Platinum green

🕔Jun 02, 2010

As the walls were raised, so were questions in the community.

The building is large, bearing small windows and angular architecture more befitting a West Vancouver suburb than downtown Smithers. It dwarfs the recently empty lot where it now sits, nestling into the huge birch and willow trees that once dominated the property.

Some speculated that it might hold commercial space. Others assumed it was One Sky’s new office (to which staff at the adjacent institute for sustainable living offer an envious guffaw.) In fact, the project is the brainchild and lifelong dream of one woman, whose past experience in building and passion for sustainable living came together in this home.

Ellen Hansen is petite, with a reserved demeanor and laugh lines that crease the corners of her eyes. Today, her knitted beret sits slightly askew, and it’s clear that her style comes from nearly 20 years of living in rural BC rather than boutiques on Robson Street. This same flair combined with a child’s eye for fun and playful details can be seen throughout the house: from Braille messages set into glass window blocks to the walkway linking the upstairs to a rooftop patio on the detached garage.

“I was thinking about a slide,” she says wistfully, looking down from the house’s second-storey balcony. “But they were all shaking their heads—‘too dangerous.’”

Originally from Germany, Hansen spent 15 years living in Terrace before moving to Smithers a few years ago. While her original interests were in homesteading, she wanted her Smithers home to reflect recent technological advances in green building. “I’ve been into it since I was a teenager,” she says. “Building, environment—how it all comes together.”

As we explore the site, she tells me it’s not uncommon for curious locals to stroll inside and help themselves to a tour. While the move might be a little brash, she is more than happy to share her experiences with the inquisitive. The project is, in fact, about education. “This whole house is also an awareness-raising project.”.

The future is green
Indeed, it has been a learning experience for all involved: from Hansen herself to the Nelson-based architect, local builder and countless trades and subtrades that have worked on the site. Hansen hopes the eye-catching building will inspire others to explore unconventional building techniques and, certainly, the infusion of new concepts into the local building community has already begun.

“Green is the way of the future and I’ve been fortunate to be part of this project,” says contractor Rob Trampuh with Timber Peak Homes. “The whole thing is an education process for me, my crew, and all the sub-trades involved. This is as green as it gets. Essentially, Ellen’s a pioneer for green building in the North.”Trampuh says the project has been “pretty intense” since it started over a year ago. The 3,500-square-foot home offers “something new every day, which makes it intriguing every day.”

“The biggest question I get is why did we build it where we did and not on 40 acres in the country—but being right in town is less of a carbon footprint.”

Its walking-distance location, says Studio 9 architect Steven Kaup, is just one element putting it in line to become one of the world’s first ‘platinum’ LEED residences. The new certification, which recognizes Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design, added its ‘LEED for Homes’ category in 2009.

“There are very few platinum LEED homes on the planet, let alone northern BC,” Trumpah says. The certification won’t be confirmed until the building is completed this summer.

From the ground up
Kaup designed the house—in more ways than one—from the ground up. By closely examining the local environment, he used a method he calls “adaptive performance architecture” in its planning, meaning the house references the local ecology.

“We specially design our buildings to accommodate the immediate environment,” he says. Using solar, water-catchment and geothermal technologies, the only element the home doesn’t take advantage of is wind. “We try to use common materials to build something extraordinary.”

The home is designed to use only the resources it produces. Solar panels on the roof provide power and, because it is also tied into the grid, a net metering system allows BC Hydro to draw energy during sunny summer months and return it as the house uses more electricity during the dark and cold winter months.

The house is heated with a soapstone wood stove and masonry heater. The latter, designed to burn short, hot fires that radiate heat for hours, is fitted with coils that transfer heat to an adjacent music room. In-floor radiant heat throughout is powered electrically from the solar panels, with geothermal for backup. A circular stairwell—made with perforated steel steps that allow airflow—uses convection to pull heat up in winter and an upstairs window allows warm air to escape in summer.

The house is designed to maintain its heat with exceptional insulation. Walls are double-framed—and insulated with mineral wool—with the two layers offset to reduce heat loss through the wood framing. Blue Styrofoam insulation is added on the outside. As a result, the home has very high insulation values: R50 in the walls and R100 in the roof.

Also to reduce heat loss, the windows are small, triple glazed and oriented to the sun. The south side has a glassed-in exterior hallway to capture solar heat. In winter, windows into the solarium can be opened to let this heat in.

Each room has been designed to discourage the impulse to flick a switch. Natural light bounces down solar tubes from the roof and around the space, making it feel surprisingly bright considering the small windows. LED lights glow in the hallways, and glass blocks built into the floor not only look cool but help transfer light around the house.

Hansen has also taken measures to reduce water use within the house. Rainwater is collected and funneled into a cistern in the basement (but can only be used in toilets, according to local bylaws) and a pond in the backyard, from where it is used to water the garden.

The home also reflects Hansen’s lifestyle choices: Where possible, local labour and materials, such as custom kitchen cabinets, have been used; a large bicycle room is incorporated into the garage; and the home has been meticulously designed around the yard’s 80-year-old trees.

“I’ve built it so we can live with the trees—you step onto the balcony with the trees,” says Hansen, who will live here with her family.

Today, the house is conspicuous in its downtown location: its blue Styrofoam exterior and the flurry of activity that surrounds it hardly help it blend into the neighbourhood. But eventually, after it is sided with cedar milled in Terrace, this home will blend into its surroundings, creating as little visual impact as it does energy consumption.

“When I’m done I’m hoping you look at it and it’s not going to stick out; it’s going to blend into the environment,” Hansen says. “This house is built for the next 200 years, not the next five years.”