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Getting Rid of Radon

Those of you who follow Endeavour’s work will know that we take indoor environment quality very seriously. Every material that comes into one of our buildings is carefully vetted for its chemical content, and all of our finishes are chosen to be non-toxic. We pride ourselves on making buildings that have the best possible indoor air and water quality for the occupants. This is an aspect of sustainable building that is all too often forgotten, or given minor consideration via the use of low-VOC paints or other small steps.

Radon concentrations in Southern Ontario

http://www.carexcanada.ca/en/radon/environmental_estimate/#provincial_tables_and_maps+maps

We have long been aware of the issue of radon gas; the presence of radon gas is an important consideration when trying to create excellent indoor environment quality. Health Canada says: “Radon is a colorless, odorless and tasteless gas formed by the natural breakdown of uranium in soil, rocks and water. It seeps from the ground, and small amounts of radon are always present in the air. If radon gas enters a closed space like a home, it can build to higher concentrations. Radon is radioactive, and potentially carcinogenic if enough of the gas builds up. It is estimated that radon exposure is responsible for about 10 per cent of lung cancer cases in Canada, second only to smoking. Health Canada estimates that 1,900 Canadians died in 2006 from lung cancer resulting from radon exposure.”

Radon measurement table

Table from http://www.carexcanada.ca/en/radon/environmental_estimate/#provincial_tables_and_maps+maps

When building our Canada’s Greenest Home project, we certainly considered the issue of radon, but after consulting some radon concentration maps and the Peterborough City-County Health Unit’s radon measurements in area homes, we didn’t think that radon would be an issue for this home. Especially considering the heavy duty vapour barrier and careful air sealing we knew we’d be doing, we thought the risk was extremely low.

However, a radon test of the basement – an integral part of getting our LEED Platinum certification – showed that we had very high levels. A long term (3-month) test gave results of 485 Bq/m3 (Becquerel per cubic metre), well above the Canadian acceptable limit of 200 Bq/m3, which itself is above the World Health Organization‘s recommended limit of 100 Bq/m3.

Despite the dangers of long-term exposure to radon gas, it is not so difficult to remedy a high reading, especially in a well-built home with a good basement.

We bought a testing device ($150) and an extraction fan ($250) from Radon Detect. The testing device can give short term (48 hour) and long term readings of radon levels. When we first plugged it in, we had readings in the 370 Bq/m3 range.

The process for lowering the radon level is to drill a hole in the basement slab to extend a 4-inch pipe down into the gravel below. This pipe is then directed out of the building through the basement wall to exhaust outside. We chose to use a fan mounted outdoors, but there are indoor options as well.

Our readings on the meter dropped by over 100 Bq/m3 to 223 Bq/m3 by just installing the 4-inch pipe, prior to hooking the fan up to the power source! Within 48 hours of turning on the fan, the meter was reading just 5 Bq/m3, well below any level of concern.

What is of concern, however, is that all the available information indicated to us that the Peterborough area is considered quite safe from radon, with the Health Unit reporting that only 8% of homes tested higher than 200 Bq/m3. However, the operator of Radon Detect told us that every home he’s ever seen tested in Peterborough has been higher than that, and certainly our readings were very high. Since radon comes from radioactive decomposition of rock and soil, this would indicated that at least our closest neighbours likely have high radon levels, and that high levels may exist in many more homes than we were led to believe. We were double the already-high allowable limit from Health Canada. At least now we own the testing equipment to help others see if they have high levels of radon.

 

 

Teachers’ Union Office Building slideshow

In 2014, Endeavour’s Sustainable New Construction program built a new office building for the Trillium Lakelands Elementary Teachers’ Local in Lindsay, Ontario. The goal was to combine Passive House energy efficiency with low-impact, local and non-toxic materials.

The photo gallery below shows the entire build from start to finish. Click on a photo to view the slide show in full size:

Root Cellar Reports

In 2012, Endeavour helped to build a subterranean earthbag root cellar for the The Seasoned Spoon Cafe at Trent University. It was a fascinating project for which we could find very little in the way of research or documentation on which to base our design and systems. Now, after operating for three winters, this root cellar has been the focus of a research project by Martine Cleary through the Trent Community Research Centre.

Martine produced two documents from her research:

The results of her work are very interesting, and will change the way we approach root cellar design in the future.

Earth Coupling Strategy
Our approach with the Seasoned Spoon root cellar was to try to have the base subterranean soil temperature be the determining influence on the root cellar temperature. The cellar was designed to be entirely earth bermed, with the walls buried in soil and the roof covered with a minimum of 2ft of soil. To keep the cellar from getting too cold, we insulated the roof area as we were concerned that outdoor temperature might cool the cellar down too much. The ventilation tubes for the cellar were run around the perimeter of the footings before we backfilled, providing 60-70 feet of “earth-tube” for each of the two intake pipes, and this was also done to ensure that freezing winter air was tempered so as to not lower the cellar temperature.

Need More Cold Air Influence
As it turns out, the base soil temperature is warmer than the cellar would be, ideally, and that we actually could have used the sub-zero air temperatures to bring the root cellar into its ideal temperature range of 1-4C. With that in mind, we would strongly consider leaving a portion of the cellar unburied and exposed to the winter air. And we would definitely have the fresh air intakes come directly from outside and into the cellar, which would help to bring the temperatures down in a controlled manner.

Buried quonset hut root cellar by Endeavour Centre

The completed root cellar lies under a blanket of snow, which helps to insulate the structure

At the Circle Organic Farm root cellar, we had concerns that the exposed end of the buried quonset hut that forms the cellar would make the cellar too cold in the winter. But from Martine’s report, it looks like that cellar stays much closer to the optimum temperature because of the influence of low outdoor temperatures.

Root Cellaring Definitely Viable
We were happy to see in the report that the potatoes and carrots studied in Martine’s paper did well (often better than the samples that were refrigerated!), and that a growing number of farms are looking to modernize this low-tech and low-energy means of winter food storage. We’ll be excited the next time such a project comes our way!

All About Natural Paint

There is no easier or better place to shift away from toxic petrochemicals and move to using natural, non-toxic options than with the paint we put on our walls.

Anybody Can (and Should) Do This
We hear from many people who wish they could build a home with natural materials, but because they live in an existing home they seem to feel there is no way for them to use natural materials. But using natural paints is something that anybody can do, at any time, in any home, and on any wall surface. And the benefits are profound. In terms of your family’s health, it can be better to have a non-natural home painted with natural finishes than to have a natural home painted with toxic petrochemicals. Natural paints are also better for the planet.

Why Not Just Use No-VOC Paint?
By all appearances, the paint industry seems to be getting “greener.” So why not just choose a good no-VOC paint and use that? Turns out, there are quite a few reasons. Firstly, paints labelled as “Low-VOC” or “No-VOC” are far from being non-toxic. Secondly, the petrochemical paint industry has a huge environmental and carbon footprint.

The Dirty Secret About No-VOC Paintdisturbing paint facts
The impetus to reduce the quantities of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from paints actually had nothing to do with human health concerns. VOC reductions were imposed on the paint industry because they contributed to smog, and only those VOCs that directly contribute to low-level ozone production are covered by these regulations. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the body that first imposed VOC restrictions, has this to say after testing a range of paints that qualify as low-VOC and finding surprisingly high concentrations of VOCs:

“EPA Reference Method 24 is probably not an adequate method for measuring the VOC content of low-VOC latex paints. …Current bulk analysis and emission test results showed that the VOC contents of low-VOC latex paints are well within the uncertainty range of Method 24, and the method is apparently not precise enough to accurately define the VOC content of those paints.” –Inside IAQ EPA/600/N-98/003

What If It’s Labelled as “Green”
There are some labelling programs that do ensure acrylic (commonly called “latex”) paints are less harmful to occupants. However, the most common labels do not. GreenGuard and Ecologo are the labels most commonly seen in paint stores. They are administered by Underwriters’ Laboratories (UL). Here’s what that standard has to say about its commitment to human health:

“1.14 While this practice lists specific chemicals and associated maximum allowable concentrations, as required by criteria indoor air procedures and specifications, it does not assess the human risk involved with use of the materials either as an installer and/or as an end user.” –UL 2821

green seal logoIf you want to trust a label, find paints certified by GreenSeal GS-11. This is the only standard I can find that actually excludes a wide range of toxic chemicals and has a direct concern for human health.

And Even If It’s Got a Good Green Label…

Despite the fact that they are called “water-based,” all acrylic paints are made from petrochemicals. Coatings consumption worldwide reached 80 billion pounds and $120 billion in value in 2013, according to “Global Paint & Coatings, 2013-2018,” by polymer and chemical market researchers Kusumgar, Nerlfi & Growney. That means that our use of petrochemical paint carries with it the same environmental impacts as any use of crude oil. Don’t like offshore drilling, oil sands, pipelines, greenhouse gas emissions, oil spills, etc? Every time we use acrylic paint, we contribute to all those impacts.

From raw material harvesting through production and end-of-life waste, the 80

From raw material harvesting through production and end-of-life waste, the 80 billion pounds of paints produced annually have a massive impact on the environment.

The embodied energy and embodied carbon emissions of acrylic paint are also very high. Using data from the Inventory of Carbon and Energy V2.0, the paint needed to coat the interior of a typical 2,000 square foot home (primer and two coats of finish) would use about 7,300 megajoules (MJ) of energy to produce, and emit 303 kg of carbon dioxides (or equivalents). That’s the energy in 1.5 barrels of crude oil or 61 gallons of gasoline required to paint every home, and somewhere in the neighbourhood of the same weight in CO2 emissions as the combined weights of the home’s inhabitants!

Now the Good News!
Don’t want to inhale toxic chemicals or contribute to oil spills and climate change? The good news is that there are plenty of accessible, affordable and practical paint options available that are non-toxic and low-impact. Most of the paint manufacturers listed here provide full disclosure of their ingredient lists, meaning that there are no hidden toxins. All have been recommended by people with chemical sensitivities.

Natural paints come in a number of different categories, based on the type of binder they use, and each type of paint has a range of different surfaces it may be used on:

Natural Oil Paints

  • Drying oils (linseed, sunflower, tung, etc) polymerize when exposed to air
  • Some natural oil paints are emulsified with water
  • Indoor & outdoor use
  • Used on almost any substrate

Although many people will have an initial negative reaction to the idea of “oil paints,” these bad associations are from very toxic petrochemical oil paints. Natural oil paints are a whole different breed. The emulsified oil paints are the most straightforward natural paints to use, and give results that are consistent with modern petrochemical paints. Washable, durable and tinted to any available colours, these paints can be used to replace conventional acrylic and alkyd paints with no change to expectations about application, coverage and durability. All the brands we’ve used are non-toxic and fully bio-degradable. Most can be obtained in just about any imaginable tint.

Auro Wall Paint, available in Canada from Tockay
Allback Linseed Oil Paint available in Canada from Living Rooms
AFM Safecoat Naturals available in Canada from Living Rooms
Kreidezeit Wall Paint, available in Canada from Tockay

Lime Paints

  • Calcium carbonate binder, often with additional natural binders
  • Indoor use (outdoor use for lime washes)
  • Most wall substrates, surface prep may be req’d

Lime paints have been used for thousands of years, and the modern versions are excellent products that can be used on most wall surfaces. Naturally anti-septic, these paints come in a variety of textures from quite smooth to quite grainy. They add a depth and beauty that is hard to explain but is immediately obvious upon seeing them. They are durable and do not wash away with water. They are an excellent choice for any wall that receives light to heavy contact, and are available in a wide range of colours.

Kreidezeit Lime Paint, available in Canada from Tockay
Auro Lime Paint, available in Canada from Tockay

Clay Paints

Non-toxic paints

Kreidezeit clay paint can be brushed or rolled onto wall surfaces primed with a casein primer

  • Natural clay binder, often with additional natural binders
  • Indoor use only
  • Most wall substrates, surface prep may be req’d

Clay paints are the champions of low-impact and low-toxicity. The fact that they are gorgeous to look at is an additional bonus! A variety of grain sizes and tints are available. They are durable (no dusting, will not brush off the wall) but are not washable. They can handle some direct wetting, but will wash off with scrubbing or constant abrasion. Good for use on any wall that does not receive direct wetting or a lot of touching/contact.

Kreidezeit Clay Paint, available in Canada from Tockay

Casein Paints

  • Milk or vegetable casein binder, often with additional natural binders
  • Indoor use only
  • Most wall substrates, wood

Casein paints can be made from vegetable or milk casein. Similar to the clay paints, they are capable of dealing with some wetting and abrasion, but shouldn’t be used in places where this will happen consistently. A wide variety of tints are available. They can be used on walls, and also on raw wood.

Homestead House Milk Paint, available from Homestead House
Kreidezeit Vegetable Casein Paint, available from Tockay

Mineral Paints

Non-toxic paint

Eco-House silicate dispersion paint can be used on interior and exterior mineral surfaces

  • Potassium or sodium silicate (“waterglass”)
  • Indoor & outdoor use
  • Mineral substrates only (plaster, brick, concrete, etc)

Silicate dispersion paints are unique in that they don’t coat a surface, they mineralize onto the mineral surface and become an integral part of the surface. This makes them extremely durable. We use them a lot as a finish for exterior plasters, where they have the Goretex-like effect of protecting walls from bulk water penetration, but maintain the permeability of the plaster. They can be used indoors or outdoors on any surface that is mineral-based, including clay & lime plasters, concrete, brick, stucco and stone. They come in a wide range of colours, and colour matching is available.

Eco-House Silicate Dispersion Paint, available in Canada from Perma-Tint

Non-toxic Clean-up
One of the unsung benefits of using any of these paints is that they are all biodegradable. Even the “cleanest” conventional paints have a petrochemical base that ends up in waterways or in soil during cleanup, with an aggregate of thousands of gallons entering the ecosystem annually. Natural paints clean easily and the wash water can safely go into septic systems or onto the ground.

So Many Viable Options
All of the paints listed here are products that we have used with excellent results. Each type of paint has specific uses and surfaces, meaning there is no surface in or on a home that cannot be treated with a natural paint. Costs tend to be slightly higher than mid-range conventional paints, and in line with higher-end conventional options. None of these paints are unaffordable, and the slight extra cost is a small price to pay to be surrounded by non-toxic surfaces that are not off-gassing into your home, and did not have a deep impact on the environment. A worthy investment for any home!

Want to Try These Paints?
Endeavour’s Eco-Paints workshop is a day long opportunity to learn all about natural paints, and to actually use all of the paints mentioned above.

May 2015 Workshops

We’ve got a great line-up of workshops for the month of May! From planning for your own build or renovation to putting on the finishing touches, there’s something for everybody this month! Find details here.

The Art and Science of Natural Plaster DVD Now Available

The Art and Science of Natural Plaster is a 140-minute DVD created to help homeowners figure out how to use natural plasters on their own projects, created and narrated by Chris Magwood of Endeavour Centre. The
DVD is now available for purchase through PlasterScience.com in hard copy or online streaming formats.

Produced by Bart Glumineau, a graduate of Endeavour’s Sustainable New Construction program in 2013, and co-founder of PossibleMedia.org, creating original video content to share the stories of individuals and groups of people who are actively engaged in creating a better, more sustainable future.

The DVD covers base coat and finish coat mixes and applications that are suitable for a wide range of sustainable and conventional wall surfaces, from cob and straw bale to drywall. Chapters include:

  • Introduction to Plaster
  • Types of Plaster
  • Substrates and Substrate Preparation
  • Mixing
  • Tools and Trowels
  • Body Coat Application
  • Finish Coat Application
  • Paints, Washes and Sealants
  • Repair and Maintenance of Plasters

Much of the hands-on footage for the DVD was filmed at Endeavour’s 2014 project, a straw bale office building for the local teachers’ union.

We are excited to have some of our teaching and methodology presented in an accessible video format, and hope that the DVD inspires more people to take up natural plastering on new builds and renovation projects!

A PassiveHouse Heating System

Passive House is a building certification program that focuses on dramatically improving the energy efficiency of new and renovated buildings. Overseen in this country by the Canadian Passive House Institute (CanPHI), the standard originated in Germany in the late 1980s and buildings that comply with the standard will have energy use reduced by 80-90% from current Canadian code requirements. Specifically, Passive House buildings must have an annual heating and cooling demand of not more than 15 kilowatt hours per square meter of building (15 kWh/m²) per year, and total primary energy (calculated as source energy, not metered energy at the building) must not exceed 120 kWh/m² per year. In addition, an air tight building enclosure is a requirement, with leakage no greater than 0.6 times the house volume per hour as tested with a blower door (0.6 ACH/hour at 50Pa).

The teachers’ union office is our first building designed to meet the Passive House standard, though we have used the Passive House software as our energy modelling software for the past three years. Although we were not intending to have the building certified, we wanted to meet the standard and achieve the energy reductions using our low-energy, low-impact range of building materials. We worked with Rob Blakeney of Local Impact Design to model the building and advise us on insulation levels, passive solar aspects and to design the heating system.

While the term “passive house” is an attractive one, it is quite misleading as the buildings do not feature passive (ie, non-mechanical) systems. In fact, Passive House buildings typically require a mechanical ventilation system to run 24 hours a day. The leap to Passive House standards means that conventional heating systems can often be left out of the design, and instead buildings can be heated with small amounts of heat input into the ventilation air distribution system or other low-input systems.

At the teachers’s union building, a 1 kilowatt heater is used in each of the three main ventilation air supply ducts to provide heat to the three offices. In general, this is the main source of heat for the building. A ductless mini-split air source heat pump is in place in the large meeting room and can provide additional heat capacity when required (though its inclusion in the system had more to do with meeting peak cooling demands in the summer). Through this year’s very cold February weather, the system had no problem keeping the building warm and comfortable… pretty impressive given that the heat source is the equivalent of running two toasters!

We were keen to build to Passive House standards because the most typical means to reach this level of performance has been to use a lot of foam insulation to achieve the necessary R-values and air tightness. We wanted to bring our low-impact, locally-sourced material palette to the challenge, using straw bales, cellulose, clay plaster and simple air tightness detailing to the highest levels of performance. In this way, we can lower both the energy use of the building, and also the embodied energy. Walking into the building when it is -25C outside and feeling the wash of warm, fresh air and knowing that the heat source is minuscule has been very satisfying!

Net metering PV now functional

The use of photovoltaics (PV) to generate electricity has been a common element on most of our projects. PV is affordable, easy to install, nearly maintenance free and very reliable. Once again, a PV array has been a key part of the energy strategy for an Endeavour project.

In Ontario, we are able to create grid-tied PV systems, allowing owners to sell some or all of their generated power to the utility company, and also to use grid power when necessary. Grid-tied PV can allow for systems that are sized to meet the owner’s needs, while still ensuring that power is available at all times. For PV to be used off-grid, generating capacity and storage capacity (in the form of batteries) must be sized to meet needs at the worst time of the year (mid-winter, when power needs are high and the amount of available sunlight is low), making the system expensive and likely to over-generate in the summer months.

There are two systems for owners to connect PV systems to the grid in Ontario:

  • Under the Micro-FIT program the system owner installs two meters, one for outgoing power being sold to the utility company and one for incoming power to be used in the building. The owner receives a cheque for the full value of power generated (currently 38.4 cents per kilowatt hour), and receives a bill for the full value of power consumed (currently around 11 cents per kilowatt hour). Under Micro-FIT, an owner can generate a financial profit even if production is less than consumption.
  • Under the Net Metering program the owner has a single meter, and that meter spins in two directions, “forward” when power is being consumed from the utility grid and “backward” when generation is greater than consumption. Under Net Metering, the power has the same monetary value in either direction. Should production outweigh consumption, a credit will be carried forward on the utility bill (up to a maximum of 11 months). At best, a Net Metering customer can reduce to zero the usage charges on their bill, but can never earn money.

The teachers’ union did not qualify to apply for a Micro-FIT contract, as the restrictions for the program have been growing ever narrower as it becomes more popular. However, with the cost of PV so low now, the economic argument for a Net Metering system is a reasonable one. Combine drastically lowered utility bills with reasonable pay back period and a desire to be part of a renewable energy solution, and you have the grounds for the union’s investment in this 7.5 kilowatt system.

Sean Flanagan of Flanagan and Sun came by this week to turn the system on. With the array and the outdoor connections already made, it was a simple process to turn on the inverter and make sure all the settings were right. Luckily, it was a fairly sunny day and we were able to see about 5 kilowatts of production head out onto the grid when the system became live.

The combination of the PV array and a contract with Bullfrog Power (which we strongly recommend to all our clients) means that 100% of the energy produced and used by this building is from renewable sources.

2015 Natural Building Workshop Schedule

Endeavour’s 2015 workshop schedule is our most extensive ever! Check out topics ranging from natural plastering to fundamentals of building science, earthen floors to straw bale construction… The link to our calendar is here, and from there you can jump to the details for each workshop.

2015 workshop list

Final “Report Card” for Canada’s Greenest Home

In 2012, we had a vision of creating a spec-home on an urban infill lot in central Peterborough, a home that would aspire to the very highest standards of sustainable building while also achieving a modern aesthetic that would appeal to a wide range of potential homeowners. We also wanted to build the home in a way that could be easily reproduced by any conventional contractor.

One of our key goals was to ensure that we weren’t just promising improved environmental performance, but that we were achieving measurable results. Having occupied the home for just over a year, we have now had a chance to monitor its performance and calculate a variety of metrics, comparing these to the more conventional homes that share the marketplace. We couldn’t be more pleased with the results, as summarized in the graphic above.

Performance statistics for Canada's Greenest Home

While the performance of the house marks a vast improvement over current practices, perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that this level of performance was not difficult to achieve. Any builder can hit this standard of performance, and do so within the cost range that is currently acceptable in the market. While this project made some more costly investments in PV, rainwater harvesting, composting toilets and solar hot water, a home built to the same level of performance without these “add-ons” would be entirely cost-competitive. And other than the solar income, most of the metrics above would not change if we didn’t invest in these technologies.

Literally anybody can do this type of building, and do it affordably. We intentionally chose to buy off-the-shelf or easily accessible materials and products, from Durisol foundation blocks to prefabricated straw bale wall panels to ready-made clay and lime paints. Everything in this home is available to builders, and every builder already has the skills to create something like this.

This feels like good news when we’re faced with an onslaught of doom-and-gloom news about the environment. Not that this home will save the planet, but when it comes to easily achieved results that have dramatic reductions in impact, the reproduction of homes like this could be a remarkable step in the right direction. Government forecasts show that the US expects about 1,000,000 new home starts per month in 2015, and Canada expects about 190,000. If all of those homes reduced their energy use by the same amount as this project, that would be 89,250,000 gigajoules of energy savings, 189,210,000 liters of water saved, and 156,017,330 gigajoules of saved embodied energy. Those are meaningful numbers (the equivalent of the output of many nuclear generating stations!), and they are immediately achievable.

When we called this project “Canada’s Greenest Home” we were not trying to set an example that would set an untouchable record for green performance. Instead, we were trying to set a standard that would be inspirational in its final performance and entirely reproducible, so that every new home could easily be this green. We feel we’ve achieved this goal. The rest is now up to home owners, home builders and governments to take this example and adopt and improve it.

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