Canada’s Greenest Home

Julie Bélanger interviews Chris Magwood about the Endeavour Centre’s project to build the country’s most sustainable house.

Students from the Sustainable New Construction certificate program and instructors from the Endeavour Centre, an incorporated non-profit have attempted to build Canada’s most sustainable home in Peterborough, Ontario.

Students from the Sustainable New Construction certificate program and instructors from the Endeavour Centre, an incorporated non-profit have attempted to build Canada’s most sustainable home in Peterborough, Ontario. After working tirelessly since last April, they are thrilled to be hosting an open house on Saturday March 9th

One of the founding members, Chris Magwood, admits that there’s been progress regarding conventional building practices, but he maintains that lifecycle thinking really isn’t there right now. People are pursuing energy efficiency as a stand-alone goal.

Canada’s Greenest Home features a wide range of sustainable materials and systems. For a truly green building, “you have to think about all of it. If you attack it from a single perspective, you miss the opportunity to make a real difference,” says Magwood.

In an exclusive A\J interview, Magwood talks about the project and the importance of approaching sustainable building holistically.

Julie Bélanger: What got you interested in green homes?

Chris Magwood: I built my own home about 15 years ago and at the time wanted to do something that was more environmentally sound than what I was seeing. That led me to learn a lot. After that house, I was hooked on the idea. It’s a very interesting and engaging challenge to figure out how to make a place that is healthy for the people in it and for the environment as a whole.

JB: How do you define a green home?

CM: We try to define it as thoroughly and broadly as we can. We look at everything from where the materials get sourced and their environmental impacts, the energy efficiency of the building, how it uses power and water, and what it does with its wastewater. We track everything in terms of on-site waste and recycling and divert as much as we can away from landfill. We don’t put any products in the building that contain any toxins or questionable chemicals. We really try to look at the whole thing, like what the building’s greenhouse gases emissions will be.

JB: Is Endeavour following any specific standards?

CM: For this building we followed something called the Living Building Challenge, which is an American standard that’s really high and puts into format the way Endeavour’s been building for a long time. We’ll also be getting this building LEED certified.   

JB: What have been some of the greatest challenges for the Canada’s Greenest Home project?

CM: When you’re trying to meet the Living Building Challenge, a lot of it is just being really careful and thorough with the research. The Living Building Challenge has a chemical red list – you can’t put anything in the building that contains any chemical on that list. That can take a lot of work to find out what’s in materials. When you find out, you realize that some products and materials people typically use aren’t suitable. Then there’s a lot of work involved in tracking down alternatives – is there a familiar product without the red list chemicals? Or do we have to change our entire approach to make sure that we don’t include those things?

Research and sourcing were a big part of this project. Part of what we’re trying to do is make what we’ve learned readily available so other people don’t have to go to quite the same lengths we did to figure it out.

JB: Greatest lesson learned from the project?

CM: One of the big ones would be that this kind of approach to building always takes longer then a normal building. Not so much in the hands-on construction side but that sourcing and ordering.

From a really practical point of view, accuracy is really important in getting your materials, because for a lot of these materials you can’t just pop down to the local building supplier and get more. If you mess up and run out of the non-toxic caulking, it’s going to take two weeks to get another tube.

Really for me, the biggest lesson that was learned was that other than those challenges, it’s actually not that hard to do. We wanted to make sure that we built a building that any other contractor could duplicate. We didn’t want to do something that only we could do, only in this circumstance. We wanted to make sure that anybody could look at what we did and replicate it. 

JB: What’s next for Endeavour?

CM: We usually do two projects a year. Next year we’re working on a farm building for an organic farm and an office building for a teacher’s union.

Green your own home

According to Magwood, “the biggest oversight is the indoor air quality of the home,” which, for new homes, can be worse than a smoggy day in the city. He cautions about paints, glues, caulking, plywood, kitchen cabinet material and surface finishes. For more information on chemical-free furnishings, read Canada Green Building Council’s article on protecting your indoor air quality.

Simple projects like sealing air leaks and adding insulation can go a long way to reducing energy use, but it’s important to do these without “petrochemical products, toxic materials or stuff imported from the other side of the world,” says Magwood.

For more from Chris Magwood on the relationship between housing and the environment, read “Beyond Energy Efficiency” from our Green Buildings issue.

Julie is an urban planning graduate student at the University of Waterloo, focusing on sustainable transportation.