• Eco-Sense Residence Victoria

    British Columbia

Eco-Sense Residence

Victoria, British Columbia

The creation of Eco-Sense was the dream of Ann and Gord Baird to build a sustainable home for their three generation family of six. A home that functions as a part of the eco-system where there is no line that separates where the dwelling ends and where nature begins. The family walks the talk of sustainable living with a conservation first philosophy.

Features include passive solar design, solar PV with grid tie, net zero electricity, energy and water conservation, solar thermal hot water, composting (no flush) toilets, rain water harvesting, grey water re-use, a living roof, earthen floors and natural finishes into their exceptionally beautiful, modern and affordable version of earthen architecture.

The couple's passion and knowledge is expressed in their work consulting, building, policy, research and in the hundreds of tours they have given through their home. They teach that if it isn't affordable it isn't sustainable and live their motto, Less life stuff...more life style!

Use the icons below to find out how this project approached each Petal of the Challenge.

SITE

Site condition prior to project start: Brownfield

Significant site information, such as conditions related to standing Exceptions for Prerequisite 1: Responsible Site Selection:
About two acres of the 7.5 acres was damaged with lots of blasting, fill, and invasive plants (where any were even growing). The lot had a building covenant on the site which required that all human activities occur within it. No prior owners had paid attention to this old covenant. The covenant was changed by Eco-Sense to allow the home, workshop, chicken coop and food gardens to occur on previously impacted two acres. The new covenant now protects the undisturbed areas of the land. In the five years the Baird's have owned the land it has been greatly improved from an ecological perspective and most of their buildings have living roofs planted with native plants.

Name of Habitat Exchange project:
This project requested that an alternate compliance path be considered for achievement of this prerequisite based on the owner's leadership roles and significant volunteer time with a local land trust that is working to save large tracts of land in their region. ILBI approved the alternate compliance path because the owners were able to demonstrate significant volunteer time with the Highlands Stewardship Foundation and that the organization is actively working to protect and provide ongoing stewardship to 140 acres of land in perpetuity.

Related regulatory appeals:
Changing the building covenant to allow building on previously damaged site - District of Highlands, BC Ministry of Transportation, Capital Regional District (this covenant was created long before the municipality even existed)

Net Zero Zone (Pending) Municipal (district of Highlands) - The concept of a Net Zero Zone was conceptualized by the Bairds, where in small affordable residential buildings could be built on lands that previously would not be allowed due to current zoning. The NZZ would be an attachment onto an existing zone, wherein increased density would be allowed on sites where the site is previously impacted, located on main arteries, and where the building must either be LEED Platinum or have four of the Living building petals, as well as a pre-requisite of being net zero water, net zero energy and zero waste.

Additional Site Petal comments:
On many of the tours people ask who the Architect was and we respond that it was the bedrock. Rather than the conventional philosophy to make the site fit the building, we chose the building to fit what the bedrock would allow with the least disturbance. The curves of the home follow the curves of the land.

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WATER

Annual water use: 20,872 gal
Harvested onsite: 38,596 gal 
Water cistern size: 10,000 gal
Collection strategies: rain, ground well for domestic use
Systems fed:
Well - interior domestic use
Rain water - garden irrigation
Grey water:  20,872 gal
Systems fed: irrigation of organic garden and orchard
Black water: NA
Systems fed: composting toilets
Estimated total water use per capita: 3478 gallons (actual)
Simulated/designed: NA
Design tool(s) and calculation method(s): water meters and estimations
Sub-metering data: NA

Related regulatory appeals:
Alternative Solution for a composting toilet - BC Building Code (Successful by Eco-Sense for composting toilet at local lake). This was passed on to the regional health authority for their input and they accepted it. Presently the CRD (Capital Regional District) is doing a feasibility assessment with Worksafe BC as to implementation of our composting toilet system in some of their parks.

Flush toilet Ready (Pending) Municipal and Regional (CRD). We wrote an Alternate Solution regarding hydraulic volume, fixture units, grey water pipe, reduced supply lines, wherein we could match the drain pipe sizes to the pre-existing buried pipes in the ground and re-purposed to irrigate food sources. Eco-Sense was allowed to have a smaller grey water pipe than code would dictate based on fixture units as Eco-Sense reduced the water supply line to each fixture for water conservation. Less water in equals less water out; hard-wired for water conservation.

Additional Water Petal comments:
Original rain water design was to utilize 10,000 gallons of rain water storage for domestic indoor use. The storage of 10,000 gallons was sized to meet the families need during a possible five month summer drought, though this is not common. In five months the family uses 8697 gallons. (401.4 gal/week x 52 weeks/year divided by 12 months x 5 months). The rain water storage capacity would be more than sufficient to service the families domestic needs. The water strategy changed upon learning about their communities concern for protecting ground water (via the Highlands Ground Water Task Force).

The family realized that by using their cisterns for indoor use that they would be very dependent on ground water for the irrigation of the food gardens and would be drawing from the underground aquifer when it was at it’s lowest during the summer drought. Further to this realization was the fact that the ground water was of excellent quality, and did not require any filtration. The rain water system on the other hand would have required a sand filter, 5 micron filter, and UV sterilizer. All of these come with a further embodied energy, carbon footprint, and embodied water price tag. Clearly the most sustainable option was to utilize the ground water for drinking and indoor domestic use, and utilize the 10,000 gal for irrigating the gardens.

It should be noted that the family was required to complete an incomplete septic system already on site before they were granted a building permit...even though all were aware that the system would not be used. A flush toilet was installed in one bathroom, flushed once for the building official and then replaced with the more appropriate compost toilet. Lots has been written in the media about this. Since the Flush toilet ready policy has been written and included in the Highlands Sustainability Task Force Report it is opening up doors for others to use composting toilets. See policy section.

Part of the unused septic tanks were converted to water storage, while the other septic tanks and pump chamber have been incorporated into the grey water system to water fruit and nut trees in the chicken coop. See booklet on grey water systems. Of special note is the family’s chicken coop (15 hens), which also has a living roof with a rain water harvesting system with 1000 liters (in a recycled vinegar storage tank) to automatically keep the chickens water full. The grey water from the home is watering the fruit and nut trees around the chicken coop, which provide summer shade, forage for insects, and predator protection. The grey water will be watering planted grain for the chickens this fall (fall rye).

The living roof on the home has many functions beyond filtering the rain water. Such benefits include storm water management (see prerequisite 11), beauty, habitat replacement, longevity, quiet, insulation and reduces the temperature of the solar PV panels upon the roof. Since installing the living roof the solar PV output has increased dramatically over the same period last year (see energy Petal), in spite of the lower recorded insulation values. It’s all connected.

The Eco-Sense home is located in a rural municipality called the Highlands 20 minutes outside of Victoria, BC. There is no piped water and all homes are on wells drawing on a common underground aquifer. All lots are serviced by onsite “Waste” disposal. There is no “Waste” produced at Eco-Sense.

Eco-Sense has been actively involved in educating the community on responsible water use. They have written policy for net zero water, net zero zones and flush toilet ready policy within the Highlands and a composting toilet alternative solutions for the British Columbia Building Code that was enacted for a public composting toilet at the local lake. See policy section and documents in the general water folder The Highlands Sustainability Task force report can also be viewed on the district website that includes this policy.

Eco-Sense has applied to the municipality for status with Net Zero Zone attachment and for Flush Toilet Ready.

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ENERGY

NOTE: This Petal was not achieved.

Type + size of renewable energy system(s) used:
The house is equipped with 12 Sharp 175W PV modules creating a 2 kW array. As the house is primarily wired for 24 VDC, there is an 800 amp hour battery array to service fridges and freezer, pumps, controllers and LED lighting with DC power. The house is grid-tied to BC Hydro via a 3500 W Outback inverter.

The domestic hot water and hydronic earthen floor heating systems are tied together in with a solar thermal combination system. This system is serviced by 60 Mazdon evacuated tubed plumbed in parallel to a 120 gallon solar boiler.

Annual Energy Use
Actual: 24,998 kWh
Simulated/designed: NA
Energy use intensity: 34.1 kWh/ sq ft
Annual electricity generated: 2,469 kWh

Design tool(s) and calculation method(s): 

  • Electrical - Data was collected via direct reading from the Outback MX Charge Controllers, and the BC Hydro meter. This data was entered into a spreadsheet created by the Bairds, to measure total PV generation, Total purchased from Hydro, total consumption, and totals sold to Hydro. This data has been used by the BC Sustainable Energy Association and BC Hydro to re-write their billing system for their Net Metering clients.
  • Solar Thermal for heating and domestic hot water - calculated from tube specifications (estimated).
  • Wood gassification - calculated from cords of wood and efficiency of boiler.
  • Propane - measurement of pounds of propane consumed.

Related regulatory appeals:

  • Alternative solution for combination solar hot water - BC Building Code (Successful for Eco-Sense)
  • Net Zero Zone (Pending) Municipal (district of Highlands)
  • Used various non CSA certificed electrical items. Approval under class 2 of the BC Electrical Code

Additional Energy Petal comments:
Wood gassification is referred to as pyrolysis. This renewable energy source was chosen over several other non-combustible options due to a preference to increase resiliency, embodied energy and local sustainability. We looked at air-water heat pumps, water-water heat pumps, expanded solar thermal capture and storage, biogas, bio-diesel genset and expanded solar PV for electrical heat inputs. Based on our research, with what fits with our home, gassification provided the best, most appropriate technology to meet needs into an uncertain future. It was important for us to be able to understand the technology and to fix it locally. We spent well over a year researching the options and even had B100 (pure recycled biodiesel) tested in a diesel hot water heater by International Thermal Research in Surrey BC.

Eco-Sense has four main energy inputs, two of which are sustainable, one renewable (wood), and the other a fossil fuel. Sustainable Energy systems include the solar PV system and and the solar thermal system. The other two (wood and propane) involve inputs that involve a form of combustion. Combustion is not allowed in the pre-requisites of the LBC, but we feel that an explanation of these systems is critical, as we analyzed in depth what the corresponding options would mean with regards to embodied energy, sustainability and the ability to be resilient within the footprint of the project. One key point of interest is that Eco-Sense is a residence, wherein a large degree of food is prepped and preserved to meet the food needs over the period of a year. Most other buildings/residences import food into the building to feed the occupants, wherein that food has been grown, processed and preserved outside of the building, and thus inhabitants are importing an embodied footprint (both water and energy) from externalized fossil fuel sources. Here, we import only about 20 percent of food from the outside. (80 percent of our food is grown and processed onsite). We have calculated that we would require 8-12 additional 170w PV panels to cover our food needs using resistive cooking. (Effectively almost doubling our 2kW solar array to 4kW). Using electricity for resistive cooking is incredibly inefficient especially when using solar PV as the source of ALL electricity. Ultimately we hope to convert our two propane cook ranges to local methane produced at a local farm.

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Health

Summary of short- and long-term health considerations for design, construction and occupancy phases:
The Eco-Sense home is more comfortable and healthier than conventionally constructed homes:

  • Composting toilets make it impossible to ever have an odour in the bathroom
  • No toxics used in the home for finishes, carpets, paints, furniture, etc
  • Humidity is more constant and desirable
  • Temperature is more constant and desirable
  • Home is quiet inside. Insulated from outside loud noises
  • Acoustics are excellent for conversation and music
  • Less dust, easier to clean
  • More natural light from many directions
  • Light clay infill walls for interior partitioning make excellent sound proofing between the bedrooms
  • Sense of well being inside the home
  • Parents suite on ground floor and wheel chair accessible
  • Less noise produced during construction

Mass Wall Performance:
The Eco-Sense home has NO HVAC system. The mass wall system utilized has clay as it’s key component. For centuries the properties of clay have been known in the application of earthen architecture. Clay is hydrophilic (water loving) and attracts and equalizes moisture within the wall. Both water and clay have charged electrostatic properties based on simple hydrogen bonding of the polar molecules. It is virtually impossible for a mass wall system like the one used to support any form of life (mold)within the walls. There is no dew point within the walls and the mass walls equalize humidity thus moderating humidity within the building. Temperature also remains more constant than conventional construction due to the large thermal mass. There is a great deal of scientific literature on this topic from Germany and the UK.

The Eco-Sense home is currently being studied as a living laboratory. Cascadia and Eco-Sense received a grant to study the mass wall performance and all the energy and water systems within the home as well as detailed case studies, and policy work. The mass wall portion of the grant includes 10 moisture/temperature probes inserted into the north and south walls at various depths. This data is connected via a Hobo Link data logger to the internet and uploads data daily. See attached graphs for actual data of mass wall performance. View the online data.

Related regulatory appeals:
Multigenerational family home with suite for parents. Technically Eco-Sense was not supposed to have two kitchens, but this was allowed as the kitchens are connected via a pass through between them where meals can be easily shared. (One large kitchen with a small hallway) - municipal/provincial

Mass walls (clay). Allowed to build without vapour barriers in the walls, and without toxic sealants around the windows. Allowed to build without an HVAC system or complex mechanical ventilation systems - allowances to build this way primarily due to documented performance of mass wall systems and a Structural Engineers stamp.

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MATERIALS

NOTE:  Petal not achieved

Summary of approach to achieving the Materials Petal Prerequisites:
Most of the Red list items are easily avoided with earthen architecture. This building style dramatically reduced the amount of manufactured material used in the construction of Eco-Sense.

Materials Strategy:

  1. Use less manufactured materials
  2. Make products from raw materials
  3. Source recycled/salvaged materials from wood to fixtures

On tours we talk to the groups about the "litmus test". The test is what would your back yard look like if you mined and manufactured all the materials for your building from your site… and disposed of all the processing wastes there too. We have tried to be keenly aware of what the lands would look like based on each decision, and this has driven material choices, wherein natural, local, minimally processed and reclaimed products take precedence.

Successful Red List substitutions:

Original Product Red List Item Specified Manufacturer + Product Names
Toxic Caulking Various Clay
Paint Various Homemade clay alias, casein paint and lime plasters
Carpets Various None (earthen floors)
Polyurethanes Polyurethane Hard Wax oils (OSMO) - natural Floor Wax (Nezza Naturals), and boiled linseed oil
Fiberglass insulation Formaldehyde Formaldehyde-free insulation (John Mansville)
PVC pipe PVC ABS or HDPE pipe
PVC Windows PVC Fibreglass frames (Fibertec)
Lighting, Thermostats Mercury LED lighting and mercury free thermostats

Biggest hurdles to achieving the Materials Petal:
The time spent inquiring with manufacturers as to the specific components used in their products. Even with all the due diligence, there is no doubt that many of the marketed green eco products have their unreported share of toxins and red list items.

Notable manufacturers who made ‘Proprietary Claims’ when asked about product contents: None
Sources for wood: salvaged, harvested onsite
Notable manufacturers of FSC certified wood products: NA
Name of organizations and/or individuals that assisted with timber harvest and lumber seasoning process: Neighbor
Brokers that assisted in sourcing salvaged materials:
Sourced by us through local demolition sites and a local salvage person. We received reclaimed 2x4 lumber from the old Glanford School, 2x12s from the Mayfair Bowling Lane  and plywood from the floor of the renovated St Michael's University gymnasium, all located in Greater Victoria.

Embodied carbon footprint (TCO2e): Carbon offset for the Eco-Sense home needs to be independently assessed as the calculator is grossly inadequate as stated in the engineering report performed to calculate tGHGe on the home.

Name of Carbon Offset project:
Location of Carbon Offset project: BC
Name of Carbon Offset provider: Pacific Carbon Trust
Carbon Offset provider website: www.pacificcarbontrust.com

Related regulatory appeals:
First LEGAL load bearing cob (clay, sand, straw) residence in North America (BC building Code) - this enabled earth as the major building material.

Additional Material Petal comments:
Wood: We tried to source FSC plywood and a few pieces of dimensional FSC lumber but were unable to do so. Orders needed to be placed 6-8 months in advance. Local FCS plywood was not available. We were able to source reclaimed and BC plywood for use in kitchen, on shear wall and curved dining area in parents suite. By building load bearing cob we estimate that 50 percent of the normal amount of wood was saved over conventional construction, as well as extending the expected life span of the building by over 400 years. This should more than make up for the fact that we did use 10 percent non FSC certified wood. Virtually all wood used for the structure of the building and interior framing (as seen on the plans) was either our own milled trees (2) or recycled. Roof sheeting was recycled local plywood on lower roof and re-sawn 1x8 on upper roof. The non FSC wood (10 percent) was used primarily for finishing.

Recycled and Home Made Building Materials: The use of reclaimed materials in the building for systems and structure can sometimes be challenging for authorities.

  1. Light fixtures: We used recycled AC light fixtures with DC LED bulbs. Class 2 of the electrical allowed this...few people are aware of this...including inspectors.
  2. Recycled lumber: 80 percent of the wood used in the Eco-Sense home was recycled. As long as the lumber still has a visible stamp it is generally allowed. The older lumber was superior to the quality today.
  3. Locally milled lumber: 10 percent of the wood used was milled from our own trees or local. Most inspectors would require this lumber to be graded...ours thankfully did not.
  4. Recycled sinks and plumbing fixtures CSA stamps required.
  5. Home made bathroom fixtures: Obviously no CSA stamps on home made earthen shower stalls. Never had an issue...Tadalkt shower stalls have been used in Morocco and Rome since the beginning of civilization.
  6. Earthen floors and counters: no policy issues.
  7.  Homemade range hoods: No policy issues. Wired for 24vDC with fan and LED light.

Carbon offset for the Eco-Sense home needs to be independently assessed as the calculator is grossly inadequate as stated in the engineering report performed to calculate tGHGe on the home.

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EQUITY

Please note that this project was certified under Living Building Challenge 1.3. The Equity Petal was not developed until Living Building Challenge 2.0.

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BEAUTY

Project website: www.eco-sense.ca

Tour information:
Visit the Eco-Sense website and blog.

Useful strategies and tools:
Creation of the Eco-Sense home was an organic process and not designed at a desk (ie window placement and angle within the 2 foot thick wall). As the walls went up, flexibility is naturally incorporated unlike a conventional building that is framed quickly with a skeleton that is expensive and hard to alter once erected. Having the Building official and Structural Engineer meet with each other and agree on "as built" documentation, provided the inspectors with assurances and provided us with flexibility. Interior partitions could be adapted as built. The home and systems were partially designed as the home was constructed. It evolved!

Lessons Learned:
A large lesson learned come from the initial process of choosing the right mix of people to work with, and developing good respectful strategies with officials. Understanding at the onset of a project what the roles of each official are, allows you to respect their job and incorporate their input. Early adoption of an inspectors input creates buy-in, and creates a sense of ownership by the inspector for the job.

The immense media attention was a lubricant, and only once did we draw on a trump card with an electrical inspector… by and large all who came by where amazed and inspired to want the project to go through to
completion.

Additional Beauty Petal comments:
The tension between needs and wants was experienced daily, with practical needs usually trumping wants. Ultimately, this led the way to fulfilling more needs than we knew we had. We discovered a need to leave our programed wants behind. Focusing on needs rather than wants created a greater sense of fulfillment and satisfaction with our home. We wrote a monthly log of the whole creation process for Eco-Sense, which can be viewed online.

First four years starting in Dec 2005 - Nov 2009
Newer posts from Dec 2009 - present

Mission Statement: Our objective is to live a reasonable life where our home is an extension of nature; where the systems incorporate bio-mimicry for both function and beauty. All systems work with nature to create a space that is safe and provide for our needs sustainably without compromising the needs of future generations to enjoy the same level of comfort. Our home will exhibit a practical example of sustainability both locally and globally showcasing luxurious simplicity. We plan on sharing this with others through our actions and education programs to challenge our culture’s desire for a consumer economy. Our home achieves these objectives by incorporating sustainability and research with solar PV and wind power, grid intertie, solar thermal heating, rain water harvesting from a living roof, composting toilet, grey water re-use, passive solar design, and all within North America’s first code approved seismically engineered load bearing insulated cob residence.

Vision – "Less life stuff ... more life STYLE!": Our vision for Eco-Sense is multi-layered. It includes family, community, and the environment. Ultimately all are interconnected in living a "reasonable life". And to us a "reasonable life" relies on living respectfully within nature and avoids the "bigger, better, faster, more" mindset that defines overdeveloped countries like our own.

For family, we want our children to learn the tools and skills to develop a more biocentric view of self where they understand their role in nature, and feel included not isolated. We want our children to have their sense of self-origin from their place on earth and in community; not their stuff on earth.

For community, we see ourselves as active members whether it is the neighborhood, the natural building community, or our friends. Our vision for the environment is to live sustainably and share what we have learned with others to help inspire positive change. We believe the energy for change comes from focusing on exciting possibilities and not on the problems. Solutions can be found through creating new visions where individual contentment, social justice, community/family values, and our life-supporting environment are all seen as one cohesive concept. If it isn’t affordable...it isn’t sustainable.

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PROCESS

Relevant details about project use:
The site is used for educational tours and workshops as well as an earthen architectural research project. "The Future of Green Building" partnership with Cascadia.

Project costs (land excluded): $370,635
Soft costs: 0
Hard costs: $370,635

Design Process
MUD - A Modern Utopian Dwelling.

To build a home where we form attachment not only to the dwelling but to the place, requires a personal investment in emotion, effort and creativity. Putting our roots down with the Eco-Sense home was a dream that came to fruition in 20 months through a very creative and organic process. All this from two science/business geeks that never considered themselves creative.

Turning a “House” into a “Home” comes from an intimate biological connection to the land, the water, the energy and the resources...a sense of belonging. A home is not just a building, it is a place with memories from the past and dreams into the future. Attachment to the place came from the experiences in building the home...both the good ones and “the learning opportunities”.

The dwelling contains both simple and complex systems. Simple must be defined. As an example: We use a worm biofilter to filter grey water. This tank acts as a surge tank, a grease trap, and filters out compostable solids turning them into worm castings for the garden. Tour participants often comment, “Wow it’s so simple!” Well, actually it is not. There are worms, fungus, bacteria, plants and insects all working together in a symbiotic relationship that took millions of years to evolve...it’s not simple...it’s just that Humans didn’t invent it. Systems that evolved were intentionally created to be “bumped into”...like the composting toilet. Meaning that some systems (the more biological systems), require regular human involvement.

The land became the architect for our home. We tried to incorporate systems that were synergistic with the land which lead to a very organic evolution of the design. The home literally rose up out of the the dirt; one human handful at a time.

Two people were allowed to build their family a home...just like other creatures. The home was built to fit the land, not the other way around. It is shaped the way it is for very practical reasons...not any great design flare. Most of the creative aspects of the home came from trying to solve a problem; usually a design flaw we had not fully considered. Systems evolved; they were not designed.

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