Victor Kam builds his dream house; Aaron Harris for the Toronto Star
It started with the title: "Statement of Sustainability" where Ian Harvey writes in the Star about how
Victor Kam is going green and he's putting his money where his mouth is: He's embarking on a million-dollar gamble to design and build the most practical, sustainable home possible just north of the city.
It goes downhill from there, an example of everything that is wrong about "green building" and "sustainable design" as practiced by so many today. Where do we start?
Construction on his 4,300-square-foot, two-storey home started in earnest last fall and should be complete by this summer. Built on a 150- by 100-foot lot just east of Yonge St. and north of John St. [in Thornhill, a low density suburb]
When it Comes to Green Building, Does Size Matter?
4300 square feet. Now Mr. Kam is accommodating his parents in the house, so it is housing a lot of people. But still, that is double the current average size house in North America.
He has already spent $480,000 to acquire the lot, demolish the typical 1950s brick bungalow on it and dig out the new foundations.
Demolition is not green. 50 years old is not old for a house. There was embodied energy in all of those bricks; it will take decades to pay back the energy debt incurred replacing that existing home. Mr. Kam should read what Richard Moe said in "this old wasteful house." Or, the real environmentalist's position:
What he wants is a finished home, complete with solar panels, state-of-the-art heating and cooling systems, highly efficient kitchen appliances, R5 and R4 plus fibreglass windows and an energy bill which with nets zero each month. It will have all the bells and whistles of a family home in the $1.2 million and up price range: Two garages to accommodate up to four vehicles, a home theatre, state-of-the-art kitchen and large deck facing south.
Four car garage. And are the other three, are they all priuses?
To get there he's going to start with the actual shell of the house, made from Styrofoam and poured concrete. The technology is called Insulated Concrete Form (ICF) and involves modules of foam boxes, which are stiffened by plastic webbing on the inside. These in turn clip together like a giant Lego set to form walls into which steel rods called rebar are inserted to add strength. Concrete is then poured into these walls, leaving an opening only for windows and doors.
From Avoiding the Global Warming Impact of Insulation
The ICF wall will have an insulating value of R-60, which is terrific. It is also made of a sandwich of concrete, responsible for 5% of greenhouse gases, and styrofoam, which is a) made from fossil fuels, b) is full of fire retardants that should be banned, and c) is made with hydrofluorocarbon blowing agents that are terrible greenhouse gases that mean Mr. Kam will have to live in his net zero house for as many as a hundred years before he has paid off the greenhouse gases emitted in their production. On what planet can you call that green? And then add the 40 years he will have to live to pay off the embodied energy of the house he hauled to the dump.
With his permit having received the green light, Kam is busy planning ahead for the next big issue: solar panels. While the ample garage space -- there's a side-by-side garage next to a two-car inline garage -- will raise the eyebrows of hardcore environmentalists, Kam says there's a practical reason for them. This is because he's also planning on installing a photovoltaic solar panel array and the garages provide the roof space needed.
Oh, right, building a four car garage is OK if the roof is used for solar panels. And you park a Prius in it. This is the worst kind of phony environmentalism; drive a Prius and cover your garages in solar panels so people can see what you are doing. Pay for the geothermal drilling? What is the point, who sees that?
Victor Kam may well be building a lovely house for his family. It won't have much of a heating bill. His heart is in the right place. But it is a sham to call this house green or sustainable, it is neither.