Posted by: Daryl & Wendy Ashby | March 22, 2010

Eco Friendly Housing Anyone?

There is a truly one-of-a-kind project in the Highlands District of Greater Victoria. Ann and Gord Baird are the people behind Eco-Sense. Their concept is part lifestyle, part science experiment, part eco-pioneering and is truly amazing as their latest project nears completion atop a rocky pinnacle in this rural municipality just 20 minutes outside Victoria’s city center.

  The Eco-Sense House in Victoria, BC 

Everything is special about Eco-Sense.  Ann and Gord have invested time and energy to research, design, and build North America’s first code-approved, seismically engineered load-bearing insulated cob house.

As if that were not enough, the home features a BC Hydro grid intertwine system, meaning that their electrical meter flows both ways. When their solar and wind energy farm produces more power than the home requires, it reverses and feeds back into the Hydro grid and for them it becomes a revenue source.

The home is heated by the sun with a solar hot water, which in addition provides hot water for their daily use.

Ann and Gords Living Room
Ann and Gord’s Living Room

From the foundation up, every detail has been thought about and constructed in a way that is environmentally and economically sound. The foundation was poured with high fly-ash (a by-product of Albertan coal-fired power plants) concrete, and fabric forms were used to reduce waste wood. Total cost for forms was $300.

 “Cob” is a building material which constitutes a mixture of sand, clay and stray. Not unlike many home in third world arid counties. Ann and Gord took this one step further and introduced pumice (lightweight, porous volcanic rock) into the mix to decrease the weight of the mixture, and to increase the insulative value.

The cob has no load-bearing walls as is normal with most construction. Cavities for the homes wiring system have been routed out of the walls, the wiring installed and inspected by the city, and then simply filled over with more cob or plaster. It’s simple, seamless, and it works. Not only is the cob functional, but when finished in a lime-plaster it is also a work of art.

 The house is not shy of natural light as you may expect from this form of construction. Light tubes redirect sunlight from the roof to a conventional looking fixture in the ceiling. Embedded in the walls are old glass bricks, and wine and beer bottles to add additional diffused light. When natural light is not available, they resort to LED. While the bulbs cost considerably more than incandescent or compact fluorescent, their longevity and minimal consumption of the electricity make them the preferred choice.

 Ann and Gord explain about their home. 

Most all wood and nails in the house have been recycled from local sources.

 The house has a composting toilet which uses no water, a rainwater collection system for gardening, and the grey water from sinks, laundry, and showers is directed to a separate treatment system, which is then rerouted to the irrigation system.

Being an eco-pioneer is not easy since these construction practices have never been applied to local practices, hence they have had to convince the local government inspectors the benefits and safety attached to each step.

Fact is, before they purchase their first truck load of sand, they had to shop for a municipality that was willing to work with them towards seeing the project though to a success.

Everything had to be done to code, and that meant a few sacrifices. To appease the plumbing inspector, they had to install a flush toilet which has become more of an ornament than a fixture. Rather than utilize a tied and true but dated septic system, they were forced to install a $30,000 system, that again has just become an expensive ornament, because they won’t use it. The toilet of their choice is the one that uses no water, and the remainder of the disposable water is grey, which is being treated and used for irrigation.

Their modified cob mixture had to be lab tested for strength. However, a nice by-product of building walls out of a non-flammable material is that you get an equally enjoyable discount on your house insurance.

The low-slope roofs will be green roofs, planted with native species. This replaces the vegetation that is lost from the ground where the house sits, and also helps insulate the home and purify the rainwater which also flows more evenly and slowly because the soil retains some water before it drains out.

 As for costs, every system within the Eco-Sense home has been evaluated on a triple-bottom-line basis. Ann and Gord estimates that their per-square-foot cost is around $140 in a time when standard construction starts were around $150. This also includes their labour for over 15 months and the $60,000 solar heating system.
Therein lies the beauty of Ann and Gord’s vision. You can do more or you can do less. The point is that there are alternatives to frame construction for single family, two-storey dwellings.

Here are two people, who have a lifestyle they want with less  impact on the natural environment, and they are demonstrating that it can be done within reach of the average family’s budget.

Once municipal codes and building techniques catch up with the innovation that these two pioneers are forging in the Highlands District of Victoria, it will become even easier and more within reach of the common man.

When it comes to housing, why should the wealthy be the only ones who can afford to treat our planet with respect?


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