2030.000 Ecotecture

What ecological footprint is fair, and reasonable and ethical? According to Vaclav Smil, there is one number that really matters, and that is gigaJoules/person/yr total consumption. Here is some sense of the scale of our respective footprints.

Canada390 GJ
USA 300 GJ
Japan 170 GJ
EU 150 GJ
China 100 GJ
India 20 GJ
Nigeria 5 GJ
Ethiopia 2 GJ

In the 1990’s I believed that ‘Factor 10’ design would solve our problems. In other words, if we all learned to design and live with 1/10th the resources and energy we are accustomed to in ‘The West’, we’d be living in a more balanced way. What would be an equitable target for 9 billion people? 50gJ/pp/yr of total consumption? I used to imagine that by the year 2030, finally everything we design on planet Earth would take into consideration it’s part in a complete planetary energetic and ecological system. Now, I am unsure that we human beings, such as we are, will ever recognize the deficit we have drawn of the Earth’s capital. And so I am unsure that we will have much of a choice on the matter as nature is just now forcing our hand.  Where I once believed we needed to embrace a new kind of architecture and way of living that was a hybrid of the modern world and ancient ways of living, now I wonder if we should stop considering the design of architecture, and rather focus on designing better human behaviour and understanding – so the purpose of this post, and my work from here on out, is focused on research and education through architecture.

The architecture we have designed to date doesn’t really apply anything we learned from the space age ~ super important lessons that you can only learn from surviving in the hostile environment of space, such as;

  • Thermodynamic efficiency (Exergy considerations)
  • Airtightness
  • Compact design
  • Passive and Active Thermal Control Systems PTCS/ATCS
  • Light weighting or ‘Ephemeralization’ of structure & materials – an overall materials reduction resulting in labour efficiency and cost reductions
  • Resilience
  • Durability
  • Serviceability
  • Design for staged assembly and disassembly

Short for ecological architecture – ecotecture is a term coined by my German professor, friend and mentor Rudolf Doernach (1929-2016). Doernach was a partner of R. Buckminster Fuller in Germany and a pioneer of the living building movement in Germany in the 1970’s. As a consummate wordsmith and eco-philosopher, Rudolf quite vocally scoffed at any claim that architecture can be ‘environmentally friendly’. At public lectures he often humorously and lucidly excoriated representatives from the concrete and steel industries for their obvious hypocrisy, when they began lauding their respective industries for environmental leadership.

Doernach was considered a guru of sorts after he wrote two ‘Handbooks for Better Times’ (which I did promise to translate to English for him someday!) that chronicled his lifelong experiments in ecological homesteading in the Black Forest region of Southwest Germany. The two-volume handbooks cover everything from Aquaculture to goat-herding, from making your own solar food dehydrator, to the basics on beekeeping and button making. In the Handbooks you can find everything from how to promote health, fitness and nutrition in micro-farming, to felting hats and slippers, not to mention how to grow your own living home from willow trees. Yes, you read that right. The latter takes decades of patience and commitment, but was considered the pinnacle of “high-tech/high-bio” in Doernach’s worldview, where humans and nature actually co-operate.

Doernach once stated that if every citizen simply wore a wool cap and sweater indoors in Winter, and turned their thermostats down from 22ºC to 18ºC, a total energy and carbon savings of 20% could be achieved overnight at almost zero capital cost. Instead, increased insulation standards have added to building capital costs, with little expected change in human behaviour. Just as with the parable of the Emperor that demanding his kingdom be paved with cork for the comfort of his feet was answered by a clever cobbler that presented him with the first pair of sandals, so we too should not consider heating and lighting EVERY indoor space, but only the ones we are actively occupying!

And as Rudolf also said, a regular change of temperatures promotes health as it challenges the immune system and metabolism. Instead of thermo-stats, Doernach promoted thermo-changers, and that’s exactly what most Nest, EcoBee or other smart thermostats can do now, reducing temperatures at night and when we are not home, and increasing them when we first wake up and after we return from work. This 20% reduction is the ‘low hanging fruit’ on a wide range of buildings and can be implemented at minimal cost. We feel a mix of personal and collective/technological responsibility is merited; As John Bentley Mays once wrote about our work:

Mr. Thomson foresees not merely a radical building type, but also a new kind of human being to fit the built prototype. It may well be that the long-suffering environment will eventually turn on us in some catastrophic fashion — if global warming is not already such a calamity — forcing our conversion from wasteful people into more mindful folk. Should this apocalypse come upon us — or, better still, well before it actually happens — we should be listening to what designers such as Andy Thomson are telling us, and to what they have learned.

John Bentley Mays, The Globe and Mail, “Lessons Learned from a Prefab Pipe Dream” 2007.

When one considers that construction and demolition activities constitute almost 70% of total global waste and 40% of global GHG emissions, and that many building programs could be satisfied by pre-existing buildings, or better uses of technology (home offices and/or telecommuting), and that most commercial buildings are largely unoccupied most of the time (after the 9-5 hours and weekends), the very question of whether a building should be built at all really should be asked by architects. This might sound like professional suicide – but this is the dilemna of the green architect. In fact this was the very theme of the last Oslo Architecture Triennale: ENOUGH!

Green architects today make their living by picking the lesser of evils for our clients, when we could be asking how we might create the best possibility for current and future generations. Ecotecture is about asking deeper questions, and only then, in the context of finding an optimal, admittedly least destructive solution, can the best practices outlined below find their proper place.

Our portfolio represents a body of work that attempts to balance the greenest buildings possible, of the very highest quality, and for the least possible cost by using the least material possible, something Bucky Fuller referred to as Ephemeralization. With patience and experience, we have been rewarded with the opportunity to work on many buildings that are the best in class in each of these categories. I also believe one shouldn’t pay for the things that nature gives us in great abundance, namely light and heat from the Sun, Air, Wind, and Water. Our projects strive to take optimal advantage of these energies and resources to reduce environmental footprint and lessen building operating costs.

While there are green building standards such as LEED, Passivhaus and many others that seek to define environmental performance in a laundry list of terms, my time in Germany and in Canada’s R2000 program taught me that it is possible to go much further than even these stringent environmental building standards, ESPECIALLY when it comes to energy use, and that in fact if we are to survive at all as a species, we had better start looking at ideas like Factor10 as a design strategy for almost everything – which states that a general per-capita reduction in materials and energy of 1/10th is in order to reduce developed nations’ impact on the planet and equalize the rapid growth of developing nations, such that we don’t require an untenable 10 additional planet Earths to sustain our current growth. Factor 10 principles can result in either smaller buildings – or – conventionally-sized buildings using far fewer materials in a structurally optimized way. Now this may sound impossible, but the cost implications and strength-to-weight ratios of many of our research building demonstrate that this is not only possible, but entirely practical.

 Factor10 translated to a per-capita metric for the typical North American might include the following features – the features noted below should also be given consideration (each icon represents a specific environmental goal that was initially developed with the miniHOME project, but that has subsequently expanded, text descriptions are further down);

Ecotecture therefore should strive to:

  • Build Nothing
  • If you must build, renovate rather than build new
  • If you must build new, build clever
  • If you build clever, Consume less than 100kWh/m2/yr (20kW less than the Passivhaus Standard) in terms of Total EUI or TEUI (we have research projects that have achieved a TEUI of less than 5, so 100 is readily possible)
  • Burn nothing, the atmosphere cannot handle any more GHGs without extinguishing us, and every other specie, so Build Zero Carbon; zero combustion of fuel on site. In other words have a Greenhouse Gas Intensity of 0 kgGHGe/m2/yr. Completely avoid natural gas, as it makes it extremely difficult to wean from later on.
  • Conform to stringent material specifications for health (EAQ/IAQ), sustainability and durability.
  • Use the least carbon intensive materials possible, which would typically be a function of kgCO2e/MT of material. As an example, steel can have an Embodied Carbon Intensity of close to 1:1, whereas wood has a ECI of 0.10:1, or 90% less embodied carbon.
  • Wherever possible, be a net exporter of electrical energy.

As most buildings in existence now will be with us in 2030, and 2050, and as these were designed and built to lower standards of performance, they present specific challenges to architects, and will be dealt with separately. The following list is sorted in order of importance by impact, with energy and carbon mitigation measures at the top of the list. Least-cost, Passive measures are always first (Building Envelope, shape and orientation) followed by active/technology measures second. We may not implement every one of these items on every project, and there are a bunch we have probably omitted, but the list should giove a sense of how we think on every project.

1. Spatial Optimization
Human beings can only occupy so much space at a given time – so why heat, light, ventilate and cool rooms that are almost never in use? This is not an argument to support smaller home design, but larger homes really ought to be zoned and modular to heat and light only rooms that are occupied at a given time. The way we design buildings is to first of all, optimize spaces, and secondarily, to optimize how smart building systems can optimize our energy based on use patterns. When spaces are well designed for several functions such as cooking, living, dining and entertaining, both energy and spatial efficiency are effected, and costs are dramatically reduced. In terms of the Three R’s, Reduce and Reuse are taken here to mean reduce building footprint, and re-use as many spaces as possible for multiple functions, and where this is not possible, then at the very least, include circulation as an integral function of a room, rather than a room itself (ie. hallways). Why heat an entire house to 22ºC when only a single bedroom is occupied at night an an optimal sleep temperature may in fact be 15ºC? Zoning spaces and modulating temperature for use is key to overall reductions in energy use and carbon intensity.
2. High-Performance Building Envelope Design
Providing good thermal insulation is important to prevent heat loss and gain through a building’s walls, floors and roof, but it’s useless if the building is full of cracks that allow cold or hot air to ‘infiltrate’ into the spaces at the wrong times of the day or year. That’s why we provide almost 20% more insulation than the toughest building code in the country requires, while also ensuring that our buildings pass air-tightness testing. This saves energy, but provides superior thermal comfort and eliminates upleasant drafts. We design for compliance with a stringent 1.5ACH/Hr@50Pa rating). Ventilation air is provided by another system called ‘HRV’
3. Load Reduction
Low Energy Lighting & Appliances are the key to reducing electrical loads that can be powered by renewable energy systems like Photovoltaics. All of our fixtures and appliances surpass best-in-class Energy Star performance by as much as a factor of 2.
4. Net Zero Energy
It’s actually easy to design projects to be at least “Net-Zero-Energy”. Net Zero simply means, buildings that produce as much electrical energy as they consume over the course of a year. The most economical and fastest way to do this immediately is by offsetting energy use with off-site renewable power supply companies such as Bullfrog Power in Canada. In new construction and renovations, a reduction of total energy of up to 75% is possible with envelope improvements, which makes it economical to switch fuels from natural gas to 100% electricity. Building-Integrated PV (BIPV) can thus export excess power into an interconnected smart grid and further reduce electricity costs. All three strategies can be used to immediately make all buildings net zero energy and zero operational carbon or GHGI = 0 MT/yr.
5. Passive Solar Design
“Building performance can be simulated and fine-tuned by using the latest in energy modelling software, which helps to verify assumptions and design to exact sun angles for any given time of year. This level of control means that walls, floors, windows and roofs are designed optimally with solar geometry to maximize heating season solar gains (Passive Solar Design) and minimize Summer gains (Passive Cooling). This lets the Sun contribute to 30% or more of our heating load, while shading the sun completely in the Summer to keep spaces cool. The thermal model carefully monitors the effect of every window, every surface of every shape and size on overall heating and cooling performance. If any design changes introduced lead to a net consumption of more energy, then a redesign is necessary, and this process is repeated over and over until the building is as efficient as possible for its specific climate. Here’s a surprising anecdote; in our first research Quonset in Quebec this Winter, we shut off our boiler when the interior temperature reached 22ºC. The exterior temperature was -20ºC. By 3pm he following day, the temperature was over 26ºC where exterior temperature was still -20ºC. Without any energy contribution from the boiler, he sun added a full 5ºC in energy gains. This not only maintained the interior temperature, but added to it ~ a key design feature of resilient architecture. Of course this kind of solar heating would be a disaster in the Summer, but deep overhangs limit all solar gains when the angle of the sun climbs higher, preventing 100% of direct sun from entering the interior of the building.
6. Passive Ventilation & Cooling
By combining the natural air flows from cooler to warmer places (convection) and from one side of a space to another (cross ventilation) – we can anticipate how to keep warm pockets of air inside the building in the heating season, and how to move these warm air masses out of the building in the Summer. This can be as simple as locating windows on two sides of every room, but can also involve day/night cooling strategies, automatic window operators. Designing a building to accommodate these airflows means less reliance on ducted fans and their associated noise and cost, while providing greater control over the spaces and occupant comfort.
7. Thermal Mass
Don’t let anyone tell you that ‘Mass and Glass’ designs belong in the 1970’s. Together with air-tightness, air-quality control measures and super-insulation, Mass and Glass designs can do a lot of the heavy-lifting that would otherwise fall you your heating system. Sunshine through a window can deliver 1,000 wats per square meter on a sunny day, most of which is converted from light to heat inside your building – if you plan for it with materials that can absorb this thermal energy. Heavy materials like rammed-earth and concrete, or even cross-laminated-timber (CLT) panels can serve as ‘Thermal Batteries’. When the sun hits these batteries, they slowly warm, absorbing heat from the spaces in the daytime, only to return this heat back to the spaces when the sun goes down. This lets us balance out temperature extremes on a given day, but also over a range of days. This is not only beneficial in the Winter, when we want to store as much heat as possible inside the building, but also in Summer, when we want to absorb as much heat as possible during the daytime to keep the ambient air temperature cool and comfortable. It’s important to keep this mass interior side of your insulation though!
8. Active Solar Design, Solar Electric, Photovoltaic or BIPV systems
Off-Grid and Grid Intertied Systems allow our buildings to be ‘Net Zero Energy’. This means, buildings that produce as much energy as they consume over the course of a given year. We have optimized all appliances and lighting fixtures in our buildings to draw the least amount of electrical energy, such that we can power our systems with much smaller, more affordable PV systems. We have systems that are designed for off-grid (batteries) use, as well as systems that result in spinning your electrical utility meter backwards – resulting in net-zero consumption, or in some cases payments from the utility company to you – the power producer!
9. Whole-House Automation
Advanced Household Controls and Security Systems are something we integrate into every one of our projects – from programmable thermostats to remote/telephone controlled and online energy-monitoring systems (using smart meter technology), we feel that awareness of energy consumption is the first step towards conservation, and so we strive to make the performance metrics of our projects highly accessible and visible. We have now integrated IAQ controls with real-time monitoring of Radon, CO2, TVOC, Humidity and Passive Solar Gains so that with IFTTT we can further optimize and reduce calls to your heating and ventilation systems, further optimizing energy efficiency. We also provide optional security systems on projects that require it.
10. Heat Recovery Ventilation
Heat Recovery Ventilation provides a constant supply of fresh air to building occupants, without wasting the thermal energy (heat) in the exhaust stream. A ‘recovery’ of this heat in the exhaust stream is captured by the heat exchanger’s core, which results in excellent air quality and lower heating bills. In fact, installing an HRV can save as much a 70% of the thermal energy in the heating season. We use HRV’s instead of exhaust fans in kitchens and bathrooms, which provides the same result, with considerably less noise and better performance.
11. Indoor Air Quality (IAQ/EAQ)
and Non-toxic Materials and Finishes provide us with a fresh, high quality of indoor air which lends to occupant health. The WHO (World Health Organization) recognizes that building interiors are often 5 to 20 times more polluted than outdoor air – even in urban centres. The toxic off-gassing of glues/adhesives, caulking/sealants and highly processed modern materials in general makes building occupants sick. Choosing low to zero VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) and no-added formaldehyde materials that are now readily available provide superior indoor air quality and better occupant health.
12. Natural Daylighting Strategies
When windows are properly placed – up high to let in light, and down low – to provide views, rooms can be completely lit by the sun most days of the year. We also design architectural elements such as shading fins, light shelves, reflective pavers and even water-features to bounce as much ambient light into our spaces as possible. Sunlight has a much greater component of light:heat than any form of electric illumination – which means that spaces do not become saturated with waste heat from light sources in critical Summer months.
13. Natural Landscaping
Natural Landscaping takes advantage of plants that provide shade benefit when it is wanted, and forms protective buffers from noise and airborne particulates. Plants can beneficially modify the microclimates and build soil health surrounding your home. Drought-tolerant species and techniques can be recommended for drier climates or where well supply requires prudent consumption.
14. Site Planning for View and Vistas
It’s important to find the ideal location on your land for single homes or even entire subdivisions, keeping in mind the necessity for maintaining good solar exposure to every home (+/- 30degrees from due South), maintaining access to prevailing winds for passive ventilation, and preserving views and privacy as required.
15. Modular Design
Modular and/or Prefabricated Components help us to control costs, limit waste and reduce onsite labour costs. In fact, our proprietary SIPFS (Structural Insulated Panel & Finish System) reduces labour and material costs by up to 50%, and lessens our burden on the environment by using less material overall, that is designed to be both durable, impervious to moisture, and easy to disassemble and repair.
16. Renewable Materials and Finishes:
Simply stated, materials that can be readily grown such as wood, bamboo, cork, wool and stone have an innate advantage over highly processed or mediated material in that they require less energy to produce and finish, and as often available regionally. Renewability also means that the resource base regenerates with or without extensive human intervention. Wherever possible, we use renewable materials for both their aesthetic warmth and environmental characteristics.
17. Reclaimed and Recycled Materials
Better than renewable and natural or other more mediated materials are materials that would otherwise end up in landfill Every year, resourceful companies are producing materials with greater portions of recycled content, and/or re-processing waste material for re-use in new applications. We search out metal, glass, concrete, plastic and composite materials with the highest percentages of recycled content available.
19. Wastewater Heat Recovery (DWHR)
Wastewater Heat Recovery is as simple as wrapping a copper coil around wastewater drains. This captures heat from the wastewater, and preheats water entering the building’s water-heating system. Up to 30% of the wastewater heat can thus be recaptured. (These are now required by code in Ontario’s OBC.)
20. Solar Hot Water Systems
Solar Hot Water Systems provide piping hot water from the sun. This system takes the form of roof mounted collector panels, a large hot-water storage tank, and a pump to circulate water or refrigerant between these two. These systems can be effective even in the dead of Winter and pay for themselves in energy savings in as few as 5 to 10 years, and have the capacity in some climates to supply as much as 70% of hot water demand. Our optional SDHW system is designed to tie in to our space heating system as well, for optimal combined performance. We have recently learned that PV has become so efficient and inexpensive that it is now less expensive to power a DHW system with PV, rather than pumping water through solar thermal panels – so that’s new!
21. Advanced Wastewater Treatment
Greywater and Tertiary Septic Systems allow us to treat wastewater on-site. In some cases, such as areas that are prone to acute water shortages or droughts, this is highly advantageous. These systems are usually provided as an aftermarket solution, as regional approvals of these systems are often taken on a case-by-case basis.
22. Water Conserving
Appliances & Fixtures (i.e. Low Flow Fixtures, Dual Flush Toilets). The market standard low-flush toilet is one to one-half gallon per flush. Our flush toilets use one pint or less water to flush. Low flow showerheads are usually considered optimal if they provide 1.5 or less gallons per minute of flow. Ours use 0.5 gpm. This means our fixtures use less than half of the current best-in-class.
23. Composting Toilets
Composting Toilets effectively ‘dehydrate’ human waste and eliminate odour by providing a constant negative pressure over the resulting mass while encouraging thermophilic aerobic (not anaerobic or stinky) bacterial decomposition. When properly designed, composting toilets can eliminate human pathogens while reducing waste volume by as much as 95%. The resulting product, which accumulates very slowly over several months, called Humus, can be used as fertilizer for non-edible plantings. In areas where water shortages are common, composting toilets can eliminate water consumption related to toilet flushing. Definitely check out the Humanure Handbook and the extensive, international work of Charles Jenkins and SuSaNa (Sustainable Sanitation Alliance)
24. Rainwater Collection and Reuse
Rainwater Collection and Reuse is a low-cost method for collecting water for landscape irrigation. We collect rainwater off of a single downspout, and we offer several systems for rainwater storage – where this is feasible. Caution should be exercised to prevent stagnation and/or still water that can serve as mosquito incubators – which can be limited by covering storage vessels and/or providing circulation of the water – such as small fountains or other pleasant water features.
25. Green Roof Systems
Green roofs, or in drier climates – ‘eco-roofs’ are excellent for limiting heat-gain as well as providing natural habitat that is otherwise removed by the footprint of a building. We typically advise a system of linked-trays placed on top of a finished roof system, which helps keep maintenance low and repairs easy. We use Drought Tolerant grasses, succulents and/or Native Species in our planting schedules, as these often do well in extreme sun and in dry conditions in a wide range of climates.
26. Wind Power
Economical, effective Wind Power is tricky to provide on a small scale, as many smaller system do not perform as advertised. We can help you to evaluate when and where wind systems are advisable, and which systems are currently performing well based on extensive installation and performance feedback we have from our sales and installation partners.
27. Advanced Geothermal Systems
Geothermal is often extremely cost effective – but on small projects with tiny energy loads, these systems are considerable overkill. UPDATE: Air:Air systems are now in a third generation of efficiency improvements and are now efficient and economical replacements for gas and electric furnaces even in cold climates. Consult with a licensed, green-oriented mechanical engineer for more information. Our own clients have done extensive research on these systems and we will post the results of this information here by Spring 2020.
28. Advanced Media Systems
Using the latest in home entertainment and computing systems is something we encourage, by providing for conveniently located electrical and integral USB outlets and layouts that consider optimal acoustics for sound systems. For example, we provide flip-up computer workstations in several rooms, that can convert into media wall-units, such that a single LCD screen or laser-projection surface can serve as both computer display, streaming media station, stereo and UHD TV.
29. Fireplaces and Stoves
We have experience with Advanced, Clean Burning Wood Heating Systems (ie. Contraflow Masonry Heaters), and are pioneering some of these low-pollution systems for use in Northern California, ask us for details.

Below are a few key resources that I’m posting here so that I can return to reference them later.

Resources on Finance:

Resources on Materials:

  1. Concrete: https://www.theguardian.com/cities/2019/feb/25/concrete-the-most-destructive-material-on-earth
  2. Steel: https://medium.com/mit-technology-review/a-new-way-to-make-steel-could-cut-5-percent-of-co%E2%82%82-emissions-at-a-stroke-ecd0999a8515
  3. Glass:
  4. Wood:
  5. Rubber:
  6. Mineral Batt:

Resources on Policy with SBEC/OAA Contributions:

  1. OAA Policy: https://www.oaa.on.ca/oaamedia/bloaags/text/2019_01_28_-_oaa_climate_submission.pdf


  1. Thermodynamics: https://www.scienceeurope.org/our-resources/in-a-resource-constrained-world-think-exergy-not-energy/
  2. Supergrid (1mlnV vs. 500kV Transmission grids = 150GW, where 1gW=1 Nuke Plant or 10,000 Teslas): https://medium.com/mit-technology-review/chinas-giant-transmission-grid-could-be-the-key-to-cutting-climate-emissions-1f0ead2f2b71
  3. Supergrid: http://www.geni.org/globalenergy/library/technical-articles/transmission/environmental-expert.com/what-is-the-super-grid-supplying-renewable-electricity-worldwide/index.shtml
  4. Electrification & Canadian Demand: https://thefutureeconomy.ca/interviews/francis-bradley/

Carbon Policy:

  1. The last quarter: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/611498/we-still-have-no-idea-how-to-eliminate-more-than-a-quarter-of-energy-emissions/
  3. https://www.bankofengland.co.uk/speech/2019/mark-carney-speech-at-european-commission-high-level-conference-brussels

Aviation Innovation:

  1. Boxwing Aircraft: https://www.popsci.com/technology/article/2012-04/jets-future
  2. Megafans: https://www.aiaa.org/uploadedFiles/About-AIAA/Press-Room/Key_Speeches-Reports-and-Presentations/2012/Martin-Lockheed-AVC-AIAA-GEPC2.pdf
  3. Boxwing-Nasa: https://www.nasa.gov/content/outside-the-box-sort-of
  4. https://www.nasa.gov/topics/aeronautics/features/greener_aircraft.html
  5. https://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/cop25-airline-travel-carbon-emissions-offsets-electric-planes-1.5367158