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Student design for an energy-sipping home wins big

By Dave LeBlanc

When it comes to scoring zeros, Ryerson University students have it down to a science.

To clarify, we’re talking good zeros: the kind you want to see on your residential energy bill.

Recently, three Ryerson projects were announced as winners in the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 “Race to Zero” competition. One entry in particular, “0-Zone Residence” by fourth-year students Christopher Zhu, Mark De Souza, John Sirdevan, Christopher Kayahara, Nikolai Tikhovskiy, Mark Eyk, Joshua Minkyu Jung and Dennis Han, was so good at zeros, it won twice.

In a nutshell, 0-Zone takes a tight infill site at 974 Eastern Ave. in Leslieville (currently a patch of dirt across from the eastern edge of the big postal sorting station) and expertly shoehorns in an attractive, affordable rental building that takes advantage of limited natural light to create happy, bright apartments powered by solar energy while reducing heat loss and water consumption.

It does all of this, says Sustainable.TO’s Craig Race, who, with principal Paul Dowsett, served as “client representatives” and advisers to the Ryerson students, by eschewing high-tech green technologies, such as geothermal systems, radiant floors and wind turbines. “That stuff is really expensive and actually requires a lot of maintenance,” he explains.

Giving higher priority to the first R in the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle model results in a much bigger payback, Mr. Race says. “If you just lower the amount of energy you need in the first place with good insulation, that reduces your need for more active, expensive systems.

“So that’s step one.”

The collaboration began when Ryerson Department of Architectural Science prof Vera Straka approached Mr. Dowsett in late 2014 “to see if we had a real-life project that we had already designed that [her students] would be able to tweak” and then enter into the competition. “And we said: ‘We can go better than that: Why don’t we give you something that has yet to be built, and the class can input building science into the very beginning of the process.’”

And, if that science was sound, the cherry on the cake was that the project would actually get built, since Sustainable had the full trust of the property owner.

Students began their design work in January. A visit to the snowy site revealed a stuccoed, three-storey apartment block to the west, and three typical Toronto ‘Bay-n-Gable’ attached homes to the east (ending at Woodfield Road); actually, the lot in question, No. 974, had formerly contained the fourth Bay-n-Gable. Because the street wall was already rather tall, a five-unit building – with one unit per floor – was possible for the site. And, since the architects had only produced drawings of a basic box, the students could, and would, be responsible for everything from walls and stairwells to floor plans and fancy finishes.

The only consideration, Mr. Race says, was that students were to understand the end-user. “We wanted the building to appeal to … someone fashionable, someone interested in sustainability who is willing to live in an up-and-coming area.”

As well as offering affordable rental rates, the building had to be affordable for the owner during its lifespan. “Most times, when you hear that there’s affordable housing, it means it was built very cheaply,” Mr. Dowsett says. “We’re looking at beginning-to-end affordability.”

That means spending money wisely at the beginning, student Mark De Souza says. Half of the construction budget has been dedicated to the building’s envelope, “just to reduce that amount of cold air getting into the building and hot air escaping. So, just super-insulating the walls and making sure they’re durable [and] considering life-cycle, considering thermal bridges, and making them very air-tight,” he says.

Products used will contain recycled materials, sourced locally. One part of the presentation to the U.S. judges was a colour-coded diagram of the crucial point where the balcony floor meets the interior wall: there is no transfer – the heat stays inside. “Achieving that was quite a success for us,” beams Mr. De Souza.

As a result, smaller, energy-sipping heating and cooling systems can be used. In fact, the team decided against radiant floors; they may feel wonderful on bare feet, but they’re overkill in such a tightly sealed building and too slow to react to a dramatic thermostat adjustment. “If you came from a regular house,” student Christopher Zhu says, “you wouldn’t have to get used to much in this [building].”

Other features include: grey water systems; an array of roof-mounted solar panels; balcony lengths calculated to shade units from overbearing summer sun while welcoming in warming winter sun; a naturally lit common stair to create a “sense of communal living;” a half-up, half-down “Yorkville stair” into the bottom unit to bring light deeper inside; the units’ social rooms – kitchen, living and dining – placed at the south end for maximum light; and the opportunity to turn a two-bedroom unit (each is 874 square feet.) into a three-bedroom by removing the master walk-in closet and ensuite bathroom.

While the team didn’t reach zero consumption because of the light-challenged site, computer models prove this building will cost half as much to operate ($20,627 a year) compared with a building-code-compliant “base case” ($41,104) for a construction cost of $125 per square foot. (Total construction cost, excluding land – is pegged at $640,730.) And all of this in a package that’s handsome and somewhat tropical-looking – “Gotta give it a little flavour,” says Mr. De Souza in his Trinidadian accent – that will, no doubt, have prospective tenants lining up in late 2016.

“We will show developers that this is doable, it is affordable with today’s technologies at today’s budgets, and that there is a market for it,” Mr. Dowsett says.

And, better yet, eight students will have one heck of a school project to put on their résumé.

Source: The Globe and Mail, May 28, 2015
For the original article, click here.