Green Dream Comes True

LEED Comes to Canada

Townships house is a prototype of environmentally friendly homes of the future

Alex Roslin

Friday, June 20, 2008

Montreal Gazette

Alexandre Thibodeau takes in the spectacular view of the lush green, mist-shrouded Glen Valley below his mountainside home in the Eastern Townships. A series of Applachian peaks cascade to the south into Vermont.

Thibodeau doesn't know their names. He'll figure that out when life slows down a little for him and his partner, Marie-Eve Cloutier.

They've had two children, Léopol and Mirek, and, when Mirek was just a month old in early 2006, they moved here to the hamlet of West Bolton from Montreal in order to oversee work on their green dream home.

The 2,200-square-foot home nestled among tall maples and birch will include features like straw bail insulation, passive solar heat from a bank of windows, concrete floors to store heat and a custom combo of geothermal piping and an ultra-efficient masonry heater.

After two years, the house is almost ready to be lived in, with the custom-made, super-insulated windows to be installed in coming weeks.

It's been an amazing journey for the first Canadian home to be accepted under the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green-building standard of the non-profit U.S. Green Building Council, the most stringent certification process of its kind in North America.

Thibodeau, who has a bachelor's degree in architecture, designed the house himself to achieve a LEED platinum rating, the council's highest level of certification.

Conceived in 1998 by the Natural Resources Defense Council and ecologically minded building professionals, LEED has quickly become the most widely recognized green-building standard in Canada and the U.S.

Projects get points for reducing energy consumption with solar or geothermal heating and good insulation, lowering water intake and using recycled or sustainably produced building materials that don't emit chemicals like formaldehyde.

It's all part of one of the fast-growing areas of combating climate change -a revolution in the building industry.

The U.S. market for green building jumped from $7 billion in 2005 to $12 billion last year and is projected to rise to $60 billion by 2010, according to the U.S. Green Building Council. Over 11,000 projects totaling 330 square kilometres of floor space are LEED-certified or working through the certification process in the U.S.

The stakes for the environment are huge. Putting up and maintaining buildings and homes accounts for 70 per cent of U.S. electricity consumption and 39 per cent of carbon dioxide emissions.

In Canada, where LEED was first implemented in 2004, interest has exploded, too. Nine square kilometres of building floor space have been LEED certified in Canada or are working toward that goal.

Municipalities like Vancouver, Calgary, Kingston and Ottawa have pledged to build some of all of their facilities to LEED standards, as have the provincial governments of British Columbia, Alberta and Manitoba.

At the Canadian Green Building Council's first national convention last week in Toronto, interest was so great that the exhibitors' floor space had to be expanded three times to accommodate participants, said Nancy Grenier, spokeswoman for the council, which has 1,600 member companies and nearly 5,000 individual members in its eight chapters-mostly architects and other building professionals.

Much of the demand is motivated by the most pragmatic of reasons: building green makes sense financially.

A 2003 study of LEED commercial buildings for the state of California found that while they cost 2 per cent more upfront than conventional construction, the investment begets long-term savings of 12 to 16 times that amount due to lower energy, water and maintenance bills and improved worker productivity and health from better indoor air quality.


So far, however, LEED has mostly been applied in large commercial, industrial and government buildings.

Thibodeau's project in West Bolton was the first in Canada to be accepted into a new U.S. LEED pilot project for the residential sector, which is intended to spread green building to home construction.

Since Thibodeau signed on in 2006, about 100 other Canadian residential projects have been accepted.

Bowing to the demand, the Canadian Green Building Council, which adapts LEED standards to this country's harsher climate, announced earlier this year it would start work on a unique "LEED Canada for Homes" standard specifically intended for residential construction. It's to be launched in spring 2009.

The council's goal is to use LEED to inspire changes in the broader construction industry and reduce the environmental footprint of 1 million new and existing Canadian homes and 100,000 other buildings by 2015.

In Montreal, Emmanuel Blain-Cosgrove is delighted. "After 10 years of screaming in the dark, it's nice to see the field taking off," he said.

Blain-Cosgrove is the owner of Écohabitation, a Montreal ecological-building consulting firm. He sits on the committee that is designing the made-in-Canada LEED standard.

He also helped pioneer green residential building in Canada with his renovation of a Mile End house to U.S. LEED standards in 2006.

He got the idea from Thibodeau. Blain-Cosgrove, who comes from a family of carpenters and building professionals, was already renovating the house using an environmentally-friendly design.

Thibodeau heard about the project and called Blain-Cosgrove up, saying he had just managed to convince the U.S. Green Building Council to accept his West Bolton house in into LEED.

At first, the U.S. council had hesitated about taking in a Canadian house because it felt the Canadian Green Building Council should certify projects in this country. At the time, however, the nascent Canadian body had its hands full just trying to get LEED going in the industrial and commercial sectors.

Thibodeau persisted and won the U.S. council over, opening the door for other Canadians.

"(Thibodeau) is the original one to put the pieces together in Canada," said Blain-Cosgrove.

In April, Blain-Cosgrove was chosen as Quebec's first LEED-certification inspector for residential projects by the U.S. Green Building Council. Builders here will no longer have to pay for an inspector to come from Vermont to certify that a project complies with LEED standards.


Back in West Bolton, Thibodeau has fired up his high-performance brick masonry heater to take the edge off a cool rainy day in early June. The heater burns wood that he plans to harvest from his five-acre lot in order-another way to reduce the home's reliance on outside energy.

The heat will radiate through the house from a stylish round two-storey brick-and-lime chimney that Thibodeau and Cloutier have just finished building.

It's part of an innovative system of energy efficiency that Thibodeau estimated will reduce the house's heating bill by 70 percent and eliminate the need for air conditioning.

Also involved is an adapted geothermal air-exchange system-70 metres of pipes embedded in the ground behind the house that will draw in warm air during winter and cool air in summer. Heat during the winter will also come from a solar-heated wall-a black-painted steel siding on the roof that the sun will warm to as much as 74 degrees Celsius.

An automated control system will control the house's temperature by tapping into the various heating and cooling systems through an elaborate system of ducts, fans and shutters.

"This house is supposed to be able to take care of itself," Thibodeau said. "I always dreamed when I had a family that we'd live in a home that was a little crazy."

Thibodeau's heating system has attracted the interest of Hydro-Quebec, which will consider funding a study of how it performs under its technical innovation program.

Also bringing down the heating bill is a ridiculous amount of insulation. The roof will achieve an R60 insulation rating (R30 is the industry standard for new homes in Quebec), while straw bails in the walls will insulate them to R30 (R15 is the standard).

The house will also use dramatically less water because rainwater will be collected in underground cisterns for washing clothes and watering the four-terrace, 820-square-foot garden on the house's "green roof."

Some of the features were challenges because so few homes have been built according to LEED standards, especially in Canada. One was getting an environmentally friendly source of lumber for the houseframe.

Thibodeau spent weeks contacting suppliers to try to find lumber certified by the Forest Stewardship Council as having been harvested in a sustainable manner. No luck. The companies with FSC-certified woodlots were using it for paper products, not lumber.

The one Quebec company able to provide FSC-stamped lumber ordinarily sold its entire supply in Germany and didn't have any in stock, so the wait would have been three months.

In the end, he found a farmer in the Townships who harvested the needed trees from his woodlot in a sustainable way.

Thibodeau hopes LEED's spread will help spark a market for suppliers of green-friendly wood and other construction material.

"The first contractor to call up and ask for FSC wood is going to pay top dollar. But if large developers begin ordering it in quantity, lumber companies are going to start fighting for that market."

Ultimately, he hopes small projects like his will help convince the mass real-estate market to embrace environmentally-friendly design. "Building yourself is difficult. We're not the typical project."

Blain-Cosgrove agreed. "The whole purpose (of LEED) is market transformation. Certification is not the end. That's just a means to greening the industry."

Yet, he said homebuilding and renovation aren't likely to change very quickly without much larger government incentives for going greening. Research shows such incentives are among the most efficient uses of government subsidies to cut overall greenhouse-gas emissions, he said.

"Where we live changes how we live," Thibodeau said. "If that wasn't the case, I wouldn't be in architecture."

SIDEBAR: What Makes a House Green

- Hot heat: Heating bills will be cut an estimated 70 percent by a combination of a high-performance brick masonry heater, passive solar heating from a huge bank of south-facing windows, a geothermal air-exchange system and a solar-heated wall on the roof. The geothermal system will also bring in cooler air in summer, eliminating the need for air conditioning.

- Smart controls: The futuristic house has an automated control system to regulate interior temperature by tapping into the various heating and cooling systems through an elaborate system of ducts, fans and shutters.

- Insane insulation: Piles of insulation will give the roof an R60 insulation rating (R30 is the industry standard for new homes in Quebec), while straw bail walls will achieve R30 (R15 is the standard).

- Green wood: Wood for the houseframe comes from a sustainably cut, local woodlot.

- Non-polluting materials: Interior materials were chosen that don’t emit toxic chemicals like formaldehyde.

- Water: Rainwater will be collected in underground cisterns for washing clothes and watering the four-terrace, 820-square-foot garden on the house’s “green roof.”

For more information:

- Alexandre and Marie-Eve's website

[TAGS: Eastern Townships]