Super-Smart Superstore

International Design Magazine, February 2001 – Gail Finke

Best known for designing houses with straw-bale walls, architect Linda Chapman was a natural choice to design North America's most environmentally friendly store, Ottawa's Mountain Equipment Cooperative (MEC). Her old friend and office neighbor, Chris Simmonds, wasn't such an obvious selection.

"I'm interested in energies," says Simmonds, an architect whose specialty is conventionally constructed buildings that relate to their landscapes. Instead of simply creating an exciting look and a harmonious floorplan, Simmonds found himself part of a team of designers, engineers and 2000, is 56 percent more energy efficient than traditional buildings; it meets Canada's stringent new environmental performance standards for commercial buildings. In order to meet these standards, a most 60 percent of the building s materials were salvaged or recycled, and a combination of skylights and superefficient lighting was installed. This innovative lighting system will also account for much of the store's estimated $28,000 (Canadian) annual energy savings In addition, no CFCs or HCFCs were used in any of the building materials' manufacturing. And because traditional insulation relies on processes that produce such noxious by products, MEC's walls are filled with a combination of cellulose, encased strawbales and mineral-wool insulation.

The key to designing for energy efficiency, Chapman notes, is time - time for meetings, time for planning and time for testing. In this case, energy efficiency goes far beyond using less electricity. It also means conserving energy throughout the entire building process. For example, the MEC store's design saved manufacturing energy by employing recycled materials and saved shipping energy by using materials purchased locally. Chapman and Simmonds even took demolition into consideration by making the building easy to dismantle. Held together by screws and other removable fasteners, the MEC store can eventually be taken apart and carried away.

Building a place like MEC requires "more creativity and time, and definitely a team effort," Chapman says. "We're all really proud of the achievement. It meets all the energy goals, and the people who work in the building love it." Chapman hopes the success of the MEC store will inspire additional ecofriendly projects. While the market for environmentally friendly houses is growing rapidly - with help from government incentives - nearly all commercial projects remain conventionally designed. "[Environmentally friendly projects] cost a little more money up front, and corporations look at up-front costs, not eventual savings," Chapman explains.

But Simmonds, at least, has already changed the way his firm works. "We're working on a community center and applying a lot of the things we've learned at MEC," he explains. From using engineered wood products to applying for energy efficiency grants, Simmonds' experience with the MEC store translates to traditional projects. Being part of the MEC team, Simmonds concludes, was "an incredible experience. We actually pulled it off, and it works on every level." His only worry, he says, is those screws. "I keep thinking some architecture students are going to disassemble one of those second-floor walls as a prank. I hope I don't give anyone any ideas."

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

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