Other pollution – the scope of the problem

For the sake of understanding the basic terrain of the really big sustainability problems, I think that it makes sense to lump together all of the pollution outside of greenhouse gases, so that the really big problems are: biodiversity and ecosystem loss, global climate change, and ‘other’ pollution. This is certainly a vast oversimplification, but a useful one. I say this because biodiversity loss and climate change are ‘existential’ threats, meaning that if we don’t get these problems under control, we threaten the very future of humanity on the planet. In comparison, most of the other sorts of pollution that we create and are exposed to aren’t a threat to humanity as a whole, even though they cause massive health problems, increased mortality and other problems to those who are most exposed. Every major pollution pathway ought to be improved to reduce the damage to human health and to the living environment, but any one of these problems isn’t as dire as those of biodiversity loss and climate change.

A massive amount of the pollution that we produce is the byproducts of industrial processes and energy production. We want to build and drive cars, construct and heat homes, make medicines, kill weeds, and so on. Unfortunately all of this activity can produce substances that are toxic to human health, causing everything from lung disease to cancer, neurological problems to heart attacks. Many of these pollutants can be and often are cleaned up so that people are not exposed to them, but others are released into the air, water and earth.

Much of air pollution comes from burning, fossil fuels and wood for their energy, and the cooking involved in industrial processes to separate or refine the products that we need. The greatest threats from air pollution appear when people breathe this contaminated air. Being in the proximity of factories, or in the middle of cities that have smog problems, or poorly vented indoor cooking fires in developing countries, all contribute to increased mortality. Recent estimates of the effect of air pollution show that around 9 million extra deaths occur every year due to air pollution, mostly in the developing world. And for each death, there are many more who experience other serious negative health outcomes. Cutting the use of fossil fuels, particularly coal, would make enormous strides for human health as well as reducing the release of greenhouse gases.

Water pollution is often caused by the dumping of wastes into waterways. Water is a great means of transporting wastes, whether they be from factories, or mines, or even human sewage. The problem comes when these wastes aren’t remediated, neutralizing and removing the toxic parts before letting that water enter rivers, lakes and the oceans. Other wastes, known as non-point sources, fall into waterways after being distributed over a large area of land. Rain carries fertilizers and pesticides from farm fields, or oil and other chemicals from roadways, and puts those materials into streams and rivers. Slowing the movement of water over land, having healthy wetlands and vegetation along shores, all help to keep wastes from entering the water.  Water pollution causes massive problems to human health, including the spread of disease from untreated sewage, or illness of all kinds from toxic chemicals that may get into the water we drink and use.

Finally there is the pollution of solid wastes, also known as garbage. It turns out that from a sustainability standpoint, non-toxic garbage isn’t a grave concern. We are in no danger of running out of places to dig big holes in the ground where we can stack up and bury our discarded stuff. Throwing away so much material may be wasteful, which carries a significant impact in itself, but the disposal doesn’t pose such large risks. The problems of physical wastes more often come when toxic materials leach into the surrounding soil and groundwater, or otherwise escape from a landfill. There are some particular problems that come from wastes like plastics, which are now accumulating but not breaking down out in the oceans, but these problems make for more localized threats to wildlife. There is much to be done to divert wastes from landfills, composting all the organic and food wastes, recycling more of the plastics and metals, and so on, but garbage is relatively far down the list as a sustainability concern.

Mostly I wanted to include this short essay to mention all of the wastes that we produce, even though this site is mostly to focus on addressing biodiversity loss and climate change. Very early in any discussion of environmentally sound behavior the topics of these sorts of pollution are going to come up. Often the same solutions can address many problems at once. For instance, increasing the efficiency of our energy and resource use means less greenhouse gas emissions so reducing global warming, less disturbance of ecosystems, and less production of other forms of pollution that have negative impacts on health.

Loss of biodiversity – the scope of the problem

A very quick version of the problem of biodiversity loss:

  • The earth’s ecosystems consist of the interconnected webs of species (plants, animals, fungi, micro-organisms) living together in different locations around the world.
  • Humanity relies on these ecosystems for our very survival – they produce the fresh water, clean air, food, wood and other natural products that are indispensable to our lives.
  • The earth’s ecosystems are currently being vastly disrupted by human activity causing species to go extinct, and the health of ecosystems to diminish
  • We need to change how humanity acts in the world so that we can preserve and repair ecosystems and stop extinctions, if not for the sake of other forms of life, then for ourselves.

And for a little bit longer version…

There are millions of species on the earth. The exact number is not known, but best estimates are that there are as many as ten million, with over one million having been identified by scientists. Ten million is a huge number, but a finite one. It has taken billions of years to produce these species, all of the animals, plants, fungi, and micro-organisms on the planet. Though there are many species, each is unique, and if they go extinct, they are gone forever.

 

Ecosystems are groups of species that all live together in a certain area. There can be many thousands of species, and they constantly interact and rely on each other to maintain the integrity of the whole. Plants form the basis of the food chain, taking energy from the sun and turning it into living tissue. Different plants fill different niches, some as tall trees, as grass, as climbing vines, some dropping their leaves for the winter and others keeping them all year. There are animals eating plants, other animals eating those animals, fungi decomposing everything that dies to recycle nutrients and begin the growth anew. Micro-organisms are found by the trillions in every nook and cranny.

While some (myself included) could wax poetic about the grandeur of wild spaces, of the beauty of old growth forests, or the thought of herds of bison roaming the prairies, providing beauty is far from the only thing that ecosystems do for us. Critical to the very survival of humanity are all of the things that ecosystems do for us, often called ecosystem services. Intact ecosystems provide us with soil, food, water, medicine, wood and other plant fiber, they maintain climate and rainfall patterns, and more. To provide all of these functions that we hold so dear, ecosystems need to be maintained in a healthy state. There are innumerable instances where people’s damaging of lands and waters led directly to massive problems in human society. Floods, soil erosion, desertification, wildfires, polluted water, can all be caused by poor management practices, and can threaten the very foundations of societies. In today’s world, climate change is linked tightly with ecosystem damage, as poor forest management and poor agricultural practices are some of the main drivers of a warming planet. In terms of species extinction, it is estimated that current human practices are causing the rate of species extinction to be a thousand times higher than what it was before the modern age, and we are currently be losing thousands of species every single year.

People need to act now to preserve ecosystems and species. We know that ecosystems are resilient, but it is unclear how much abuse they can take before problems may spiral out of control. There is something called the precautionary principle that tells us that we shouldn’t take dangerous actions when we are unsure of how risky they are. The cost of doing nothing could be absolutely immense, whereas if we act now to change ‘business as usual’, we know that this is likely to lead to great outcomes for both people and the planet. There will be some costs associated with making these changes, but the long-term benefits to saving ecosystems and species far outweigh the short-term benefits of massive scale clear-cut logging or agricultural practices that destroy the fertility of the soil.

Global climate change – the scope of the problem

The super short version of the problem of global climate change is as follows:

  • Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere trap heat from the sun
  • People are vastly increasing the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, which means we trap more heat, which means the temperature of the planet is rising
  • A fast rising temperature causes massive problems for humanity and all other life on earth
  • We need to stop putting extra greenhouse gases into the atmosphere if we want a livable and sustainable world

I’ll unpack it a bit further in the following paragraphs, but will keep it to a few paragraphs as there are a great many resources that outline the ins and outs of climate change.

First, there is a natural carbon cycle on the planet. Carbon is a basic physical element, found in great quantities both on the surface and in the center of the earth, though it makes up only a small proportion of all of the matter of the earth. Most of this carbon is under the surface, bound up in rocks, in the earth’s core, or in fossilized plants that have been buried by the action of water, wind, geology and time. Then there is the carbon found on or near the surface that cycles back and forth between the air, the water, the rocks the soil, and living things. All life that we know is built out of carbon molecules, and all living things spend much of their time and energy bringing carbon into their bodies. Plants draw it from the air while animals eat other living things made out of carbon. The earth’s cycle of carbon is always in flux, plants are growing and dying, animal populations rise and fall, rocks and water absorb and release it. The main point to make about the cycle is that the amount of carbon actively moving around the surface, the waters, and the atmosphere, stays at roughly the same level and changes only on the scale of thousands of years. The equilibrium amount of carbon in the atmosphere, mostly as carbon dioxide, has stayed about 300 parts per million (a quite small proportion of the air) for at least hundreds of thousands of years up until about one hundred years ago.

The problem that we face today is that people have thrown off this balance, as human activities have drastically increased the amount of carbon going into the atmosphere, much more than the natural systems and cycles can absorb. The most notorious source has been the fossil fuels of coal, oil, and natural gas. These substances once were living organisms, and were trapped underground and transformed into concentrated carbon based energy. When we burn them, we release carbon back into the atmosphere that has been out of circulation for millions of years. Another huge contributor to carbon in the atmosphere is poor land use. For example, forests are cut down, poor agricultural practices destroy soil, cows produce lots of methane (another carbon based greenhouse gas), all of which lead to the carbon stored in these places being released to the atmosphere. Industrial processes can also add carbon to the atmosphere. One such process is the production of cement. Cement is made by heating rock (limestone) that is high in carbon, leading both to a useful product as well putting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The sum of these activities cause the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to rise at rates that have seldom, if ever, been seen during the history of the planet. Today, in the winter of 2018, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by a third, to 405 ppm. Current human activities are causing a continued 1 ppm increase each and every year.

Now, the biggest reason that all of this extra carbon in the atmosphere is a problem is due to the greenhouse effect. The basic analogy of the greenhouse effect is that the glass walls of a greenhouse trap some of the energy from the sun, allowing the inside of a greenhouse to be warmer than the air outside. It turns out that the earth’s atmosphere does the same thing. An enormous amount of energy from the sun hits the earth, with some staying and some bouncing back into space. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere do the same thing as the glass in the greenhouse walls, they trap heat inside. The more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the warmer the earth stays. This has mostly been a great thing for life on earth, as the greenhouse effect is the reason that we have such moderate temperatures today that life on earth is so well adapted to. As mentioned in the last paragraph, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by a third, and this has trapped more heat through the greenhouse effect. So far, this rise in atmospheric carbon has increased the earth’s temperature by nearly one degree Celsius. If current trends of humanity’s resource and land use continue, this could reach 5 or 6 degrees Celsius (10 degrees Fahrenheit) by the year 2100. Humanity now stands at a point where we are cooking ourselves out of house and home. It is impossible to predict all the effects of this warming, but we do know that it would be catastrophic. Sea levels would rise, weather extremes of flood, drought and wildfire would increase, some ecosystems would collapse and many species would go extinct, and there would be millions of climate refugees fleeing these effects.

Put all together this makes for a very simple goal in fighting climate change, though it will be difficult and complex to achieve: humanity needs to stop putting excess greenhouse gases into the atmosphere if we want to save ourselves and our planet.

A few groups that are working hard to change our trajectory and to stabilize the climate include:

  • Drawdown. A comprehensive guide to all of the things that human society could do to reduce climate change through 2050, including how much they would cost, and how much they would reduce emissions.
  • 350.org. An advocacy organization that seeks to stop use of fossil fuels, build renewable energy, and other activities in order to attempt to return atmospheric carbon to a safer level, 350 parts per million (hence the name of the organization).

Some thoughts on architectural and interior design

First published 4/8/16

From the very beginning of our house building project, I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to accomplish with the architectural style as well as the interior layout and design. While I think that I would have ended up with mostly good choices by working it out by myself, the assistance of our architect Anthony Mach was invaluable. Even though I had a much clearer notion than many people do going into the early phases, I still often needed that access to an expert opinion about what is doable and how to make all of the parts fit together. And don’t even get me started on the process of turning the rough sketches into final blueprints, I don’t have anywhere near the knowledge to be able to put together those technical details.

For any of you who are considering building a custom home, I would recommend that you start by doing what we did, and make a list of things that you require, those that you would like, and those that you just don’t want to do. Also take the time to look at lots of pictures, as it always helped us to figure out if something would work by finding a good example. My digital scrapbook of inspiration eventually made it to several hundred pictures. And be prepared to revise that list in the face of budget, practicalities, or even your own changing understanding. Our starting list as of the time that we first met with Anthony was the following:

  • 3 bedroom, 2 bath house
  • Nice screen porch facing the river
  • Upside-down design, with living spaces on the upper level, and the bedrooms on the lower level
  • Passive solar orientation (discussed here and here) with plenty of big windows
  • As compact as possible given what we are trying to fit in, both for energy efficiency as well as to contain costs
  • Superinsulated (discussed here)
  • Timber framed, or otherwise using lots of natural wood
  • Contemporary design with a single pitched shed style roof
  • Resilient design, using well-chosen design details and high quality components, so that house will age well over decades
  • Big stone fireplace with a high efficiency stove insert

We already had a fairly well-developed plan by the time we went to Anthony, so I feel pretty good that out of this initial list, the only item that was dropped was the large stone fireplace. It turns out that doing these the old fashioned way with larger real stones is both very energy inefficient as well as incredibly expensive. It turns out that the vast majority of the ‘stonework’ that one sees on both the interior and exterior of today’s buildings is actually painted concrete. It is relatively thin pieces of veneer that can be added to almost any wall, and the process now yields fairly realistic looking stone. With this entire project I’ve wanted things to feel as authentic as possible, and fake stone just wasn’t something that appealed to me. As the plans developed further, we realized that the simple clean lines of a wood stove and interior stove pipe were just as good of an aesthetic fit while being much better in terms of cost and energy efficiency.

Open concept living

150408_Low Walk Out

We, along with a lot of others buying and building houses today, wanted an open concept design, with a single great room containing the kitchen, dining, and living spaces. I have heard and read quite a number of things about the growing popularity of the open concept, and it seems that there are two major drivers. The first is a greater desire for families to spend time together. With parents working more hours, kids doing more activities, families want to spend the few hours where everyone is at home together. The other trend is for increasingly casual living arrangements. People no longer want to hide away the mess of the kitchen and to eat in a formal dining room. This fits just about right with our own decision about building this way; this was always intended to be a place for the family to be together. Opening up the living and cooking spaces to each other solve all of these issues, putting everyone all in one space. We ended up with a room of 18’x38′ (680 ft 2), which has been fantastic for family time and groups up to about 15 people. We often are cooking and doing cleanup at the same time as we entertain or keep an eye on our young children.

Screen porch

A screen porch was another thing that was at the very top of our list of desired features. In our climate it may only be porch weather for four months of the year, but during that time it is the best place in the house. It turns out that screen porches aren’t all that popular here in eastern Canada, and I actually have no idea why. In Minnesota, where I grew up, basically every cabin, and many homes, have screen porches. Granted, the mosquitos are the size of sparrows there, but there isn’t exactly a shortage of biting insects here in the region around Ottawa. The bug season makes enclosed spaces awfully appealing for outdoor living throughout the wet northern temperate climates. In a lot of the modern architecture photos and articles that I’ve looked at, I often see whole walls that open to make indoor/outdoor spaces, and decks and porches seldom seem to have any bug protection. This may work in California, but that sort of design certainly does not fit well in a place where the biting insect season almost completely overlaps the warm months.

Upside-down design

Most multi-story homes have the main living areas on the main floor, with bedrooms above. In a great many cases this really does make the most sense. One can enter the house and go straight into the more public spaces, with the bedrooms tucked away up a staircase. However, it isn’t so great if your home has a view that you would like to take advantage of, as those views generally improve the higher one goes, and I don’t think that a lot of people spend hours in their bedrooms admiring the views.

In our case, we had a perfect setup to flip the house upside down. We planned from the beginning to have a walkout basement lower level, and we had tremendous views that we wanted to be able to appreciate. Pushing the house into the side of the hill also meant that it was only five steps up from the driveway to the upper level. So while I don’t think that it is for everyone, I wouldn’t do it any other way if we were building again at this site. The advantages are that we are able to really appreciate the views that our hilltop site affords, the space is much brighter, and it tends to be warmer upstairs which is a boon most of the time (and conversely, the bedrooms stay cooler at all times of the year which I appreciate when I sleep). All that said, there is one significant drawback – even with some insulation to deaden the footfalls, it can be difficult to stay asleep downstairs when there is a 3 year old running wind sprints back and forth above your head at 6:00 in the morning.

 The downstairs

Our downstairs is then taken up by three bedrooms, one full bath, and mechanicals/storage space. We kept the bedrooms to a relatively modest size, each at about 12’x12′. This is big enough to have a full set of bedroom furniture but leaves relatively little room to spare. Some people now put in massive bedroom suites, but it seems to me that bedrooms are mostly just for sleeping and not for hanging out. And just to show that I’m not entirely self-consistent, I’ve included a picture below of the windows that we put into the master bedroom. I couldn’t resist taking advantage of the view even if we don’t spend that much time in there appreciating it.

Contemporary style

There are dozens of popular styles for homes, such as Prairie, Tudor, Craftsman, and many others. Though there are some cultural and climatic reasons for choosing one style over another, the better part of the decision making comes down to aesthetic choices. Through all phases of the design process, I spent a good deal of time looking at architectural and design websites, articles, magazines, and photos. I was particularly drawn to aspects of the contemporary style, and so making the decision really came down to that appeal. To really dig into the sort of places that I found inspirational, I found even more tightly defined terms like “modern rustic” or “mountain contemporary”. These styles really have become quite popular with those who build nice houses out in the woods, fields, and mountains. Staying within a given style lends a sense of continuity to a home, from the inside to the outside, and from room to room, though there are certainly some eclectic homes that stand the test of time as well. If you search around for terms like these in architectural magazines and websites, you’ll find no shortage of examples that have a similar feel to our own place, relatively modern looking with lots of natural wood, stone, and big windows to take in the views. I just hope that in 20 or 30 years time that our choices don’t look as dated as all of the 70’s lime green, orange, and dark faux wood paneling that my parents installed when they built their own cottage back in the day.

A few of the most influential architects and builders on our aesthetic choices are the following:

  • Finne Architects. Extremely high end custom contemporary homes. They are absolutely beautiful, but I don’t even want to know what the costs are. Nils Finne and his team make a large amount of built ins, custom furniture, and unique designs for each and every project.
  • Method Homes. A prefabricated home builder. Some of their home styles are quite architecturally similar to our own final design.
  • Go Logic, particularly this passive house they built.

Use of large dimension timbers

My wife and I both love natural wood finishes, and I am exceptionally fond of the bigger timbers used in timber framing. However, in the earlier part of our own design process, I learned why there are so few timber frames being built today. First, building with big timbers is expensive. The wood costs are significantly more, but so are the costs of cutting the traditional joinery (needed before the easy availability of strong metal nails and screws). Second, it is quite difficult to insulate a timber frame building. The most common way of doing so is to build the house twice; first build the timber frame, then build another full wall and roof assembly outside of that which can be insulated normally. At the same time, the timbers are beautiful. Many people generate a similar look with false beams or wrapping regular construction lumber in naturally finished boards, but just like what I mentioned about faux stone above, I find that many of these attempts can end up looking inauthentic or cheap.

With all this in mind, we found a few places in our home where big dimensional timbers made a bit more sense, using a building method commonly called a ‘hybrid’ timber frame. The first location was our screen porch. Here, there aren’t any issues of insulation to deal with, as the whole structure is just a shell to keep out insects, with cedar floors, plexiglass lower panels to prevent anyone from falling through, and screen above. Second, we used big beams to hold the roof trusses on the big overhangs. We put 4′ overhangs around the entire home, and though there are multiple ways to support this sort of detail, we did so with large douglas fir beams, on which all of the roof trusses rest (see the time lapse installation video here for a look at the work the fir beams do for the roof). Finally we used white pine beams for the floor joists and supporting beam for the second story. We were going to need to put in joists anyway, so we decided to use 4″x8″ joists, and a 10″x12″ supporting beam. This provides a beautiful ceiling for the entire downstairs level, and should be rock-solid for the lifetime of the house.  So for the heavy beams that we included, they all serve very functional purposes, which felt like an important thing to me, that it was not simply decoration. For all of our timber work, we used simpler joints held together by screws rather than the traditional mortise and tenon joinery, which allowed all of the installation to go much more quickly.

Building for resilience:

Finally, I want to make some comments about building for the long-term. So many decisions in home building (and too many other domains as well) are made looking only at the short term. For builders, it usually makes the most sense to build the most inexpensive construction that they can get away with, and then invest more on those parts of a home that really catch the eye of the buyers, like the fancy kitchen, spa type bathroom, or big walk-in closets. People don’t tend to be very good at evaluating what is behind the final finishes, nor are they good at imagining what the future maintenance, replacement, utility bills, or other costs will be for a home. Further, people only own a given home for an average of 13 years, so any feature that doesn’t do well on the resale market is less likely to make it into the average home.

This is of course not a complete picture. The building code improves steadily, requiring constantly better insulation, air sealing, air quality and more. And there is a growing trend toward green building, emphasizing reduced energy use and healthier indoor air. Unfortunately, these are still relatively niche markets, and the average new home being built is far less than it could be.

For our own project, we built a place that we hope to never have to sell during a lifetime, and if things go really well, our kids will continue to use it well after we are gone. With those kind of goals in mind, it is much easier to think about a 50 year time frame, and to be able to justify the costs of doing things ‘right’ the first time around. If we’ve succeeded at this, we may have very little maintenance and renovation work to do on the house itself for decades to come. Only time will tell us if we succeeded. So rather than discuss all of the details individually, I just include a long list of the details that we included for the sake of long-lasting quality.

  • Steel through fastened roof. Should last in excess of 50 years
  • 4′ overhangs on all sides of the building. Reduces the exposure of the siding and base of the house to sun, rain, and snow, which should extend the lifetime of the siding.
  • Great drainage and waterproofing around the house. Should keep all water away from the foundation indefinitely
  • Poured concrete foundation rather than cement block. Much longer lasting, and much more resistant to the elements
  • Low maintenance landscaping and plantings, should require little to no watering or fertilizer.
  • Cement board siding. Though after learning more, I would likely go with steel siding for the entire building. Steel has the same pros of fire and pest resistance, but has lower embodied energy, lasts longer and is more easily recycled
  • Real wood (white pine and sugar maple) for the trim, flooring, staircase and wooden interior doors. These should last much longer than hollow or fiberboard materials and can easily be refurbished rather than replaced if they receive any abuse
  • Low and zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in all of the paints and other finishes. These allow for much improved air quality, and I expect to see indoor air quality standards to become much more strict than they are today
  • Superinsulated, most insulation being mineral wool (Roxul)