Category Reduce Your Footprint

Carbon fiber goes mainstream!

BMW is getting ready to launch its new i3 electric city car this winter in Europe and early next year here in North America. So far, the car is getting good reviews internationally and sales are exceeding BMW’s expectations. The carbon fiber for BMW’s new “i” line is coming from its new Pacific Northwest, Lake Moses, Washington plant. The car also features renewable materials such as kenaf (a hemplike plant) in the interior door panels and FSC-certified wood in the dashboard. See the new video here:

Carbon fiber can also be made into wind turbines or nanotubes for use in all sorts of high-tech devices, and carbon fiber products will no doubt continue to take the world by storm into the future. New research from the Oak Ridge Laboratories is looking into making carbon fiber from feedstocks such as switchgrass, but hemp could be used as well.

Hemp used to make energy-storing graphene-like nanomaterial

Congratulations are in order to scientists from the University of Alberta who have succeeded in creating a graphene-like nanomaterial out of industrial hemp bast fiber. We first wrote about the potential for using hemp for carbon nanomaterials, last year in our viral blog “Can Industrial Hemp Compete with Carbon Fiber Technologies?”. As reported in Chemical & Engineering News, May 15th:

“With high surface area and conductivity, graphene is ideal for use as electrodes in batteries and supercapacitors, which are energy storage devices that excel at providing quick bursts of power. Supercapacitors charge and discharge faster than batteries can because they store energy in the form of fast-moving charges on the surfaces of their electrodes. Currently, supercapacitors are used in braking systems for buses and fast-charging flashlights.

Commercial supercapacitors use activated carbon electrodes, but experimental devices made with graphene can store more energy. Unfortunately, graphene’s production costs can’t come close to competing with the price for activated carbon, about $40 per kilogram, says University of Alberta chemical engineer David Mitlin.

Part of Mitlin’s research is finding ways to use plant waste as feedstocks for commercial materials. He thought he could transform waste from the cannabis plant (Cannabis sativa) into a carbon nanomaterial that had similar properties to graphene and with a much smaller price tag. The cannabis plant’s notorious use is for producing marijuana, but people also grow the plant to use its fibrous parts for products such as rope, clothing, oil, and plastics. The plants used for these industrial applications are referred to as hemp, and have lower levels of psychoactive compounds. Hemp is relatively inexpensive, since the plant grows rapidly in a variety of climates without the need for fertilizer and pesticides.”

You can read more about the University of Alberta’s research here.

Carbon nanomaterials, also have great potential to replace platinum in fuel cells. The platinum industry, has had a couple of bad years, which threatens its viability long-term. Meanwhile, the fuel cell industry, continues to grow, especially in Europe where there is agreement that hydrogen fuel cell units are one of the most efficient heat and power supply technologies of the future.

All in all, it looks like the hemp industry is going to continue to show impressive growth in the coming years..

What’s Next for Vancouver? The BC Building Envelope Conference Leads the Way

The annual conference of the BC Building Envelope Council, one of the more active building envelope associations in North America, was held last Wednesday in Vancouver, drawing over 200 people. Billed as an exploration of “current elements in building enclosures design,” the conference focused on integrated energy efficient wall solutions, window systems and related regulatory issues.

Entering the door of the Fairmont Waterfront, we immediately noticed—lining the corridor leading into the conference–various work project displays provided by students from BCIT.

The first one to catch our eye was: “Field Investigation on Moisture Buffering effect of Materials on Indoor Environment & Energy Efficiency”. (See our hemp-lime wall system, here)

Wow! we thought to ourselves: very progressive!

Many other impressive projects were effectively showcased as well—ranging from the testing of phase change materials to the effects of thermal bridging on a building envelope.

Windows were a big theme at the conference. Brittany Hanam from RDH Engineering kicked off the morning speeches, discussing the balancing of window choices in the context of such factors as U-value, SHGC, comfort factors and energy performance.

Later, when Guido Wimmers from the Canadian Passive House Institute spoke about PassivHaus in B.C.—including various projects throughout the Lower Mainland, the subject of windows came up once again. This time the discussion was a lot more heated, as the PassivHaus standard is a rigorous one, and most local window companies don’t come close to meeting its performance requirements.

Later, to bring everything into perspective, David Ramslie from the City of Vancouver talked about the new code coming into effect. As part of the Greenest City 2020 initiative, the original idea was to have the greenest building code of any city in North America.

No word yet on whether that will indeed be the case, as the code has yet to be fully approved by council. However, key updates in regard to the proposed changes include the mandating of:

(1) a maximum air exchange rate of 3.5 ACH;

(2) R22 effective insulation for walls, and R50 for attics; and

(3) at least R4 for windows (Energy Star rated).

The proposal still comes nowhere near meeting the codes in Europe and is far from what is achievable in energy performance in a building. But it’s a good start, and we are happy to see the progression from older standards.

Hopefully other jurisdictions will follow Vancouver’s lead.

Real Assets for Real Returns

In these interesting economic times we have to ask ourselves: ‘What are real assets? And how do we get real returns on our investments?”

Recently I came across a rather provocatively titled book that addressed some of my own questions about where our real estate and investment markets might be headed. Entitled “Survival Investing: How to Prosper Amid Thieving Banks and Corrupt Governments,” the volume is described by Publishers Weekly as “a shrewd discussion of money and politics–and the deleterious effect the latter has on the former.” The author is a former investment banker who turned his back on Wall Street and committed himself, after the 2008 economic crisis, to helping struggling families get back on their feet. Referred to by Bloomberg News as “an oracle with a track record,” John Talbott currently runs a website called “” and has also written articles for various news publications.

Like many of our customers, we at Biostruct are concerned about possible future economic developments and trends. So, while it’s not our intention to offer advice on money matters (we’ll leave that up to financial gurus like Talbott!), we’re always interested in the perspective of a genuine “insider.” –Especially one who happens to have correctly predicted both the housing market crash in the U.S. and the ensuing global slowdown!

You’ll have to read the book for yourself if you want “the full meal deal.” However, I would like to share a few of the author’s insights, particularly those relating to real estate.

It’s clear, in the wake of the 2008 financial upheaval, that governments of the world have been left “holding the bag.” As Talbott points out, they’re faced with enormous annual operating deficits at a time when the banking system continues to require additional “state” guarantees and bailouts, due to its ongoing struggle with bad debts. When you add in the fact that growth is constrained because the first wave of the baby boom is hitting 65 (and citizens are still loaded with unsustainable levels of debt), the stage is set for another economic catastrophe.

Among the global dynamics covered in Survival Investing are:

*the low-wage threat of China and India;

*the legitimacy of investing in gold;

*the false security of diversification; (and)

*the risks of sovereign debt.

Individuals and institutions usually hold the majority of their financial assets in common stocks, corporate bonds, mutual funds, index funds, municipal bonds, money markets, bank CDs, and Treasury securities. But these conventional investments will not do well, Talbott advises, in a world dominated by corrupt, debt-laden governments and thieving investment bankers, brokers and middlemen. “Traditional investments are no longer secure in today’s indebted and double dealing world,” he insists. And that’s precisely where many economists are missing the boat!

In a recent blog on the Huffington Post, the author discussed the difference between “nominal” and “real” returns:

“In speaking with my financial advisory clients, I find the most misunderstood concept is the difference between nominal returns and real returns. And Wall Street brokers and bankers are very quick to take advantage of this situation. Simply stated, a nominal return is the annual percentage return a security or asset earns each year in total. It is the annual return you see stated in the newspapers or online for any particular asset. The real return from holding that asset or security is this nominal return less the current inflation rate. People speak of what an asset’s “real” return is after adjusting for inflation.”

While real estate is a “real” asset, Talbott doesn’t believe it’s going to appreciate much, in “real” terms, anytime soon. But even when their real value is not appreciating, houses have historically done a good job, he notes, of appreciating–with inflation–in nominal terms. So even if interest rates were to suddenly rise (putting a damper on the housing industry, the auto industry, and–in fact–the whole economy), homeowners would still retain their purchasing power, due to the increasing nominal value of their residences. Most stocks, on the other hand, will lose value in an inflationary situation. Thus, according to Talbott, real estate can be seen as a reliable hedge against rising interest rates. Moreover, a “real estate portfolio” is far easier to manage, during a period of upheaval, than a stock portfolio!

So, for the person who is considering buying or investing in the built environment, what sort of investment makes the most sense? As we consider this question, it’s important to realize that the economic crisis is just one aspect of a greater systemic failure: a demonstration, in fact, that our mechanized way of looking at the world is running out of gas. Many believe that in order to rise above this failure, we need to begin by changing our overarching framing metaphor from “ machine” to “organism”. Through the updated lens, the economy can be viewed as a biocentric, holistic system in which machines, while still used, are operated within the limits of natural systems. This new perspective is necessary, advocates say, because our past mechanized systems developed as an abstraction–apart from a broader understanding of ecology, evolutionary biology, and cosmology.

“To emulate nature, our first challenge is to describe her in her terms. The day the metaphors start flowing the right way, I think the machine-based models will begin to lose their grip” – Janine Beynus, Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature

While the science underlying them has evolved, many of our institutions and behaviors have not. In a landmark work entitled “Ecological Design”, authors Sim Van der Ryn and Stuart Cowan observed: “Our present forms of agriculture, architecture, engineering, and industry are derived from design epistemologies incompatible with nature’s own.” Moreover (as also noted by Van der Ryn and Cowan), “design manifests culture, and culture rests firmly on the foundations of what we believe to be true about the world.” Clearly, the creation of a restorative built environment–one that is not only compatible with natural systems, but sustainable, as well, for future generations–will require a major shift in both architectural and mainstream real estate practices.

“The Economics of Change: Catalyzing the Investment Shift Toward a Restorative Built Environment” is one recent report that provides effective alternatives to the current financial model and policy framework that drive investment decisions in real estate. These alternatives will hopefully help move limited investment capital towards a restorative built environment by integrating social and environmental benefits into investment models, appraiser methodologies, and supporting policies.

According to the report “When considering how to build a more sustainable,

prosperous and fair economy, investments in green buildings and infrastructure that generate ecosystem services within the urban core promises us greater prosperity and resiliency in the decades ahead. This work provides monetized environmental and social benefits not currently considered in a conventional real estate investment model. By enhancing the underlying real estate investment model, which includes appraisal, risk assessment, finance, and lending, the full transition to a high performing built environment appropriate for the 21st century can be achieved.”

5 Common Misunderstandings When Selecting Energy Efficient Windows

For those involved in designing a new home or building, choosing the right windows for a project is possibly one of the most exacting aspects of the planning process. Windows provide a bridge between our indoor and outdoor environments, and we’ve come to expect a lot from them. Ever mindful of energy efficiency, we want our windows to be airtight. On the other hand, we also rely on them to provide fresh air–and, when necessary, a mechanism for cooling down our living and/or working spaces. We want them to be durable, and to resist condensation, wind and driving rain. On top of everything else, we expect them to be aesthetically pleasing and to accommodate curtains, awnings, etc.

Wouldn’t it be great if window science was as transparent as glass! Unfortunately, confusion often does arise, particularly in relation to the considerations discussed below. If you are in the market for new windows, you will want to have a good handle on these five “fundamentals” in particular, in order to avoid potential misunderstandings that can cloud your view!

1. How U-values are calculated:U-value (a measure of thermal transmittance) is the inverse of R-value (a measure of thermal resistance). The U-factor measures the rate of heat loss; therefore, the lower a window’s U-factor, the greater its resistance to heat flow, and the better its insulating properties. Window companies usually list a product’s U-value as a center-of-glass value, as opposed to a total unit U-value. This can make it appear as if the window is of higher performance than it is. Since the U-value is affected by the frame the glass sits in, look for windows that offer full-frame U-values, or that are known as “thermally-broken.”Since many people are now looking for windows that meet the stringent energy standard “PassivHaus”, there is a growing market for European windows here in North America. But–to further complicate the situation–the standards used to calculate U-values (in Europe) differ from the standards we use to calculate them in North America. In Europe, the U-values have been measured in metric units (watts per square meter per degree Kelvin), and tested at smaller temperature differentials. PassivHaus designers must use special software and input four U-factors: a frame U-factor, a glass U-factor, a glazing-spacer U-factor, and a “junction” U-factor. The issue of U-factors should only come up if you are trying to meet a very specific energy target (such as for PassivHaus). If this doesn’t apply to you, just be sure you receive a full-frame R-Value or total-unit U-value from your window manufacturer to ensure you are getting the real-world measure of heat loss.

2. Visible Transmittance: This is the measure of how much light will make it through the glass. Today’s energy efficient windows have a somewhat lower light transmittance because they have more layers for the light to travel through. (A higher VT would be desirable, but since we want lower U-values, lower VT values are an unavoidable corollary.) These windows may have two or three layers of glass with low-E (heat reflecting) coatings and gas fills to complete the system. (The nanoscale low-Emissivity coatings–applied inside the insulating glass unit (IG)–are part of what influences the VT.) In cold climates, the low-E coating will be most beneficial on the inside surface of the IG, slowing the escape of heat while allowing the entry of heat from the outside. This segues into the solar heat gain coefficient (SHGC) that you will see listed by window manufacturers. The SHGC is a measure of how much heat makes it through the glass to the interior of the house, compared to the amount that strikes it. In cold climates, people will (in most cases) go for a high SHGC effect, unless there is potential overheating from a west or south facing facade. In any case, using high efficiency windows does not mean you will end up with highly noticeable blue-tinted glass. There are many examples of projects in which high quality windows have achieved huge savings in energy use (along with improved comfortability for occupants), while still maintaining visually stunning aesthetics.

3. Gas Fills: Window performance can be further improved by adding various low-conductivity inert gases to the IGU. The gas most commonly used in efficient windows is argon, which is both abundant and inexpensive. Krypton and xenon, although more expensive, are also popular since they perform even better. There have been some doubts about the cost effectiveness of using these gases, considering their propensity for escaping. It is true that they are hard to contain over the long term, but various tests have demonstrated only a 0.6%-1%  leakage rate, on average, in a year. This means that even over a 20 year period, there is only a 12% loss; therefore, in relation to the increased efficiency of the IGU, window gases are well worth the added investment. Perimeter sealing has also greatly improved over the years, so be sure to check with your window manufacturer about the quality of their seals. Concerns have also been raised about the safety of using gas filled windows. Although krypton is known to be somewhat radioactive, the radioactivity it emits from windows will in most cases be lower than background radiation. Granite countertops, which can release more hazardous alpha particles, may actually be a much more significant source of radioactivity. However, if you are worried about radioactivity from your windows, choose argon instead.

4. Building Codes: North American building codes are far behind those of Europe. Europeans pay much higher rates for electricity and heating and this has prompted energy efficient building codes, including a mandate for zero-energy buildings that are required to have onsite energy generation. This remains a boutique market in North America, but it looks as if we too will be adopting better building codes in the coming years. The City of Vancouver’s Greenest City Plan is one example of a municipality’s attempt to move the market forward, even though energy is still relatively inexpensive in our part of the world. Energy efficient rating systems are another way people can compare products and look for better options. Unfortunately, many of these standards are out of date in relation to the new technologies. In some cases, their obsolescence may reflect pressure from certain lobby groups to keep the status-quo. So be sure to compare U-values, and don’t hesitate to seek beyond what is being offered under these rating systems.

5. Aesthetics: You don’t necessarily have to compromise on aesthetics when you choose a high performing window. In fact, while mass-produced windows tend to be available only in simple profiles and rounded edges, custom-made windows typically have more attractive frames and finer detailing.  The colour of the glass may be somewhat harder to control, due to use of low-E coatings, as already mentioned. But there are plenty of different options available, so if this is something you are concerned about, be sure to mention it when you are looking to select your windows.

‘Game-Changing’ Biomimetic Solar Technology Excels in External Testing

Nowadays it’s almost as hard to avoid talking about energy as it is to avoid using it….! Whether it’s a call to end oil subsidies or a report about pipeline routes and/or spills, our daily “news menu” usually features at least one story that involves energy. At Biostruct, we’re obviously very passionate about the non-toxic hemp wall system we’re developing; it adds one more piece to the puzzle of energy efficiency; moreover, efficient and clean use of energy constitutes a (hidden) fuel of the future. That said, it’s hard not to get excited about new technologies coming down the pipe, especially newer designs for solar and wind power products, many of which are based on biomimetic, i.e. nature inspired, approaches. Since these sources will enable people to be producers as well as consumers of energy, the result will be a “democratization” of energy use and distribution that will, in turn, reshape both the way we think and the paradigms we use to organize our societies. The top-down, centralized hierarchies of the twentieth century will be displaced, in the age of the internet, by more decentralized, laterally structured models: models that many feel better reflect the fractal nature of our world.


One innovation that is progressing very quickly is a biomimetic dye solar (DSE) technology, based on the principles of photosynthesis. An Australian company called Dyesol has developed a process using an electrolyte, a layer of titania (a pigment used in everything from toothpaste to paint), and ruthenium dye deposited on glass, metal, or polymer substrates. Light striking the the dye excites electrons, which are then absorbed by the titania to become an electric current. In comparison to current silicon-based solar PV, Dyesol’s technology has lower cost and embodied energy to manufacture; it also produces electricity more efficiently– even in lower light conditions.

This month, Dyesol announced that laboratory testing of its next-generation ‘strip-cell’ active area has confirmed a 7.48% efficiency at one-third Sun (typical lower-light, real-world light conditions). “Dyesol scientists have been achieving very high low-light conversion efficiency performance for some time now, but getting third-party, external validation that our DSC ‘strip cells’ are achieving performance levels nearing seven and a half per cent in low light reinforces the extraordinary commercial potential of DSC as a green value-add technology,” Dyesol Executive Chairman Mr. Richard Caldwell stated.

What’s wrong with current silicon-based PV you may be wondering? There’s no good reason for us to stop using the technology that’s currently available;

however, if we are truly going to embrace solar as an energy source (and follow through by putting panels on every suitable building), we will need raw materials that are both non-toxic and abundant. Dye Sensitized Solar Cell technology does indeed rely on non-toxic, widely-available resources that have lower embodied energy and require less costly manufacturing processes than silicon panels. In addition to providing excellent performance in real-world, lower-light solar conditions, i.e. cloudy days, hazy/polluted days, dappled light, shade, dawn, and dusk, DSC panels also offer a wide range of aesthetic options. Included are variations in colouration and transparency that offer beautiful solutions for power generating glass in the building integrated photovoltaics sector.

Our Solar Future and the German Energiewende Shift
So…is a solar-powered future the direction we should take? Green architect and “Cradle to Cradle” co-author William McDonough puts it this way: “I’m a big fan of clean nuclear power, and of fusion. I think we should spend trillions of dollars capturing fusion energy immediately. And thank God we have our nuclear reactor exactly where we want it, 93 million miles away–just eight minutes—and it’s tireless.” As we’ve noted previously, the amount of solar radiation that strikes the earth in one hour (4.3 × 1020 J) is more than all of the energy that is currently being used on the planet in a year (4.1 × 1020 J in 2001). Capturing solar energy makes sense in so many ways! But you can’t put a meter on sunshine, and maybe that’s exactly why solar has taken so long to become mainstream—it’s a threat to the gatekeepers of the 20th century energy regime. Also, renewable energy still remains what’s known as intermittent energy. This means that since the sun only shines for a portion of the day, and the wind only blows at certain times, we can’t use these energy sources to run a 24/7 power-grid without incorporating some kind of storage mechanism into the process. Thankfully, just as there have been many recent advancements in solar and wind technology, huge strides have also been made in the development of storage systems, including fuel cells, batteries, flywheels and underwater compressed air storage. (See our blog on fuel cells for more information on energy storage.)

In Germany, the formation of citizen-owned energy cooperatives has started a cultural shift that is driving the country away from the “elite” energies. The transition, known as “Energiewende”, is not happening overnight, but already over 20% of Germany’s energy is coming from renewable resources, and most of the new energy coming online is being “generated” by the citizens of Germany–rather than by “too big to fail” energy companies. As noted by Jason McLennan in the Summer edition of Trim Tab Magazine: “Properly presented, a national “Energy for the People” campaign has the ability to unite disparate political realities. For the Libertarians, there is the argument of self-sufficiency, and reduced need for government or large corporate interventions into everyday life. For the true conservatives, there are long-term fiscal benefits that should lead to smaller government including smaller military expenditures, lower taxes and more jobs for Americans. For the liberal community, there are significant environmental and social benefits to be realized, including a fairer distribution of wealth and significantly reduced externalized impacts to the poor and disadvantaged. For everyone — and just about everyone cares about this – there is more money in everyone’s pocket in a way that we can literally see. In other words, the story can unify us because we all use energy, we all need and want energy, and we all pay for energy.”

It seems to be the bipartisan support of Germany’s citizens that has been the key to the success of its Energiewende shift. But the German people also understand that the financial problems of the EU (and of the global banking system in general) are not going to be solved anytime soon. They view local communities and civil societies as a deliberate and badly needed counterpoint to the international financial markets. Moreover, it is mainly cooperative banks or credit unions that are funding and financing these energy cooperatives, rather than the global banks. The latter, of course, are much more interested in colluding with the other multi-national companies to support the “elite” energies, like coal and nuclear.

Here in Canada, where stricter controls on banking gave us some protection from the 2008 financial crisis, our economy has weathered the recession better than most. Of course, it has also benefitted from the sale of our natural resources, including oil and gas. Due to their associated carbon emissions, however, these sources of energy have clearly fallen out of favour in many parts of the world. Fortunately, our resource wealth isn’t limited to what’s in the ground; we also have an abundance of renewable energy at our disposal. Even though our country (with a relatively small population in comparison to its landmass) is in a much different situation than Germany, there’s really nothing stopping us from initiating our own energy shift. –Assuming, that is, we have the collective will to do it! Maybe it could start in B.C….? Wind, tidal, geothermal, micro-hydro, biomass, etc. are all part of the solution. We know global energy prices are only going to go higher. Meanwhile, if we do nothing, climate change will continue to get worse. Let’s start our own Energiewende! Shall we call it Eh-nergy?

More on Energiewende in this video featuring Arne Jungjohann with the Heinrich Böll Foundation who recently spoke on the Dylan Ratigan Show about what’s driving the shift:

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Why Systems Thinking Is Essential In Making Better Buildings

Are you a lumper or a splitter? An “analyzer” who enjoys taking gadgets apart to view their inner workings, or a “pattern-maker” with a knack for fitting jigsaw pieces together to reveal the big picture? Over in Geneva, Switzerland, the hunt for the Higgs boson—the so-called “God particle” that gives mass to everything in the universe—might well be viewed as the ultimate splitting project of all time. Now that research has confirmed, beyond a reasonable doubt, this elusive particle’s existence, some are referring to the achievement at CERN (the headquarters of the European Organization for Nuclear Research) as the 21st century equivalent of the moon landing!

Ironically, insights obtained from this historic discovery may eventually give rise to a new “big picture” of the universe. Many are hoping the information now coming online will help us integrate the world of ordinary things (the classical or Newtonian world) with the strange, unpredictable domain of quantum phenomena. Curiously, these two worlds seem to act independently. The classical realm we experience through our senses operates, in many ways, like a well-behaved “machine”; its quantum underpinnings, on the other hand, are annoyingly difficult to pin down! They hint, oddly enough, at an underlying order that is better symbolized by the metaphor of an organism than that of a machine, and more easily defined by the “how” of relationship than the “stuff” in relationship. Ultimately, of course, both worlds consist of energy, and both exist in the same “space.” There’s no getting around the fact that somehow they operate together as a system—the system that generates our everyday reality.

As every builder knows, there’s a time and a place for taking a structure apart, and another time and place for putting its components back together. Today, overwhelmed with the ever-increasing complexity of our modern lives, we tend to get lost in the details, often becoming highly specialized in our fields even as our focus grows narrower and narrower. Meanwhile, all around us we see evidence of systemic breakdown: accelerated climate change, economic meltdown, species endangerment, loss of biodiversity etc. Much of the disharmony and unhealthiness we see is undoubtedly a result of our own interference in natural patterns. Now, as never before, we need to put on the “systems thinking” caps that will allow us to comprehend our planet—along with its animate and inanimate features—as an integrated whole.

The term “system” comes from a Greek word that means “to bring together or combine.” A system is thus an interconnected, interdependent set of elements that forms a whole and creates its own patterns of behaviour. “Systems thinking” is a discipline that allows us to glimpse these patterns “in motion,” so that what we are viewing appears more like a film than a static snapshot. When we look through the lens of the “movie camera,” we can see how a change in one part of the system affects the rest of it. (Some people refer to this as the “butterfly effect.”) Interestingly, the general principles that govern this mode of thinking span diverse fields, and apply to all properly functioning systems, whether living or nonliving. Nature, of course, is the resident expert on governing principles. With experience in design and engineering that goes back to the dawn of time, the original Systems Thinker has obviously figured out a lot—through countless adventures in trial and error—about which combinations work well together, which don’t, and what needs to happen if a system is to thrive!

Such a system, it turns out, has several defining characteristics:

1. Each element or subsystem has its own purpose within the larger system.

2. The proper arrangement of these elements is key to the accomplishment of the whole system’s purpose.

3. The system constantly makes adjustments, based on feedback from information exchanged both internally and with the broader environment, to maintain its stability.

4. A well-functioning system is resilient (tending to return to its original condition after an external disturbance), self-organizing (capable of adapting to its surrounding environment) and hierarchical (structured so that its uppermost layers serve the purpose of its lower layers).

The concept of systems thinking is particularly relevant to green building and sustainability. That’s because—underlying the increasing demand for healthier indoor environments is a growing awareness of the interconnectedness of our bodies, the buildings we inhabit, and the world beyond our windows. All three of these living spaces consist of energy, and “outside energy” eventually becomes “inside energy.” In northern climates, where we spend up to 90% of our time indoors, it’s particularly important that we avoid sealing ourselves inside poisonous “gas chambers.” Just as an ailing world promotes a toxic indoor environment, that unhealthy indoor environment promotes sickness in our bodies.

On the other hand, a building that functions well as a system will support, and perhaps even nurture its human inhabitants. Whole building or integrated design is a holistic process that considers site, energy, materials, indoor air quality, acoustics and natural resources, as well as their interrelationships. A team of collaborating professionals that has committed to this approach will apply systems thinking techniques to discover how the building’s components and subsystems can best work together to save energy and reduce environmental impact. They may decide to incorporate breathable walls with good thermal mass (e.g. a hemp-lime wall system), high quality windows, and/or passive solar strategies that reduce the seasonal loads on both heating and cooling equipment. Often the systems approach results in cost savings that allow additional capital to be invested in new building technology. An advanced daylighting strategy, for example, which reduces the use of lighting fixtures during daylight (thereby reducing daytime cooling loads) can justify a significant reduction in the size of the mechanical cooling system. This in turn can result in reduced capital expenditure and lower energy costs over the building’s life cycle.

As we work together to improve the health of our world, analysis will always have a role to play. The contributions of both splitters and lumpers are needed if we are going to solve the complex problems we face. Moreover, as individuals, we need to be able to draw on both these skills, remembering—when it seems our “butterfly wings” are doing little to change the system—that every action we take impacts something (or someone) else, and even the splash of a tiny pebble can ripple outward into something quite significant. Just as we all share some responsibility for the problems around us, we all have the potential to contribute to positive change. What the world needs now, more than anything, is for all of us to do what we can to make a difference.

Hemp Industry News! 2011 Numbers Show Rapid Increase in Supply and Demand

The numbers are in for the hemp industry in 2011, and they’re encouraging!

As we expected, the hemp industry continued to experience healthy growth, due to the expanding market for hemp products in North America. Over 38,828 acres were grown in 2011, up from 26,814 in 2010. The Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance now predicts we’ll see over 100,000 acres in cultivation, as early as 2014. According to a recent report from the Government of Alberta, “In 2010, exports of hemp seed and hemp products were valued at more than $10 million, with most exports going to the U.S.” Currently it remains illegal to grow hemp south of the border, because the DEA makes no distinction between hemp and the psychoactive plant, cannabis. To date, however, several Congressmen have put forth motions calling for the ban to be lifted.

While it’s mainly the interest in hemp food products that has spurred the industry along since its inception in 1998, that dynamic is starting to change, as new markets for fibre products are also gaining traction across Canada. Several provinces, e.g. Manitoba, Alberta and Ontario, already have some hemp processing capabilities, and new facilities, varying in design and cost, are being planned in Gilbert Plains, Manitoba, 100 Mile House, B.C., and just outside Calgary, AB. The traditional, more centralized approach of growing and processing the crop in one location was usually seen, under the old business paradigm, as the best way to go. It’s clear now, however, that access to facilities or equipment right across the country will play a major role in driving the hemp industry forward into the future. Certainly, for those involved in the green building industry, where there is a strong commitment to using non-toxic regional materials, it makes the most sense to use locally grown and processed fibre when possible. Finding a reliable source isn’t necessarily easy, however, due to the infancy of the hemp industry and the lucrative export market to the U.S. right now.

Nevertheless, hemp building products are showing great potential–both economically and ecologically–to be integrated into decentralized, distributed manufacturing models. This aligns with the move to decentralize and democratize energy production, which is happening as we speak in countries like Germany.

While not everyone favours this type of business model, many experts and futurists believe the depletion of our finite fossil fuel deposits over the next 30 years, combined with climate change related events will accelerate a shift to this model.

We’ve already covered the 100 Mile House Competition, in which Vancouver’s Tony Osborn placed first for his “Myco Home” submission, which incorporates hemp-lime plasters. Now Tony has put forth an even bolder concept: growing hemp on the roofs of homes and putting people to work to build their own homes. He recently submitted his eye-catching design to the “reThink Housing Open Ideas Competition”, put on by the City of Vancouver. (Here’s hoping you win this one too, Tony!)

So it appears 2012 and 2013 are going to be good years for the hemp industry. As Victor Hugo said it best: “There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” This November, the Canadian Hemp Trade Alliance is hosting their annual conference and tradeshow in Edmonton, Alberta. This year plans to be their biggest yet, focusing on Fashion and Textiles, BioBuilding, Food, Trends, Research, Beverages and Agronomy.

The conference runs from November 4 – 7. To find out more visit

How Windows Affect Your Whole-Wall Thermal Performance

In the era of building science and energy modelling, there’s increased awareness, within the industry, of the effect windows have on the thermal performance of buildings.

How significant is that effect?

It’s quite startling, actually, to see just how much a window can lower the R-value of a whole wall. BuildingGreen, an online-based independent publishing company, recently released the timely report “Better Window Decisions: Mastering the Performance and Cost Options”. This document contains valuable information for anyone faced with choosing windows. It includes a comprehensive overview of glazing options, along with practical advice and cost-saving strategies.

Here’s one particularly eye-opening fact shared by the authors:

“If the effective R-value of the opaque area of a wall is R-30 (accounting for thermal bridging through the framing), and clear, double-glazed (U-0.5) windows are installed covering 12% of the wall area, the effective whole-wall R-value will drop by 60% to about R-12.”

In fact, most windows tend to be 10 times less energy efficient than the wall area they replace.

At Biostruct, our main focus has been on developing and marketing a hemp-lime bio-masonry wall product, including both prefabricated and do-it-yourself versions. Currently we are in the final stages of testing and piloting our wall system, which we believe will “stand tall” among building products of the future. At the same time, we recognize that it’s pointless to incorporate solid, high thermal-performance walls in a project if those walls aren’t matched with good windows. This is the reason we’ve looked for energy efficient glazing companies with which to partner.

Energy efficiency is the fuel of the future!

The cost of fossil fuels will inevitably continue to rise; it’s predicted, in fact, that by 2050, the price of oil may go as high as $220 a barrel. But what does that mean for you and me?

Petroleum products are embedded in so many of the things we use–including the food we eat, the buildings we inhabit, the vehicles we drive…even the pharmaceuticals in our medicine cabinets. It’s critical, therefore, that when we select a material for a project or renovation, we choose one that is purposefully designed–not for “planned obsolescence” (the intended fate of the majority of the products we purchase) but for longevity and durability.

Currently, PVC has a huge lead in most window markets. Yet it’s also found on various materials red lists (inventories of substances considered “worst in class” from the standpoint of human and/or ecological health), including the Living Building Challenge Red List. Vinyl “qualifies” for inclusion on these lists because, in addition to containing heavy metal additives intended to keep the plastic from breaking down rapidly, it’s known to create toxic by-products such as dioxin. Even from a purely practical standpoint, PVC windows miss the mark. When compared to other frame options, such as fiberglass or wood, they have higher rates of expansion and contraction; the depressing result, over time, is that seal integrity and window durability are compromised.

So why has PVC taken such a big chunk of the window market?

The vinyl and petroleum industries have huge lobby groups in Washington and around the globe; it’s largely due to their efforts that a “worst in class” product has been able to maintain its large market and subsidies, even as many health and environmental consultants are recommending that its use be phased out. Companies like Apple and Nike started removing it from their products years ago, so why do we still accept it in windows and many other buildings products? Let’s just say “no” to vinyl!

According to the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, buildings worldwide account for a surprisingly high 40% of global energy consumption; the resulting carbon footprint is significantly bigger than that from all forms of transportation combined.

“Large and attractive opportunities exist to reduce buildings’ energy use at lower costs and higher returns than other sectors. These reductions are fundamental to support achieving the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) target of a 77% reduction in the planet’s carbon footprint against the 2050 baseline to reach stabilized CO2 levels called for by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).”

Obviously, one way to aggressively reduce energy consumption, and vastly improve thermal performance, in new and existing buildings–and, by extension, to support the achievement of the IEA target–is through widespread use of better wall and glazing systems. In regard to the latter, specifically, not only do efficient windows save you (or your client) money every month–they also reduce your building’s contribution to climate change, while increasing the comfort level of its inhabitants.

Save money. Save energy. Inhabit the future now.

What Are Carbon Neutral Buildings? Cutting Through the Hot Air

Last week, we covered the 100 Mile House Competition and the effort many communities are making to re-localize manufacturing. In addition to boosting our local economies, this movement will benefit the entire planet by lowering the environmental impacts of our transportation networks. Reducing carbon emissions is something the whole world needs to take seriously. So how can we design and build our habitat and accompanying infrastructure to be as carbon neutral as possible?


Ensuring a project or activity produces no net carbon seems a pretty straightforward idea; putting it into practice on a project can be more complex. In the context of building, the concept itself can be confusing. For example, one definition of “carbon neutral” applies only to energy use once the building is complete. Another includes emissions during construction, while still another aims to account for the energy embedded in materials used in the project.

We at Biostruct believe that as the price of fossil fuels goes up, the need to stop subsidizing them, and also to require full cost accounting by the fossil fuel industry, will become increasingly clear. The inevitable result will be a shift towards an economy based more heavily on renewable carbohydrates and less heavily on non-renewable hydrocarbons.

If we truly want to reduce our dependence and consumption of fossil fuels, we must stop using fossil fuel-based materials to manufacture key building components, especially now that better options are available.

Work currently being done in the field of life-cycle assessment (LCA) is showing us a useful way to fully understand a product’s life-long effects. LCA is defined as a technique to assess the environmental impact associated with all the stages of a product’s life, from cradle-to-grave (i.e., from raw material extraction through materials processing, manufacture, distribution, use, repair & maintenance, and disposal or recycling).

LCAs can help us avoid a narrow outlook on environmental concerns by:

  • Compiling an inventory of relevant energy and material inputs as well as environmental releases;
  • Evaluating the potential impacts associated with identified inputs and releases;
  • Interpreting the results to facilitate more informed decision-making.

While farming in all its forms is currently responsible for between 10 and 12 percent of global GHG emissions, these emissions are expected to increase more than 50 percent by 2030, according to the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But, as discussed by Stephen Russell in a blog for GreenBiz, “agricultural emissions are difficult to consistently quantify and report.”

One reason for this is that, due to the strong influence of weather (droughts, heat waves etc.) and natural landscapes, emissions from any one farm can vary widely over time. Another difficulty is that emissions from many agricultural sources, such as manure management and livestock, are shaped by complex microbial processes that are not fully understood. Finally, changes in the amount of carbon stored in soil and biomass do not occur at the same time as shifts in farming practices. For example, a farm may switch from high-intensity tilling (associated with high emissions) to conservation tillage (associated with lower emissions), but the benefit would only accumulate over time as the carbon in the soil slowly builds up. This issue can make it difficult to know if and when changes in stored carbon should be reported.

Now, let’s consider industrial hemp farming in particular. Hemp plants are known to sequester large amounts of carbon dioxide (10 tons per acre), reducing the atmospheric pollution that contributes to climate change. But what about the farming techniques themselves? Hemp, which is considered a lower input crop, does not require synthetic pesticides. Nitrogen fertilizer is sometimes used; however, since most of the hemp grown in Canada (25,000 acres in 2010) is for the health food industry, more and more of our farmers are using organic methods. Instead of using chemical fertilizers, they prefer to incorporate their industrial hemp into a crop rotation. Typically a legume like alfalfa will be grown to “fix” nitrogen in the soil during the season before the hemp is to be planted.

When used in building, hemp is combined with lime, which brings along with it a much bigger environmental footprint! Lime is the main constituent of Portland cement, and cement and concrete production alone account for approximately 5-10% of the world’s total CO2 emissions (with over 2.35 billion tonnes of the latter being produced every year). In terms of lifetime C02 emissions, however, natural lime achieves a better rating than Portland cement. For one thing, lime-based binders have a lower kiln temperature than cement-based binders. Lime also has the benefit of sucking CO2 back in. It has been said that lime will reabsorb between 60% and 90% of the carbon dioxide that it emits during the calcination reaction of production. This CO2 is then locked within the fabric of the building. The hemp-lime combination is reported to sequester 110 kg of CO2 for every cubic metre of its mass, a level most building materials can’t even come close to.

Some may wonder–wouldn’t the total impact be even lower if we combined hemp with a substance like clay? Clay is a beautiful material with many beneficial characteristics. Unfortunately, hemp-clay wall mixes have not provided the same quality results as hemp-lime; they also tend to mould quickly. Lime has unique physical properties that are simply hard to match. Also, lime is an abundant material, so we won’t be running out of it any time soon!


The answer is yes! At Biostruct, we’re currently researching the most sustainable options for long-term production of all our materials. Included are everything from small-scale kiln production (that can be powered by biomass and renewable fuels), to the use of computer-aided design and 3D printing (additive manufacturing), which has the potential to reduce both the resource and energy requirements of production.


Looking at the big picture, we can see that while LCA promises to be a very useful new tool, much work remains to be done before its full potential can be realized. The solutions to our problems are out there. A truly carbon-neutral building is possible. But it’s critical that we take a system-thinking approach to finding them. Otherwise we may find ourselves resolving one issue, but creating another one farther down the line!