Ontario area and transport tools as required

Physical ability requirements:

  • Work an 8 hour day of physical labour
  • Work inside and outside 
  • Ability to lift 50lb over a sustained period of time
  • Ability to safely carry out a full slate of physical demands throughout a work day of construction such as climbing ladders and scaffold, reaching and lifting overhead, shoveling

Muskoka: Skilled Labourer


Wage range: $18-24/hour


Responsibilities:

The skilled labourer reports to the lead carpenter or working site supervisor as assigned.  The skilled labourer will assist in maintaining a safe and efficient job site and take on tasks as needed.

Skills/Requirements:

  • Have minimum 1 to 2 years construction site experience
  • Some basic tools an asset
  • Actively working towards improving skill level
  • Experience in renovations and additions
  • Experience, knowledge of or at least keen interest in environmentally and energy efficient building techniques
  • Excellent verbal communication skills
  • Fall protection WHMIS and first aid training.  Additional related training an asset
  • Ability to arrive reliably on time to job sites in the Huntsville Ontario area and transport tools as required

Physical ability requirements:

  • Work an 8 hour day of physical labour
  • Work inside and outside throughout the year
  • Ability to lift 50lb over a sustained period of time
  • Ability to safely carry out a full slate of physical demands throughout a work day of construction such as climbing ladders and scaffold, reaching and lifting overhead, shoveling
     

 

Project Fourth Pig are consultants on project featured on CBC and Tree-hugger

 Image: Invizij Architects

Image: Invizij Architects

In Hamilton Ontario the community agency Indwell continues to build affordable housing and now is working toward Passive House. The Fourth Pig is proud to be the air-tightness consultants (plus we will be doing some detailing) for the Parkdale Landing Project. The designers on these projects are Invizij Architects.

Getting to the full Passive House standard on a renovation is very difficult but following the  Passive House approach, you can get a very good building. Lloyd Alter at Treehugger reviews some of the numbers in his piece on these Hamilton projects.  

The CBC also ran a piece on how the Passive Standard is being used in affordable housing (including the Parkdale Landing Project).  At the Fourth Pig we have long advocated for all affordable housing buildings to be Passive House. Passive House not only reduces the hard to pay fluctuating heating and cooling bills by a huge percentage (often 70-90%) it provides comfort and reduces greenhouse gases. 

We are proud to be working on these exciting inititatives! 

 

 

 

Energiesprong and the push for energy efficient social housing retrofits

 Image: Source: http://energiesprong.eu/

Image: Source: http://energiesprong.eu/

This piece is taken from our newsletter "Force of Nature" see more and subscribe here.

Energiesprong ("energy leap") is an initiative launched in the Netherlands that is gaining interest around the globe. At the building level companies make prefabricated exterior wall and roof additions that can be put in place in about a week, essentially wrapping the house. The roof contains solar panels. In the Netherlands government support has been used to support the approach to social housing units with aims to have 100,000 units completed. To work economies of scale are important but homes are getting renovated right now. No word if they are using carbon sequestering materials. See videos below for more on how this works. 

The Pembina Institute recently wrote about the need to retrofit B.C's housing, particularly affordable housing and cited energiesprong as one possible model to draw on. Pembina will be launching an Affordable Housing Renewal Project which aims to "demonstrate that the challenges of aging, unhealthy buildings can be addressed with a solution that is affordable, fast, and scalable, while reducing carbon pollution and helping the province meet its climate commitments." 

The Energiesprong website lists France, the UK, Germany and New York State as other locations where initiatives are happening. However, this month the Rocky Mountain Institute was awarded funds for "Experimental Envelope Fabrication Process for Integrated Zero Energy Ready Multifamily Renovations." 

PHIUS and the Net Zero Energy Coalition (NZEC) are partners in this project. PHIUS reports that "This grant allows RMI, PHIUS and NZEC to develop high performance building envelope assemblies for new and retrofit buildings. PHIUS will take the lead in developing retrofit standards and industry guidance for single family and multifamily homes, and will oversee monitoring, measurement, and quality assurance for prototypes and pilot projects"  Katrin Klingenberg, Director of PHIUS, said "Tailoring envelope assemblies to climate zones is critical to making high performance buildings affordable and effective. “It is the most cost effective route to zero. We are excited to help in creating standards and design guidelines that make zero energy buildings possible everywhere.”

Wrapping buildings isn't a new idea, in fact we wrote about it in this newsletter awhile back. What is different here is the attempt to do it on a large scale, with full wall and roof systems, quickly so that residents can remain on site and with a focus on social housing. We will hear more about this approach in the months and years to come.  

The first video below explains the basic idea of Energiesprong and the second is a video of a one day Energiesprong retrofit:

An introduction to energiesprong

"Renovation in a day"- footage of an Energiesprong project

Fourth Pig Celebrates 10th Birthday!

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Happy Birthday to us! Ten years ago Melinda Zytaruk, Sally Miller, Glen Byrom and Matthew Adams decided to launch a different kind of organization that would build buildings differently. Ten years ago we launched the Fourth Pig. Ten Years ago, on May 31st 2007, we were officially incorporated. 
 
One of our main concerns was and is the impact that buildings have on climate change. When it comes to affecting climate change changing the way we build is super low-hanging fruit. The United Nations reports that buildings account for 30% of Greenhouse Gas Emissions. If you want to affect climate change you have to change the way buildings are built.

We were and also remain committed to the use of non-toxic healthy materials. People spend a lot of time in buildings and what is in them matters to the health of the occupants. Out of these perspectives came our mission:  to foster ecologically balanced methods of construction and energy production in order to promote more sustainable and healthy communities.
 
To begin we incorporated as a worker cooperative. Worker co-ops are owned and operated by its members and as we promoted a different, more sustainable way of building, we wanted our organization to reflect a more sustainable model- one where workers not only a voice, but real control and shared responsibility for the organization. We also made the company a non-profit, with a commitment to providing public education around sustainability and resilience. 
 
Ten years later we are still at it. 
 
The organization has grown with amazing new members and we have a completed a number of interesting projects. We continue to be committed to energy efficient, low-carbon buildings and are active in promoting green building through talks, trainings, articles, open-houses, and social media. Of course we are walking the talk by building and renovating in a way that promotes the health of the building occupants and the health of the planet. 
 
Thank you to everyone in the green building and co-op communities for supporting our work over the last decade. We look forward to the next amazing ten years!
 
 

Getting it together through integrated design

This piece is taken from our newsletter "Force of Nature" see more and subscribe here.

If we want to change the way that buildings are made, then we should unsurprisingly, change the way buildings are made. Most of the focus on building differently has to do with constructing more energy efficient buildings and sometimes paying attention to the embodied carbon in the materials used in the construction process. More and more though people working on green buildings are changing the process of putting a building together. 

The common way of getting a building made is, broadly speaking, to have the different parties work in isolation ( architect, structural engineer, electric engineer, etc), plans are made and builders bid on a plan, hire subcontractors and it moves forward.  Another approach is what is called "integrated design". As Natural Resources Canada explains "An integrated design process (IDP) involves a holistic approach to high performance building design and construction. It relies upon every member of the project team sharing a vision of sustainability, and working collaboratively to implement sustainability goals. This process enables the team to optimize systems, reduce operating and maintenance costs and minimize the need for incremental capital. IDP has been shown to produce more significant results than investing in capital equipment upgrades at later stages."

In IDP the whole team (owner, architect, engineers, builders) come together to plan and design a project. However, there is a particular need when undertaking green building. The Green Building Alliance argues that "The enhanced definition [of Integrated Design], however, includes the collaboration of what these various team members are working around:  climate, building design, use, and systems. Around 70% of the decisions associated with environmental impacts are made within the first 10% of the design process."

In some projects the goal is to go beyond those directly working on a building, to residents, neighbors, local businesses. If we are going to change our building standards our success will require changing the process of design and construction itself.  For more see this piece from Green Building Advisor and the video below which gives a strong overview of the importance of stakeholders working together from day one. 
 

We're hiring a Working Site Supervisor

The Fourth Pig Green & Natural Construction
Working Site Supervisor

Posting Date: February 6th, 2017

Organization:
The Fourth Pig Green & Natural Construction fulfills contracts in sustainable building design, education and construction, natural building materials design and installation, and renewable energy installation. Fourth Pig provides consultation and training for clients in the green building and alternative energy sectors.  Our mission is to foster ecologically balanced methods of construction and energy production in order to promote more sustainable and healthy communities.
 
Position: Working Site Supervisor
Employment type: Full-time available now
Wage: commensurate with experience
Location: Flexibility required, primarily northern GTA, Simcoe county
Start date: Potentially immediately, depending on availability of successful candidate
Reports to: Project/Site Manager

Responsibilities

  • Manage the day-to-day site operations for construction projects.
  • Coordinate, manage and schedule sub trades and company labourers
  • Finish carpentry, framing and other construction skills related to renovations, additions and new builds
  • Report daily project progress to Project manager
  • Other duties as required


Skills/Requirements:
 

  • Have 5+ years’ experience as a construction site supervisor 
  • Have 10+  years construction site experience, with strong skills in framing, finish carpentry,and experience in renovations and additions, experience in natural building, and passive house an asset
  • Comfortable reading and interpreting floor plans and blueprints
  • Strong ability to manage budgets, schedules and subtrades
  • Knowledge of the current Ontario Building Code as it applies to residential low-rise and light-commercial construction. Knowledge of Tarion Construction Standards is an asset.
  • Strong verbal communication skills, additional languages an asset
  • Highly organized
  • Fall protection, WHMIS and first aid training.  Additional related training an asset
  • Own a full compliment of tools
  • Posses a valid Class G driver’s license with insurance.
  • Posses a reliable vehicle, (possession of a vehicle capable of moving large materials, such as lumber).
  • Possess a personal computer in good working condition with internet access.
  • Knowledge of common computer software
  • Knowledge of and experience in green and natural  building techniques and products an asset
  •  Experience and knowledge of Passive House techniques is an asset. 
  •  

 
Physical ability requirements:

  • Work an 8 hour day of physical labour
  • Work inside and outside 
  • Ability to lift 50lb over a sustained period of time
  •  Ability to safely carry out a full slate of physical demands throughout a work day of construction such as climbing ladders and scaffold, reaching and lifting overhead, shoveling

 
The successful candidate is:

  • Keenly interested in environmentally, natural, sustainable and energy efficient building techniques
  • Committed to maintaining a safe and efficient job site and to ensuring the personal safety of yourself and your co-workers
  • Interested in joining a hard working team that can be proud of their results

 
Workers in the Fourth Pig may be eligible to become worker-members after a period of work.   The Fourth Pig encourages members of equity seeking groups to apply. We are an LGBTQ positive environment. 


Please send resume and cover letter to info@fourthpig.org. Please no calls. Please respond ASAP.

Not so Zero Carbon buildings. Why we need to make embodied carbon count.

 Image: NYC's daily carbon emissions as one tonne spheres. Credit: Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/carbonquilt/  

Image: NYC's daily carbon emissions as one tonne spheres. Credit: Creative Commons https://www.flickr.com/photos/carbonquilt/  

This piece is taken from our newsletter "Force of Nature" see more and subscribe here.

The simple fact is that our buildings are a climate change catastrophe (PDF). If we don't change how buildings are made then we will not meet the green house gas targets we need to to address climate change. The good news is that great strides are being made around the world to push for better buildings. We've reported on the Living Building Challenge, and other certifications like LEED and Passive House. Increasingly the news is about an exciting initiative often named "zero carbon buildings" or "Zero emission" buildings. In fact at least ten countries (including Canada) have now committed to recognize zero-carbon emission buildings.

This is a strong step forward. However, it is important to note that few if any of these "zero" certifications are really net zero. Some will not be even close. There is a very key term here and that is the word "emissions." These standards are targeting an important goal (operational emissions) but are missing in their metrics the embodied carbon from the building materials. This approach has some dramatic and surprising negative results in terms of carbon emissions that come from buildings. 

This month the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) announced the Zero Carbon Building Framework (PDF). As the CaGBC says, this "is the first stage of a broader CaGBC Zero Carbon Buildings Initiative to champion the move to lower-carbon buildings in support of Canada's efforts to reduce GHG emissions by 30 per cent by 2030." The CaGBC says "The Framework facilitates broad participation across a range of building types and sizes, provides a clear definition for zero carbon buildings, and establishes five key components for the evaluation of building carbon footprints." 

The Framework is calculating operational energy/carbon, not the embodied carbon that goes into buildings. While the Framework acknowledges the importance of embodied carbon, and says that "the zero carbon building framework should require or encourage building designers to note the embodied carbon in building envelope and structural materials" it also states that "embodied carbon should not be used in calculating a building’s progress toward a zero carbon balance."[emphasis added, Zero Carbon Building Framework, page 43].

In other words, zero is not zero. 

This is (currently) true as well for Vancouver's ground-breaking "Zero Emissions Building Plan." (PDF). The plan states "The City of Vancouver’s green building and community-wide greenhouse gas emission reduction targets do not account for embodied (also referred to as upstream) emissions that occur as a result of energy used and GHGs emitted from building material resource extraction, production and transportation."[emphasis added, Zero Emissions Building Plan, 2016, page 11). Like the CaGBC, Vancouver's plan recognizes the importance of embodied energy: "In anticipation of the near term importance of measuring and reducing the embodied emissions of building materials, it is essential that the City 11 begin collecting data from new developments on their estimated embodied carbon in order to inform future incentive, policy, and potentially regulatory mechanisms targeted at reducing the embodied emissions of new buildings as these become an increasingly significant portion of overall building lifecycle emissions." [ibid].

Still, under both systems, it seems one can declare a building "zero emissions" or "zero carbon" when it simply is not. With both the CaGBC and Vancouver system, the case is made that operational carbon emissions greatly outweigh embodied carbon and that, for now at least, we should focus on reducing operational emissions. As operational emissions are reduced, the argument goes, the importance of embedded carbon increases and in the future more emphasis can be put on embodied emissions. The trouble is that the assumption that embodied carbon emissions are low doesn't seem to be holding up to scrutiny. Many new buildings are using materials with a lot of embodied carbon and therefore even a building with low operating emissions can be responsible for a tremendous amount of carbon emissions.

Furthermore, calculating the operating emissions of a building is based on modeling which has its own problems, including the variations of construction quality and the energy source used in a building. What is crucial to understand about operational energy is that the energy use of a building depends dramatically on the behavior of the occupants. Different thermostat settings in the cold months can have significant impacts on energy use. This month TheProvince.com reported that many LEED buildings in Vancouver are failing to meet energy targets "due to gaps in oversight and poor operations management." These buildings are not meeting the operational standards they are certified to have met. 

Because of this failure Vancouver is working on policies to require reporting and monitoring. As one consultant put it in the article, “If you want to evolve and continue having a community of interests and a truly green building, it requires cooperation of the tenants and it requires green behaviour, as opposed to just green building systems.” According to natural builder, author and research Chris Magwood  a Passive House Institute report in 2007 found deviations of +- 50% from the average consumption value in identical houses based on occupant behavior. Notably embodied carbon is fixed and measurable and as Magwood observes, reductions in embodied carbon have an immediate affect and are not dependent on behaviour, building energy source or quality of construction. 

Magwood has done important work on the issue of embodied carbon in construction including through his pieces "The Carbon Elephant in the Room" and the "Carbon Elephant in the Room, Part 2". As he writes "Every time we make or renovate a building, there is a carbon footprint as a result of the harvesting and manufacturing of the materials as well as the transportation involved. If we think this carbon footprint is negligible, we’re ignoring the elephant in the room!" 

In the chart below Magwood compares the embodied carbon of different building approaches. He researched different sample homes in two different climates. His comparison included a high-performance house that was insulated with spray foam, a conventional home, a conventional home built with low carbon materials, and a high-performance (energy efficient) home with natural (low-carbon materials). Note the effect of using low-carbon materials, both in the conventional home and in the high performance natural building. The shorter the yellow bar, the less carbon the building is emitting.

Based on Magwood's calculations we are not talking about an insignificant amount of carbon here, in fact, quite the opposite. The research had some surprising results. For example, if the homes were using low-carbon energy sources the "conventionally-built example with low-carbon materials can have a lower 35 year carbon footprint than the high performance house" even in a cold climate. And again with low-carbon energy sources his home with natural materials had lower embodied and operational carbon combined than just the embodied carbon of the high performance house. This was in a cold climate and true "even if the owner's energy use is double the predicted amount." This is big news. 

In fact as design and engineer consultants Engin Ayaz and Frances Yang show "that for structures taking on popular approaches to carbon reduction (lowering operational demand, sourcing cleaner energy, facade and MEP refurbishment, or rebuild), embodied carbon can account for up to 50 percent of the total carbon emissions (Smith, 2008)." The chart below is from a presentation by Ayaz and Yang (along with Scott Simpson and Fiona Cousins). It shows how different studies have estimated embodied energy and embodied carbon in a project. In this case "embodied energy" does not include energy sources, chemical processes or transportation fuel types, but "embodied carbon" does. One study showed that up to 80% of the life-cycle carbon emissions in a building is embodied carbon!

Magwood's illustration below shows embodied carbon (EC) emissions cumulatively that different building approaches can mean (based on U.S housing). There is a 24% reduction in tons of carbon if we build with natural (carbon sequestering) materials compared to just 'building with better materials."

While the different studies on embodied carbon show different impacts, all are significant. For more reading, see this research piece from the University of Bath (PDF). The fact is that you will get a lot closer to "net zero" carbon if your building materials are sequestering carbon. 

We can't control what people do in a building, but we can encourage and reward green behaviour (as Vancouver is seeking to do with LEED). Good building design will help. Good buildings also require good energy and we need to move to 100% renewables now. This is especially true in terms of the operational energy of a building. 

Again, the initiatives that aim toward "zero emissions" are to be applauded, including the recognition of the need to track embodied carbon (and perhaps require its accounting in the future). Many builders and designers are aware of the need to reduce embodied carbon and are paying more attention to materials. Evidence of this includes the journal of Energy and Building who is planning a special issue entitled "Embodied Energy and Carbon Efficiency: The Next Major Step Towards Zero-Impact Buildings."

However, given where we are now, with green building standards focusing on operational emissions largely based on modeling, we need to ask in terms of public education and public policy what does it mean to call something "zero emissions" when it is not? Perhaps the standard, for now, should be  "low carbon" or "near zero" (though in some cases that simply isn't true). 

When it comes to buildings, mistakes last decades, even centuries. Short-term decisions we are making now around building codes and standards can lead to serious long-term effects. We can control the amount of carbon we put into building and how much it sequesters. If we want to succeed in making buildings that properly respond to climate change we need to account for and reduce embodied carbon as well as account for and track energy efficiencies. There are more and more tools available to track both, including the Swiss building standard, the Minergie A (PDF), that attempts to do this very thing. We can too. The climate depends on it. 

 


Short video on European research into bio materials to reduce embodied carbon:

Biomass materials offer 20 percent better insulation than traditional ones. And data shows that by reducing the energy and CO2 emissions needed to create and transport construction materials, the total “embodied energy” across the whole lifestyle of a building could be cut by up to 50 percent.