Environmental showcase

Private homes can easily adapt green building ideas from innovative Mountain Equipment Co-op store in Westboro

The Ottawa Citizen, September 2 2000 – Kathryn Young

Warren Haywood always had his heart set on building a big home, But he changed his mind after watching construction of Mountain Equipment Co-op's innovative, energy-efficient store in Westboro.

Built with huge posts and beams, the outdoor-adventure-equipment store is a showcase of three-R ideas, from shredded copies of the Citizen stuffed into the walls to recycled barns, metal slag, timbers reclaimed from river bottoms, and a straw-bale wall.

Construction was a corporate affair, with 15 employees helping to pack the insulating 14-inch-deep straw bales between the studs on the north wall one day during construction.

"They enjoyed it," says Mr. Haywood, who is Mountain Equipment Co-op's assistant store manager "they can look at that and say, 'Hey, I did that,' I think many would consider it for their own homes now."

Since the store opened in June, Mr Haywood has found it's a dream to operate because it's so energy efficient. And that has prompted the change in his dream home.

"Now it's post and beam, and strawbale." he says ''l can still incorporate the big wood."

Architects Christopher Simmonds and Linda Chapman reduced, reused and recycled to the max when they designed the store, which moved to the Westboro neighbourhood from Beechwood Avenue in the east end. Many of the environmentally conscious features that make the store unique can be applied to homes as well.

"We can apply this to any project," says Mr. Simmonds who teamed up with Ms Chapman in a joint venture to design the store. "We can make your building more energy efficient."

When you walk into the store, one of the first things you notice is the massive 12-inch by 12-inch timbers holding up the second floor. They came from a Montreal-based salvage company that retrieves logs from the bottom of the St. Lawrence River.

"The use of salvaged wood products is really one thing that's accessible for homeowners to use says Mr. Simmonds.

"It's actually a fad," he adds. "A lot of people want to use it. Pretty soon it's going to be more expensive."

Many companies salvage old timbers from river bottoms, condemned houses and leaning barns.

The red elm planks on the open central staircase and the finished flooring on the second level came from a Bruce Peninsula barn built in 1876 and salvaged by Ralph Weitzenbauer, owner of Antique Timber Products.

"I'm a green guy," says Mr. Weitzenbauer, who shudders when he sees people burning down barns because they're obsolete. "There's 10,000 to 15,000 board feet of lumber in them." Reclaiming the wood not only reuses it, but it also reduces the reliance on logging.

Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) is the first store to earn the government's difficult-to-obtain C-2000 energy efficiency rating (similar to R-2000 for residences - the C stands for commercial).

"They were interested in trying new things," Ms. Chapman says about MEC's owners. "They really wanted this building to be a showcase."

Tucked in a corner on the second floor next to men's underwear is a small window, behind which is a bale of straw just to show people what can he done in stores and homes.

Chapman has done quite a few straw bale homes across Canada and in the Ottawa area, but this was her first store.

"There's definitely an increase in knowledge and interest, but it's definitely a niche market," she says. "There's not many developers using it."

Usually, it's environmentally conscious people building their own home who attempt strawbale. Straw doesn't deteriorate, rot or go mouldy as long as it's kept dry. It produces an R-40 insulation value when it's 14 inches thick, whereas 12 inch thick fibreglass gives R-40.

"It's really good," Ms. Chapman says. "Not quite as good as fibreglass but it's getting there."

Customers are pleased and interested in the straw bale window, Mr. Haywood says, adding that MEC clientele tend to be environmentally aware anyhow.

"It's part of our corporate vision, to conduct business in an ethical and environmentally friendly way" he says.

The "Re-use" part of the three-Rs was employed extensively in the store:

  • A huge cistern next to the parking lot catches rain water from the roof. A solar-powered irrigation pump moves the water to soak the evergreen trees and other plants around the building.

  • The store was built on the site of an old grocery store - the Hong Kong Market. The old terrazzo floor was reused, as well as concrete blocks.

  • Grey rocks blasted out during construction were used decoratively on the left front corner of the store.

  • The stainless steel sink behind the members' service desk came from an old butcher shop.

Recycling was, of course, a big component:

  • Cellulose insulation (shredded newspapers) was used in the non-straw-bale walls.

    "That's where the Citizen goes," 'says Mr Simmonds.

  • The roof and east wall are insulated with a fireproof material containing waste slag from steel refining. They sell that insulation for homes now for use in ordinary stud walls," says Mr. Simmonds.

  • Most of the gravel under the foundation was made from crushing the old concrete taken from the grocery store. "All the concrete we took off the site was brought back on as gravel," he said adding that any builder could order gravel that way.

  • Some of the furniture was made from old steel shelving systems.

  • Old doors were recycled as desk tops.

    Although an environmental conscience is not necessarily cheaper, "it doesn't have to be much more expensive,"' Mr. Simmonds says, adding home owners can save a lot of money if they're "willing to spend the time scrounging in the Restore (a Sheffield Road store that sells recycled materials) and doing research."

    "It's a matter of making something useful again. I think we could do a lot more of that as a society."

    Many of the "Reduce" features arose from the desire to eliminate as much heat buildup in the store as possible. One of the biggest energy costs is the air conditioning, which costs more than heating in the winter.

    "We didn't want the hot summer sun coming into the store," says Mr. Simmonds. The glare makes lighting difficult and fades the clothing.

  • Trees were planted outside to shade the store. The parking lot, which was left unpaved to reduce water run-off and not overload the storm sewers, has a light stone to reflect heat.

  • The roof is light grey to prevent heat buildup. Made of modified bitumen, a roofing membrane, it looks a bit like a shingle and comes in different colours.

  • On the southwest corner, where the offices and staff rooms were located so the sun could help warm them in winter, exterior sun screens made of thick beams (to go with the scale of the building) shade the windows in summer.

  • Two types of low-e glass were used on the windows - reflective on the south and west and absorptive on the north.

  • The use of virgin timber was reduced by supporting the floors with I-joists of engineered wood - a composite, product made with second growth wood that's finger-jointed for length.

    Mr. Simmonds wanted to use 2-by-4s and 2-by-6s from environmentally managed forests, certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, but couldn't get framing lumber.

    "It's the only wood m Canada that's got this certification and it's really for use in furniture. The only U.S. source of certified framing lumber he could find was in Oregon, making it too expensive to ship here.

    However, he discovered that Home Depot in the US is going to start carrying it and he hopes it'll be available in Canada too. "This would be incredible. For 10 per cent premium you could get certified wood," he says. I personally think its going to take off. I hope it does."

    This is MEC's fifth store across Canada, with the others in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton and Toronto, plus the catalogue sales office in Vancouver.

    "Every time we build a store we reach new heights in environmental sustainability," says Mr. Haywood. "This store "is one of our biggest achievements."

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

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