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Benefits when building with natural materials

 

Farm to Building

Several years ago, I worked in some of Toronto’s most innovative kitchens. Certainly, in my youth I was captivated by the culinary arts and have since wondered how it informed my interest and subsequent career in architecture. The past year has revealed to me an obvious thread: the transformation of materials.

In both cuisine and architecture ingredients are transformed. In both professions there is an understanding about materials used   where they come from, how they can be transformed, and how they must be appreciated. There are parallels between sustainable architecture and sustainable food.

Where materials come from: local or organic?

Farm-to-table is a social movement with which many are all familiar, characterized as serving local food through direct acquisition from the producer, incorporating food traceability. There’s a strong environmental case for food traceability.

Few materials are created equal, and when it comes to food, “food miles” actually make up just a small portion of an ingredient’s carbon footprint – just 11% according to the David Suzuki Foundation (DSF). How the food grows comprises roughly 83% of its carbon footprint. To summarize the DSF’s research, the ideal choice seems to be food that is organically (responsibly) grown, and the benefit of local ingredients is simply a bonus.

The same may be true for building materials; let’s look at wood as an example. Wood is a fantastic material. It is renewable, can be sourced sustainably, and actually sequesters carbon. But not all wood is as environmentally-friendly as you may think. If sustainability is important to you look for wood products with a Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. FSC is an indication that the wood has met stringent harvesting and environmental standards. It prohibits illegal logging, forest degradation, and deforestation in protected areas, and is the only framework supported by NGO’s such as Greenpeace and WWF.

How materials can be transformed: embodied energy

When it comes to buildings, significant amounts of energy are required to process raw materials. Embodied energy is the energy consumed by all of the material processing required for the production of a building, including mining, processing, manufacturing, and transportation. Every building is made of a complex list of processed ingredients, all of which contribute to its total embodied energy.

A great practical example is to strip back the layers of a typical house and look only at its structure: steel studs versus wood studs. The University of Bath has concluded that the embodied energy and embodied carbon of steel are more than three times that of sawn softwood. Therefore, responsibly-harvested wood studs can be much less demanding in embodied energy levels. When you add up all the structure, insulation, finishes, and itty-bitty components of a house, choosing the right materials goes a long way in reducing your carbon footprint- those materials also need to perform well, be durable, and non-toxic.

How materials must be appreciated: high-performance, healthy, and beautiful

Nutrition is 99% invisible. We don’t need a nutritional breakdown of a Big Mac to know the value of its contents. The same is true in buildings: the products you can’t see usually provide the most value.

Building to high performance standards with natural materials will always satisfy your appetite. In a cold climate (like Toronto) this means using above-Building Code levels of insulation, airtight, high-performance windows, and efficient mechanical systems. Making it look appetizing is simply the dressing on the salad.

This article was contributed by Mike Mazurkiewicz for Sustainable TO

 

 

Are shipping containers the future of affordable housing?

Building a home takes time and effort, a considerable issue considering North America is experiencing an affordable housing crisis. But, a non-profit in Columbus, Ohio might’ve discovered a possible solution— shipping containers.

Cargominium, as the project has been dubbed, is a three storey-building made out of shipping containers that is being constructed by non-profit Nothing into Something Real Estate. The housing development is being built as affordable housing and will include 25 apartments.

The building consists of fifty-four shipping containers that are stacked together. Each apartment has two bedrooms and will be accessible from an exterior stairways. Before the containers were shipped to Columbus, windows and doors were cut into the steel and then, upon arrival, the containers are placed on top of each other on site. The containers will have stucco siding to make it look like a regular apartment complex and the steel container will be well hidden once complete.

Shipping containers as homes are growing in popularity because they are cheaper to use than lumber or other building materials. They are durable, versatile and are upcycled, a process that takes used products and creates products of better quality for environmental use. Deforestation from housing development is a crucial environmental problem and using shipping containers saves wood, and other building materials used in framing houses. Building with shipping containers comes with its own set of issues, including the difficulty of getting the container up to building code in regards to insulation and air circulation. But, the perks tend to outweigh those complications. For example, the flat roofs can easily be used for a green roof garden and solar panels. This gives an added environmental bonus and possible energy reproduction to the shipping container homes.

Oneesan Container Housing Project. Photo from the Atira Women’s Resource Society.

Canadian companies are jumping on board as well, providing shipping container options for affordable housing in Vancouver and other clients in Western Canada. Edmonton-based company, Honomobo, builds prefabricated affordable housing shipping container homes and has received more than 12,000 inquiries from 74 countries for more homes. The Atira Women’s Resource Society in Vancouver also built a successful affordable multi-dwelling affordable housing development known as Oneesan, for vulnerable women aged 55 and over in 2013.

Private homeowners are also hopping on the trend, with local restaurant owner, Carl Cassell, recently using a shipping container to extend his Queen St. home. Development Company, Wonder Inc, is another Hamilton-based company designing and building a house completely made of shipping containers for writer and broadcaster, Geoffrey Young who has worked on international developments and has a passion for urban design and sustainability.

Shipping containers are not a permanent solution to affordable housing, but they are a good temporary one. They can be built quickly and provide immediate shelter for people who are desperate to find a home. However, municipalities that use shipping containers as a form of affordable housing must not rely on them as long-lasting, but using this building material will give city officials more time to find a better solution. Creative resolutions are the best way to solve the affordable housing crisis, and shipping containers are an inspiring start.