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Solaris Makes Headlines… Again!

A big congratulations to Solares Architecture for making headlines in the Globe and Mail yesterday. Once again, Solares shows that they are singularly focused on producing beautiful high performance homes and BlueGreen Group is proud to collaborate on the energy detailing for their projects.

In a day and age where art trumps functionality, it’s increasingly hard to get any press, but Solares manages it in this awkwardly titled article “Under the skin: How investing in the mechanics of the home will save money“. I say awkwardly, because, Solares tends to emphasise superb envelope detailing and de-empahsise mechanical systems. They do that knowing moving parts in mechanical systems breakdown, but a well built building envelope has few moving parts to breakdown aside from operable doors and windows. Writer John Bentley Mays might be catering to a high brow audience that he suspects craves art at the expense of functionality, sustainability and durability when he goes on to suggest “The office now needs to get busy with the art.”

We do a lot of diagnostics on building failures and I’d love to spend a day with Mays to talk about and show him how often ‘art’ fails, often dramatically, leaving really rich homeowners having to repair complex envelopes. I hope going forward he understands that complex envelopes require superb planning and detailing – which Solares excels at – and that the builder needs to be at the top of their game when assembling. It’s too bad that Mays didn’t talk to the client who commissioned the project in question or he would have quickly realised the client didn’t want art, they wanted performance.

Good work Solares!

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Thank you TSA and Daniels

BGG was invited by the Toronto Society of Architects to give two Technical Series Lectures June 9 and 16th which were held at Daniels Faculty of Architecture. We’re pleased to report that both lectures were very well received – thank you to the wonderful audience of architects who welcomed us and to TSA for inviting us!

If you missed it, both lectures were recorded and at the very least the slide deck will be made available to those attending.

The topics covered:

High Performance Building – The devil’s in the details: Brings theory and real life experience together in a visually rich presentation that comes from years of field testing buildings. Served with a side of building science, this presentation will draw attention to the building details that work and some that don’t work when it comes to high performance building assembly and design.

Building Resiliently – Adapting building design for a changing climate: The science is in and climatologist predict an increase in storm intensity, will your buildings stand the beating? This lecture will focus on how making small adjustments in the design specifications and construction processes can mean the difference between a family living in their home through a severe storm event or having to live at a shelter while parts of the home are rebuilt.

 

 

The John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design

TSA - Toronto Society of Architechts

 

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When Spray Foam Cracks

When spray foam is applied too thickly in one pass – or ‘lift’ in industry parlance – tension can build and things can start to smell fishy. Unlike nearly all other building materials and components that are manufactured in a controlled environment – like a highly regulated ISO9000 factory – and brought to the job site to be assembled, spray foam is not. Spray foam is manufactured in situ and for this reason that the OBC references the following standards , the first for the product itself, the second or the manufacturer & installer:

•CAN/ULC-S705.2-05, “Standard for Thermal Insulation – Spray Applied Rigid Polyurethane Foam, Medium Density – Application.”

The great irony with any standard referenced in the building code is that few contractors have them.  Standards get updated often and cost money as a consequence, very few spray foam companies have paid for the standard if they have the most recent version, even fewer spray foam installers have ever seen or read through a copy of the above standards.

I always tell people interested in having their projects insulated with spray foam “Don’t hire the company, hire the guy who pulls the trigger.” I realise, its a chicken before the egg type of question, but the person pulling the trigger doesn’t need to be a Rhodes scholar, but they need over a year of field experience and need to know as much about their trade:

    • with a firm grasp of the physics and chemistry effects of time, moisture and temperature on their chemical, the substrate and the finished product,
    • building science of how and where to apply the foam,
    • physical stamina,
    • fastidiousness in keeping clean, clear records,
    • discipline for routine daily cleaning and maintenance of the many  parts of the system,
    • a solid mechanical understanding of generators, proportions and compressors

Medium density spray foam’s chemical is exothermic as it changes from liquid to solid; it makes lots of heat as it cures. To allow the foam to cool, installers limit their ‘lift’ thickness to 2″ per pass. The heat generated is serious and can spontaneously  ignite if applied to thickly and quickly – cooling is key. However, when  the specifications call for 6″ of spray foam, 3 separate passes should be applied which could take 2-3 days of cooling depending on ambient conditions, but time is money…

In reality, the sprayer typically does two 3″ lifts perhaps all in one day, which can lead to a two serious issues; cracking and smelly finished product. As covered in CBC’s Marketplace a few years back, spray foam can smell sickening and chemically and one of the causes they suspect might be due to lifts being applied too thickly and or successive lifts being applied too quickly.

After visiting a job site recently where the builder shared his experience of hearing the loud crack the foam make when it split in the rafter cavity during spray application, I thought I should check in with a deeply talented insulation expert to get his opinion. I explained what I saw to Michael Cerqua of CallRich Eco Services, and he told me “take a core sample of the spray foam, trim the edges and measure the distance between rings. If it’s more than two inches, the lifts were applied too thickly.” The spray foam industry is very competitive and no one wants to be on a job site for any longer than needed, but Mike stresses that sometimes you just have to wait till the foam cools off – you can’t rush quality when it comes to spray foam, the consequences are too dire.

Cross Purlins (Custom)

These 2×8″ rafters were strapped with 2×4″ on the flat side and sheathed. A ventilation chute was installed and the spray foam was applied to the back of the ventilation chute just covering the face of the rafters on the warm side (see below).

The crack backstep (Custom)

Past this knee wall, an orange line (see detail below) can be seen in this 2LBS spray foam filling the rafter cavity. As the sprayer was applying the foam,”You could hear creaking as the foam pulled on the wood framing…” says the builder, “then all of a sudden, with a very loud snap, the foam in the rafter cavity opened up!”

The crack (Custom)

With the blower door running, we detected no air leaks through this 5′ long, repaired (orange can foam) 3/4″ crack in the newly applied 2 LBS spray foam.

 

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Greening Homes Wins Prestigious Canadian Green Building Award

We’re thrilled that Greening Homes recently won the prestigious Canadian Green Building Award in the residential project category for the Beechwood Project – a deep energy retrofit of a post-World War II bungalow in Toronto’s East York area.

This was a collaboration between an informed homeowner, Greening Homes, Open Architects and Sustainable Edge. BlueGreen Group took part in the early IDP process and the final 3rd party air tightness testing, but the heavy lifting was done by Greening Homes who drove the homeowners vision, making this truly amazing deep energy retrofit a reality.

Christopher Phillips and Steven Gray, Greening Homes’ respective President and Construction Manager, accepted the award at the National Conference of the Canada Green Building Council (CaGBC) at the Vancouver Convention Centre.

 

East York

Pre-renovation: this bungalow had big dreams for a new life. Keep your eye on the garage door…

East York half way there

Mid-renovation: The second story takes shape and the trades at Greening Homes took great pains to air-seal all details.

Beechwood2

Deep Energy Retroit Completed: With a well deserved prize in hand, Greening Homes hands over the finished home to the owners. Congrats for the transformation!

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Bauhaus Doors and Windows

The importance and symbolism of a door is inescapable; it can be open and welcoming or closed for protection and privacy. It allows easy passage from the comfort within to the vagaries of weather outside. It can be slammed in anger or opened with great hugs of welcome and hospitality. Even door thresholds hold ideological boundaries through the ages. It’s something most of us use and depend on at least twice a day and it needs to operate flawlessly when urgency calls.

Bauhaus Windows and Doors

Perhaps a bit cliche to take pictures of old doors, but until you’ve seen the massive doors at Oxford in person, some of which could be over 500 years old, it might be hard for you to appreciate their significance and beauty – forget the fact that only 18% are accepted to study on the other side!

It should be noted that I have personally weatherstripped hundreds of old Toronto doors to keep the cold and noise out, and so I’ve come to appreciate doors that look good and function well. Though I do have a mini basement wood shop, I don’t have the skills my grandfather had as a cabinet maker but do have his love of wood and how it’s used in making beautiful everyday items.

G4S

Good four sides: squared, straight and planed to perfection, these blanks of solid clear hardwoods are about to be precisely dadoed, dowled, kerfed and finished into a door.

So it was inevitable that I happened upon a very special place here in Toronto that manufactures doors, windows and custom furniture out of solid woods. When I called co-owner L. Elizabeth Wright of Bauhaus Doors to ask for specifications on their doors, our conversation eventually lead to the amazing fact that their product was made here in the city. With a showroom on Avenue Road south of Davenport, Elizabeth set me up with the other co-owner, Michael Piernitzki, for a tour of the factory just off Keele Street.

Of German stock, it was fitting that Michael named their company Bauhaus. Opening with the humble salvo “As a business we’ve made every mistake in the book…” but within minutes it was apparent those “mistakes” were not related to the doors, probably had to do with growing pains of developing a business and were well behind him. As the shop hummed with the finest European and American power tools, a handful of attentive young and old craftsmen were purposeful going about their work in what seemed like focused enjoyment.

Yes, they made beautiful windows installed in modest renovations all the way to the Fogo Island Inn , but the doors are what took me in. These weren’t just doors, they were functional furniture made of the highest grades of wood, usually quarter-sawn for maximum strength, dimensional stability and grain beauty. Michael understood the connection between beauty, functionality and maintenance – people maintain things they love. He just made sure his crews put the love in. I got the feeling the doors would become chattels and moved with the owner from house to house.

 

Doors

Functional furniture. These doors were so beautiful to look at, crisp clean edges, prefect reveals, hardware countersunk perfectly.

After listening for a half hour, it was clear Michael loved the niche Bauhaus occupied. It was clear too that he had a near fetish for door hardware as he explained his English and Italian made stainless hinges had sealed bearings! And I though I was special getting all brass hinges! He explained how over the years the Italians seemed to be overtaking the staid Germans on innovation and high quality.

Hinge detail

Move over Germany, these Italian hinges made for some smooth action on the doors.

Because of my history with weatherstripping doors, I had to check out his system. It needs to be said that the door panels are assembled with a solid core of laminated (clear, hard, quarter-sawn) wood, reinforced on four sides with an aluminum channel. The door frames, like all the wood in the door, is made of the most stable cut of wood which means the wood’s expansion with changes in humidity is minimised.

Thershold

For the untrained eye, there’s a lot going on here. A threshold has to have height to shed water and stop wind-driven rain from entering, but it can’t be too high or it catches the foot. The beefy, unobtrusive stainless threshold lip was neatly tucked behind a beautiful piece of solid, durable granite. The door had a sweep on the front (not installed in kerf yet) that kept the rain from the threshold, but the wind was really stopped at the compression strip under the door. Schlegel’s Q-LON is the industry standard and the best hands-down for draft-stopping. It’s easily replaced if the cat tears at it and in this case continuous on four sides.

In the end, it was difficult for me to square my love of a perfectly crafted door with my need for high overall R-value. It was clear to me that this door would perform better than some of the German doors I’ve tested in in situ here in Toronto (poorly adjusted stops). It’s also clear to me the frames around the doors would perform just as well as any other frame and that the glazing unit would perform to the specification in any frame. Bauhaus will have doors energy rated if requested, but if most of the door is glazed, for the small area of solid wood I’d be hard pressed to chose an ENERGY STAR rated steel door over these pieces of functional furniture. Take the tour, I’m sure you won’t be able to say no.

 

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Humber College and BlueGreen Group

The Ontario Technologist recently highlighted the fact that BlueGreen Consulting Group recently completed a research project with students of the Sustainable Energy and Building Technology program at Humber College.

Humber CEBT

We’re not sure where the image above came from, but for the record, though we love the classic magnehelic gauges, none were used for this study – only DG700′s that were recently calibrated!

The results of the study are being tabulated and written up as we speak and BGG anticipates publishing the study’s results in collaboration with Ryerson University’s Dr. Russell Richman.

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Recycling a High Park Home

Building Science Corp has done a great job describing the phenomenon of water being drawn up the foundation and up and into the above grade wall portion of vintage solid masonry homes in an article called Small Sacrifices. The first course of brick on the foundation usually look a little haggard after a 100 years.

 

DSC_0519 (Custom)

Photo 1: Typical Toronto double brick: The couloured brick above the foundation wall often spalls at this joint because it gets water from above (if rain pushes through missing mortar) and from below with the foundation wall itself pulling water from the soil or puddling against the foundation.

DSC_0515 (2) (Custom)

Photo 2: This picture of a house being gutted corresponds to the image above but on the inside. This is what the partywall (shared or warm) wall looks like with wood floor joists “embedded” into the wall.

 

Joists on Mudsill w Stone Found (Custom)

Photo 3; Variation on photo 2 above, this shows the floor joist resting on a wood mud-sill with a layer of brick between. Technically, these joists on the outside wall are not embedded into the brick wall. The wood sill is extremely vulnerable to rotting if it stays cold and damp for too long.

In another one of Lstiburek’s articles called Rubble Foundations Dr Joe can be seen lifting the house with a number of bottle nose jacks in order to get in a capillary break (thin blue line below) that does double duty; stops rising damp and if rain water comes from above it can get drained out instead of sitting on foundation wall top.

I happened to run by a project in my neighbourhood the other day that was listing heavily to one side, sure enough, holes were cut in the foundation and large beams slid in. Within 2 weeks the house was 2′ up on timber cribbing!

 

IMG_20150520_173643760

Photo 4: Listing northward by about a 1′ in 20′, this house High Park home needed a lift.

 

IMG_20150527_073441936_HDR

Photo 5: With the house raised 2′ held up by timber cribbing, the 100 year old foundation can now be replaced. Let’s hope they cover the new foundation wall top with a capillary break to stop the rising damp.

 

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Habitat [Hubris] 67′s Origami

Nearly 50 years on, Habitat 67 is still occupied – but was it a durable or sustainable vision for the future? Designed by a 26 year old architect as a master’s thesis, Moshe Safdie was part of the sweeping modernist movement that wanted social change and bet that we could do it with better technology.

At the time of construction, a giddy full-page ad in Maclean’s proclaimed, “The next 100 years in Canada,” wherein cities would explode into “vast megalopolitan clusters of 25 to 50 million people,” with a universal two-day workweek, free local transportation, no pollution, and a pleasant monoclimate supplied by a huge transparent plastic membrane overhead.

The reality is that Habitat 67 didn’t bring the social change it promised. The units are expensive and privately owned by the higher strata of the middle class where the units are often listed by Sothebys.  From a building science perspective and as one former anonymous resident said “From an architectural point of view, it’s spectacular, but water got into that concrete, and mould seeped into the ventilation system. It blew the spores around.” Montreal’s wet, humid climate is a challenge for any structure, but to design without roof overhangs to manage water and to have such a complex shape that promotes accelerated heat-loss, its not sustainable or resilient. The criticism leveled at the intent was “… Modernists’ most naive conceit was that they thought they could design social equality into existence…And it fit in perfectly with Expo’s faith in technology for creating a just, endlessly prosperous country.

In hindsight, it’s easy to poke holes in the idealism, especially as a building scientist, but the publicly funded experiment in housing did add to the Canadian experience and is a sign of what was once made possible through tax-payer funded initiatives. Prime minister Lester Pearson said “Anyone who says we are not a spectacular people only needs to see this.” and he was partially right!

Montreal_-_QC_-_Habitat67

We’ve talked about origami architecture and this is probably one of the most spectacular examples with maximum surface area for conditioned volume.  As a stepping stone towards communal living, Habitat ’67 stands as an interesting experiment, but it wasn’t the answer. What will the next wave in high performing social design bring? Hopefully something that takes the local climate in mind and reduces exposure.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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BGG Delivers Two TSA Technical Series Talks at UofT Daniels

 

TSA - Toronto Society of Architechts

 

We’ve been invited by the Toronto Society of Architects to give two Technical Series Lectures June 9 and 16th to be held at Daniels Faculty of Architecture (College and Huron Streets) at 6:30. Free for members, $10 for non-members, clik on the links below toregister:

June 9 – High Performance Building – The devil’s in the details: Brings theory and real life experience together in a visually rich presentation that comes from years of field testing buildings. Served with a side of building science, this presentation will draw attention to the building details that work and some that don’t work when it comes to high performance building assembly and design.

June 17 – Building Resiliently – Adapting building design for a changing climate: The science is in and climatologist predict an increase in storm intensity, will your buildings stand the beating? This lecture will focus on how making small adjustments in the design specifications and construction processes can mean the difference between a family living in their home through a severe storm event or having to live at a shelter while parts of the home are rebuilt.

TSA members can register using the promo code provided in the June e-Bulletin. If you are a member but are not subscribed to the e-Bulletin, please contact the Executive Administrator at tsa@torontosocietyofarchitects.ca. If you are interested in becoming a member please visit our Membership Page.

These TSA Technical Series Lectures is approved by the OAA for 2 hours of Structured Learning Continuing Education credits.

 

The John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design

 

 

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The State of New Canadian Housing

When Canadians think of energy efficiency, they may think an ENERGY STAR label is the pinacle in energy performance, but are they right?  In our experience ENERGY STAR homes are a step up from OBC minimum, but only a small step. Its concept tesnds to work best for big production builders. At any rate, ENERGY STAR rated homes are nowhere near what the Europeans and select North Americans are doing to optimise building efficiency using energy modeling early in the design stages and testing the better building assembly processes in the field.

2014 ACEEE Internationsl EE Scorecard

2014 ACEEE International Energy Efficiency Scorecard for Buildings: The figure above gives a total score compiled from an assessment of energy intensity, building codes, building labeling, appliance standards, appliance labeling, and building retrofit policies. Sadly Canadians are not at the forefront.

 

The big gains in energy performance come early, even before the shovel hits the ground. Without changing “the look” of the design, subtle envelope upgrades are chosen based on savings projections calculated by a computer energy simulation tool. This is when architects or design-build firms who strive for high efficiency tend to view things differently than tract builders.

Big production builders tend to see the computer energy simulation process involved in the design optimisation of each house not as opportunity but sadly, as ‘another hoop to jump through’. Savvy builders and architects tend to use the energy modeling required for the Performance Path in SB-12 as a process for optimising the efficiency of the design through iterations of incremental envelope detail improvements. Some architects and builders go further and use the Passive House Planning Package software to get as close to the Passive House standard as the home owner cares to get.
After spending two years testing new tract-built homes designated as ENERGY STAR, we’ve come to realise how low the threshold is on the program. This isn’t to say that the ENERGY STAR brand doesn’t have substance, but the increased requirements in energy performance are low enough to appeal to the cookie cutter approach of production homebuilders who need a recognisable brand like ENERGY STAR to boost their products’ image. Sadly though, when you get out in the field to test these homes, you can see the shortcomings in design and construction-practice execution from a mile away.

The problem is twofold: typically tract-built homes are not designed by highly trained architects, and the assembly of production homes doesn’t lend itself to consistent quality. In our experience, it takes an architect a few years to hone their high efficiency skills – developing building envelope systems that work in the field and knowing what specifications need to be written in the plan to eliminate the guess work for the builder.

The tract-built home design approach typically starts without an experienced architect and opts instead for a design-build batch approach. In this approach, a few model homes are designed which satisfy the municipality’s aesthetic and come with a few ‘upgrade packages’ that homeowners can chose from so they feel they’re getting a “custom home”. The construction ‘process’ for most tract-built homes is furiously paced and frantic with trade teams leapfrogging from house to house. Not a recipe for consistent quality.

Compare that to infill-built homes and cottages or deep energy retrofits, where a builder has a cadre of retained highly skilled trades that are trained in the details specified by the architect or the builder. The results are dramatically different, especially if the process includes third party testing to ensure that all is in order before the drywall goes on. This is where the skilled and caring hands of the trades people on site makes a huge difference in the development of high performing and resilient homes.

Ocean view

Four brand new townhomes in Berkeley’s vibrant Oceanview neighborhood offer thoughtful, modern design. And with greywater systems, PV solar panels and cultivated fruit trees, these designed to LEED Platinum homes offer the greenest living in Berkeley.

To keep quality high and costs low, many high performance architects in the USA are looking at Pre-Fabrication. Authors like Sheri Koones has been writing about the virtues of prefabrication in her book Prefabulous, which has eradicated the notion that prefab looks staid or cheap.

As we learned last week in PBC’s webinar on pre-fabrication, the cost of high performance prefabrication can be on par with industry averages. The prefabricated approach has reduced on-site errors typically associated with the tract-built approach to assembly which are eliminated by the consistency of rapid, factory assembly of components.  If the foundation work is accurately laid out, a home can be closed in and dry within days when using a panelised system. We’ve field tested panelised houses and factories and the results are typuically significantly better than field manufactured wall assemblies.

So on your next build, if you’re looking to differentiate it by its resiliency and energy efficiency, consider pushing the envelope (literally) and using the power of energy simulation to help you maximise your build’s efficiency potential possibly reaching for Passive House standard. Even if the house doesn’t get certified, the process of designing and constructing to the newly evolved standard means the homeowner will be rewarded with a lifetime of durable, healthy, comfort with super low energy costs.

 

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