Cutting Edge Green Building Methods and Materials (infographic)

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new construction methods - infographic


Screen Reader Version
Smarter and Greener: How cutting edge methods, materials and tech are making the world a more environmentally friendly and productive world.

Cutting Edge Construction Methods

Robot swarm construction

What is it? Researchers at Harvard have built small construction robots programmed to work together as a swarm to build structures.

How it works? The large swarms of robots can use artiificial intelligence to construct buildings, taking inspiration from insect swarm builders such as termites. Being a swarm, if some of the robots for some reason can’t work the others will still be able to complete the job.

What are the benefits? Quicker and safer construction of buildings without the need of human attendance on site. Perfect for constructions in dangerous places or space/colonized planets.

3D Printed Houses

What is it? Using giant 3D printers to build the main structural components of houses and other structures.

How it works? Giant 3D printers take raw materials and fashion them into buildings.

What are the benefits? Quicker construction and less production of waste in the building process. It is also thought that 3D printing may be how we build on the moon and other planets.

Is it being used yet? A small number of teams across the world are pioneering this method, including DUS Architects in the Netherlands, who are building a 3D printed Canal House that is under construction in Amsterdam and the Chinese company WnSun, that have built ten demo houses for $5,000 each.

Innovative Materials


What is it? Uses live micro algae growing in glass to generate renewable energy and provide shade.

How it works? The microalgae are supplied with liquid nutrients and carbon dioxide. They are then harvested to create biogas.

Where it’s being used? Arup have used this technology in the BIQ house as part of the International Building Exhibition in Hamburg, 2013.

Aerogel Insulation

What is it? One of the least dense substances in the world, Aerogel is almost as light as air and has super-insulating properties.

How it works? By removing liquid from gel you are left with the silica structure. This can be spun out to create sheets that have up to four times the insulating power of fiberglass or foam insulation.

What are the benefits? Better insulation in buildings could reduce the environmental burden of heating.

Is it being used yet? Recent reduction in the price of Aerogel has made it viable for usage in construction. Some predict it will soon take over the market in insulation.

Transparent Aluminum

What is it? Aluminum oxynitride or AION is four times harder than fused glass and 85% as hard as sapphire.

How it works? Aluminum oxynitride powder is stuffed into a rubber mourld and compressed in hydraulic fluid to 15,000 psi. It is then fused together by heating for days, then polished until clear.

What are the benefits? Although currently excessively expensive, it could be very useful in the construction of skyscrapers and in providing fire-resistant glass.

It is being used? It’s expense means it is more likely to be found in military tech than in the city.

Features of Smart Buildings

It’s not just materials that are making buildings better, technology is also playing its part

System integration – Systems that interact with each other can better understand, and respond to, the movement of people and resources around a building.

Environmental control – Smart building systems should be able to understand when lights and heating can be altered and turned off. This reduces wasted energy.

Data collection – By collecting data on how your office space is being used, a smart building can help you manage desk and office space more effectively.

Productivity benefits – By monitoring staff productivity through your building, it is possible to see what makes your staff more, and less, productive.

Buildings that Break the Mould

The Edge – Amsterdam

Often called the smartest building in the world, the Edge combines green building techniques with smart building innovation to create a place that’s great to work in and isn’t a burden on the environment.

Rating: Outstanding
BREAM rating : 98.36%

Electricity – 70% less electricity than comparable office buildings
Energy – The solar panels on the roof produce more energy than the building consumes
Heating – Aquifer thermal energy storage system provides all of the energy required
Water – Drained rainwater is used for cleaning and flushing the toilets
Lighting – LED lighting can be regulated via smartphones. Sensors measure occupancy and adjusts energy use.

The Crystal – London
The Crystal showcases state-of-the-art technologies to make buildings more efficient and more sustainable.

BREAM rating: outstanding

Energy – 20% of energy is from solar panels. 70% lower emissions.
Heating – 100% natural heat sources. Has 199 ground source heat pipes
Water – WC water is taken from non-potable sources, 80% of hot water is heated by solar heating and ground source heat pumps
Light – Triple-glazed windows let in 70% of natural light

Source: RubberBond

August 26, 2016 |

Public Works and the Importance of Creating Sustainable Communities [infographic]

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Communities both big and small are having a sustainable makeover in order to reduce energy demand, utilize renewable power, and lessen their environmental impact. This infographic provides an in-depth look at sustainable communities, highlighting their environmental necessity, as well as their financial practicality.

Infographic - Sustainable communities

Screen reader version:

Sustainability is a catchword in many industries, including farming, forestry and production. It’s a growing topic of concern in the development of public works including roads, sewer systems and parks, public buildings, where costs and lack of knowledge related to sustainability result in a general oversight regarding the issue.

In a world of diminishing resources, those tasked with planning and developing public works programs must be prepared to do so in a way that reduces energy demand, exploits renewable power and lessens the impact on our environment.

source: Norwich University’s Online Masters in Public Administration program

June 29, 2015 |

Q&A with George Younan of Bendable Solutions

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Bendable Solutions productWhat does your business do? 

We are a custom eco-friendly manufacturer of various products ranging from interior flex-trim mouldings to floor cleaning products.

How long have you been in operation?

We have been in operation for approximately two and a half years.

Can you tell me a bit about your credentials?

As a business, we are currently members of the ISSA (The Worldwide Cleaning Industry Association).

Do most of your clients hire you or purchase your products to perform sustainably minded service?

The majority of our clients purchase our products due to our innovative design, performance longevity and sustainable characteristics.

What is your business’ approach to sustainability?

As far as manufacturing goes, we only use low-emitting materials that contain no VOC’s or any hazardous materials to produce our product line. We continually work with our liquid supplier to find ways to improve our production and use the latest systems to improve our manufacturing process.

Bendable Solutions productIn providing service we work closely with our suppliers and contractors to continually improve and grow where necessary.

Regarding process, we’re continuously striving to improve the work environment for our employees by only using green products that don’t contain any hazardous materials.

We also take pride in collecting the majority of our waste and donating it to a local contractor as to avoid contributing to any landfill disposal.

Can you give a couple of examples of projects you’ve worked on or provided materials for?

We have worked with a local trim supplier (Canada Trim) and offered our products free of charge to assist them in coordinating a volunteer work project with a local home builder.

Have you recorded any testimonials that you can list here or can you provide references if asked by a client?

All testimonials are listed on our website at

Check out Bendable Solutions’ listing for a quick description of their services and to read reviews or go directly to their website.

May 18, 2014 |

How to make rubber shingles out of old tires

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One day I saw a bunch of old tires used as a retaining wall and that got me thinking about what other uses old tires are good for. I had a few thoughts about what to make but I liked the idea of tire shingles the best. The fact that they would be malleable really hooked me. I couldn’t wait to get started!

About tires

The fabric of the tire is steel, nylon, aramid fibre, rayon, fibreglass, or polyester combination. The rubber is natural and synthetic (hundreds of polymer types). There are plenty of chemicals such as reinforcing chemicals, anti-degradants, adhesion promoters, curatives and processing aids such as oil. During my research I also found the typical percentages of the (synthetic rubber and natural rubber) rubber mix in various types of tires. Passenger car tires are 55 to 45 per cent, light truck tires are 50 to 50 per cent, race tires are 65 to 35 per cent, and off-highway tires 20 to 80 per cent.

Next I wanted to know what other environmental problems tires cause other than those related to their composition. I hadn’t thought about this but it makes perfect sense. I discovered that tires make the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. With all the diseases mosquitoes carry today tires are causing a potential threat to public health and safety.

Finally, I wanted to know what other methods of tire recycling are out there. I found a company called Rubbur Concepts that uses a compression mould to turn used tires into replica cedar and slate shingles. I also found that old tires are shredded and used in combination with asphalt to pave roads.

Materials for shingles

  1. 36 race car tires
  2. Sharp razor blades

Materials for roof

  1. (3) 3/4″ Plywood sheets
  2. (2) 8ft 2″x4″
  3. Screws
  4. Miscellaneous wood that I had


As you can see these are my clients. The owners of the chickens wanted the run of the coop covered. I discussed my idea with them and they agreed to let me build it. Little did I know . . .

Trial and error

As with any project there are always mistakes, or learning curves as some might say. So here is where I tell you about what didn’t work (for me). The initial tire concept was based on utilizing radial tires and that changed very quickly. The first tire I tried to cut was, to say the least, very smelly. I tried using a cutting wheel on the end of a drill (spinning at about 30,000RPM) and I found that while it would cut through the bead of the tire and all of the steel belts it wouldn’t cut the rubber, it just melted it. After breathing a cloud of burning rubber and trying it again wearing a breathing mask, I decided that it may not be the most “appropriate” method.

That particular method took about an hour and a half with only 8 small shingles being produced. The next method I tried was a jigsaw; it didn’t even cut through the rubber. The tire was too flimsy and would shake, so the jigsaw couldn’t cut it if the tire didn’t stay still. I didn’t even get one shingle out of that attempt. The last method I used on the radial tires was a hacksaw and let’s just say that it would have taken more than a year to cut the shingles that I needed. I then learned that there’s only one part of a radial tire that doesn’t have steel belts and that’s the side wall between the tread and bead. I did try to use a utility blade (box cutter) and cut just the side wall but it was harder to cut curves and keep them somewhat straight edged.

The method used

After several failed attempts with radial tires, I spoke with a local tire dealer and found that racing tires only have steel belts in the side walls, not in the tread. He happened to have an old tire so I took it home to see what I could do. I drilled a hole in the tread and used a key hole saw to start cutting. It went rather smoothly but it did take two people and still took about 45 minutes to make 12 to 14 shingles. I knew these were the type of tires I needed but I needed a lot of them, it turns out the guy at the local tire dealer knew someone who had a ton of old racing tires. Before I went to the store to buy brand new hole saws, I tried a utility blade (box cutter) (just for laughs actually) and found that it cut through the tire like a hot knife through butter (image 1). This method cut the time down to minutes. After cutting the side walls off, I had a round thin circle of rubber (image 2). Then cut it so it was a long flat sheet about 8” x 80” (image 3).

image 1

image 2

image 3

Now that I had a sheet of rubber all that was left to do was make the actual shingles. As you can see in image 3 I used a piece of chalk to mark where I needed to make the cuts and this is a good time to have someone with you. I averaged 14 shingles per tire and the shingles were 5″ x 8″. My friends and I used a method that we called “the bend and spread.” As you can see, below in image 4 the “bend” portion refers to actually bending the rubber strip to help keep the rubber from kinking while cutting. Image 5 is showing the spread part, while being cut the person bending the rubber should also help spread it so it’s easier and faster to cut. I didn’t time how long each individual tire took to cut, but with four people and in four hours we cut all 36 tires and made 460 shingles. I was very happy with the time results. Each tire produced about 2ft2.

image 4

image 5

image 6

The roof

As mentioned in the Clients/site section, I ended with “little did I know . . .”. Well, I didn’t think ahead with the weight factor. The run that was already built for the coop was way too flimsy to support these shingles. The shingles averaged 14 lb per 25 shingles and I had 460. Since covering the run was out, the owners and I needed to think of what we could do instead. They had a big enough garden and the chickens already had access to it so we decided to build a semi-portable roof and place it in the garden area. To the right is the sketch for the new roof and it required (2) 8′ 2″x 4″ and (3) 4’x 8′ plywood sheets.

image 7

image 8

Image 7 shows the assembly of the sides and front portion of the roof. The other parts of the structure are shown in image 8. All wood was assembled with reused screws and nails that the owners had. Also in image 8 you can see part of the removable roof measuring 6’x6′. The top of the roof was 4′ high and the lower portion was only 3′ high.

Shingle installation

The typical shingles you see on roofs are installed using tar paper, which helps ensure that water will not leak in. Also standard shingles are usually doubled up on the first row to help keep water out. The shingles were a bit thick (1/4″) so I was not able to double up, but I did find that the rubber is very tight against the nail and helps to seal the holes much more so than traditional shingles. In Images 9 and 10 you will see a plastic bag that I stapled down for a little extra protection and the process of installing the shingles. The owners did have some roofing nails but I ran out and had to buy a box to finish the project. I took about 14 hours of labour to nail all of the shingles in and it only took four hours to make them all.

image 9

image 10


In all, the design worked just as I thought it would. It was put through the Northern California rain test and there were not any visible leaks, although, water always finds a way. I was happy that I only spent $10 to make the shingles, the $10 was the purchase of several razor blades and utility knives. The structure itself was a bit more, but the main focus was the tire shingles themselves. This was a successful project, but that depends on your definition of appropriate technology. At the beginning of this class I thought the definition was that all other technology is inappropriate. I then formulated my definition to “our best effort in leaving the smallest environmental impact.” I now know that what is good for one person will not be good for another, so my definition has changed again: “Our best effort in leaving the smallest environmental footprint within the ways that we choose to live.”



While undertaking this project I had several ideas that I wasn’t able to implement or test.

  • The shingles did work fine, but if I was going to use them on my roof I would want them to be a bit more uniform and not so wavy. I need to find a way to cut straight lines; I had thought of a paper cutter, but this project needs something with more leverage and durability.
  • Another idea I had was to build a rain gutter to catch the water; then I could have it tested so I could know exactly what’s running off. Unfortunately, the funding for this project didn’t allow such an expensive test.
  • It might have made things easier if I had made the shingles bigger.
  • In case you’re wondering what happened to all 72 sidewall rings (image 11), I spoke to the guy who gave me the tires and it turns out that he also races go carts so he said he could use those to lay out track designs.

This project was carried out and written up by Brad Thompson. This article was republished from Appropedia.

Learn more:

March 10, 2014 |

Reviving a neighbourhood by building affordable sustainable housing

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Massachusetts Avenue Park was not a place you’d want to take your kids. Before, the small neighbourhood park in the heart of Buffalo’s West Side was little more than vacant land with a small playground and a crumbling basketball court. “It was a real mess,” says Terry Richard, a neighbourhood resident who was born in Trinidad and Tobago and later moved to Buffalo by way of Brooklyn. “So we figured … why don’t we just take this on as a task to really force the city’s hand to take care of their problem,” she adds, standing next to the park’s new playground with a bright smile.

Buffalo is located where the waters of Lake Erie feed into the swift currents of the Niagara River. It was established as a major grain shipping and storage centre in the late 19th century, but as shipping routes changed and heavy industry packed up and left the Great Lakes region, Buffalo’s population rapidly declined. In 1950, Buffalo’s population was about 580,000, but by the 2010 census it had fallen to about 260,000.

It isn’t just the population that’s been shrinking though: employment numbers are down, and like other Rust Belt cities, Buffalo has struggled to support its infrastructure with a shrinking tax base. The rebirth of Massachusetts Avenue Park echoes many other stories taking shape throughout the city. Instead of waiting for the city to make things better, residents like Richard are taking matters into their own hands.

Richard is a board member for People United for Sustainable Housing (PUSH), a grassroots organization based in Buffalo that seeks to provide affordable, environmentally friendly housing and job training.

In early June PUSH celebrated the opening of Phase 1 of the small but pleasant new Massachusetts Avenue Park, which resulted from about two years of petitioning City Hall to fund the project. The park is just one piece of PUSH’s broader plan to create a Green Development Zone within the West Side—a 25-block area where the group is developing sustainable, affordable housing and creating new career pathways for neighbourhood residents.

There goes the neighbourhood

Like many Buffalo neighbourhoods, the West Side is full of vacant properties, and PUSH co-founders Aaron Bartley and Eric Walker wanted to know why. When they launched the organization in 2005, their first order of business was to conduct a survey of Buffalo’s West Side, which meant going door-to-door in the community for about six months.

With a bit of digging, they discovered that a sub-agency of the New York State Housing Finance Agency was in control of nearly 1,500 tax-delinquent properties in the city—about 200 of which were on the West Side—that were being left to rot. In 2003, the state of New York’s Municipal Bond Bank Agency bought the delinquent tax liens for those homes, which were then bundled and sold as bonds to investment bank Bear Stearns.

But there was one major problem: According to a report published in Artvoice, Buffalo’s main alternative weekly, the assessed value of the properties was much higher than they were actually worth. In effect, the state was using vacant houses in Buffalo to speculate on Wall Street.

Meanwhile, nothing was happening with the houses; the state was neither maintaining them nor selling them. “There just was absolutely no due diligence done as part of the transaction,” Bartley said. “If there had been, they would’ve seen that bond was fraudulent.”

The value of bonds was based on revenue that was supposed to have been generated by the houses, through either selling them or collecting unpaid taxes. But the state made little effort to sell or collect taxes on the properties. Why? Because doing so would reveal the true value of the properties, according to Bartley, and the house of cards would come crumbling down. “The reason they didn’t do that is that would’ve shown the lie to the deal, because they would have sold for $0, and it would have indicated that it was worthless,” Bartley explained.

When Bartley and Walker made the discovery, they tried to bring it to the attention of state officials through standard channels, but when that failed they launched a direct action campaign. Using a big stencil, they painted an image of then-Gov. Pataki’s face on more than 200 houses across the city. Eliot Spitzer was campaigning for governor at the time, and he took an interest in the issue. When Spitzer took office, his administration unwound the bond, gave the houses back to the city of Buffalo, and created a small housing rehab fund. The houses were turned back into the city’s inventory, and when PUSH or one of its partner organizations wants to redevelop one, they ask to have it transferred.

The green zone

Two years later, PUSH invited hundreds of residents to a neighbourhood planning congress to draft a development plan for the largely blighted 25-block area on the West Side that would later become the Green Development Zone (GDZ). The plan went far beyond energy-efficient affordable housing to include the creation of employment pathways and promoting economic stability within the zone.

“Sustainability” in the context of PUSH’s agenda means reducing the neighbourhood’s environmental impact, but also strengthening the local economy and creating green jobs.

On the surface, the GDZ still looks similar to other Buffalo neighbourhoods: The streets are lined with 100-year-old two- and three-storey houses, and in the summer, they teem with people. Old ladies sit and talk on first-floor balconies, while kids weave in and out of slow-moving traffic on bicycles. But this small neighbourhood is in the midst of a pretty radical transformation.

“Sustainability” in the context of PUSH’s agenda means reducing the neighbourhood’s environmental impact, but also strengthening the local economy and creating green jobs in the building, rehabilitation and weatherization industries. PUSH was instrumental in getting the Green Jobs – Green New York legislation passed, which seeks to create 35,000 jobs while providing green upgrades and retrofits for 1 million homes across the state. PUSH recently established PUSH Green to implement the GJGNY program in the Buffalo area, functioning as an independent outreach contractor in the region. For the work, PUSH has established what it calls a “Community Jobs Pipeline,” a network of contractors who agree to provide job training, pay living wages and hire local workers from target populations.

Energy-efficient—and affordable too

In September, PUSH held a ribbon-cutting ceremony for three gut-rehab buildings with a total of 11 affordable housing units, bringing the total number of residential units PUSH completed in the GDZ to 19.

But the organization has much bigger ambitions. In December, PUSH announced plans to build nine new-construction buildings and to renovate seven existing properties, adding a total of 46 more energy-efficient, affordable units to the neighbourhood. “We’re very strategic in our development work, so we’ve taken a small section of the West Side, and we’re really trying to concentrate our development,” explained PUSH Development Director Britney McClain. “We don’t want to contribute to the scattershot development work that is also common in the city of Buffalo.”

Ensuring that the homes it produces are energy-efficient is an important component of PUSH’s work, because heating and energy costs account for a large percentage of living expenses in Buffalo. “A lot of the houses in this city are over 100 years old and poorly insulated, so to have an apartment at an affordable rate but also that is totally energy-efficient, through the new windows and insulation, the utilities bills will be drastically reduced,” McClain told me.

Green buildings enjoy lower operating costs, but they’re more common in luxury real estate portfolios than in the inner city. That’s a perception that PUSH is looking to change.

In 2011, PUSH completed a net-zero energy house—a home that produces as much energy as it uses. The project was launched to showcase renewable energy technologies and to help give low-income residents paid job training. In the process, the builders found another innovative use for vacant lots: they dug a deep trench in the adjacent lot to provide geothermal heating and cooling for the house. On all of the buildings, PUSH reuses existing materials where possible, upgrades the windows and insulation and installs Energy Star-rated metal roofs that help to passively cool the buildings.

Extreme neighbourhood makeover

Back at the PUSH headquarters I met co-founder Eric Walker, who I instantly recognized even though we had never met. Walker guest-starred on an episode of ABC’s reality TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition that aired in 2010. In a typical episode of the show, a handful of hyperactive celebrities and local volunteers target a distressed home that is owned by a family undergoing illness, disaster, or some other hardship, and they quickly fix it up for the family in need. Instead of just fixing up one house, though, PUSH and some 4,500 volunteers teamed up with the show’s producers to fix up several surrounding properties in the neighbourhood as well.

Extreme Makeover brought the West Side some positive national exposure, but Walker still has mixed feelings about the show. Neighbourhood improvement can either come from external forces or it can come from within, and the forces of change portrayed in the show weren’t entirely homegrown. “In organizing, we talk about three kinds of power: power over, power for and power with,” explains Walker. The TV show gave PUSH an opportunity to inspire, but the tools of change were in the hands of the ABC producers and the celebrity hosts—not members of the community. “It was one step removed from the power we’re trying to build,” Walker says.

The TV cameras packed up and left, but the transformational power remains in the neighborhood. It is evident in the carefully restored Victorians that line Massachusetts Avenue; in the raised beds the community has acquired through PUSH; and in the fact that parents now take their children to the once-dangerous park they fought for and won themselves.

Check out Eric Walker’s talk at TEDx Buffalo:

Mark Andrew Boyer wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Mark is a photographer and writer based in the San Francisco Bay Area. His work has appeared in GOOD, Inhabitat, and Mindful Metropolis.

March 9, 2014 |

Building an eco-friendly cottage for $10,000

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Three years ago, I decided to downsize. I sold my big house (which I loved!), got rid of all my stuff, and built an itty-bitty eco-friendly cottage. When I finished building, I slid my little house into a friend’s backyard. This isn’t as odd as it sounds. My house actually “fits” in the backyard. It looks like a tiny cabin, or a tree house. It’s also super-small and built on wheels.

My house offers 84 square feet of living space and cost about $10,000 to build. It was built for the highway, but—honestly—it isn’t anything like a travel trailer. It doesn’t contain any space-age plastics or fake wood. Instead, it’s the real deal: knotty pine, cedar and fir.

I made the house to be as simple and natural as possible. I minimized my construction footprint by using a bunch of “green” building techniques, including:

Recycled and salvaged wood – The house took shape based on the materials that were offered to me or “found.” For example, I decided to install skylights after I found two huge windows at the salvage yard. I installed knotty pine siding on the interior walls and ceiling, and used cedar planks for the loft floor after the wood became available at the local reuse store. I installed exterior cedar siding after my neighbour offered me a bundle. He had originally purchased the wood in the 1940s, and had been storing it in his garage since that time. It was beautiful old-growth cedar—the kind you can’t find anymore.

Insulated windows – The house has nice, wood-clad windows that are low-emission (which reflects sunlight to keep the house cooler in the summer) and argon-insulated. They cost a mint, but have proven to work great! They cut noise and heat loss and look fabulous.

Solar electricity – A 240-watt photovoltaic (solar) system powers my lights and other electric gadgets. It was sized to meet my needs, based on Olympia’s cloudy weather.

Non-toxic stains and sealants – I used a water-based stain on the outside of the house and a water-based sealant on the kitchen counter. I didn’t coat the floors, walls, or ceiling. As a result, the house carries a subtle, natural cedar and pine smell. I love the woodsy, peaceful smell of my house.

Primitive water/sewer – I don’t have running water in my house. I pull water from a nearby garden spigot and jug it into the house. I use a composting toilet and I shower elsewhere. This “primitive” set-up has presented some of the greatest challenges for me. But I’ve gotten used to things, and I recognize that (on a world scale) any sort of toilet or shower is a blessing. Millions of people live without running water or a sanitary sewer. My situation is gifted by comparison.

Other good ideas – I used shredded cotton insulation in the walls and ceiling, and Marmoleum (a natural linseed product) on the floor. I placed the house in the backyard with consideration for wind, sun and shade. Most importantly, I simply minimized the size of the house while creating a sense of space, utility and natural beauty (smaller really is better for the environment).

I’ve been in the backyard for over two years. I didn’t intend to find myself stumbling down a “greener” path, but the house has worked on me. I buy less stuff (there’s no place to store it). I rethink leaving lights on and mull over better ways to manage my compost. I take fewer and shorter showers because I’m imposing on someone else. My ecological footprint has definitely gotten smaller by living in my little house.

I’ve saved a lot of money (my utility bills don’t really exist, and I don’t have a mortgage). I also spend less time fixing things and cleaning. Now, I have more of the “stuff” that I always wanted: time and resources.

I’ve tried to explain my house to other people. It’s a bit awkward. For example, a few weeks ago, a group of 5th-graders visited my house. I was trying to explain how my house works and what makes it “green.” And ultimately, we spent less time talking about the house (itself) and more time talking about how the house has connected me to the community.

I’m less autonomous. I rely on the sun to power my lights. I trust the rain on the roof to keep me company. I love that the wind cools my house in summer (it works!). I depend on the library and food co-op, and the generosity of friends and neighbours. I have to ask for water every day, and that has changed me!

I find myself wanting (more than ever) to give something back. And that is at the root of all sorts of new ways to live more simply and in-step with my world. Downsizing just keeps getting better!

Read more about small homes in SMALL AND SUSTAINABLE: Review of small and tiny home kits, plans and finished homes>>

Dee Williams’ tiny house was featured in Sustainable Happiness, the Winter 2009 issue of YES! Magazine. Dee is an inspector with the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Reprinted with kind permission from South Sound Green Pages. Interested? Dream House: Tour Dee Williams’ house
See the houseplan at

February 19, 2014 |

Green building pyramid [infographic]

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Screen reader version:

H20 and carbon zero – At the highest level of green building, the finished home recycles water and uses little or no outside energy. It may include geothermal heating/cooling, solar hot water, a wind turbine and/or photovoltaics.

Push the envelope – Several time-tested alternative structural systems offer higher R-values and other advantages over conventional stick framing. They include structural insulated panels (SIPs) and insulating concrete forms (ICFs), along with straw bale, cordwood and other systems.

Apply for green certification – Various organizations will “certify” your project’s green features, including the NAHB, USGBC and EarthCraft House. Some may argue that certification belongs lower on the pyramid, but earning that green stamp of approval will come easily if you have given attention to the bottom two-thirds of the pyramid.

Opt for low- or no-VOC paints

Reduce job-site waste/transport – Production and transportation of materials used in building a home account for only 6 per cent of its lifetime energy use. Reducing and recycling waste on the job is an important but relatively small player in a home’s long-term ecological footprint.

Program & zone HVAC

Select rated appliances

Lower H2O flow

Upgrade windows – At a minimum, windows in a new home should included insulated low-E glazings. Look for durable window frames made with materials that are renewable or recyclable and seal and flash them meticulously.

Upgrade HVAC

Opt for durability – Durability is a green characteristic. On the roof, opt for metal, clay tile, recycled rubber or extended life (recyclable) asphalt roofing. Side with fiber cement, cedar, brick veneer or other long-lived products. Build decks and patios with recycled plastic composites or long-lasting wood species. Indoors, specify durable countertops and floors made from renewable or recycled materials.

Insulate foundation – Uninsulated concrete foundations can reduce HVAC efficiency by 30 to 50%. Specify rigid or spray-on foam insulation or insulating concrete forms (ICFs) for best results. Consider a frost-protected shallow foundation or slab-on-grade construction.

Upgrade shell insulation – For stick-framed walls and ceilings, air infiltration is a major concern. Consider an insulation package that seals walls tightly, whether with spray foam housewrap or a combination of insulating materials. Specify 2×6 framing with 24″ stud cavities.

Siting – Well-designed site plans take advantage of free solar light and energy and minimize damage to existing plants and habitats.

Location – Automobile dependency is not a green asset. Build close to transit hubs.

Education – If you don’t understand basic green principles, you’re likely to make decisions you’ll later regret. Consider a course at Green Builder College ( or hit the books on your own.

House size – Doubling a home’s size triples its annual energy use for the life of the home. Think small and clever, not big and boxy.

February 1, 2014 |

Researchers find way to make solar cells lightweight, more efficient, bendable and easy to mass produce

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 IMAGE: Debashis Chanda helped create large sheets of nanotextured, silicon micro-cell arrays that hold the promise of making solar cells lightweight, more efficient, bendable and easy to mass produce.
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Converting sunshine into electricity is not difficult, but doing so efficiently and on a large scale is one of the reasons why people still rely on the electric grid and not a national solar cell network.

But a team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the University of Central Florida in Orlando may be one step closer to tapping into the full potential of solar cells. The team found a way to create large sheets of nanotextured, silicon micro-cell arrays that hold the promise of making solar cells lightweight, more efficient, bendable and easy to mass produce.

The team used a light-trapping scheme based on a nanoimprinting technique where a polymeric stamp mechanically emboss the nano-scale pattern on to the solar cell without involving further complex lithographic steps. This approach has led to the flexibility researchers have been searching for, making the design ideal for mass manufacturing, said UCF assistant professor Debashis Chanda, lead researcher of the study.

 IMAGE: This image shows a printed cell.
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The study’s findings are the subject of the November cover story of the journal Advanced Energy Materials.

Previously, scientists had suggested designs that showed greater absorption rates of sunlight, but how efficiently that sunlight was converted into electrical energy was unclear, Debashis said. This study demonstrates that the light-trapping scheme offers higher electrical efficiency in a lightweight, flexible module.

The team believes this technology could someday lead to solar-powered homes fueled by cells that are reliable and provide stored energy for hours without interruption.

Debashis Chanda joined UCF in Fall 2012 from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with joint appointment in the Nanoscience Technology Center and the College of Optics and Photonics (CREOL). He has published multiple articles on light-matter interactions and metamaterials and is a reviewer for multiple journals in his field. For some of his pioneering works Debashis was awarded a Department of Energy solar innovation award and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council award among others. He also earned a National Science Foundation Summer Institute Fellowship this year.

Other researchers on the project include Ki Jun Yu, Li Gao, Jae Suk Park, Yi Ri Lee, Christopher J. Cocoran, Ralph G. Nuzzo and John A. Rogers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

January 20, 2014 |

Cellulose nanocrystals could be a wonder material for strengthening construction materials

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 IMAGE: This transmission electron microscope image shows cellulose nanocrystals, tiny structures that give trees and plants their high strength, light weight and resilience. The nanocrystals might be used to create a…
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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – The same tiny cellulose crystals that give trees and plants their high strength, light weight and resilience, have now been shown to have the stiffness of steel.

The nanocrystals might be used to create a new class of biomaterials with wide-ranging applications, such as strengthening construction materials and automotive components.

Calculations using precise models based on the atomic structure of cellulose show the crystals have a stiffness of 206 gigapascals, which is comparable to steel, said Pablo D. Zavattieri, a Purdue University assistant professor of civil engineering.

“This is a material that is showing really amazing properties,” he said. “It is abundant, renewable and produced as waste in the paper industry.”

Findings are detailed in a research paper featured on the cover of the December issue of the journal Cellulose.

“It is very difficult to measure the properties of these crystals experimentally because they are really tiny,” Zavattieri said. “For the first time, we predicted their properties using quantum mechanics.”

The nanocrystals are about 3 nanometres wide by 500 nanometres long—or about 1/1,000th the width of a grain of sand—making them too small to study with light microscopes and difficult to measure with laboratory instruments.

The paper was authored by Purdue doctoral student Fernando L. Dri; Louis G. Hector Jr., a researcher from the Chemical Sciences and Materials Systems Laboratory at General Motors Research and Development Center; Robert J. Moon, a researcher from the U.S. Forest Service’s Forest Products Laboratory; and Zavattieri.

The findings represent a milestone in understanding the fundamental mechanical behaviour of the cellulose nanocrystals.

“It is also the first step towards a multi-scale modelling approach to understand and predict the behaviour of individual crystals, the interaction between them, and their interaction with other materials,” Zavattieri said. “This is important for the design of novel cellulose-based materials as other research groups are considering them for a huge variety of applications, ranging from electronics and medical devices to structural components for the automotive, civil and aerospace industries.”

The cellulose nanocrystals represent a potential green alternative to carbon nanotubes for reinforcing materials such as polymers and concrete. Applications for biomaterials made from the cellulose nanocrystals might include biodegradable plastic bags, textiles and wound dressings; flexible batteries made from electrically conductive paper; new drug-delivery technologies; transparent flexible displays for electronic devices; special filters for water purification; new types of sensors; and computer memory.

Cellulose could come from a variety of biological sources including trees, plants, algae, ocean-dwelling organisms called tunicates and bacteria that create a protective web of cellulose.

 IMAGE: This illustration depicts structural details of cellulose nanocrystals.
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“With this in mind, cellulose nanomaterials are inherently renewable, sustainable, biodegradable and carbon-neutral like the sources from which they were extracted,” Moon said. “They have the potential to be processed at industrial-scale quantities and at low cost compared to other materials.”

Biomaterials manufacturing could be a natural extension of the paper and biofuels industries, using technology that is already well-established for cellulose-based materials.

“Some of the byproducts of the paper industry now go to making biofuels, so we could just add another process to use the leftover cellulose to make a composite material,” Moon said. “The cellulose crystals are more difficult to break down into sugars to make liquid fuel. So let’s make a product out of it, building on the existing infrastructure of the pulp and paper industry.”

Their surface can be chemically modified to achieve different surface properties.

“For example, you might want to modify the surface so that it binds strongly with a reinforcing polymer to make a new type of tough composite material, or you might want to change the chemical characteristics so that it behaves differently with its environment,” Moon said.

Zavattieri plans to extend his research to study the properties of alpha-chitin, a material from the shells of organisms including lobsters, crabs, mollusks and insects. Alpha-chitin appears to have similar mechanical properties as cellulose.

“This material is also abundant, renewable and waste of the food industry,” he said.


By Emil Venere, 765-494-4709, Sources: Pablo D. Zavattieri, 765-496-9644,; Robert Moon,

December 30, 2013 |

Canadian homeowners and the domicile [infographic]

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Canadian homeowners infographic

screen reader version:

Canada’s a pretty big place. Even though the life of a condo dweller in downtown Montreal might be pretty different from someone living in a Prairie country home, it’s still interesting to take a look at the bigger picture.

2 out of 3 Canadian households own their own domicile

47.3% without mortgage
52.6% with mortgage

Type of home construction

56% detached homes
31% apartments and condos
11% semi-detached homes/townhomes
2% other kinds of homes

43.4% of homes have 7+ rooms
27.5% of homes have 1-4 rooms

Number of bathrooms

1 – 59%
2 (or more) – 41%

Most used heating equipment

Water – 15 %
Hot air 45%
Wood – 5%
Electricity – 35%

Most used combustible for heating

Oil – 10%
Gas – 50%
Electricity – 35%
Wood – 5%

infographic by Domicile Experts

Source: Les habitudes de epense au Canada, Statistique Canada 2009

December 27, 2013 |
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