There is a lot of sustainability potential in the way we design our buildings. Learn from Kim Walton about green design.
Welcome to In the Weeds, a podcast dedicated to discussing everything to do with food sustainability and urban agriculture, indoor growing food insecurity, resource consumption, and anything else we think is exciting or important. I'm your host, Avery Parkinson.
Today we're shifting focus a bit to talk about green building design. A surprising amount of our carbon footprint in Western countries arises from buildings, mostly due to inefficient heating, cooling and insulation systems. We spoke with Kim Walton, who is an architect and the owner of Bow Crow Design.
My name is Kim Walton and I'm a building designer. I live in central Alberta in the foothills. And if you know anything about Alberta, there's a bunch of mountains to the west of us. They're very close to where I live. I've been working from home long before Covid, since the early 80s. I've been doing remote work and working on my own. I've been interested in sustainable housing, sustainable small buildings for the past 40 odd years and working on those types of projects. I work independently and I do consulting and design work with that topic in mind. So I've been working most recently, especially the last ten years, on houses and buildings that have a label of passive house.
So Passive house is a building standard that has come to Canada via Germany and started in Western Canada. So it's kind of a circuitous route. And I don't know whether the listeners know anything about passive house, but it is a building standard that helps buildings become net zero through an effort called building envelope first.
So there's a couple of routes to net zero. One of them is just using a lot of renewables, and that's generally photovoltaics or PVs and adding those to a building. But the way to reduce the number of PVs needed and one of the ways of reducing the number of PVs needed for any building is to make sure that the building has very high levels of insulation and that it's airtight. So those are two of the biggest deals in terms of energy efficiency.
On your website, you talk about the ten principles of sustainable design. Can you elaborate on what these are?
So the ten principles I worked on over many years, and I've moved them around in terms of importance. And so they've kind of stayed in the sequence that they're in today, and they are on my website.
Incidentally, I started working on this before I knew anything about passive houses. So, a lot of this uses the same principles as passive houses, but the order that I put them in really have a lot to do with what you should be thinking of first. If you couldn't do anything else, this is the order of thinking about a building of anything that you're planning. Because if you're working through the process at all and you do the first five things, you'll have a better building to begin with. So that's the idea.
So I did talk about passive house, and the five principles of passive house are firstly insulation and airtightness.
Then thermal bridge free construction, which is a bit of a technical term, but what that means is that things aren't sticking out of the building in funny places and windows.
Doors are so important, and something that is available in great quantities and off the shelf and something that we can do a better job of in all of our buildings, especially in consideration of the fact that we live in a northern climate and windows are the weakest point in our building envelopes. So that's something that we really should be thinking a lot about.
And mechanical ventilation. So mechanical ventilation is really important in buildings because more and more because as time goes on, there will be periods of time that we will all be dealing with a certain amount of smoke in the air. And that is part of the realities of global warming and what's going on in Canada, but in other places where wildfires are becoming the normal thing.
So my list, the very first part of the list is making a small and simple footprint, which is really important. So it's fun and interesting to do a lot of overhangs and cantilevers and funny things with buildings, but a lot of those considerations or those things really affect the energy efficiency of the building and they're difficult to do well. So it's something to consider.
Installation, of course, as much insulation, it makes sense for a budget and for the whole building performance.
Windows just mentioned the orientation of the building, which isn't always a thing that you can think about when you are building on an urban lot in urban centers, but all lots have four sides or sometimes more. But you always have access to prevailing winds and you always have access to solar optimization. So those are some of the things to think about when you're planning a building.
When you're looking at a building, the solar exposure is important not because we want to overheat houses or buildings with too much solar gain, but because we can take advantage of it. In the northern climate and especially in the Prairies, we have access to a lot of sunshine. So that's something that we can take advantage of in smart ways.
An open floor plan is part of that list and not absolutely necessary. That's why it's running down the list a little bit, but it does help to move air around in a space if you don't have mechanical ventilation.
And sometimes if we're talking about a renovation, you don't have options to remove walls, those kinds of things. But if you can, that can help with just the movement of air around a space and light. When there's more light, natural light coming into a building, you don't turn the lights on very often, and that's an electrical savings.
So that's just a natural and easy way of dealing with using less electricity and along with using less electricity, it's really being conscious of where your electrical budget is being spent, what it's being spent on, and whether you can improve that. One of the simplest ways is getting a new refrigerator. Old refrigerators eat a lot of electricity, so that's one of the simplest ways of doing it. But there are a lot of things that we don't think about in terms of electrical expenditures, and that's something that we can work on and be more aware of.
Air quality is lower on my list right now as we're talking, I'm thinking I need to move it up a little bit farther. Some of the realities of some of the things that we've learned that we are going to be dealing with now and in the future, things like heat domes and smoke mean that mechanical ventilation has moved farther up the list. When I first made this list, and especially for Western Canada, we had no problem opening windows and had no problem cooling our spaces with opening windows, no problem ventilating our homes with opening windows at the right times. But that's not always going to be a consideration when the outdoors is not a healthy and happy place. So it's something that we all need to think a lot more about. And more efficient ventilation, mechanical systems is really important. So last on my list is renewables, and it's last on the list because it can be expensive. It's a good thing to add if you can afford it.
But everything on the list is in order of affordability and being sure that we are making the most of our planning process in a sensible way.
Do you have any projects that are particularly memorable for you?
It's getting to be a harder and harder question to answer because my clients are open to innovation and the projects have been fun and interesting. One project I will mention, though, is a project that I didn't design, that I worked on as a team within the town of Valmont, which is west of Jasper.
So it's kind of buried in the mountains in Northern BC, and it's gotten a lot of attention because it's a pretty far north building and home that is very simple and has a simple footprint and a simple shape. And it's passive house certified. It's not the farthest north version or building that's been certified as a passive house, but it is one of them, and it's gotten international attention because of its shape, its interest, the interest in the fact that it's survived really well during the heat dome, and it is a cool place.
What are some of the specific considerations when building a house in a Canadian climate or more specifically, where you are in Alberta?
So in Alberta and the prairies, it's a lot drier than it is in, say, Vancouver or Toronto or even the east coast of Canada. Basically every place that you might be thinking about building something.
There's different environmental concerns and different environmental things to think about. So being drier means a different approach to a building envelope and humidity in the building than you might have in a wetter climate. That's why you hire experts.
There's a lot of small considerations that become big considerations if they're not done correctly. So doing them correctly to start with makes a big difference. So you wouldn't take an ultimately well designed building for Florida and plop it down in Calgary. That is not sensible. It doesn't make any sense at all. For many years, building trends have been influenced by buildings that have been in other places. So it wouldn't be unusual to see a California designed home anywhere in Canada. And that doesn't necessarily make any sense at all. So a lot of the considerations are climate driven, and that's part of the list that I went through. You know, talking, thinking about the orientation and thinking about the environment and sighting the building and where it is in the world.
How has green design changed since you've started working in the field, and how are you continuing to see it change?
Building better is just leaving and just becoming less of a boutique project, a boutique system of building that only wealthy people can afford. That's the place that we need to move away from every house.
The building code in Canada needs to embrace this kind of building type. It's important 40% of the energy and the greenhouse gasses emitted in North America come from buildings. It's a pretty easy way and one of the most important ways for us to cut our carbon emissions by looking at buildings and also looking at the embodied carbon in the buildings and with building materials. So there's a lot of work being done.
There's a lot of smart people, a lot smarter than me, that are working on processes to do buildings correctly. In British Columbia, there's something called a step code. As time is going on, the level of expectation of the building code in British Columbia is improving the building stock. And as the step code progresses, people see the benefits, their clients see the benefits of building better. And people are leaping from one code level to the next. The step code is from step one to step five. Step five being very close to being a passive house built in British Columbia, and that's a good method for seeing every building.
If people are thinking about building anything new or renovating, some of the things that I've talked about are really important considerations. A lot of people may be thinking about improving their building or their home, and there is a lot of consideration around the finishes that are inside the home or what would make their home flow better or improving the quality of some of the spaces.
But there's nothing that will improve their living space more than doing a deep energy retrofit, which means improving the insulation, improving the windows that will give more benefit long term than any other renovation that they might do. And when they're considering building from scratch, hiring a professional to help them with energy analysis of their planned project so that they have a better idea of what the outcome of their decision making is.
Can you talk about the intersection with green design and food production?
So once upon a time, the buildings that I worked on were not passive houses, but passive solar. So that's a different thing. So a passive house is really based on the fact that you build a building that really doesn't require a lot of mechanical inputs. It works on its own passively. And some of that has a little bit to do with passive solar gains or using the sun and thinking about where the sun is.
But in the old days, which is quite a long time ago now, before we were smart enough to embrace maybe some of these other principles, we imagine that using passive solar so that we would heat totally from the sun was a really smart idea. And one of the ways to mitigate overheating would be to add greenhouses to houses, which is very tasty. It's a really nice idea that you could use the greenhouse and grow food, grow plants year round.
So ultimately that just turned out to be a really bad idea. And so there's a lot of reasons for it being a bad idea. The number one reason that it's not an excellent idea is that when you're building better, every square foot of space that you put into the building is not cheap, it's expensive, so it's a very expensive greenhouse, so the space ends up being expensive. And not only that, it has so much glass, because that was the idea of it, they would overheat quite a bit.
What has happened with most of those projects that I worked on early on is that the families decided to incorporate the greenhouse into the living space because it was there. It was really easy to incorporate them and reduce the amount of glazing that happened in my own home, too. So I had a little greenhouse, and growing things was fun.
But growing things indoors means that there's a lot of complications. There's bugs and there's dirt around and there's watering to consider, and there is ventilation to consider. When you're growing a garden indoors, there's all the things that you need that need to happen outdoors, happening indoors. And that's not always something that you want to live with. So there's more. There's a lot of things that you don't necessarily want in your living space. I would say that integrated greenhouses, although seemed like an awesome idea, aren't a really good idea. Having gardens on a much smaller scale that don't take up as much space makes a heck of a lot more sense.
That was Kim Walton. For more information about her and her work, visit bowcrow.com
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