Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Limewire Shut Down

Apparently, the music industry, believes it's not getting what it feels it deserves. From what little I know, the musicians are not the primary beneficiaries of what you pay for when purchasing an album or single. Middle-men, distributors and other leaches of the industry/system take a very healthy cut. This is true in the publishing field as well.

I don't think anyone, when asked, has a problem with compensating both artists and those that are directly involved in the production of music. But maintaining the gravy-train for the leaches (i.e. those that add no value to the actual product) is a non-starter. If the prices of the music purchased more accurately reflected the costs of production and went directly to those who produce it, then file sharing (i.e. the urge to get it free) along with the sites that support it, would be eliminated.

I am at a loss as to why I should pay for a file that represents a recording (as it is not the actual recording, it is merely a copy) that was made, in many cases, numerous decades ago, especially if it is for my own use. When cassettes were the rage, one could easily tape from the radio... or tape-to-tape. How is this any different?

As an architect who produces drawings, someone can take my design and easily replicate it by making only slight modifications, and get around copyright. This can have very negative consequences of course, especially if the replicated design is constructed in a jurisdiction outside that which the building was originally designed, but I digress. My point is that copyright laws are problematic in a world that has perfected the ability of replication. Protecting this intellectual property can only go so far.

This is yet another corporation (or cluster of related corporations) surreptitiously taking control of government and subsequently arm-twisting the public into submission.

This has little to nothing to do with the actual musicians or those involved in the production of the art.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Drive-Thru Madness - The Numbers

What I neglected to include with my previous post, to emphasize the scale of the problem, are the numbers.

At approximately 6 vehicles per outlet times 2,720 outlets, that results in 16,320 vehicles essentially running 24/7 -- and totally unnecessarily.

To put that in context, it's the equivalent of a 94 acre parking lot filled with vehicles running all day, all night, year after year -- simply out of the toxic combination of the sheer and utter laziness of their occupants and the subsequent support of the corporation.

And this is just one "food" chain. Multiply this by all the others across the planet and it gives you some idea of the scale of the problem.

I haven't noticed drive-thru's being closed down around here, especially in response to a global problem. Instead, there are more every year.

Drive-Thru Madness

If one day you hear on the news that someone has gone postal at a Tim Horton’s franchise location, the stakes are high it will be me.

Tim Horton’s, for those unfamiliar, is a typical fast food chain with franchised outlets across Canada and is expanding into the US. Although not all locations are stand-alone, most are, and offer drive-thru ordering and pick-up.

Its main fare is basic: coffee and donuts, but they have since broadened their menu with offerings of sandwiches, soups and miscellaneous other "food" items to remain competitive.

There is rumour that their coffee contains some kind of additive substance, beyond the normal caffeine, that has many of their customer’s hooked to the point of franchise monogamy. Suggest a coffee other than from Tim Horton’s and they get right ornery. Whether true or not, there is a behaviour associated with a typical “Timmies” addict that goes beyond rationality, and there are millions of them.

Perhaps I should explain first why I despise Tim Horton’s the way I do, and I DO despise them.

About 15-20 years ago in Bolton, a small town north of Toronto, there was a grocery store sitting on a relatively large piece of property in the heart of the early 1900’s downtown core. It was too small for a “modern” grocery store, so the land was being sold off. And the reason the parcel was so large was because at one point in time, that side of the street had been razed by fire. Essentially the entire side of the downtown core was destroyed. This was a perfect opportunity to finally mend the gaping hole in the downtown core and bring it back to its former glory with appropriate and contextual development.

Tim Horton’s, who already had another location a kilometer south along “the strip”, proceeded to purchase part of the property. Even back then, drive-thrus were part of their template.

Upon discovering that TH planned to put a suburban-styled outlet complete with a drive-thru in their former 1900’s core, the Town Council as well as local community groups, were outraged and begged TH not to proceed. In Ontario, when disputes arise between parties that fall under the Planning Act, the disputes can typically be resolved through the local council in two ways: either thru committee of adjustment or the re-zoning process. Each requires the support of both politicians and staff and only differs in degree of transgression of the zoning in place. If agreement cannot be met in these ways, the case can be heard at the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), which, like a high court, has a judge whose decision is final. This is oftentimes a costly and time consuming process and is typically avoided.

The Town fought hard. There were petitions and much objection to the proposed development, but Tim Horton’s, despite those objections -- from their own customers even! -- took the Town to the OMB: and unfortunately, won.

The result: a suburban-style, stand-alone building was built complete with a drive thru that encircles the entire building in the heart of the old downtown. Their only tip-of-the-hat to the old downtown was the exterior materials, which had to be sympathetic to the old brick of the downtown structures. That was their “compromise”.

Opportunities like this are few. TH patently placed corporate greed over community interests. Ironically in the years since, their advertising and marketing campaigns have focused on their “community” service, with ads deliberately designed to tug at your heartstrings, as they peddle their support of local hockey clubs -- one of the pillars of Canadian identity -- and the like. But this is a very thin veneer clearly devised to connivingly dupe their drug-induced patrons into believing that nothing but sheer goodness and motherhood flow from Tim Horton’s loving bosom.

So why do I want to go postal? They are proliferating the drive-thru model throughout their franchise locations, and as we all know, drive-thru’s do nothing but promote automobile use, which we can safely conclude is having devastating impacts on global resources, the atmosphere and about everything else one can think of.

There are approximately 3400 locations across Canada. The majority of these locations have drive-thru’s. I would estimate in the neighbourhood of 80-90%, resulting in 2720 locations minimum. Typically when I pass by one of these locations, as few as 3 cars and as many as 15 cars are waiting in the drive-thru’s. I’d say an average of 6 or 7 would be a typical count, regardless of time of day.

To add insult to injury, the jelly-filled donuts they offer to their adoring patrons are about as healthy as, well, a jelly-filled donut; essentially they are nothing but edible “products”, not to be mistaken with real food. Real food implies the ingested material provides actual nutrition and contributes to healthy living. Further, their coffee -- their raison-d’ĂȘtre -- as we all know, has no nutritional value to it whatsoever. Add the sugar and cream to it and you’re well on your way to a diagnosis of diabetes and heart disease down the line.

There is nothing of value to society that they are providing. They encourage sloth with their “convenient” drive-thru’s, they offer products that do not contribute to a healthy diet, they practice duplicitous advertising campaigns to deceive the public in their motives and subsequently don’t practice what they preach when it comes to what’s best for the community.

Every time I see a vehicle pull up to their drive-thru, especially on beautiful days when the sun is shining and the temperature is great, I just want to stop and ask them: why in hell don’t you get out of your gas-sucking, fume-belching vehicle and walk to the door to get your coffee, you fucking lazy-ass slob? Oftentimes it’s as fast (and sometimes faster) to go to the counter than it is to wait in the drive-thru lines. Plus, you have the benefit of interacting with a human being as opposed to a voice thru a speaker and then an arm that stretches out to exchange your hard-earned money for their inferior products.

Complaining to Tim Horton’s would be a waste of time. Their argument to closing drive-thru’s would be the classic “we’re giving the customer what they want” drivel.

Like all corporations, they have no interest in making this a better place to live in.

Monday, October 18, 2010

House Pictures

I neglected to add a few pictures. The interior is currently being painted. Once that's done I will post a few shots.

The first pic is a view from the highest hill on the property before the house was built. The house is located just behind the clump of cedars in the middle of the picture.

The grading was just recently finished and now we need to do a little landscaping, but the intent is to let most of it naturalize. We want to do a small formal garden off the basement walkout for both decorative and kitchen garden purposes.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Journey to a Sustainable House

Before I get into the story about the creation of our “green”/sustainable house, I must clarify what this piece is not about as well as preface this story with some context.

This is a description of our journey in trying to create a sustainable home for our retirement. What it doesn't do is get into any degree of detail about the actual systems that we used; it’s more about the process, what we learned and how we got to where we are. If anyone wants more detail on systems, feel free to contact me.

As for the context: we live in Southern Ontario where heating is our most significant operating cost and issue to address.

I am an architect and my partner is an interior designer and it’s probably a miracle that over the past 25 years we have not killed each other over design-related activities. But miraculously, over time, we have actually managed to agree on many things when it comes to design. The good news about this story is that we were more (than less) on the same page about our new house. That is critical when entering into a venture as complex and demanding as this.

For further context, I am in the process of trying to extract myself from the drudgery of full time employment. The frenetically paced, endless cycle of 8-5, Monday to Friday, crank-out-another-environment-sucking-edifice BS has lost its lustre. My partner has been self-employed for over 20 years now, so he can be as busy or laid-back as he chooses and that’s essentially where I’d like to be as well. Neither of us is interested in getting rich or famous, so we’re not hamstrung by those superfluous needs.

Back in the late summer of 2008 we bought 56 acres of picturesque rolling hillside an hour and a half north west of Toronto. There were two goals for this: one, to have lots of privacy and two, to have the ability to grow our own food, and perhaps grow enough to share with others.

At that time, the real estate market was quite hot, even out in the boonies, and large acreages without development were tough to come by. If you weren’t willing to pay close to asking price almost immediately, you would loose it.

The area where we were looking was strategically chosen for its topography, distance from Toronto and cost of land relative to other areas of similar appeal.

Our current home at the time, a century log house that we added onto in 2001, was costing us more than we cared for in heat and electricity. We figured that we had maximized our growth potential in both physical space and equity, and as such we didn’t want to invest more money into “green” upgrades being as we wouldn’t likely make that money back upon selling. So it was time to cash in.

It was the fall of 2008 when we listed our house; two weeks before the worlds stock markets tanked. Our place was a perfect second home for well-heeled Torontonians (i.e. too expensive for locals) but that market dried up faster than a cup of water in the Mojave Desert. It took almost a year to sell and our sale price was substantially less than our original expectations.

So, by the fall of 2009, we had a beautiful, albeit expensive property, with a diminished cache to fund the new house construction.

We started the design process in earnest as soon as we sold the house. We figured we might be able to commence construction in the spring of 2010, but fortunately discovered in October that the contractor who did our current house was available for a winter build. That had a huge bearing on a lot of our decisions, so schedule became a significant driver.

The main objective was to not have a mortgage and to try to build-in as many “green” features that would minimize our operating costs down the road. But the battle between building what we could with the money we had, and building what would be readily marketable should we decide to sell, was the true tug-of-war we wrestled with constantly. Unfortunately the latter took precedence at the expense of the objective, but that is history at this point.

What we ended up with was a three bedroom house, but built in a not-so typical arrangement; one bedroom and full bathroom on each floor with the Master on the main. The site is sloped so the basement had a walkout. The footprint was just over 1100 square feet. When one includes the basement and a partial second floor, we ended up with around 2900 sq.ft of finished space; but that was about 1500 sq.ft. more than what I would have been happy with.

As a firm believer of doing the “right thing” when it comes to the environment, I was compelled to put my money where my mouth was. As a result, the list of sustainable objectives was long: it was to be built of straw bale construction and be super-insulated elsewhere, be off-the-grid, have passive indoor air quality control, radiant floor heat, and be passive solar design. It had to have EnergyStar appliances, a high-efficiency boiler, minimal interior finishes, composting toilets, solar hot water heat and rain-water-harvesting with a built-in greenhouse for growing veggies over winter. Unfortunately, this turned out to be a tall order for our budget.

The first thing to get axed was the composting toilets. In this case though, cost was not a factor. Besides the logistical issues of locating all the bathrooms above the composting unit, we were really concerned about the future salability. Nobody wants to, or is ready to, defecate into a black hole. The ‘eew’-factor is significant and I couldn’t convince my partner to take the leap. The sad thing is that these systems are fantastically effective, produce great compost and require little electricity to run, which is important when designing an off-grid residence.

The second item on the chopping block was, most unfortunately, going off-grid. The cost was almost double that of connecting to the grid and running cable underground for ½ kilometer! Even though we were prepared to pay for our electrical needs up-front, the specter of it putting us into a mortgage was enough to axe the initiative. The simple payback was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 15-20 years, so we figured if it pushed us into a mortgage, then borrowing costs would make the payback even worse. It was a very sad decision to have to make. Despite that, the house was designed to be converted to off-grid very easily and may still happen.

The next items to get jettisoned in quick succession were the solar hot water heating, rainwater harvesting and strawbale construction. The costs of the first two, like going off grid, were prohibitive as well as requiring significantly more space in what was to be a predominantly finished basement. Plus, all three would also require considerably more effort regarding approvals.

One of the things one must understand about the architecture business is that the approvals process is a minefield, so for in order for us to keep our schedule, we made every effort to not exacerbate it with unfamiliar systems. If you are planning on using unconventional systems, be sure to allow ample time for the approvals process.

Further, from a construction perspective, the strawbale turned out to be poorly suited for a multi-storey application. It also increased the footprint (22” vs. 10” thick walls), which resulted in significant increased material requirements and therefore cost implications.

The good news is that the remainder of the objectives was met. We have radiant in-floor heating with exposed coloured concrete slabs in the basement and ground floor... very chic looking. The envelope is around R40 above grade and R-15 below grade, consisting of a wrap of rigid insulation all around in order to minimize thermal bridging (a huge source of heat loss) and therefore allows the internal mass to moderate temperature swings. (If you’re interested in more on thermal mass go to: and )

The house faces due south to take advantage of solar gains in the winter. It has permanent sunshades on the south face and large porches on the east and west faces to minimize the solar gains in mornings and evenings. There is no air conditioning. So this summer, after several days of + 90F temperatures and high humidity (80%), the house only managed to get up to 79/80F, despite being completely exposed to the baking sun. Large ceiling fans in the Great Room made that space comfortable and portable fans are used elsewhere as needed.

Now in the fall, the sun warms the place to 78F when it’s only 45-50F outside all day and 35-40F overnight: it’s wonderful free heat.

The windows are large on the south, east and west facades but are protected by the sunshades and porches respectively. We decided to choose low-E coated double glazing for the all the windows from both a cost and functional perspective. Because we wanted large casements, triple glazing would have limited their sizes. Unfortunately our budget only allowed us to purchase PVC windows. PVC is one of the bad-boys of constructino materials. The toxicity of their manufacture is extremely high and you should avoid them if you can. Fibreglass is a far better solution, or wood.

Practically every window is operable, enabling flow-thru breezes during the summer. Both skylights in the Great Room are operated manually to readily exhaust heat thru natural convection if required.

A wood-burning, zero-clearance, EPA rated fireplace becomes the centerpiece to the Great Room which includes the kitchen. In our previous house we had the same unit, and by virtue of running the furnace fan constantly, it could heat the entire house when it was as little as 32F outside, without the furnace heating element kicking in. But it only worked well because we had an air distribution system. The new place does not, so I am expecting the fireplace may end up super-heating the Great Room but with little benefit to the rest of the house. Stay tuned.

To meet the requirements of air exchange for the very air-tight construction that is needed today, we incorporated an "earth-tube" system. This is simply comprised of 4 - 4" diameter tubes that are buried 4' below the ground to pre-heat or pre-cool the incoming air. Heat exchangers typically do this function but they are expensive and require long term electrical supply, which we wanted to avoid.

To conclude, if we had to do it all over again, I would not have excluded all the features that got eliminated, but reduced the size of the place to try ot offset the increased cost. It must be noted though, that this is not a direct proportional relationship. A custom home is expensive, regardless of what your systems are. Reducing square footage will not garner you significant savings; however adding square footage will definitely guarantee you extra cost!

If you want a sustainable house, IMHO, excessive square footage flies in the face of sustainable principles. Work hard with your designer and architect to pare down your square footage as much as possible. A new house is an assault to the environment by virtue of all the products that go into it and the waste stream that ensues. Further, the carbon footprint of operating and maintaining that structure over its lifespan are colossal. “Smaller, smaller, smaller” should be your mantra.

There are numerous techniques to achieve this goal. Vertical space often compensates for lack of horizontal space. Large expanses of glass also work to eliminate that closed-in feeling. Multi-purposed rooms can rid you of those “dead” rooms that only get used on rare occasions. Determine your needs, not your wants, and follow through with only addressing those. Get rid of bulky furniture or don’t buy it when shopping for any new stuff.

As far as systems are concerned, insulate it as much as possible and eliminate thermal bridging. (The building “envelope” is considered a system.) Disregard the talk about diminishing returns on spending more on insulation. That worked in a pre-peak oil world. The more you can do to slow the transfer of heat (either into or out of the building) the better.

Thermal mass is important. This helps to regulate the internal temperatures. New construction has become flimsy in order to cut costs, and subsequently fails miserably at being an efficient heat sink. Concrete, although not the most environmentally friendly materials, is very effective at providing internal mass which helps to regulate internal temperatures; in either hot or cold climates. Water can also be used but is more complicated for achieving this objective.

Prioritize your sustainable wish list. The things you need to consider are: physical footprint, carbon footprint, water footprint, long term operational and maintenance costs, indoor air quality (toxicity of construction materials), and embodied energy in construction materials. It is still more expensive to build a sustainable house than a conventional one, no matter what anyone tells you. You may need to let go of some of your ideals. This is where addressing square footage is key.

Further, attempting to go about a project like this on your own (i.e. without an architect and/or contractor) might sound appealing, but then be ready to spend a lot more money and time than you otherwise would by hiring professionals.

It will also take its toll on your relationships and any other activities of your life at the time. It is a demanding process, so make sure you, and those around you are prepared for the additional stress. Despite us being in the business, we found it to be a very taxing and exhausting experience. Both the design and construction process is fraught with constant challenges.

And when you do hire an architect, make sure they practice substance over style, and that they are local to your area. Architecture was always indigenous, up until the late 20th century. It’s time it went back to its roots. Your contractor should also have as much experience as possible in sustainable construction techniques. Check out their respective work and make sure they are not simply blowing “green”, as is becoming common these days.

Finally, you will get immense satisfaction at knowing that your project tread more lightly on the earth, will cost less to operate and maintain, won’t make you sick to live in it, and will serve as a working model for other sustainable projects in your area.