MEC makes 'hay' with 'greenprint'

Linda Chapman gets a lot of wisecracks about the three little pigs and straw houses: The huff-and-puff-and-blow-your-house-down variety. But she knows what the pigs knew and the wolf didn't.

The Ottawa Citizen, October 16 1999 – Shelly Page

The 40-year-old architect caught "hay" fever eight years ago, when she designed her first house made of straw. Since then, she has built bale houses from one end of the country to the other.

Straw houses, or houses with innards made of standard issue, 18-inch-thick bales, are 50 per cent warmer than standard homes, including other pig favourites, brick and stick. They're also as sturdy - able to bear more weight than a regular homestead. Ms. Chapman became interested in building from bales because she says they're good for the environment: they save energy, are organic and they don't give off fumes.

But until recently, she hadn't been able to convince a commercial builder that making buildings out of straw made good business sense. Then Corin Flood came calling.

Mr. Flood, the planner for Mountain Equipment Co-op, wanted to build a new store in Ottawa that would be on the cutting edge of "green" design. Mr. Flood, a long-time environmentalist who cut his teeth during a Save-the-Whales campaign when he was in junior high school, came to MEC after working as a furniture designer. He liked the corporate culture of social and environmental responsibility: The popular outdoor clothing and equipment store has long tried to put its money where its merchandise goes: back into the environment. It donates to environmental preservation and education, and it inspects manufacturers to make sure human rights standards are met.

The rugged Mr. Flood, who gave up living in Vancouver, where MEC is headquartered, because there are "too many cars and too many bourgeois people. It's really quite offensive and expensive," now lives in Revelstoke, in British Columbia's interior and commutes to job sites. He wanted MEC to go even farther and design buildings with a message and a mission. "In order to conserve the wilderness that we require for the enjoyment of our merchandise, we have to be proactive in our other activities to encourage its preservation," he says.

Not only does MEC want every man woman and child in Ottawa to have a politically correct fleece coat on their backs, it wants them to think green every time they stroll into a MEC megastore.

"I think everything you do reflects how you are perceived," says Mr. Flood. "Buildings are monuments. And this is our monument to our corporate culture, what we believe in. We hope people sense that."

The MEC store on King Street in Toronto has some environmental innovations, including a go-square-metre "green" roof that includes a vast bed of grass and flowers. Not only does it breathe life into the downtown smog, it insulates the roof.

Mr. Flood wanted the Ottawa building to be the most environmentally conscious building in North America. It had to be made almost completely of recycled material, and it had to be the most energy-efficient commercial space in the country and at the very least, it had to have a straw wall. He called Ms. Chapman to see if she'd be his "straw consultant."

She and Ottawa architect Christopher Simmonds bid on the project, and from their airy offices in the Glebe, they're tinkering with the final touches of their 28,000-square foot glass and metal winning design that will sit on Richmond Street in Westboro.

"It's invigorating to work on a project you really believe in," says Ms. Chapman.

Not only will the building be energy efficient the best insulation and strategic vapour barriers mean it will be 50 per cent more energy efficient than national building codes standards it will also take significantly less energy to build.

The site where the store is to be built looks like the aftermath of a bomb blast. It's a vast, chaotic tract of crumbled cement and twisted metal. But a closer look shows that it's organized chaos. The concrete is in piles, as is the steel and concrete blocks. Everything is stacked according to type, so it can be reused, or hauled away so someone else can reuse it.

The steel skeleton of the former grocery store will be used to shape the new building. The cement and brick will be blasted into backfill. The terrazzo floor will be the floor of the building, with inlays of recycled glass.

Seventy per cent of the store will be made of recycled material. They'd hoped to use recycled steel for the entire frame, but were unable to find trusses, despite a search around a 500-km radius (the store can't be built of materials that come from farther away than that). So the extra steel will be made from crushed cars and other products.

The timbers that form the second floor are made from old log booms from the Lachine and Ottawa Rivers.

One of the most innovative aspects of the building is that it will be dismantleable. Instead of nails, screws and bolts are part of the plan, so a few decades down the road, when styles and times have changed, a new builder can take apart the building, piece by piece. The corrugated steel siding was chosen because it is lightweight and easy to carry away.

Mr. Flood, who was recently in town, hopes the building will change the way others build. His vision has already influenced the contracts, architects and labourers who are working on the site.

"It's touching in some ways. Because they see that they can realize their own beliefs in this project. They're all pretty committed."

And then there is the bale wall.

It will take 100 bales to build the wall, which will be seven metres long and 3.5 rnetres high.

Ms. Chapman hopes it becomes a model for other commercial buildings across Canada. A program called C-2000, run by Natural Resources Canada, has assigned a consultant to the project who will write a manual on how it was built, and how it can be disassembled.

She loves the building, but wishes it had more stuffing in it.

"I have absolutely no doubt that we could have built the entire building out of straw and it would have been wonderful. Maybe the next one."

Click here for more on the Mountain Equipment Co-op store.

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