Sunday, September 28, 2008


Earlier this month Durham Custom Homes in Oshawa became the first builder in Canada to adopt the new GreenHouse™ building standard. The GreenHouse™ design combines the energy efficiency standards of ENERGY STAR® for New Homes with resource management, indoor air quality and water conservation. The result is a new generation of homes that will produce three tonnes fewer greenhouse gases, consume 30 percent less energy, and use 15 percent fewer raw materials than homes built to the Ontario Building Code.

What makes this particularly exciting is that Durham Custom Homes is not a new builder, but rather a respected family company has been building conventional houses for more than 50 years. More to the point, GreenHouse™ homes will not be offered as a buyer option, but rather all Durham Custom Homes will be built to this newest environmental standard, effectively raising the bar and making standard homes obsolete.

When asked why his company decided to take this bold move, General Manager Victor Fiume explained that it was all about the economics.

“We know that given unlimited resources we can build the most energy-efficient homes in the world, but no one could afford to buy them. The great thing about these homes is that they will be affordable to the vast majority of Ontarians. That’s what exciting about the program,” said Fiume.

“The other thing about these initiatives is that is we don’t talk about payback, because the payback is immediate,” he said. “For starters, the cost differential is very small and the utility savings, which are fairly large, which means it actually costs less to carry these homes.” As Fiume explained, the average energy saving for a 2,000 square foot home works out to about $ 100 a month. The additional cost of carrying the home is about $ 60 a month, so right from the day you move in you’re putting about $ 40 a month in your pocket.

In addition to the energy standards already in place for ENERGY STAR® for New Homes, the new GreenHouse™ standard focuses on five additional areas.

1. Natural Resource Management - Advanced framing techniques use less wood, which means the harvesting of fewer trees, while delivering greater insulation levels. Using engineered lumber products means that all parts of the tree are utilized, which reduces the dependence on older-growth forests.

2. Effective Use of Resources – Using demolition materials means less extraction of virgin materials while diverting used materials from landfill. The Greenhouse standard requires concrete with a minimum of 25 percent slag (or recycled) material, 60 percent recycled attic and wall insulation, 100 percent recycled carpet underlay, recycled paint and a minimum 25 percent recycled content for shingles. Overhead garage doors manufactured with 84 percent recycled material and all exterior doors have fiberglass rather than metal skins.

3. Water Conservation – With so much attention being focused on energy conservation to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we often forget that the processing and pumping of water is a major energy consumer. To reach the target of a 25 percent reduction in indoor water consumption, Greenhouses use on CSA Approved dual flush low-flow toilets, low flow showerheads and aerators and Energy Star dishwashers.

4. Indoor Air Quality - To reduce or eliminate indoor air contaminates and minimize the potential for mould growth, GreenHouse™ homes are equipped with a raft of special features including heat recovery ventilators, water resistant flooring and Energy Star rated fans in all washrooms. The foundations and windows are sealed to protect against leakage, while special ventilation features prevent carbon monoxide from entering the homes from the garage. The use of materials containing a minimum of VOCs (volatile organic compounds), minimizes the amount of gassing off.

5. Waste Diversion – In addition to using recycled materials for building, the construction of GreenHouse™ homes sends 25 percent less waste to landfill. Leftover materials such as land clearing debris, asphalt, concrete and masonry, metal, wood, general debris, glass, paper, plastics, gypsum, non-hazardous paint and paint cans, carpet and insulation are all placed in separate containers so that they can be recycled.

True environmental progress isn’t measured by what’s new – it’s measured by what becomes the standard; what people perceive as normal. The real genius of the GreenHouse™ model is that it has created a new standard, one that leaves anything less literally in the sawdust!


For more information about Canada’s first GreenHouse™, visit

For more information on ENERGY STAR® for New Homes or the EnerQuality Corporation visit

World Carfree Day

September 22 is World Carfree Day. By any estimation, it’s an idea whose time has finally come. Concerns about climate change, rising gas prices and dwindling supply have even the most stalwart auto buff rethinking his or her relationship with the automobile.

With all that in mind, it’s interesting to note that World Carfree Day isn’t a recent phenomenon. While the first official Carfree Day took place in 2000, it began with an event that happened 50 years ago in New York City when neighbors of the Washington Park Square demonstrated against the expansion of Fifth Avenue. Their actions ultimately blocked the proposal and saved the much-loved park from the otherwise unstopped wrath of ever-expanding pavement.

Among the group’s ringleaders was a very young Jane Jacobs. Three years later in 1961, Jacobs published her landmark work, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a book that redefined our relationship with the built environment. Most notably, Jacobs opened up the debate on the restrained used of cars in the urban environment.

Flash forward a half a century. While Jacobs’ work has been revered by millions, it has also been largely ignored by the plotters and planners who design our cities. With very few exceptions, the modern North American city is neither pedestrian or bicycle friendly. Unlike European cities that have been built around access to mass transit, our transportation system is based on the access to the private automobile.

The modern automobile has become virtually all things to most people, at least some of the time. It can be a home entertainment centre, babysitter, time machine (“Can you drive a little faster, honey?”), mobile restaurant, status symbol, stress reliever (and creator) all rolled into one. It enables us to live, work and play where we want, when we want. It miraculously stretches time so that it is almost possible to be in at least two places at once, (say at your son’s soccer game and your daughter’s piano lesson, while picking up the groceries and doing the banking.) And if time does run out to do such menial tasks as preparing a meal, there are countless “drive-thrus” that can literally keep you going.

The price we pay for all of this status, security and convenience is simply staggering. The burning of the fossil fuels that we pump into our gas tanks is a major contributor to global warming. Every year we pave an additional one million hectares with new roads and highways, which is enough land to feed nine million people.

Our cities sprawl along a mass of highways and by-ways that eliminate our options when one becomes blocked by a single accident.

Consider the four-hour traffic jam that occurred recently in Toronto when a man was shot and dumped onto Highway 401 in the middle of the afternoon. This single act of violence brought Canada’s largest city to a standstill for more than four hours. Hundreds of thousands of vehicles were locked in a snarl of traffic that that extended for many kilometers in all directions.

As luck would have it, I was one of the unlucky motorists caught in that snarl. The experience provided me with a unique opportunity to ruminate about traffic jams and other car related nonsense for several hours.

No matter how you cut it, our chronic addiction to the infernal internal combustion engine is not sustainable. In order to build functional cities where you can live, work and play, without damaging the environment, public health or getting lost in gridlock, we must rethink our relationship with the private automobile. Carfree Day gives us a great place to start.


Join in the fun on Monday, September 22 and enter the carfree zone. Check out for events, ideas and information about "Autoholics Anonymous”, carfree pilot projects and other ideas that are transforming the world.

For more car-free inspiration, visit

Jane Jacobs’ wrote that to truly understand the urban environment, “You’ve got to get out and walk.” In her memory, every year Jane’s Walk helps put people in touch with the urban environment. For more information, go to

Thursday, September 25, 2008


There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.

Leonard Cohen

It’s broken. The world that we cling to so defiantly is tearing itself apart. The institutions that have defined our social and economic framework for the past century are beyond repair. Our systems of government, education and health care are woefully antiquated at best, dangerously irresponsible at worst. Our infrastructure is aging and inadequate. Our natural resources are being consumed at an alarming rate. The global population continues to soar, despite famine and global pandemics such as AIDS and other deadly viruses. The environment on which all life depends is ill with a raging fever.

It is a truly exciting time to be alive.

Everything is at stake. We have the opportunity right now to recreate society, redefine our relationship with our environment and renew hope in the world. We have a chance to leapfrog the current chaos to create a truly sustainable, global society.

The worldwide web has leveled the communications playing field, while new technologies bring the promise of boundless energy, harvested in harmony with the Earth. There is glory in the possibility of tomorrow.

The problem is that we are still way too comfortable to grasp how truly dangerous and exciting things really are. The price of gas may be going up, the weather may be getting a little weird, but there’s nothing to really get excited about – yet. We’d rather bitch and complain about the status quo. It’s much easier and it doesn’t take a whole lot of effort, at least for now.

Consider our upcoming federal election, or the “Battle of the Two Stephens”, as it has been dubbed. It’s bland, uninspiring and predictable.

Now compare that we with the current U.S. presidential race. On one hand, there’s the old guard, riding his one-trick “I am a POW” pony, with his gun-toting side kick, a modern day Annie Oakley at his side, both promising more of the same under the banner of change. On the other hand, there’s the exciting newcomer with the foreign name, rich with ideas, short on experience, full of hope and promise, and his stalwart vice-presidential candidate, a man who brings grace and experience to the ticket. While it’s still too close to call, it is thrilling to see two polarized visions for the country, both desperately trying to salvage the most powerful nation in the world.

It’s not that our American neighbors are more exciting or daring than we are. It’s simply that we aren’t scared enough yet. In relative terms, our economy is stronger; our resources more bountiful, our health care system more inclusive. We’re okay for now, right?

As long as we’re slightly a head of the curve, there’s no need to panic. It’s like checking the obituaries. As long we’re alive to read about the other guy, there’s time enough to worry about our health. It’s an illusion that we cling to, a survival mechanism that keeps us sane as we move ever closer to the brink. The truth is, nobody gets out alive.

On the August 30th broadcast of CBC Radio’s Vinyl Café, host Stuart McLean retold the amazing story of Roger Woodward who in 1960 miraculously survived a tumble over Niagara Falls. When the fishing boat that 7 year-old Roger was traveling in capsized, the boy was thrown into the churning waters of the Niagara River. Clinging to an adult life jacket, he was thrashed on the rocks and carried through the rapids at tremendous speed, unaware of the mighty falls that lay head. Suddenly the waters calmed and everything seemed frozen in time.

Woodward recalled that at the very moment that he realized what was happening he felt no sense of panic, only a quiet resignation. He said he was too young to grasp the idea of death and the concepts of heaven and hell.

Like it not, American or Canadian, or not, we are all moving rapidly toward a precipice. We can panic, flail around, or ignore what’s happening.

Or we can soar about the mist and reach for the horizon. We can recognize that there is a crack in everything we have built. We can get off our comfy Canadian couches and use the light that the crack lets in to see the possibility of a brave new world.


To hear the full account of Roger Woodward’s amazing story, check out

Sunday, September 07, 2008

The world without us

I spent most of Labor Day weekend glued to CNN watching Hurricane Gustav play havoc with New Orleans. And while Gustav failed to live up to Katrina’s legacy, the hurricane did do sufficient damage to a city still trying to rebuild three years after the sister of all storms hit landfall.

Watching the seemingly unmanageable force of Gustav, it was hard to believe that everyday activities like driving our cars or heating our homes can affect the power of a hurricane, but they do. Scientists have warned us for decades that the most frightening impact of climate change will be a dramatic increase in the frequency and severity of storms, hurricanes, tornadoes and other catastrophic weather.

The World Without Us - Warsaw, Poland, ilustration by Kenn Brown and Chris Wren.

Like Frankenstein and his monster, we are playing with forces way beyond on control. Climate change is just one of our many legacies that will come back to haunt us. Despite our science and technology, our arrogance and our evolutionary superior opposing thumbs, in the end it is Nature that will prevail. Whether it prevails with or without us, and what our legacy will be is the bigger question.

In his international bestseller, The World Without Us, author Alan Weisman takes the reader on a magical mystery tour of a world suddenly without humans. Drawing on archeological data, scientific research and his own extensive travels, he reaches backwards in time to paint a world untouched by human influence, and then with equal ease fast forwards to describes the demise of human civilization and its artifacts.

The World Without Us - Lisbon, Spain, ilustration by Kenn Brown and Chris Wren.

Weisman tackles everything from nuclear power and strip mining to plastic bags and house cats with equal eloquence. He even goes so far as to introduce the idea that the human race voluntarily phases itself out by consciously deciding to stop procreating and letting Nature move on. Far from being disturbing, Weisman’s beautifully crafted prose transcends our egotism and fundamental ignorance as a species.

What is particularly fascinating about the book is that according to Weisman’s telling, it is often our subtle, indirect invasion into the natural world that has the greatest potential impact. In one particularly poignant phrase, he writes,

“We don’t actually have to shoot songbirds to remove them from the sky. Take away enough of their home or sustenance, and they fall dead on their own.”

And therein lies the problem. We are such an egocentric species that we even define wilderness in terms of our own presence. Consider the age-old philosophical question, “If a tree falls in the forest, does anyone hear?”’

The point is, it shouldn’t matter. Nature should be able to exist without us, and our unquenchable desire to fix what we perceive God didn’t finish. As my husband Brian often jokes, “Just imagine what God could have done if He’d had concrete.”

Fortunately, the tide is beginning to change. Governments, not-for-profit agencies and individuals are beginning to recognize the need to preserve the natural environment from our infernal interference. The Nature Conservancy of Canada has partnered with corporate and individual landowners to conserve more than two million acres of ecologically significant lands across Canada.

New York's Forest Preserve protects almost three million acres in the Adirondack and Catskills mountains that have been declared “forever wild.” This designation affords these lands with the highest degree of protection under Article 14 of the New York State constitution.

Whether we willingly work to preserve the natural world, or are forced to abandon it in the wake of hurricanes and other disasters, according to Weisman, Nature will ultimately prevail. In November 2007 interview with USA Today, Weisman provided a commentary to a slide show of homes that were abandoned in New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward after Katrina. In only three short years, many of the homes are already overgrown with vegetation, the roots of trees have cracked their foundations and their mailboxes have been covered in morning glories and wild flowers.

“It’s beautiful to see Nature come in and take something tragic and turn it into a garden again”, he said.

Given the chance, hopefully she always will.


For a link to Weisman’s USA Today commentary, “Reclaimed by Nature”, to view the “Your House Without You” video, or for more information about the book and the author, check out

For more on the work of of Kenn Brown and Chris Wren visit Mondolithic Studios

A rose by another other scent

For me, it began with a runny nose when I was a kid. My father ran a custom packaging plant, and from time to time he would bring home rejected cases of solid air freshener. He’d go from room to room, carefully placing an air freshener inside each floor vent. Within minutes, my sister and I would begin sneezing. As soon as the coast was clear, we would run around the house and remove all of the offending objects. When my dad figured out what we’d done, he’d load up the air vents again. Within minutes, my sister and I would resume sneezing and the game would start all over again.

What began as a game of smelly cat and mouse soon turned into a very real health issue. I got to the point where I was unable to use any perfumed products. Scented hand-soaps, shampoos and detergents would send me into a fit of sneezing. My sister, on the other hand, began reacting with migraines.

Perfume has historically been the stuff of romance, beauty and sensuality. Unfortunately, for individuals who are scent-sensitive, perfume can also mean headaches, nausea and dizziness.

It turns out we were not alone – just a little ahead of our time. Today we have a better understanding that the effects of chemical exposure are cumulative. As a result, in recent years many schools, workplaces and other public areas have declared themselves scent-free.

While this is great news for those who react to perfume, for the cosmetics industry, scent-free environments have the potential of impacting on the estimated $ 400 to 500 million spent annually on fine fragrance products in Canada. When you factor in such other scented consumer goods as candles, room deodorizers and air fresheners, creating scent-free environments can have significant economic impacts.

Part of the problem is that the perfume industry is a victim of its own success. In centuries past, perfumes were carefully hand-made from the natural extracts of flowers. A rose by any other name may still produces a lovely perfume, but today the majority of scents are derived from man-made chemicals that contain volatile organic compounds (or VOCs). Some perfumes contain as many as 600 different petrochemical derived compounds. Many of those – acetones, benzene, benzopyrene, formaldehyde, phenol and toluene – are the same chemicals found in tobacco smoke.

While it’s considered socially acceptable to ask people to butt-out, asking someone not to wear perfume can be viewed as an attempt to limit their right to express themselves. Selecting that special scent is a very personal expression of who we are.

For those who have allergic reactions to perfume, self-expression has to take a back seat to health and the ability to function normally. Headaches, dizziness, sneezing, wheezing and difficulty in concentrating and breathing are the most common reactions in chemically sensitive people. For the hypersensitive individual, reactions can be life threatening. In the most extreme cases, exposure can result in seizures or anaphylactic shock - a potentially fatal response.

I have to admit I’m a fan of perfume myself. Unfortunately it has to be all natural (translation: very expensive) for me to tolerate it. Cheaper colognes and perfumes immediately start me sneezing. Having an asthmatic daughter and a sister and a sister-in-law who react to perfume with migraine headaches has taught me that the entire issue is nothing to sniff at.


• Buy unscented products. The majority of manufacturers produce scent-free varieties of their most popular brands. Soaps, moisturizers, anti-perspirants, laundry detergents and dryer sheets are all available without added perfumes.

• If you really want your laundry to have that fresh, clean scent, use a clothesline and save a whole lot of energy in the process.

• Poor air quality means that many substances, including perfume, linger and accumulate in the air. Ensuring good air quality at home and in the workplace means having your central heating systems checked and ducts cleaned regularly.


The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety offers tips on how to develop a Scent-Free Policy for the Workplace.

For more information about perfume and other allergies, visit The site lacks a search engine, so look for the article about Allergy and Deodorant.

The Scented Products Education and Information Association of Canada is an industry association website with loads of common “scents” information about perfumes.

Sky Farming

It’s called the Malthusian Catastrophe. Named after Thomas Malthus, the English economist and demographer, it predicts the ultimate failure of the Earth’s ecosystem to support our ever-increasing population. To quote Malthus,

“The power of the population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”

More than two hundred years after Malthus first made his prediction in 1789, there is growing concern that we may soon surpass the planet’s ability to sustain us. An estimated 80 percent of the world’s potentially arable land is already being used to provide food for the Earth’ estimated 6.7 billion people. If current trends continue, the United Nations predicts that the population will exceed 9 billion by 2050. Using existing agricultural practices, we would need an additional one billion acres of land to feed everyone.

That’s land we simply don’t have. Add to this the rising cost of oil, which dramatically affects both the cost of shipping food and many of the fertilizers used to produce it, as well as the growing demand for feed stocks such as corn to produce ethanol, and the impact of climate change on agricultural production, and it would appear that we are only a few bushels away from a global famine.

That is unless you talk to Gordon Graff. Gordon, a graduate student at the University of Waterloo, spends much of his time pondering the idea of sustainability.

“Within the academic environment, the idea of sustainability is rather vague,” said Gordon. “Even though our ecological awareness had exploded exponentially in the last two years, I wanted to find out what that meant within the context of my studies.”

A student of architecture, Gordon found direction and inspiration in the work of American architect, Edward Mazria. Gordon realized that through his own work he had an extraordinary opportunity to make the world a better place.

“Architects are closer to the fashion industry than they are to creating sustainable cities. It’s more about fashion than things that matter,” said Gordon. He set out to prove the concept of sustainable architecture is not an oxymoron.

“I couldn’t get ecological sustainability out of my head. When I started my graduate program I wanted to tackle urban sustainability. The question is, how do we make an existing city like Toronto sustainable?”

Gordon answer’s is nothing short of transformational. Using his passion for sustainability, his grasp of the pending Malthusian Catastrophe and his knowledge of architecture, Gordon has created two brilliant designs that shatter the urban design paradigm and redefine the idea of local agriculture.

The first is a visionary 59-storey building that Gordon calls a Sky Farm. Utilizing the principles of hydroponic gardening to maximize food production, Gordon’s design translates 3.8 million square feet of floor space into 11 million square feet of growing area all on a mere 1.32 hectares. By his own estimate, the Sky Farm could produce 54 million pounds of fruits and vegetables, nearly a million pounds of animal meat and nearly a half a million pounds of eggs – enough food to feed 40,000 people year round. A ground level grocery store could sell the produce, making the entire food cycle carbon neutral.

The building’s heating and lighting are provided by a wall of photovoltaic cells and a Living Machine – an anaerobic digester that uses organic wastes from the gardens and an exterior grow wall (depending on the climate) to produce power and filter waste water. By also capturing waste methane from the city’s sewer system, Gordon estimates his Sky Farm could easily provide electricity back to the grid.

Gordon’s second design, Grow Housing, incorporates a smaller version of the Sky Farm into a low-rise city block development that includes condominium and town house units, a grocery market, and street level retail and commercial space. The complex is topped off with a green rooftop that is designed to function as a community garden for low-income earners.

Gordon hopes that his designs will help us to avoid “the tragedy of the commons”, that age-old conflict over finite resources between individual interests and the common good – a pretty amazing goal for this modest 29 year-old grad student from Perth, Ontario.

Once Gordon completes his thesis his hope is that he might be able publish his work, get his architectural licence and start practicing sustainable architecture as soon as he can.


Gordon doesn’t yet have his own website. However, he presented his visionary work at a Sustainable Buildings Canada (SBC) breakfast in July. For more on the work of SBC, including the upcoming Green Building Festival, September 9 to 10, 2008, visit