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New Sustainable Renovations program

Endeavour Centre now offers full-time, certificate program in Sustainable Renovations! Program starts September, 2017…

Thousands of aging homes across Canada are confronting owners with expensive energy bills, uncomfortable indoor environment quality, a large carbon footprint and sometimes health concerns. Addressing these issues is no easy task, but the faculty at the Endeavour Centre is uniquely qualified to teach renovators and designers to vastly improve the quality of older homes affordably and responsibly.

The 4-month, full time Sustainable Renovations program employs a unique curriculum that mixes experiential education on a real renovation project with focused classroom curriculum to provide students with an immersive and in-depth education. This teaching model has been honed in the school’s Sustainable New Construction program, now entering its sixth year and responsible for training dozens of students on award-winning building projects.

Sustainable Renovations

Students will learn how to assess green building materials and strategies, source healthy materials, perform energy audits and design for energy efficiency, responsibly handle construction waste and be part of an integrated design and construction team, while participating hands-on start to finish of a project.

Lead instructor Shane MacInnes has spent years as a project coordinator for leading green renovations companies in Ontario and British Columbia. “There are so many opportunities for meaningful work in this field, and I’m excited to welcome students with and without construction experience into Sustainable Renovations.” MacInnes believes that “experiential education is the key to becoming a well-rounded renovator, one who understands the key principles and knows how put them into action.”

Endeavour director Chris Magwood is excited to be adding Sustainable Renovations to the school’s full-time, certificate program offerings. Having taught hundreds of students in sustainable new construction who have gone on to have careers in the field, he sees renovations as a key part of a cleaner, greener world. “Dealing responsibly with our existing housing stock is critical to our economic and ecological future, and we are excited to contribute meaningfully to this effort with this new course offering.”

Sustainable Renovations

The new full-time program begins on September 5 and runs until December 22, in Peterborough, Ontario. It is open to students with or without construction experience. More details are available on the program’s web page.

Zero House Sneak Peak

Zero House Project sets ambitious goals

Can we build homes with a zero carbon footprint, that use net zero energy and contain zero toxins?

The Sustainable New Construction class of 2017 is undertaking to answer that question with a resounding “Yes!” And they will be doing it in a completely modular, prefabricated form, at a realistic market cost.

Zero House is a demonstration project being undertaken by Endeavour Centre and Ryerson University’s Department of Architectural Science. The plan originated as SolarBLOCK by ECOstudio, a multi-unit design for urban infill sites. Zero House is a scaled version of a single module of the larger plan – one piece of a potentially larger development.

Zero House is designed to consume no more electricity than it produces in a year, and will use no fossil fuels. The building will sequester more carbon in its plant-based materials (which include wood, straw, mycelium, and recycled paper) than were emitted during material production, positioning it as an important solution to climate change. No materials inside Zero House will contain any questionable chemical content and the building will have an active ventilation system to provide the highest indoor air quality for occupants.

The project will be built in Peterborough in modular components, and then dismantled and rebuilt at the EDITdx Expo for Design, Innovation and Technology in Toronto this fall, where show goers will be able to visit the home, meet the designers and builders and experience Zero House for themselves.

Zero House

The class of 2017 gathers to start Zero House by making mycelium insulation samples.

The project is being sponsored by many progressive material and system manufacturers, and we will introduce them as their components are placed in the building.

We will keep an ongoing journal of the construction of this project, so keep watching here for updates and to follow our progress!

Thatch Roof Basics

Thatch roofs may seem like a romantic and foreign notion in North America, but they are entirely feasible in a wide range of North American climates. No other roofing is annually renewable, carbon-sequestering and non-toxic. A thatch roof may not be for everybody, but it’s worth considering…

This introduction to thatch roof basics is adapted from the book Making Better Buildings by Chris Magwood:

Thatch roof basics

Applications for system

– Roofing for roofs with a minimum pitch of 10:12

– Wall cladding

Basic materials

– Long-stemmed reeds or straw

– Strapping

– Twine or wire to fasten thatch to strapping

 

How the system works

 

While it may seem strange for modern builders to think that a bunch of dried grass stems can provide a thoroughly water-resistant and long-lasting roof, thatch roofs have a long and successful history across a wide range of climatic zones. Thatching techniques have been developed worldwide, adapting the basic principle to suit available materials and to work in specific climates. Modern thatched roofs are installed in almost every region of the world, though in relatively small numbers.

The system of thatching used in many wet and/or cold climates involves fastening bundles of long, thick reeds or straw to the roof strapping in successive courses, each overlapping the preceding course. The thatch is laid at a thickness (which can range from 8–20 cm / 3–8 inch) that prevents water from working its way through the layers. Thatched roofs have very steep pitches to aid in this drainage.

Traditional thatch was hand-tied to the roof strapping using twine or rope. Modern thatchers often use screws and wire to provide attachment. Regardless of regional variations in material and technique, the thatch is held in place by securing a horizontal member across the thatch and tying that member back to the strapping through the thatch. The next course of thatch then covers the tie point as the roof is built upward. At the edges of the roof, the thatch is laid at a slight angle to encourage runoff to leave the edge of the roof and to provide a consistent appearance.

Thatching on flat sections of roof is relatively straightforward, but the same cannot be said for ridge, hip and valley sections. These areas take considerable knowledge and experience to execute in a weather-tight and long-lasting manner.

Many modern installations use a fire-resistant (often fiberglass) membrane under the roof strapping to prevent the spread of a fire from inside the building to the roof. Eavestroughs are not typically installed with thatched roofs, making them incompatible with rainwater harvesting.

 

Tips for successful installation

  1. Thatching methods vary widely with the type of thatch material being used and the tradition of thatching used in the region. Ensure that the reed or straw being used is compatible with the climate and the installation technique.
  2. Be sure you are able to obtain the material and expertise required to create a thatched roof. It is a rare type of roofing in North America, and must be well researched before deciding to proceed.
  3. Plans for a thatched roof must be properly detailed before construction. The uncommon thickness of the roofing, the steep pitch required and the particular details at hips and valleys must be incorporated into the drawings to ensure the roof will work when built.
Thatch roof Canada

Dormers, hips and valleys require much more skill than simple gable roofs

Pros and cons of thatch roofs

Environmental impacts

Harvesting — Negligible to Low. Thatch that is harvested regionally will have the lowest environmental impact of any roofing material. The plants that produce useful thatch are annual grasses, making it the only annually renewable roofing. Some reeds that are suitable for thatching do not need to be manually seeded, but occur naturally on marginal lands that are otherwise not suitable for agriculture and aren’t sprayed or treated in any way. Most modern grain plants have been bred to have much shorter, narrower stalks than their genetic ancestors and are not suitable for thatch, but less common grains (spelt, rye, etc) still have stalk lengths and diameters that may work for thatch. Farmed grains may have environmental impacts associated with the use of herbicides and/or pesticides.

Manufacturing — Negligible to Low. Thatch requires little to no processing other than cutting, cleaning and bundling. These processes are done on a small scale and with minimal machinery and fossil fuel input. There are no toxic by-products created.

At the most intensive, a thatch roof will use a small amount of metal wire and screws and a layer of fiberglass matting that has high energy input and some toxic by-products. At the least intensive, round wood strapping and natural fiber twine is used.

Transportation — Negligible to High. Some thatch projects in North America are completed using thatch imported from Europe, because there are no commercial suppliers on this continent. This adds high transportation impacts to an otherwise low-impact roof. Many thatch roofs are made with locally, manually harvested material, keeping impacts very low.

Installation — Negligible. Thatch is largely installed without the use of power tools and does not create any problematic waste or by-products.

Embodied energy & carbon

Thatch roof Canada

Waste

Compostable — All reed or straw thatching, natural fiber twine.

Recyclable — Polypropylene twine, metal wire.

Landfill — Fiberglass matt offcuts, if used. Quantities can be negligible to low.

 

Energy efficiency

Historically, thatched buildings relied on the fairly significant amount of air trapped in the thatch to insulate the roof of the building. However, thatch allows for a lot of air infiltration and would not be considered adequate insulation or airtight enough to meet codes or modern comfort levels on its own. Modern buildings with thatched roofs rely on an insulation layer independent from the roof sheathing.

A thatch roof can have some beneficial effects by reducing summertime warming of the attic space quite significantly. Thatch roofs will also eliminate the issue of condensation on the back side of the roof sheathing as the material will not have the low surface temperatures of more dense sheathing and is able to adsorb and absorb moisture without condensation.

 

Labor input

Working at heights to install roofing has inherent dangers. Proper setup and safety precautions should always be taken when working on a roof.

Thatch roofing is unique in that, for most North American builders, harvesting the material is likely to be a necessary preliminary step. While suitable materials are widely available, harvesting and preparing them can be a very labor-intensive process, easily requiring more hours than the installation itself. In areas of the world where thatch material is harvested commercially and available for delivery to a job site, the labor input is obviously much lower.

Thatching is the most labor-intensive form of roofing. An experienced thatch crew can move at a speed that approaches that of an experienced cedar shingle crew. Beginners will move a great deal slower, as the process of laying thatch is very particular and must be done accurately and correctly.

 

Skill level required for the homeowner

Thatching requires a good deal of skill. In European countries, it takes many years of apprenticeship and experience to obtain the title of “Master Thatcher.” Beginners are advised to start with a very small roof, such as a small shed, and to keep roof shapes to simple gables or sheds. Hips and valleys add a lot of complexity to the thatching process, and should be left to those with plenty of experience.

 

Sourcing/availability

Both the material and the expertise to build a thatch roof can be difficult to source in North America. A few master thatchers practice in the U.S. and they tend to import their thatch material from Europe.

A homeowner wishing to attempt a thatch roof will have to resort to harvesting thatch material locally and learn from books or by taking workshops with experienced thatchers and bringing the skill back home.

 

Durability

Thatch roofs are surprisingly durable. In northern European climates, they can last for forty to eighty years. Depending on the style of ridge cap used, the ridge may need repair or replacing every ten to twenty years. A thatched roof at the end of its lifespan is not typically replaced; rather new thatch is built over top of the existing thatch.

 

Code compliance

No building codes in North America address the use of thatch roofs. Proposing a thatch roof will likely require a fair bit of documentation and persuasion, as there are few examples of thatched roofs on which a code official can base an assessment. The historical and modern use of thatch in Europe means that a lot of code-related testing and documentation exists to support it. A building department may be willing to consider a thatch roof with the right amount of documentation and some assurance that the installation is being done properly. The few master thatchers working in North America have been able to have their work approved, as have a small number of owner-builders.

 

Future development

There is no reason for thatch to be disregarded in North America, as it is a viable, durable roofing option that is remarkably environmentally friendly. As the costs of conventional roofing materials rise with the price of fuel to make them, thatch will start to look better and better. The machinery required to mechanically harvest and bundle thatch is not complicated or expensive, and viable thatch material grows in many places on the continent. There will always be limitations to the use of thatch roofing in urban areas, as fire safety concerns would limit the density of thatched roofs. But there are many locations where thatched roofs are feasible, appropriate and the best possible environmental choice. It will take many dedicated homeowners willing to push the boundaries and create a market in which thatch may start to take the kind of foothold where it creates a viable niche market, similar to cedar shingles.

 

How does it rate?

Thatch roof Canada

 

Resources for further research

Billett, Michael. The Complete Guide to Living with Thatch. London: Robert Hale, 2003. Print.

Fearn, Jacqueline. Thatch and Thatching. Aylesbury, UK: Shire Publications, 1976. Print.

Sanders, Marjorie, and Roger Angold. Thatches and Thatching: A Handbook for Owners, Thatchers and Conservators. Ramsbury, UK: Crowood, 2012. Print.

Embodied carbon and carbon sequestration in buildings

Can buildings be an important part of the climate change solution?

The answer is Yes, and the key is using carbon sequestering materials instead of carbon-intensive materials.

Endeavour Centre director Chris Magwood is currently working on a Master’s thesis at Trent University’s Sustainability Studies program, examining the embodied carbon of building materials and the role of sequestration in drastically reducing the climate change impacts of our built environment.

On Tuesday, March 14th at 7pm, join Chris and hosts Fourth Pig Worker’s Coop, Eco-Building Resource and Green Community Hub at the Shacklands Brewing Company in Toronto to see the results of this research to date and learn more about turning our buildings into carbon sinks!

The event is free, and discussion time and beer will follow the presentation!

embodied carbon of building materials

Composting Toilet Basics

Composting toilets are the most misunderstood element of an ecologically friendly building. There’s no need to be scared!

This introduction to composting toilet basics is adapted from the book Making Better Buildings by Chris Magwood:

 

Composting Toilet Basics

Composting toilets collect urine and feces — referred to as humanure in the rest of this chapter — and treat it completely on-site, until it is transformed into useful compost or humus.

This category of treatment system does not include common pit outhouses, which do not provide ideal conditions for the conversion of humanure to compost, though given enough time the material in a pit toilet can undergo this transformation.

There are three common types of composting toilet:

 

Bucket toilet — This low-tech version of the composting toilet uses a bucket or similar portable receptacle placed under a seat/container to receive humanure deposits. Sawdust, wood shavings, chopped straw or another form of cellulose material is used to cover each deposit in the toilet, helping to reduce odor, absorb urine and provide aeration. Once full, the bucket is emptied into an outdoor compost heap. Here the material is layered and mixed and covered with more cellulose material, providing the right conditions for the natural conversion to compost/humus.

The indoor toilet construction is usually provided with passive or active ventilation, but no water connection or flushing action is used.

Self-contained toilet — These units provide a seat over an integral composting tray in a single, self-contained structure. Humanure deposits are received in the tray and provided with the appropriate conditions for composting action within the unit. These toilets all use some form of mechanical ventilation to reduce odor. Excess urine may require a separate handling system, or heat may be used to speed evaporation. Due to limited storage capacity, these toilets normally use some form of mechanical action and/or acceleration for the composting process and are only suitable for low numbers of users or for intermittent use.

The compost tray is removed from the unit when processing is complete or when the tray is full. It is often necessary to have an outdoor compost heap to receive material from these units, as it can prove difficult to complete the composting process within the unit.

Some models of self-contained toilet use chemicals or high heat to “cook” the humanure into a benign state. The material from these toilets is not useful compost, as the biological activity that creates rich, useful soil has been killed off.

Remote chamber toilet — A toilet (dry chute or low-water flush) sits above a large, enclosed chamber that receives humanure. The chamber is of sufficient capacity and design to contain and process a high volume of completed compost.

Units handle humanure in various ways. Some use heat and/or evaporation to rid the chamber of excess urine and water and speed the composting process, while others retain and process all material. Mixing or stirring capabilities, misting sprayers and rotating trays are options offered by certain manufacturers. Vacuum flush, allowing the toilet to be level with or below the height of the chamber, is also available.

Some units gather excess urine after it has passed through the bulk material in the chamber and retain this liquid as a high-quality fertilizer. This makes best use of the potential value of all material entering the toilet, as up to 80 percent of the nutrient value in toilet waste is in the urine. Once transformed into nitrites and nitrates after passing through the biologically active compost solids, the liquid can be a safe and low-odor fertilizer.

All chamber-style toilets provide humanure with enough time and adequate conditions to fully convert to compost before being removed from the unit. These are the only units that do not require additional outdoor composting capacity.

 

Types of waste handled

– Black water (though most systems are waterless)

 

Tips for successful installation

  1. Understand the maintenance requirements of any type of composting toilet before committing to installation. All require some maintenance, and dealing with humanure is not for everybody. Some units require infrequent maintenance, others daily.
  2. Check local codes before planning for a composting toilet. They are an accepted solution in some codes but not in others.
  3. Check local codes for the legal status of composted humanure. Though a good deal of documentation exists to show the material is biologically benign, some jurisdictions require compost to be treated as hazardous waste.
  4. Some types of composting toilets require specific layout arrangements that must become part of the home design.
  5. Mechanical ventilation is part of most composting toilets, requiring an exit tube that passes through the roof of the building with as straight a run as possible.
  6. Plan for an easily accessible route from the point of removal to the outdoors, to facilitate emptying of the toilet or chamber.
  7. Be sure there is sufficient provision on the property for units requiring outdoor composting facilities, and that the process of finishing humanure compost outdoors is well understood.
  8. When using commercially produced units, follow the manufacturer’s instructions for successful installation.

 

Pros and cons

Environmental impacts

Composting toilets are the only form of toilet that does not treat human excrement as waste, and rather as a potentially regenerative material for amending soils and fertilizing plants. A large environmental problem is thereby transformed into a solution to soil depletion, creating more robust growing environments.

The composting of humanure is not without issues, and untreated or partially treated material can be contaminated with pathogens that are potentially dangerous to humans and animals and can contaminate soil and ground water. There is a growing body of evidence that complete composting of humanure is relatively easy to accomplish reliably, but the correct conditions must be understood and created.

 

Material costs

Simple bucket toilets and appropriate outdoor composters can be built for as little as a hundred dollars. Complete remote chamber toilet systems can cost between four and eight thousand dollars.

 

Labor input

Depending on the type of composting toilet, labor input can vary greatly. Other toilets do not require direct ventilation, and even the simplest composting toilet has more components and longer installation times than a conventional flush toilet.

 

Skill level required for the homeowner

Installation — Moderate to Difficult. Multiple components and connections can complicate installation.

Use — Easy.

Maintenance — Moderate to Difficult. Some form of regular maintenance is inevitable with composting toilets. Bucket toilets can require daily maintenance to transfer full buckets to the compost pile. Chamber units may only need monthly inspections and annual emptying.

 

Sourcing/availability

There are many commercially available self-contained and remote chamber toilets. These are typically sold directly from the manufacturer or in specialty shops. Bucket toilets are homemade, with plans readily available online or in books.

Plumbing for any composting toilet system are standard components available through any plumbing supply outlet.

 

Durability

The simpler the toilet system, the greater the durability. Units with heaters and moving parts are more prone to durability issues. Consider the accessibility of parts that may need repair or replacement; if they are in difficult locations (especially if they require emptying of the toilet’s contents) they will be unpleasant to service.

 

Future development

Interest in composting toilets is just beginning to grow, and the technology is likely to develop rapidly in coming decades. There has been a significant shift in understanding about humanure, from a sense of revulsion and the certainty of contamination and illness to an appreciation of the simplicity and value of composting. It will be some time before this shift affects a broad constituency of builders and homeowners, but the research and experience currently being gained in this field by early adopters will be valuable contributions to a technology that is potentially transformative. There is little else in home-building practice that could so radically improve the environmental impacts of our homes.

 

Resilience

Build and operating a composting toilet system in a low- or no-energy scenario is straightforward. The bucket toilet is an excellent example of resilient technology, as it not only replaces an energy- and resource-intensive practice, but does so in a way that gives back valuable nutrients to the ecosystem.

 

Resources for further research

Jenkins, Joseph C. The Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure. Grove City, PA: Joseph Jenkins, 2005. Print.

Del Porto, David, and Carol Steinfeld. The Composting Toilet System Book: A Practical Guide to Choosing, Planning and Maintaining Composting Toilet Systems, an Alternative to Septic Systems and Sewers. Concord, MA: Center for Ecological Pollution Prevention, 2007. Print.

Darby, Dave. Compost Toilets: A Practical DIY Guide. Winslow, UK: Low-Impact Living Initiative, 2012. Print.

Envirolet vacuum flush toilets

Phoenix composting toilets

Residential Heating System Basics

Residential Heating System Basics

The ability to employ mechanical systems to automatically modulate the temperature (and often humidity levels) of our homes is a radical change from the previous centuries of human habitation. Our heating and cooling systems are often complex and high performance devices that give us fingertip control over indoor climate that would have been unthinkable less than a century ago. Until quite recently, the devices we used to achieve stable temperatures were functional but quite inefficient, using large quantities of fuel to meet our thermostat settings. A lot of development has gone into increasing efficiency, and in many cases this has come with increased complexity and cost. The following residential heating systems basics will help you understand your options.

Though most heating devices are intricate systems, it is quite easy to understand the basic technology behind each of them. It is worthwhile as a homeowner to understand these systems, and not leave it to company reps or installers to provide selling points.

It is easiest to think of heating and cooling systems as falling into categories of means of heat production and means of heat delivery. From this understanding, it is possible to narrow down the pool of options to those that suit the needs of a project.

Means of Heat Production

Despite all the competing products in the heating and cooling market, there are just four kinds of heat production. Details for each system are provided individually later in the chapter.

1) Solar Heat

In effect, all sources of heat are based on solar energy, as the fuels used in every heating system are the result of captured and stored solar energy. However, this classification of heating systems is based on direct harvesting of solar energy in real time. Heat from the sun can be collected (and sometimes concentrated) in, on or near the building and distributed for use throughout the building.

There are three basic types of solar heat, which may be used in any combination.

Passive Solar – A building may be designed with sufficient glazing on the sunny side of the building to allow for a measurable increase of indoor temperature when the sun is shining.

Active Solar Air – Collector units are used to gather and concentrate the sun’s heat in a flow of air that is supplied to a heat exchanger or directly to the building.

Active Solar Water – Collector units are used to gather and concentrate the sun’s heat in a flow of liquid that is supplied to a heat exchanger or directly to the building.

This category of heating devices does not include photovoltaic cells, which use solar energy to generate electrical current, and not directly to produce heat. Heat created by solar electric current is considered in the category of electric resistance heating.

Solar energy systems may appear to have low efficiency rates, with figures ranging from 10-70%, depending on ambient temperatures and type of collector, among other factors. These figures represent the percentage of available potential energy from the sun: approximately 1000 Watts per meter squared (W/m2) for a surface perpendicular to the sun’s rays at sea level on a clear day. A reduced figure of 800 W/m2 is often used in generating comparative figures for solar devices. While it is beneficial to increase efficiency rates to produce more heat from less collector area, the efficiency rates aren’t directly comparable to those of combustion devices as no sunlight is actually “wasted” and no harmful byproducts are generated by the solar energy that is not absorbed by the collector.

Solar heating systems do not generate emissions, fuel extraction and transportation impacts or air pollution, with the exception of those systems that use non-solar energy to drive small pumps or fans.

2) Combustion Devices

This category of equipment is by far the most prevalent. Regardless of the type of system and fuel used, all combustion devices burn a fuel and extract heat from the flame. All these devices rely on a supply of oxygen to react with the fuel and create the flame, an exhaust to allow spent combustion gasses to exit the unit and the building and a heat exchanger that passes the heat from the flame to the delivery system that supplies heat to the home. There are two broad categories of combustion devices:

Gas/Liquid Fuel Combustion – These are the dominant players in the market, and include all the various forms of fossil fuel such as natural gas, propane and oil, as well as bio-fuels like biodiesel and vegetable oil.

Solid Fuel Combustion – This group includes wood burning devices, as well as those that use other forms of biomass such as compressed pellets.

Combustion devices have efficiencies that range from 50% for some wood burning devices to 98% for some new gas burning devices. This means that less than all of the heat potential of the fuel is captured and used to supply the building.

Exhaust gasses from combustion devices differ depending on the fuel used and the combustion efficiency and conditions, but all devices release CO2 and a host of other byproducts with environmental effects.

3) Heat Pumps

This category of equipment is widely used in the form of air conditioners, and has started to capture a larger portion of the heating market. These systems use the refrigerant cycle to transfer latent heat from a source and deliver it to a destination or heat sink. It can be difficult to understand exactly how a heat pump works, but it is worth figuring out the principle at work in order to decipher manufacturer claims. Heat pumps can seem like they magically make heat from no heat if the refrigerant cycle is unclear.

heat pump explained

Heat pump explained

Mechanical energy (usually in the form of an electric motor) is used to cycle a volatile refrigerant that is chemically designed to boil and condense in the expected operating temperature range of the heat pump. The refrigerant is in its liquid state when it absorbs latent heat from a source (air, ground or water for most residential purposes). This heat does not need to be in a temperature range that feels warm or hot to the touch, as the refrigerant’s chemical properties will ensure its boiling point is at or near to the source temperature. Once the refrigerant has passed through the heat collection exchanger, the electric compressor pressurizes the warmed refrigerant, which is at or close to its boiling point. The pressurization causes the refrigerant to become a hot vapour. This hot vapour passes through a heat exchanger where the heat generated from pressurization is dispersed. The refrigerant condenses as the heat is removed. Condensed refrigerant now passes through an expansion valve where the pressure is released and the refrigerant returns to its liquid state and returns again to the exchanger and repeats the cycle until a thermostat indicates the proper room temperature has been reached.

It is the process of boiling and condensing a refrigerant under different pressures that creates the heat exchange. Useful heat exists in this boiling/condensing cycle, regardless of the actual boiling point of the refrigerant. As long as heat collection side is above absolute zero, there will be heat to extract. Consider the home refrigerator: cold is not being generated in the freezer, rather heat is being extracted from the freezer and released via the heat coils on the back of the fridge.

The refrigerant cycle can happen in either direction, and some types of heat pumps are designed to work as both heating and air conditioning units by reversing the direction of flow of the refrigerant.

There are three broad categories of heat pumps for residential use:

Ground Source Heat Pumps (GSHP) – The source of heat is the stable temperature of the ground (below the frost line in cold climates). Base ground temperature is very reliable and steady, and the ground provides a large surface area and capacity for heat exchange. Most GSHPs are reversible and can provide heat and cooling.

Air Source Heat Pumps (ASHP) – The source of heat is the ambient air temperature outside the building. As this temperature can be quite variable, different refrigerants and/or pumps are used to continuously extract useful heat from changing air temperature. Most ASHPs are reversible and can provide heat and cooling.

Air Conditioners (AC) – The source of heat is the uncomfortably warm air that is affecting comfort. These units provide cooling only.

Efficiencies for heat pumps far exceed those of combustion devices. The amount of energy input to provide compression of the refrigerant is significantly lower than the amount of heat energy that is extracted from the process and this how manufacturers claim efficiencies ranging from 200-500%. The heat is not “free” as some claim, but for every one unit of electrical energy applied to the system, 2-4 units of heat are returned. The systems don’t work without the electric motors, but they are much more efficient than combustion devices.

While there is no combustion and therefore no exhaust gasses from heat pumps, environmental impacts will vary depending on the source of electricity used to power the system. The refrigerants used can also be powerful greenhouse gasses, though stricter regulations are resulting in less damaging formulations.

4) Electric Resistance Heat

Electrical current can be passed through a resistive conductor to produce heat. This type of heat production is known as resistive, Joule or ohmic heating. The heat produced is proportional to the square of the current multiplied by the electrical resistance of the wire or element. The amount of current supplied can be adjusted to vary the heat output. Heat energy may be supplied through convection and/or infrared radiation depending on the kind of heating element used.

Efficiency of electrical resistance heating is considered to be 100%, as all the potential energy in the current is converted to heat. However, many sources of electrical power are less than 100% efficient, so overall system performance must take into account the type of generation used to supply the electricity.

The type of generation will also determine the environmental impacts, which can range from high for coal-fired power plants (with delivered power efficiencies as low as 35%) to negligible for renewable energy streams like solar, wind and microhydro.

Means of Heat Delivery

Heat flow always moves from a warmer object to a colder one. Heat flow can occur in three ways:

Conduction – Heat energy is transferred from a warmer object to a colder one by direct contact.

Convection – Heat energy is transferred from a warmer object to the air surrounding the object and then to cooler objects in contact with the warmed air. Warmed air become less dense and rises, creating convection currents that affect objects in the path of the current.

Radiation – Heat energy is transferred from a warmer object to a cooler object by electromagnetic waves, caused by energy released by excited atoms.

Heat transfer

Heat transfer

These neat categorizations do not adequately describe heat delivery systems in buildings, as any heating system will warm a space in all three ways to varying degrees. Consider the element on an electric range: anything that touches the hot element will be heated by conduction. At the same time, air near the element will be warmed, become buoyant and warm objects near the range by convection and the heated element will radiate heat to nearby cooler objects, warming the surface of the range and nearby utensils that are not touching the element nor in the path of heated air.

Certain heating systems will rely on one of these methods of heat flow more than others, but cannot be categorized by a particular kind of heat flow.

Instead, it is more useful to consider heating systems in regard to the medium of delivery, of which there are two. Almost any kind of heat production can be twinned with any kind of delivery system.

1) Air Delivery

Passive Air Delivery – These systems rely only on natural convection currents to move heat from a source to the desired locations in the building. No fans or ducts are used to direct warmed air.

Active Air Delivery – These systems use some form of mechanical energy to force air movement in a desired direction. Ductwork is often used to deliver a concentrated stream of warmed air to a particular location.

Air can be an effective medium for delivering heat in some circumstances. It is not very dense, and it is therefore easy to change the temperature of a large volume of air quite quickly. The energy required to move air from one location to another is low, as it flows and changes direction easily and large volumes can be moved quickly. Natural convection loops of rising warmed air and falling cool air can be exploited to good effect to contribute some or all of the required flow.

Occupants in buildings will feel heated air against their skin and have an immediate awareness of warmth and perceived comfort.

These advantages of air as a heating medium are also the disadvantages. The low density of air means that it loses its heat very quickly to more dense objects; raising the temperature of objects in a building via air flow can take a long time, and often objects and the surfaces of the building remain significantly cooler than the ambient air temperature. This can lead to discomfort as the warm occupants in the home will unwittingly be trying to heat the building’s surfaces radiantly, one of the reasons it’s possible to feel a “chill” even in a warm building.

The convection loops associated with air delivery ensure that the warmest area of the building is at the ceiling and the coolest is at the floor. Since occupants reside on the lower side of this balance, some heat is “wasted” by being concentrated outside the contact zone for occupants. Convection loops can also cause cool air to move against occupants in some areas of the building, causing the feeling of chilly drafts even in an air tight building.

In forced air systems with ductwork and fans, the layout must be done carefully if it is going to be efficient. Limiting the number of bends and restrictions increases flow, and proper positioning of outlets can reduce unwanted convection loops and create a relatively even distribution of heat.

Air heating systems will move a significant amount of dust and allergens as it flows. In forced air systems, inline filtration is highly recommended. For natural convection systems, an active filtration system is worth considering.

2) Hydronic Delivery

Using a fluid (typically water) to transfer heat from a source to a destination is a strategy with a long history. Water has a high capacity for absorbing and releasing heat in the range of temperatures used in buildings, and its high density means it can store a lot of heat.

Hydronic heating systems are often called “radiant” heating systems, especially when the heat is delivered to an entire floor area, but this is not an accurate description. Floor heat is conducted through feet, and a very even and useful form of convection accompanies the radiant transfer of heat.

Hydronic heat delivery can be achieved via a radiator that has a lot of surface area. Radiators can be the floor, walls and/or ceilings of the building, or purpose-built radiator systems. Water-to-air systems use a radiator inside forced air ductwork to create a hybrid system.

In all of these systems, produced heat is absorbed into the transfer fluid and moved through pipes through the action of a mechanical pump. The fluid is delivered through branch pipes to the point(s) of delivery where the heat is released, before being recirculated to the heat source again.

Hydronic heating systems will take a longer time to deliver perceptible heat, as the water requires more heat input to reach a perceptible temperature change. Once delivered to the radiator, the quantity of heat in the mass of the water and radiator creates much slower release times. The mass of air (and in some systems, even people) in the building will be lower than the heated mass, and all will rapidly be warmed to the radiator’s temperature without “draining” the radiator of its stored heat, resulting in longer but less frequent cycling of the heating system compared to air systems.

The design of hydronic systems needs to account for the surface area and distribution of the radiator(s), the length of piping and head, and the temperatures required to provide comfort based on the radiator layout. Systems can be quite simple, with a single pump and just a few radiator loops, or they can be complex with multiple pumps and valves responding to individual thermostats in each radiator zone.

Heating System Design: Heat Loss Calculation

Regardless of type of heat production and means of delivery, the design of an effective heating system starts with an accurate assessment of the expected heating needs for the building. This is achieve through the completion of a heat loss calculation. Many building codes now require such a calculation, and even if it is not a legal requirement it is recommended. Oversized or undersized heating systems are not efficient, and will cost a lot more than the calculation.

There are free, simple spreadsheets that can be used for heat loss calculations. These involve gathering dimensions for wall, floor, ceiling, window and door surface areas from the building plans and assigning each its expected heat loss rate (U-value or R-value). These figures are tallied and factored with the number of degree days and minimum anticipated temperature. The results include the hourly heat loss for the coldest expected day (expressed as BTU/hr) and total yearly heat loss (in millions of BTU).

More complex and comprehensive computer modeling programs will include more variables in the calculation, giving consideration to solar gain, thermal bridging in the building enclosure, anticipated air leakage rates and occupant behaviour among other factors. The more detailed the calculation, the more useful the resulting figures for sizing heating systems.

The hourly heat loss figure determines the maximum required output of the heating system, and the total yearly heat loss helps to anticipate energy requirements and costs. Figures from a good heat loss calculation also allow the design of the building to be tweaked for maximum efficiency at the design stage, as variables can be adjusted to determine ideal levels of insulation, window size and quality and air tightness.

With the parameters established by the results of the heat loss calculation, the particulars of the system can be designed to meet these needs in the most efficient and comfortable way.

Making Better Buildings book

This content is based on the book Making Better Buildings by Chris Magwood. 

Rammed Earth Construction Basics

Rammed earth construction basics

How does rammed earth construction rate? This introduction to rammed earth construction is from the book Making Better Buildings: A Comparative Guide to Sustainable Construction for Homeowners and Contractors, by Chris Magwood from the Endeavour Centre. The book gives unbiased information about all the different sustainable building material options.

Applications for rammed earth wall systems

  • Load-bearing wall systems
  • Interior walls
  • Built-in furniture, benches
  • Decorative elements

Basic materials

  • Earth
  • Stabilizer (cement or lime where required)
  • Insulation (where required)
  • Water-resistant finish (where required)

Control layers

Water control  — The finished rammed earth is typically the water control layer. It is possible to use vapor-permeable, water-resistant finishes on the rammed earth surface or to include water-resistant additives in the earth mix before ramming. Additional cladding over the rammed earth is feasible but rarely done.

Air and vapor control — Solid, continuous and dense, rammed earth is an effective air and vapor control layer.

Thermal control — A rammed earth wall requires an additional thermal control layer in hot or cold climates (see Thermal Mass vs. Insulation sidebar). This layer can be on the interior, exterior or center of the wall, and is typically a rigid insulation.

How rammed earth construction works

A lightly moistened earth mix with a relatively low clay content (10%–30% is common) is placed into forms in lifts, then tamped heavily to achieve a desired level of compaction. The soil mix varies by region and builder, but it is common to “stabilize” the mix with a small amount (3%–9%) of portland cement or other hydraulic binder.

The walls are built up in continuous lifts to full height. Often they are built in sections, so that formwork is not needed continuously around the building.

Window and door openings are usually created using a wooden “volume displacement box” or VDB. These VDBs hold the place of the window or door as tamping occurs around them. Once the wall is complete the VDB is removed, leaving a well-formed opening in the wall.

For large openings, lintels of wood, concrete or steel can be used above the opening; these are often buried in the rammed earth so they cannot be seen in the finished wall.

Electrical wiring and switch boxes (or conduits to receive them) are placed in the formwork before adding earth and tamping, and are formed right into the wall. Surface mounting after construction is also possible.

At the top of a rammed earth wall is a bond beam made of poured concrete, wood or steel. The beam is fastened to the top of the wall to provide a continuous attachment point for a roof. The method of fastening will depend on expected wind and seismic loads.

In hot or cold climates, insulation is part of a rammed earth wall system. The insulation can be a continuous wrap on the interior or exterior of the wall, but more commonly it is centered in the wall. Types of insulation used will vary with climate, availability, compressive strength and environmental factors.

Rammed earth walls are usually left exposed to provide the finished surface. A variety of sealants can be used on the raw earth to leave it visible but add protection from water. Plasters and others sidings are rarely used but are possible finishes.

Tips for successful rammed earth walls

  1. Formwork is the key to building with rammed earth, and the better the formwork the faster and more accurate the construction. Forms must be able to withstand the considerable forces of ramming the earth within and be able to be assembled and disassembled with a minimum of effort. Formwork that is reusable can help keep costs down. Check with experienced builders to see what formwork systems are being used successfully.
  2. Soils used for rammed earth must be very well mixed and not too wet. An even distribution of clay and any additional binders (cement, slag, lime, fly ash) is crucial to final wall strength. Rammed earth mixes do not benefit from the plasticity that water adds, and require plenty of mechanical mixing to achieve best results instead.
  3. Test potential soils before using. The makeup of the soil is critical to the performance of the wall. A lot of soil is required to make a rammed earth wall, and changes in its composition will mean that mixes may need to change too. Compact samples of the earth and use reliable sources to determine whether or not you will need stabilizers, and which ones are most appropriate for the soil type.
  4. Plan mechanical systems and wall openings carefully, as modifying rammed earth walls is time-consuming. If services are to be run within the walls, consider using conduit so that you can make changes and repairs without opening the wall.
  5. Avoid finishes that will reduce or eliminate the permeability of the rammed earth wall.
  6. If you are building your own home, consider buying the equipment you will need to dig, mix and tamp the earth. It can be much less costly to buy used equipment and re-sell it at the end of a project than to rent it for a long period of time.

        Pros and cons of rammed earth construction

Environmental impacts

Harvesting — Negligible to Moderate. Site soil can be harvested with negligible impacts. Amending materials like sand and cement have low to moderate impacts including habitat destruction and water contamination from quarrying.

Steel for reinforcing bar is extracted in a high-impact manner, with effects including habitat destruction and ground water contamination.

Manufacturing — Negligible to Moderate. Soil can be extracted and processed with negligible to low impacts.

Portland cement, if used, is fired at extremely high temperatures and has high impacts including fossil fuel use, air and water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Steel reinforcement bar is made in a high-heat process that uses a lot of fossil fuel, and has impacts that include air and water pollution.

Transportation — Negligible to Moderate.

Sample building uses 79,410 – 105,666 kg of rammed earth:

74.6 – 99.3 MJ per km by 35 ton truck

Soil, cement and steel are heavy materials, and accrue significant impacts proportional to distance traveled.

Installation — Negligible to Moderate. The process of ramming the soil mixture can be done manually with negligible impact. More often, hydraulic machinery is used, with moderate impacts depending on power source.

Embodied carbon & energy of rammed earth construction:

rammed earth construction embodied carbon

Waste from rammed earth construction: Low

Biodegradable/Compostable — All leftover earth materials.

Recyclable — Metal reinforcement bar.

Landfill — Manufactured insulation offcuts, cement bags.

Energy efficiency of rammed earth: Low to High

A rammed earth wall has a lot of thermal mass and can easily be an airtight wall system, but it has no inherent insulation value (see Thermal Mass vs. Insulation sidebar). The overall energy efficiency of a rammed earth wall system will depend on the insulation strategy. Insulation can be placed on either the interior or exterior of the wall or a double wythe system can have insulation in the middle of the wall.

Insulation on either side of the wall will force a builder to create a finished surface over the insulation, which adds cost and complexity to the wall system and isolates all of the available thermal mass on one side or the other. Core insulation is more effective and leaves the rammed earth as the finish on both sides, but complicates the forming and tamping process and limits choice of insulation to materials that can resist the compressive forces of the tamping process.

Material costs of rammed earth construction: Negligible to Moderate

Components for good rammed earth may be sourced on site at negligible cost, but pre-mixed versions with Portland cement stabilizers may be moderately expensive. The addition of rigid foam insulation between two wythes of rammed earth will raise costs considerably.

Labor input of rammed earth construction: High to Very High

Rammed earth construction is labor intensive. The use of machinery can reduce the amount of labor involved in excavating, mixing and tamping earth, but even machine time can be extensive. Building, erecting and disassembling formwork takes a lot of time regardless of tamping method. However, when used as the finished wall surface, a rammed earth wall eliminates the need for steps often required to sheath and finish other walls.

Skill level required for rammed earth construction: Moderate to High

Mixing and tamping soil does not require prior experience, but the creation and use of formwork does, as does the operation of excavation and dirt-moving machinery. A first-time builder will want some training or experience prior to undertaking a major rammed earth project.

Sourcing/availability of rammed earth materials: Easy to Moderate

Soils suitable for rammed earth construction are widely available, as are the ingredients for amending soils that are not inherently suitable. The equipment used for excavating and tamping earth is common to other more conventional construction activities and should be easy to source.

Insulation materials will vary in availability depending on type and location.

Durability of rammed earth construction: Moderate to High

Rammed earth buildings have a long history in many parts of the world, with some examples lasting well over a thousand years. Erosion and/or spalling caused by excessive wetting are the main causes of failure. Creating adequate roof overhangs and site drainage can control this. Water repellents are sometimes mixed into the rammed earth or applied over exposed surfaces. These must not affect the strength of the mix or overly reduce permeability. Plasters and other forms of siding can also prevent moisture damage.

Rammed earth, like all soil-based construction types, can be repaired quite easily if damaged, by the addition of new soil mix.

Code compliance of rammed earth construction

Rammed earth construction is an accepted solution in some building codes, in regions where the technique has historical precedent. A good deal of testing and modeling of rammed earth walls has been done around the world, and the available data is usually sufficient to justify the use of rammed earth as a load-bearing wall for one- and two-story structures. A structural engineer may be needed to approve drawings to obtain a permit.

Indoor air quality of rammed earth construction: High

Uncontaminated earth is generally agreed to have no inherently dangerous elements and is consistent with the aims of high indoor air quality.

Soil contamination, from natural sources like radon or synthetic sources like petrochemicals, is possible, and it is wise to inspect and/or test soils carefully before using them to build a house.

Future development of rammed earth construction

Code development for rammed earth is moving forward in several countries, including the US and Australia. Widespread code acceptance is likely to encourage more rammed earth construction.

As the basics of rammed earth construction have remained the same for thousands of years, revolutionary developments in technique are unlikely. However, processes to reduce labor input for formwork and soil mixing and tamping are likely to be streamlined, making the system more affordable.

How does rammed earth construction rate?

rammed earth construction

 

Resources for rammed earth construction

Walker, Peter. Rammed Earth: Design and Construction Guidelines. Watford, UK: BRE hop, 2005. Print.

Easton, David. The Rammed Earth House. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 1996. Print.

Minke, Gernot. Earth Construction Handbook: The Building Material Earth in Modern Architecture. Southampton, UK: WIT, 2000. Print.

Rael, Ronald. Earth Architecture. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2009. Print.

Morton, Tom. Earth Masonry: Design and Construction Guidelines. Bracknell, UK: IHS BRE, 2008. Print.

Jaquin, Paul, and Charles Augarde. Earth Building: History, Science and Conservation. Bracknell, UK: IHS BRE, 2012. Print.

Keefe, Laurence. Earth Building: Methods and Materials, Repair and Conservation. London: Taylor & Francis, 2005. Print.

McHenry, Paul Graham. Adobe and Rammed Earth Buildings: Design and Construction. Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona, 1989. Print.

 

Essential Sustainable Home Design

FREE CHAPTER OF NEW BOOK! Essential Sustainable Home Design is the latest book by Endeavour’s Chris Magwood. Get a sneak peak at the book that’s based on our popular Design Your Own Sustainable Home workshop.

Many people dream of building a beautiful, environmentally friendly home. But until now there has been no systematic guide to help potential builders work through the complete process of imagining, planning, designing, and building their ideal, sustainable home.

Essential Sustainable Home Design walks potential homebuilders through the process using key concepts, principles, and a project matrix that will guide the house to successful completion.

The book includes:

  • How to clarify your ideas and create a practical pathway to achieving your dream
  • A criteria matrix to guide design, material, and systems decisions
  • Creating a strong, integrated design team and working with professionals and code officials to keep the project on track from start to finish
  • Key building science concepts that make for a high-performance, durable building
  • Primer on building logistics, material sourcing, and protocols to ensure that the initial vision for the project comes to fruition
  • One-page summaries and ratings of popular sustainable building materials and system options.

Ideal for owner-builders and sustainable building contractors working with clients aiming to design and build a sustainable home.

Download a PDF of the Building Permits chapter.

ESSENTIAL SUSTAINABLE HOME DESIGN IS AVAILABLE FOR PRE-ORDER NOW!

Peterborough Tool Library – New at Endeavour

Peterborough Tool Library – New at Endeavour

The Endeavour Centre is now more than just a sustainable building school! In June, we also opened the Peterborough Tool Library.

A tool library is like a typical library, but for tools instead of books. The Peterborough Tool Library allows community members to borrow from a large inventory of power and hand tools and take those tools home to use them. 

Endeavour director Jen Feigin had the idea to start the tool library, and she and her team of dedicated volunteers got the library up and running with an Indiegogo campaign that pre-sold memberships. They’ve been running the library for over 6 months now, with new members joining all the time. There is a dedicated group managing tool repairs and maintenance, and the inventory is constantly expanding.

For just $50 a year members can start borrowing tools… undertaking their own building and repair projects.

The Peterborough Tool Library is a community resource that will support independence, creativity, and sharing in our community!  

Jumbo bales and hempcrete – together!

Fifth Wind Farms wanted to create a building that could reach the energy efficiency requirements of the Passive House standard without resorting to the use of foam, mineral wool or other materials with a high carbon footprint. While straw bale buildings can have excellent energy performance, typical straw bale construction does not meet the Passive House standard without the addition of an extra layer of insulation (see our “Straw-Cell” project for a different take on this idea).

Jumbo straw bale duplex home

First jumbo bale in place (on a bed of Poraver insulation)

The building owner proposed the use of “jumbo bales,” which are produced from the same local straw and by the same low-carbon machinery, but are of dimensions that greatly increase their thermal performance. While typical straw bales are 14″ x 18″ x 32″, the jumbo bales used for this project measure 32″ x 32″ x 60″! At a nominal R-value of 2.0 per inch, that would give a jumbo bale wall a rating in the range of R-60, more than enough to help the building meet any energy efficiency rating.

However, the jumbo bales provide some issues when it comes to window and door openings… with a wall that thick, window sills and returns are extremely deep, creating not just aesthetic concerns but also concerns about air flow in the deeply recessed bays and the likelihood of condensation forming on the windows in cold weather.

Our solution was to form the window sections at a wall depth of 16″ using double stud framing and hempcrete as the infill insulation. This would keep us on track as far as low carbon footprint is concerned, and the hempcrete would be used to create the tapered window returns to meet the full depth of the bale walls. As a bonus, the hempcrete would completely fill any voids at the ends of the jumbo bales.

One issue with using jumbo bales: they weigh over 500 pounds each! We used a boom truck to install them in the building. With the bales in place and the top plate secured over the bales, we then mixed our hempcrete (you can find our recipe here) and tamped it into the framing and around the jumbo bales. The two materials are very complimentary, with the easily-formed hempcrete able to compensate for the uneven ends of the jumbo bales and creating smooth window returns.

 

The building is currently being prepared for plastering… more posts to follow soon!

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