If you grew up on Canada’s prairies like I did you’ve probably seen a sod house, and if not, you may have no idea what I’m talking about. A “soddie” is a rudimentary house made by stacking bricks of sod (the top layer of soil and grass held together by roots) atop one another and was an inexpensive and practical way for 19th century homesteaders to build a house utilizing readily available resources (trees not being overly abundant on the prairie).
While we’ve come a long way from those days, building material innovation has had a slew of issues over the years—think lead paint, asbestos. Now that we are aware that we ought to care about the health of living beings over and above our own species, more innovation is needed. And it’s happening—right here in Vancouver!
The issue of single-use plastics collecting in our oceans and landfills has been at the forefront of social media and policy formation lately, but straws, water bottles, and food wrappers are not the only things filling up our landfills. Metro Vancouver estimates that an average home demo creates 50 tonnes of waste, and that 40% of the waste going into Lower Mainland landfills comes from demolition and construction (not to mention the carbon footprint of transporting all that waste).
A Vancouver demolition company, aptly named Unbuilding, practices what they preach: methodically dismantling houses and recycling the materials. In a traditional demolition the materials would be torn apart and sent to landfill, or in the case of the lumber, burned for energy. In Vancouver, houses were framed with lumber from old growth trees until the 1970’s, the kind of monstrous trees we barely see today, and it is still perfectly good lumber. As the CEO Adam Corneil said in a Tyee article last December, “It’s not really waste—it is wasted”. Thus, Unbuilding’s projects are like construction in reverse, and salvaged materials are donated to the Greater Vancouver Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore. The materials are appraised, and homeowners qualify for an approximately 35% federal and provincial tax credit, which can mean big savings on the cost of demolition, and big savings on waste.
Another Vancouver based company, StructureCraft, specializes in building large mass timber structures. StructureCraft specializes in manufacturing Dowel Laminated Timber (DLT), the first all wood mass timber panel with customizable surface profiles to suit unique project requirements and aesthetics. DLT is remarkable in that it does not contain chemicals, VOCs, metal nails, or large quantities of glue, resulting in healthier indoor air quality and sequestering 1655kg of CO2 per tonne. It is also cheaper than more traditional glued products like Cross Laminated Timber (although this has much greater load bearing ability), due to high speed production (no down time for glue to cure), less material volume due to structural efficiency, and reduced on-site labour and installation time due to pre-manufacturing.
Sol Lewites of Aspect, a structural engineering firm also specializing in large wood structures, says: “mass timber is a holistic solution to improve our built environments; the low embodied energy required for production, the ability to act as a carbon bank, and the recent breakthroughs in structural design allow for mass timber to be a competitive alternative to concrete and steel building.” He admits that there are limitations to building mass timber structures, but that challenges are relative to the age of the industry and will grow smaller—while buildings grow taller.
In 2009, BC passed the Wood First Act, requiring that wood be the primary building material in all new provincially funded buildings, suggesting mass timber innovation will play a big role in the future of construction, certainly in BC!
But, not everything can be made out of wood. Concrete is a valuable resource in the construction industry, so valuable in fact that it is the most abundant human-made material on earth. The issue: concrete’s main ingredient, cement, has an emissions problem. Making cement releases massive amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere and is responsible for 7% of man-made greenhouse emissions globally. That’s a huge chunk!
A Canadian startup called CarbonCure has invented a system that injects captured CO2 into concrete as it’s being mixed, sequestering the carbon… forever! The carbon reacts with the concrete to become a mineral, which itself improves the compressive strength of the concrete, meaning that producers can make concrete as strong as they need and use less cement in the process. An Atlanta-based concrete producer, Thomas Concrete, uses CarbonCure’s system and says the costs associated even out with what they save on cement.
The building materials we use during construction are not the only areas innovation is occurring. New building codes and certifications—Passive Homes, LEED and SITES to name a few—are growing in prominence. The Passive House Standard provides guidelines for building homes with energy performance savings of 80-90% through manipulating building shape, solar exposure, ventilation and airtightness, and superinsulation. SITES is a sustainability focused certification that can be achieved by protecting ecosystems and the services they provide (i.e. food production, wildlife habitat, climate regulation, flood mitigation, air quality, etc.) by integrating functional and regenerative landscapes within living spaces. SITES and LEED rating systems are synergistic and can be used in tandem. LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, includes standards for buildings to ensure their performance meets the environmental needs of the community, saves energy, and maintains an eco-friendly design. LEED certification requires the use of recycled and green materials and is recognized worldwide.
While these are just a few examples of developing green construction standards, there are many more, and none are perfect. As Sol says, “we do not need a handful of projects doing perfectly, we need millions of projects doing it imperfectly”. And on a smaller scale, there are various government incentives for retrofitting existing homes (i.e. upgrading toilets or windows) and building new ones to be more energy efficient, though these differ by region.
Aside from innovation in materials and building standards, people everywhere are looking for novel, affordable ways to own a home—whether that means living in a retrofitted van, bus, or boat, or building a tiny home from up-cycled materials. The popularity of alternative homes is undeniable, with Netflix series and coffee table books dedicated to the trend. But “trend” generally implies a passing fancy, and this one might be around to stay—a way to solve housing shortages in cities, a revolt against lavish, capitalistic estates, and a return to a simpler lifestyle that is better economically and environmentally.
So, while the future of human habitation is unlikely to literally return to the soil, making moves back to our roots looks better for the planet, and possibly our wallets too!
What alternative living arrangements/building materials are you familiar with?
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