Shaking up the housing market, building an earthquake-proof green home
Ottawa’s trendy Glebe neighbourhood is home to a new generation of structural steel construction methods that frustrates the fault line
Ottawa Rising up among its neighbours like the crane-enabled steel cage of a U2 stage-set, the latest green home project by The RGB Group is a home that will withstand a quake five times more powerful than the one that shook Ottawa and region last summer.
Located at 101B Third Avenue on the site of a knock-down wooden frame house, the new steel-framed four-level duplex is like RGB Group projects in Ottawa and Brockville being built to meet the stringent LEED Platinum green building standard. Started in the early 90s by a team of volunteers, LEED has grown into an internationally recognized green building certification program with support of environmental activists and celebrities including Brad Pitt and Oprah Winfrey. LEED’s third-party verification proves that a building or community incorporates strategies aimed at improving performance, increasing energy and water efficiency, reducing carbon emissions, thoughtfully utilizing natural resources, and improving indoor environmental quality.
Rolf Baumann, founder and CEO of The RGB Group, says, “We always enjoy trying new construction methods and materials, and this home makes sense both from a business and environmental standpoint.” The RGB Group’s design architect for this project is Malcolm Wildeboer, Principal at Ottawa’s Vandenberg & Wildeboer Architects.
“The constraints of the narrow site led to unique design solutions ensuring the spaciousness expected of a high-end urban duplex. The proximity to the lot line required the use of non-combustible materials including the steel stud framing, which in-turn lead to the development of an entire light gauge steel design,” says Wildeboer, “although contemporary in it's construction and interior space, the duplex will integrate comfortably with the heritage fabric of the Glebe through the extensive use of brick and the articulation of its facades with porches.”
When completed this fall, the new building will match the quake ratings on commercial buildings, and leads the way in exceeding Ottawa’s recently bolstered seismic residential building standards due to the city sitting on a known fault line. Ottawa is ranked third for earthquake risk among Canadian urban centres. Last summer’s quake was the strongest to hit the region in a century. Baumann says, “Really, even with all the window glass, we’re building a secure, comfortable bunker.”
The steel-structured home sits on a lot measuring just 25 feet by 100, and Baumann says the finished project will be a 4,000 square foot duplex. There are minimal interior walls, so that means the steel structure had to be carefully designed to carry the load. Colin Davies, structural engineer on the project with ClelandJardine Engineering Ltd., says, “It’s been interesting to work on a challenging project that shows what is possible with new building techniques.”
Once the structure is closed in, The RGB Group's construction team will be installing other green features such as L.E.D. lighting, energy star-rated appliances and low-flow toilets and water fixtures. Ross Elliott, The RGB Group’s residential energy design consultant from Homesol Building Solutions Inc., also points out that the Glebe’s walking, bicycle and bus-friendly transportation options will contribute to the new home’s LEED Platinum rating.
According to Elliott, “LEED promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health sustainable site development, water efficiency, energy efficiency, materials selection, and indoor environmental quality. An additional category, innovation and design process is going to be where this home is going to shine.”
One of the many requirements to meet the LEED Platinum standard for green building is that all the steel on the project must be at least 80 per cent recycled content. Gerry Morin of Ottawa’s Morin Bros. Building Supplies Inc. is supplying the steel. Another unique green product being used by Morin Bros. is Roxul, a mixture including waste rock from the mining industry that will be applied on the outside of the home to provide insulation and act as a firewall. Inside the walls is Ottawa-made CertainTeed fiberglass insulation, which is made from 84 per cent recycled materials and is formaldehyde free.
Morin says there are perhaps 15 all-steel buildings in Ottawa and this home is one of only two he is aware of that have the earthquake rating. In getting approvals for the project he has found that “It’s been very challenging to bring about change in the construction industry, but this is a better way to build.”
Baumann says all these extra measures add 20 to 30 per cent to the building costs. Yet he feels that the savings, such as 25 per cent less waste, more precise construction with fewer return trips to the site by contractors, lower insurance costs, fewer maintenance costs and a much longer lifespan, all mean the home makes economic sense. Just last year Baumann finished building nine executive townhomes to the same LEED Platinum standard, and in the City of Brockville he is undertaking an 11-storey, 94-unit LEED Platinum project called Upper Canada Condos. He feels that, “This kind of home building is the only way to cope with rapidly rising construction costs for homes and the demands of building large homes on small lots in inner city cores. The RGB Group’s motto is ‘real green buildings, for life’ and this project lives up to that billing.”