Considerthis: a house that’skind to the environment, requires a quarter of the energy of a conventional house to operate, ishealthier to live in, and costslightlylessthan a conventional house to build.
Considerthisalso: itlets Audrey Armourfeel good about herself, and thatalone, shewillprobably tell you, isworth the price of the house and the trials of dealingwith building inspectorswhosimplycouldn’tbelievethatwhatshe and Greg Allen wereproposing to do.
Armouris a professor at York University’sFaculty of EnvironmentalStudies. Allen is a professionalengineerwhodescribeshimself as a sustainable technologies engineer. He designed the building whichnestles close to NorthYork’s Civic Centre at Yonge St. and Sheppard Ave. on a street of modesthouses and oldertrees.
Armouraskedthat the address not bepublishedbecauseshedoesn’twant to deal with a flood of curious people knocking on herdoor. She has an office at home, as doesherhusband, a psychiatrist.
For Armour, the house represents a return to childhood values. Shegrew up a few miles north of Sault Ste. Marie in a home without indoor plumbing. « There weretworivers running by and that’swherewegotour water for washing and cleaning,’’ shesaid. Drinking water came from an outsidewell.
« Wegrew up with respect for the outdoors. And welearned about natural forces and how powerfultheycanbe.
« Wealsoknew about conservingenergy.’’ Her six youngerbrotherscutfirewood. Shecannedfood.
Whenshe came south to go to university, « I wasshocked at how wastefuleverythingwas,’’ but, as time passed, « I have to admit I gotcaught in consumerism. It was hard to resist. There’ssomuchadvertising to drawyou in, and I gotcaught up in the consumer message. It wasbuy, acquire, throw out, exploit.’’
Then, whenshewas about 33 yearsold, a Ph.D in environmental planning and working in Toronto, « I finallyrealisedwhatwas happening and said, ‘Hey! Waita minute. I’m an urbanplanner. That shouldbereflected in mydaily life.’’ She’snow 45 yearsold and the house represents, for her, an end to the frustration of not living in harmonywith « natural forces’’, a return to sanity.
The first decisionshe and herhusband made was not to demolish an old house on the site theyhadbought. It was a one-storey, narrow, brick bungalow builtaround the time of the Second World War. The house theybuilt wraps arounditleaving no visible trace of itinside or outside — except for the basement. There youcanseewhere the new and the oldbasementsjoin.
Retaining the old building hadseveraladvantages. It meantthat the new house wasclassified as a renovationinstead of new construction, sothat original setbackrequirementscouldbemaintained and therewas no need to change the sewer and water lines.
It alsomeantthathalf of the exteriorwalls of the old building wereretained, whichleftmuchlesswaste to deal with, and eventhen the wastewasminimized by sendingwindows, doors, trim, and fixtures to a resale centre and drywall, plaster, and metal to recycling centres.
WhatdroveNorth York building inspectorscrazywasthat the new house had no furnace. How the hell do youheat a house in winter in Canada with no furnace? Not even a single electricbaseboardheater?
Simple, says Allen. You use solarenergy. First, you put a lot of windowsfacingsouthsotheycanpick up sunlight — passive solar gain, in the jargon of the trade.
Thenyou put a solar panel on the roof thatheats water for the hot water tank and, from the tank, you route a water line through a heatexchanger. That’swhere air, beingdrawninto the building by a fan, iswarmed. The warmed air isthenchannelledinto the first floorceilingwhichishollow. Whatyouget as a result, all through the house, is « radiant heat’’ — in otherwords, on the first floor the ceilingbecomes warm and « radiates’’ heatdownward, and on the second floor, the floorbecomes warm and « radiates’’ heatupward.
Finally, you put in a masonryfireplacethatacts as a « heatsink’’ to provideheat on daysthat are overcast and the solarsystemsdon’toperate. The purpose of the fireplaceis not to heat the room it’s in; it’s to heat the masonrythatencasesit. The masonrythengives off a slow, steadysupply of heat to the house.
Armour’s house has a fireplacethatburns for one-and-a-halfhours and the masonryexudesheat for 24 hours. The fireplaceisdesigned to burnvery hot…at 816 degrees Celsius. Consequently one load of wood (22.5 kilograms — about 10 logs) isconsumed in a short time and, since combustion gases are burnedever more effectively at highertemperatures, emissions of smoke and carbonmonoxide are minimal.
A water line running through the masonryprovidesadditionalheating for the hot water tank. There is a backup hot water tank, fired by naturalgas, for thosedayswhenthereis no sun and the fireplaceisn’t in use. That tank, and the kitchenstove are the onlyappliancesthat use naturalgas.
In summer, the heatexchangerworks in reverse to provide air conditioning. A water line runsacross a smallmetal roof and at night, at the flip of a switch, water canbe sent dribbling down. Sincemetal cools quickly at night, the water iscooled, collected, and sent to the heatexchanger. This time, the exchanger cools the warm air beingdrawninto the building and that cools the house.
The water that’s sent dribbling down ispumpedfromfromcisterns in the basement. There are three, each of thema large vat, a metre and a half in height and in diameter.
The water in themischannelledfrom a flat roof filledwithearth and growingasummercrop of crabgrass and floweringweeds. The earth, grass, and weedsfilterrainwater, cleaning out the grunge thatrainpicks up over Toronto sothatitcanalsobeused for householdwashing.
The windows are super-insulated, as are the outsidewalls. Consequently, the house losesverylittleheat in winter, and in summer gains verylittleheat.
As a result, Armourestimatesthatitoperates on half the energy of an R2000 house, whichis the type of construction recommended by the federalgovernment as an energy efficient house.
Sheshould know. The previous house she and herhusbandownedwas an R2000 house in Richmond Hill. « It fell far short of what I wanted,’’ shesaid. Since an R2000 house istwice as efficient as a conventional house, itmeansArmour’s house is four times as efficient as a house not built to energy efficient standards.
« I checked out the cost of comparable house construction beforewebuilt,’’ shesaid, « and as nearly as I can figure out, webuilt for less.’’ In the building, recycled and non-toxicmaterialswereusedwherever possible, and high-efficiencyappliances and lightingwereinstalled.
Nowthatshe and herhusband have a year’s living expenses to compare, theydiscoveredthat « our operating expenses are at least halfwhattheywere at Richmond Hill…and probablyevenlessthanthat.’’
At that point, herhusbandduckedintohis office and emergedwith last month’sgas bill. « Here,’’ hesaidtriumphantly. ‘’Look at this.’’ The bill was for six dollars.