Posts Tagged ‘conservation’

It’s been a busy couple of weeks for me, both on the home front, at work (some more writing amongst other things) and in my volunteering capacity as Vice-Chair of the local Canada Green Building Council Chapter.

I’ve spent some time in the back yard this spring. I’ll be honest, it started with merely trying to repair damage to the grass caused by man’s best friend over the winter. I bought some topsoil, some seed, and started watering and looking at the forecast to see when I didn’t need to water.

This went fairly well, as I’ve now got some baby grass sprouts returning to the bare areas. This came as a surprise for me, because I’ve never been able to keep a plant alive. Encouraged, I decided I want to grow some tomatoes and maybe some peppers. My son added raspberries to the list, so now it’s a full-blown project.

After googling “how to grow tomatoes for dummies”, I decided that I’ve only got one location good enough to try this, along the fence. My backyard is on the north side of the house, and features a giant pine on one corner and an oak on the other, so there is a LOT of shade. I’m also dubious as to soil quality, particularly under the pine. Cedars line my neighbours fence, enclosing the yard nicely. A plan forms – build a raised bed, get some compost soil, and a rain barrel to stop using potable water for my backyard project.

A trip to my father-in-law’s and some pleading results in a trip to a City of Toronto compost station and an F-150 full of compost. Soil problem solved.

The home builder was nice enough to leave a pile of extra bricks under the deck, so these have been appropriated to act as walls for the bed. Some rebar pushed into the soil should keep the bed stable. A mason would mock my build quality, but it’ll do. Total cost so far – <$10 for coffees on the drive for compost and an IOU to my father-in-law.


Finally, my rain barrel. Home Depot’s options seemed just a little too pricey, so I started looking through the classifieds, and found, who partners with non-profits to raise funds through truck-load rain barrel sales. For $65, I picked up a barrel, filter, downspout diverter, spigot and overflow hose. Now it’s just a matter of waiting to see how much rain will make it into that downspout.

We’ve now planted a couple of transplanted of raspberry bushes and the tomato plants are next.

Most of my other posts have been focused on energy in one way or another, for transportation, home or commercial use. It’s where the majority of my experience lies, although water use and efficiency is related, particularly with green buildings. With this project, I hope to grow some food for our table, teach my son something, while seeing how much water I can actually capture from the roof. I have a second barrel for the front yard, or possibly to add in series to the first.

I won’t pretend to be single-handedly saving Toronto’s storm drains or keeping Lake Ontario full with my 55 gallon rain barrel, but it can’t hurt can it? Canadians are amongst the worst per capita users of water in the world, with residential use averaging 327 litres per person, per day. We don’t need to be.

I will update this post when I succeed (silence will mean I don’t want to admit that I really can’t grow a plant to save my life).

I’m already anticipating those tomatoes and raspberries – and to proving that I can do it with as little potable water as possible.

Ok, really its the same subject as the last article, but I want to share the content!

Many of the design strategies implemented at the Earth Rangers Centre are relevant to your home – energy efficiency, high levels of thermal comfort, water efficiency and careful attention to indoor air quality levels.  No, not many homes will be able to implement all of these technologies at the same time, but this article shows what will result if you are able to implement everything on your green building wish list.

On a side note, this is my first experience writing a “peer reviewed” article, and the team at ASHRAE’s High Performing Buildings was patient and professional. Have a look a the article, I think the results speak for themselves.

ASHRAE Article

ASHRAE Article

It’s been a while since I wrote anything for my blog, and it’s because I have been writing almost non-stop during work hours. Have a look at the site, and feel free to comment here or on the ERC site.

Whether you are interested in energy metering, efficiency or generation, water conservation or reuse, carbon offsets, EV charging and more, this commercial building really has pulled out all the stops to demonstrate the next generation of green building technologies and how they interact.

Earth Rangers Centre Showcase

Earth Rangers Centre Showcase

The Environmental Commissioner of Ontario (ECO), Gord Miller, recently released a report summarizing the progress of Ontario’s energy conservation measures. In short, there is good news and there is bad news.

Everyone loves the good news first so here it is: conservation results in 2011 were “generally encouraging” meaning that consumed energy and peak demand decreased, with some pretty big caveats. Energy saved in this reporting period was the result of investment in the previous period, results were mixed at best in the residential sector, and so on. I encourage you to read the full report here.  605,000,000 kWh were saved at the cost of $0.03/kWh. Peak demand was reduced by 16% of the 4 year target. We seem to be on track for consumption, with work to do on demand reduction.

Now the bad news. We are focussed almost entirely on how the power we consume is generated and where its coming from. “Wind turbines are ugly” or “they’re not putting a power plant in MY neighborhood” comments drive me crazy. The Green Energy and Economy Act, political hot-potatoe that it is, has not been implemented with nearly enough focus on “the culture of conservation” as promised in its’ initial rollout.  More power plants wouldn’t be needed if we didn’t need more energy.

So what to do about this? Obviously, if you have read any of my other posts, my opinion is to invest more heavily in conservation, agreeing with the ECO. Simple conclusion, but how? Engage people. Make it easier, heaven forbid maybe even fun, to save energy. Collaborative apps and websites are coming along.  Apps like Powercents give plenty of tips on how to reduce home energy use, and how to manage time of day price differences to home owners financial benefit.  Gridwatch, another app from Energy Mobile, shows users the power sources required to supply consumed energy and the resulting CO2 emissions. I’m looking forward to an upcoming update that will show emissions per kWh in real time based on the province’s energy mix at that time.

Shifting clothes dryer use to off-peak

Shifting clothes dryer use to off-peak

I agree with the ECO that the price difference between on- and off-peak just isn’t big enough to encourage real changes in behaviour, and my house is the perfect example. My wife is home on mat leave with my 6 month old son, and does the majority of home tasks when she can, irrespective of what time of day it is. If I tell her that we can save $0.27 cents per load by doing it at night instead of during the day, she’d throw a quarter at me and tell me to be grateful its being done, and I don’t blame her. Make that a dollar per load, and she’d likely think twice, quickly equating that to $6 per week, almost $30 per month.

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Weekly, monthly consumption trends summarized in Quinzee

We have the tools in place to evaluate, learn and change our behaviours with resulting dollar savings and reduced environmental impact. I spoke with Faizal Karmali, one of Quinzee’s founders some months ago, and he envisioned neighbors competing against each other to reduce energy use. I would love to beat the pants off my neighbour at something that saves me money AND reduces all the environmental impacts that result from power generation.

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See what time the oven was turned on?


Let’s say you are going to renovate your house, home or apartment.  Maybe take out some walls, refinish some rooms, or maybe you’re planning something bigger, and you are building addition or even a new home.  Have you thought about where that wood, concrete, granite or other building material came from?

More and more, consumers, builders, architects and engineers are asking these questions.  As a result of my day job, I have had the opportunity to see some of the inner workings and more progressive companies in the aggregate industry. I wrote a piece on this experience and some of the operational benefits that a thermal mass building can realize as a result of making this material choice here.

However, I’ve never really had the opportunity to experience the wood industry’s best practices.  Sure, I knew that the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC) and its certification of forests and products existed, and that it was a good thing to support because of my understanding of the LEED green building rating system.  I had even made sure that the three 2×4’s that I purchased at Home Depot to hang my bikes in the garage were FSC certified.  To be honest, that certification didn’t really have any tangible meaning for me, because I am a mechanical engineer, and it was simply outside my usual field of expertise.  I can’t keep a cactus alive in my house, let alone appreciate how to sustainably harvest lumber on a large scale (besides being naturally offended by images of clear-cut forests).

That has changed for me. I had the good fortune of attending the US Green Building Council’s annual Greenbuild Expo, held in San Francisco this year. I signed up for one of the full-day tours, in order to see an FSC Certified redwood forest first hand.

Nice view of the coastal highway from the lumber office

The trip started with a clean diesel powered bus ride  along the coast south of San Francisco to Big Creek Lumber in Santa Clara County.  There were not nearly enough guardrails along the coast road for my liking. Each one of the buses had a tour guide from SCS Global Services, including the certifier of Big Creek’s forest, Robert Hrubes. The view from the forestry office was incredible, even if mostly obscured by fog and rain when we arrived.

Our visit started with a history of the family business, including the forestry practices that led them to certify their property for sustainable forestry.  The President, Janet McCrary Webb, along with Bob Berlage (Director of Communications) discussed how the property had been almost clear-cut to rebuild the city of San Francisco after the fire of 1906. The McCrary’s took possession of a site that had some young, rapidly growing redwoods in 1946. In order to maintain an economic future for the property, they selectively harvested redwoods, leaving many rapidly growing redwoods to continue to mature.  They do not harvest trees at a certain age, but selectively, and typically on a 14 year cycle, depending on many factors. Amazingly, redwoods can grow up to 8 feet per year if they have access to enough light and water, so this selective harvesting can actually increase growth rates of those trees not harvested.

Fast growing 2nd and 3rd growth redwood

The result is an impressive forest, dotted here and there with stumps from previous harvests, with 2nd, 3rd and 4th growth interspersed, and up to 300’ tall. I have heard that biodiversity suffers in forest plantations, and that may be the case, but not in this forest. Slugs, salamanders, raptors, and other evident signs of a relatively healthy ecosystem were all around us.

Blurry image of a salamander running away from an iPhone

Bob mentioned that a botanist that was hired to study the forest noted a 45% increase in biodiversity after a section of the forest had been selectively harvested (I would assume that it was because there was access to more sunlight resulting in room for other species to get a foothold).

Do you see a raptor?

Another anecode shared was what about Bob referred to as “granary” trees, where woodpeckers would fill pecked holes in the redwoods with acorns, and then feed on the bugs that would then arrive to eat the acorns. These trees would be bypassed by Big Creek, and not selected for harvesting.

Many of the forestry practices in use by Big Creek are very specific to redwood, and understandably so, as it is their primary product (along with some firs), and what grows naturally in these fog shrouded coastal rain forests.  This forest, and business, exists in an extensively regulated environment (called the most regulated in the world by Bob), and so Big Creek is used to taking many months to perform the necessary environmental assessments, permits and community outreach required to harvest in the area. As an example, a raptor survey is performed before harvesting can start, to ensure that a raptor species is not present to be displaced.

This sensitivity and regulation leads to some pretty incredible practices, exemplified by helicopter yarding, where felled lumber would be moved to a central point to be removed by vehicle. This dramatically reduces the requirement for roads into more sensitive areas, but not without cost. A helicopter for this purpose costs about $5,000 per hour – $83 per minute – to perform this task. On steep grades where tractors would irreparably rut and damage soils, cable extraction reduces intrusion.  Extraction near water courses must respect setbacks, to reduce, if not eliminate, sedimentation of waterways that could affect salmon other fish species.

I think you get the point that selectively harvesting timber like this is a complex task, to say nothing of getting approvals to even start.

One of the largest benefits to Big Creek of the FSC certification is a third party verification of their harvesting practices, ensuring that they have a social license to operate.  I can see this same principle applying to the aggregate, mining, and other resource industries.  We are not going to stop using raw materials in our buildings, businesses and society any time soon, so we should be using those resources in a manner that makes those assets as productive as possible for as long as possible, with a little collateral damage as possible. It makes good business, environmental, and social sense to do so, as Big Creek is proving. I appreciate that this forest has been conscientiously managed for generations, and I am sure there are a depressing number of forests that are not managed this way.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a mechanical engineer, not a biologist or forester, so I may not have seen the entire picture. The tour only went through a very small area, and I am sure it was not selected accidentally. I have no reason to believe that the owner had anything to hide, but nor am I naive enough to blindly accept what I see at face value all the time. That is the benefit of the third party certification. Someone else who knows what to look for has verified that the site meets sustainability criteria.

Back to my garage 2×4, I now understand that I can take the FSC chain of custody number, and see who has handled the wood, and where it came from.  This 2×4 holding my bikes against the wall looks like it came from near the northern Ontario and Quebec border. You can check any FSC number here.

My 2×4

I hope that this sneak peak into a forest that is better managed will lead you to look for that FSC logo the next time you need a piece of lumber, redwood or not, and that it makes you ask the question of where your building materials are coming from, and to see if there is a better choice you could make.