Pillars of sustainability

These days it seems there is little creativity in house construction, but with Nature and Culture as our pillars of sustainability it’s amazing what we can do with our hands

By now, many people have heard of Zita Cobb and Fogo Island’s Shorefast Foundation, aimed at keeping people grounded in their ‘place’. Cobb, a native of Jo Batt’s Arm who made her millions in the high-tech industry years ago before returning home to lead the effort to make life on Fogo—and indeed all of rural Newfoundland—sustainable, emphasizes Nature and Culture as the twin pillars of sustainability.

In a Nov. 2013 article in Atlantic Business Magazine, responding to the idea that rural areas should be left to decline, Cobb said that to lose rural places is to lose essential knowledge. “Human beings are becoming dumber and dumber all the time,” she quipped. “Our worlds are shrinking into this binary over-intellectualized digital world.”

We sit behind our computers and describe and publish all sorts of materials on the problems facing humanity while doing precious little about it. I recently read a very interesting article interviewing a renowned Zen Buddhist monk, who likened the rampant materialism of our western culture to a “denaturalization” process because it removes people from the cycles and variations of Nature. It is these cycles and variations that are actually the forces of evolution. We sit in buildings that maintain constant temperatures, we pave over natural landscapes so that there is no longer a terrain to navigate, etc.

At the Tree Of Life in Salmonier, St. Mary’s Bay, it seems an unspoken question is, why would we go through all this trouble to generate our own electricity and build our own structures? Cobb has voiced her concerns about what could be next for humankind once we’ve lost our capacity to interact directly with each other and the natural world. She notes that business has played a terrible role in the destruction of cultural and natural environments, and her solution, which I loudly applaud, is finding a way for rural communities to be connected to the fabric of the world on their own terms — that is, “reaching out, while holding on, [and] rallying against a world where everyone looks and sounds the same,” Dawn Chafe wrote in the November 2013 Atlantic Business Magazine article.

The best In building

When we talk about natural building techniques, we start to discriminate between carpenters (putting prefab, pre-cuts, etc., together) and builders because it is the latter that devote the energy and creativity to truly build something inspiring. When we actually build things ourselves, we open into our creative sides, and truly amazing things can emerge. These days it seems that there is little creativity in house construction, and perhaps this has led to the phenomenon of ‘who can build the biggest house’. Bigger is not better though, and in fact means less energy efficiency most times.

The very best in building is natural materials, building materials that are readily available in Nature and require little or no processing. Some proponents extend this definition to include recycled, reused and refurbished building materials, like wooden pallets for building woodsheds, toolsheds, and a sundry of applications, as I noted in a previous article. Natural building materials are all around us in Nature: wood, stone, clay, sand, and fibre. In using these things, we can incorporate sufficient mass into our buildings to optimize passive energy efficiency. Materials like logs or slip-chip (clay with wood shavings) “breathe” naturally with the outside world, meaning inside air is constantly revitalizing and there is less use of adhesives, plastics, resins and various things that off-gas into the air we are breathing.

It is interesting to visit some of the recommended websites for green building, and to discover that many are promoting the use of orientated strand board (OSB, or Aspenite as it’s often called in Newfoundland), which is a wood particle or chip board formed by adding adhesives and then compressing layers of wood flakes in specific orientation. While this stuff—notably OSB/3—is approved by National Building Code for use in humid conditions, it is horrid stuff that disintegrates rapidly if it gets wet and has no structural integrity. I always recommend builders to spend the extra and use plywood if they are sheathing their roof or structures. This is because plywood is actual sheets of wood veneer glued together in opposing continuous fibre orientation. People will continue to pay excessive prices for OSB houses covered in vinyl siding but I believe the long-term sustainability of these structures is very questionable in the windy boreal rainforest environment of Newfoundland. In reality this form of building is the cheapest and fastest way contractors can construct and profit while meeting “the code”. It is sad, really.

Modern building vs. natural building

Today we see considerable emphasis on insulation to improve the energy efficiency of houses. While this is important in the scheme of things, it is clearly over-emphasized, even in passive solar designs. A very important part of a building design in our climate is its thermal mass. The Wikipedia entry on this topic states thermal mass is a

property of the mass of a building which enables it to store heat, providing “inertia” against temperature fluctuations. For example, when outside temperatures are fluctuating throughout the day, and dropping low at night, a large thermal mass within the insulated portion of a house can serve to “flatten out” the temperature fluctuations, since the thermal mass will absorb thermal energy when the surroundings are higher in temperature than the mass, and give thermal energy back when the surroundings are cooler. This is distinct from the insulative value of a house, which reduces a building’s thermal conductivity, allowing it to be heated or cooled relatively separate from the outside, or even just retain the occupants’ thermal energy longer…

Builders using natural materials achieve high thermal mass using materials such as rammed-earth, rock walls, concrete slabs, and of course, good old logs.

Our modern houses here in the suburban St. John’s area have relatively little material investment in terms of thermal mass, while achieving an acceptable level of insulation to retain heat that is produced—generally actively and at a cost—by its occupants. Maximizing insulation is only good to a point, and natural materials, such as logs, can actually ‘breath’, thereby constituting healthier home environments.

Consumers often believe that because materials are approved by the National Building Code, they must be good or otherwise suitable. We live in a boreal rainforest zone, and National Building Codes try to set a common denominator for everything, everywhere. That is a mistake, in my opinion, because subfloor and roof materials should never be OSB. The old adage “they don’t build them like they used to” sure applies here. To truly put mass into a building requires substantially more materials, and usually more labour.

Thermal mass is effective in improving building comfort in any place that experiences daily temperature fluctuations, both in winter as well as in summer. When used well and combined with passive solar design, thermal mass can play an important role in major reductions to energy use in active heating and cooling systems.

Eaves and the angle of the Sun are everything

Thermal mass is ideally placed within the building and situated where it can still be exposed to low angle winter sunlight (via windows) but insulated from heat loss. In summer the same thermal mass should be obscured from higher angle summer sunlight in order to prevent over-heating of the structure. This is achieved by placing large south-facing windows with appropriate overhanging eaves (2 ft. to 3 ft. depending on height of wall).

The thermal mass can be the actual walls or floor of some suitable inside mass. At the Tree Of Life a masonry woodheater contains over 6,000 old-fashioned solid bricks that are warmed passively by the sun, and additionally by internal heating systems during the day. Thermal energy stored in the mass is then released back slowly into the interior during the night. It is recommended that thermal mass be used in conjunction with the standard principles of passive solar design.

Clearly, a concrete slab floor, plumbed for hydronic heating, would be a win-win. Note that heating the concrete slab directly by electricity is very inefficient and costly.

Natural building materials are widely available

In a previous article discussing natural building materials, I plugged the value of logs for building. This is not to mean that we have to hand-hewn such logs in a time when logs are commercially machined to be double tongue and groove (e.g. log home kits). Our backyard band-sawed logs can be flattened on two sides and made to be well-fitted. Log homes differ from many other common construction materials because solid wood has both moderate R-value (insulation) and also significant thermal mass. In our winter, a well-made log home that optimizes passive solar radiation is especially cozy and requires relatively little active heat supply, whereas they remain noticeably cool and pleasant in mid-summer as long as the eaves are designed properly.

Sawdust is cheap or even free for the taking at traditional but dwindling numbers of local sawmills in Newfoundland. Sawdust has an insulation value of about R-3 per inch, which is about the same as standard fiberglass insulation. It’s easy to pour into spaces (e.g. between walls) with empty cans or small buckets. Master Cordwood 101 teacher Rob Roy recommends that to prevent vermin it is important to mix hydrated lime in at a ratio of 12 parts sawdust to one part lime. Over time, the lime will set up with the sawdust in the wall and form a kind of rigid foam-like insulation instead of a loose fill, while still doing the same job. Such walls breathe and do not require vapour barriers.

The ultimate natural building?

After much consternation about how to approach natural building in Newfoundland, I am back to accepting the overall suitability of masonry wood construction, also known as cordwood building. Popularized and taught in participatory workshops throughout the world by Roy, we find direct application to the challenges of our maritime and often subarctic environment of Newfoundland. Essentially the technique uses softwood logs, like fir or spruce, embedded in cement, resulting in thick walls with high thermal mass that breathe. At the Tree Of Life we constructed part of our powershed using this technique to generate nine-inch thick walls.

Facebook photo.
Tree of Life. Facebook photo.

Most masonry wood buildings create 16-inch or even 24-inch thick walls, a thermal mass and thickness capable of providing the best of comfort in any Canadian winter. The beauty of the technique is that it uses all sizes of logs, and because the lengths are short, there is less worry about finding straight logs. In fact, in some areas, builders are able to source log ends as residual from forestry operations. The logs are mortared at each end, and the intervening cavities filled with a sawdust-lime mixture for insulation. Key elements to the technique are the ‘pointing’ of the mortar between the log ends to create an aesthetic look, as well the use of log ends that have been well seasoned and barked (recommended two years) to ensure there is little shrinkage and splitting. The mortar is a mixture of Portland cement and softwood sawdust soaked for 24 hours, slowing the rate of curing and thereby reducing any gapping.

There are very few, if any, cordwood homes in Newfoundland. The two that were attempted, that I am aware of, made various mistakes that eventually led to dismantling or subsequent siding over of the walls. If you go down this road, be sure to avail of the great books, DVDs or participatory workshops offered by Rob Roy. If approached correctly and with good imagination, the final product can be an amazingly beautiful and energy efficient house as this example in New Brunswick. Such creations can open our minds to possibilities.

When we become the builders we get to treat our houses like an artist treats a his or her canvas. We can feel our heart warming every time we walk toward the door or gaze at the outside winter storm while fully warmed by its sun-soaked and breathing walls.

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