Solving a Residential Design Challenge with Sustainability

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The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (Alberta) and Suncor Energy (a Canadian integrated energy company based in Calgary) created a design challenge for the sustainability community to design a retrofit for an ATCO utility trailer. Thirteen teams, including two corporate teams, responded. MMM Group Limited’s team of volunteers put together the winning submission for the EcoHouse Design Challenge. The design created by the MMM team yields important lessons in process, multidisciplinary co-operation, and what’s possible in terms of energy efficiency for Canadian homes.

The purpose of the challenge was two-fold: to show Wood Buffalo residents how they can reduce waste and resource use in their own homes (with poster displays of the proposed designs displayed in the public library), and to create an affordable home design for a region in need of affordable housing solutions due to the artificially high housing prices created by the local oil and gas industry.

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The MMM design is predicted to achieve 39% energy savings and 39% indoor water use savings, as well as no stormwater runoff from the site. Strategies presented included rainwater collection from the roof, recycled rubber flooring, R-40 wall insulation, a green roof, a gas-fired heating system connected to solar thermal, and energy-recovery ventilation. The building site’s location and climatic conditions were important considerations in the selection of solutions that minimized heat loss and created an airtight building envelope, such as triple-glazed windows and additional insulation. To decrease material waste, the team specified that the existing siding would be salvaged and reinstalled after the insulation installation process. The team also went beyond the building and basic competition parameters to include a site rainwater collection and reuse system.

The MMM team included several professionals, each bringing a particular expertise:

  • structural engineering
  • mechanical / electrical engineering
  • urban planning
  • sustainability
  • building commissioning

This multidisciplinary knowledge was identified by the team as one of their main assets, and key to the strong design, as each expert was able to quickly select the best possible solutions based on real-world design and construction experience. For example, the team brought lessons learned from projects such as Regent Park apartment buildings (Toronto), Pocket Houses (Winnipeg), and Drake Landing Solar Community (Okotoks) (where 90% of space heating needs are met by a solar thermal storage system).

The team made use of in-house energy modelling to ensure the best solutions were selected. Similar to a LEED or sustainable buildings project, the team input their proposed energy solutions into the hourly energy model to determine the incremental cost, payback period and savings of each design decision. Given the importance of maintaining a realistic budget, the team value engineered their decisions to ensure maximum payback at the lowest cost. As a result, items such as a solar photovoltaic system were eliminated during design.

Given the commitment of MMM’s own sustainability team to LEED, ensuring the home design would achieve the highest level of LEED certification (Platinum) was an important goal. The team blew the 90-point Platinum threshold out of the water by realistically targeting 136 points.

This design competition demonstrated that affordable, sustainable and comfortable housing solutions are possible, even in expensive housing regions with extremely cold, harsh environments.