February 27, 1995
Paper published in “Ontario Eco-Architecture” Spring 1995


Sustainability is intrinsically an all encompassing concept, embracing the social, economic and physical realms.  Stated in its most simple and ideal terms, it maintains that you take no more out than you put back in, you leave things no worse (and hopefully better) than you found them and you do not deprive one group to enrich another.  Biologists are right to remind us that there is no waste in nature and all systems are inter-related and inter-acting.

For all of us, including architects, this requires a holistic approach to design, no matter how small the project at hand or how confined the program.  As we approach the end of humankind’s most environmentally disastrous century (and the much vaunted new millennium), architectural commissions which overtly call for true sustainability still appear to be as rare as hen’s teeth.  So it is important that we infuse our projects with those elements of sustainability which are practical, which enrich the project while safeguarding its budget, and which thereby add to a growing storehouse of ideas and technologies which may be drawn on as their relevance and urgency dawns on us.

That, in any case, has been the approach which my firm has pursued over the past twenty plus years.

And fortunately the urgency does appear to be dawning and leading to projects which call for an increasingly holistic approach.  An outstanding example is the master plan and building program for an Environmental Learning Centre commissioned by the Kitchener-Waterloo YMCA.



The Environmental Learning Centre (ELC) proposes to incorporate the most comprehensive and ambitious physical embodiment of sustainable architecture and planning known to the client and its consultants.

The architect was brought in at a very early stage in the process to collaborate with the client in selecting a highly diverse team, exploring and clarifying objectives and program requirements, developing a master plan and identifying a first phase project (presently under construction).


An existing camp set in 77 acres (31 hectares) of strikingly varied landscape character on Paradise Lake, 16 kilometers from Waterloo.  Some existing buildings have already been upgraded and retro-fitted to demonstrate a variety of energy conserving technologies and techniques, others will be either re-located to another site or demolished.

Master Plan

The following Core Objective of the ELC guides all decisions:

“To operate an integrated environment (of natural features, buildings, technologies and programs) which will gently encourage and inspire transformation in the lifestyles of all who visit and help them ‘live more lightly on the earth.’
The entire site to be the teacher of environmental principles, to imbue environmental values.”

A key proposition is that a thematic concept be developed for the site.  Each area of development should respond to and heighten an awareness of the landscape character of that particular place.  Also, in selecting design strategies and technologies, a variety of approaches to sustainability should be illustrated (it was recognized that the “experts” should not necessarily be the final arbiters of environmental correctness).

The first phase project includes the construction of two new buildings, the Day Centre and the Earth Residences, as well as associated site services and landscape work.

Day Centre

Program and Site

Acting as the main arrival, orientation and information point for the Centre, it is appropriately located in a prominent central location at the high point of a gently south sloping meadow.  It is planned as the one building which will command its site rather than blend demurely into it.

The three primary spaces are a Great Hall, a Resource Centre/Office and a Greenhouse.  The Great Hall allows up to seventy people to assemble or provides a place for exhibits.  The Resource Centre/Office will house up-to-date educational material on all manner of environmentally appropriate technologies and sources of information, materials or skills.  And the south-facing Greenhouse will demonstrate a variety of natural processes described below.


The thematic idea for this building is that of the “natural building”, exploring a symbiosis between architecture and biology.  Biota, mechanical systems and building design are fused to form a single interacting organic whole.  The building is to function as both educator and demonstrator of up-to-date thinking on sustainable design, providing a healthy indoor environment and offering pointers to a possible new vernacular architecture.


The environmental systems of the buildings are illustrated in the diagrams.  The greenhouse provides passive solar heating in the winter, with warmed air ducted under the floor slabs and “topped  up” when required by hydronic fins supplied by a high efficiency wood-burning boiler.  The boiler also provides domestic hot water when the solar collectors inside the greenhouse require back-up heat. Summer cooling is affected through shading, passive vent stack heat extraction and a system of night sky evaporative cooling.  The mass provided by walls, floor slabs and the greenhouse wetland and pond create a “flywheel” effect, absorbing and storing high inputs of solar heat and releasing it slowly.  High levels of insulation to the exterior of the envelope combined with earth sheltering to the north and the use of sod roofs help keep the heat out in the summer and in during the winter.

The building will be connected to the electrical grid and it is hoped that in the future, when the legislation is appropriately amended, it will be possible to equalize the power generated either in this building or on the total site to that drawn from the grid.  By returning to the grid the same amount of electrical power as is drawn, the site could ultimately be energy neutral.

Waste water (reduced to a minimum through use of water conserving fixtures and fittings) is cleansed by a “living machine” in the greenhouse, which uses as its final treatment visible biological systems (plants, snails, mollusks etc.) in a series of controlled associations ending in a miniature constructed wetland and a small pond.  At the final stage the water is virtually potable and will either by re-cycled to the toilets or be returned to the water table.  Rainwater is recaptured and stored in a cistern and treated by ultra-violet light prior to re-use.

Earth Residence

Program and Site

The purpose of the building is to replace some of the existing (outdated) sleeping cabins on the site and to provide associated program space and washrooms in an arrangement which marks a striking lifestyle departure in the provision of camp residential accommodation.  Up to forty people will be able to sleep in rooms housing four or six people.

The site, while close to the entry road, is tucked into a Christmas tree plantation and behind a small perched wetland.  As a result it had been largely overlooked in previous camp activities and most visitors’ perceptions.  Given the philosophy that the Master Plan should capitalize on and make legible each landscape/ecological component on this diversified site, the location suggested a very particular response to its particular setting.

In the longer term (when additional monies are available), it will be possible to approach the Residence by way of a boardwalk through the (educationally rich) wetland.  The site is on a steep south-facing slope rising to the north from the wetland to the tree plantation and the highest point of land on the entire camp site.


This setting has led to the thematic idea of “design with nature”, of fashioning a building which is in and of its setting.  The building forms tend to be organic and to respond directly to the landscape forms, the views, the sun, the wind, the weather and the seasons.  The building will be off-grid and rely primarily on passive natural processes.  A more romantic notion of sustainability leads to fairly significant lifestyle implications and the acceptance that indoor comfort levels will vary with the external conditions in summer and winter and that they will be affected significantly by the users’ active participation in drawing shades, opening and closing windows and doors, firing the heater, conserving hot water etc.  Passive buildings require active users.


The first and most cost-effective strategy in the design of any passive heating and cooling system is the building itself.  The north semi-circular wall is entirely buried in the ground and so protected from the north winds (which are further buffered by the tree plantation).  1.2m to 1.5m below ground, the earth is a balmy 4 - 10 C -- the equivalent of moving the lower half of the north wall to Atlanta.  The north section of roof is covered by an earth roof and all roofs and walls are well insulated.

A significant proportion of the space heating will be provided by passive solar gains through the south-facing windows in the sleeping areas.  Summer cooling will be effected by cross-ventilation, the vent stack effect and trellises which also incorporate movable shades. 

An unusually large, custom designed contra flow wood burning masonry heater will provide the residual space heat, as direct radiant heat in the Program Space and as hydronic heating in the washrooms.  It will likely require firing no more than once every twelve hours, burning at exceedingly high temperatures which create virtually no pollution, and then the heated masonry mass radiates the stored heat for the ensuing day or night.

Solar panels will provide part of the domestic hot water with back-up provision by the masonry heater.

With no connection to the hydro grid, electricity generation will be through the use of photovoltaic panels, human pedal power (exercise bikes) and a wind machine atop the high point of the site behind the building.  Electrical storage will be in batteries and a small diesel generator will provide back-up power if required.  Its inclusion significantly reduces the number of costly photovoltaic panels and it is conceivable that it may not be required if restrained lifestyles and sufficient wind power are achieved.

Following the principle that there is no “waste” in nature, Clivus Multrum composting toilets will be used.  These waterless toilets reduce all the contents to produce a nitrogen rich fertilizer which can be used as a resource.  Greywater will be treated by the Waterloo Biofilter, a biological system developed by the Waterloo Ground Water Research Centre at the University of Waterloo.  From this elegantly simple system the cleansed water will be returned to the soil by way of a simple trench tile bed.

Materials Selection

In addition to their thermal qualities, materials have been selected to optimize as far as economically practical materials which are long life, renewable, re-used, re-cycled, non-polluting and/or which minimize the expenditure of embodied energy.

In the Earth Residence 100% of the structural and finish timber is re-used.  Huge fir beams from a factory demolition in Hamilton were transported and a portable sawmill was temporarily installed on the site.  This is owned and operated by a local Mennonite who was assisted by YMCA staff, and all the lumber was re-cut to produce large beams, 2 x 4’s and even siding.  The glulam beams, heavy timber ceiling decking and plywood was re-used.  Concrete incorporates the maximum allowable re-cycled content.  The floor finish is tile and carpet made from re-cycled plastic pop bottles.

The materials for the Day Centre are under re-review in light of the current availability of re-used materials in readiness for a construction start this Spring.  This highlights a fundamental obstacle to the widespread use of re-used materials.  At this time, the sourcing of materials, arrangements for transportation, re-working or re-cycling and the grading of structural components in a manner acceptable to the local building official all fall to the owner and project consultants.  It is very time-consuming, expensive and plays havoc with timetables and the orderly organization of the construction contract.  A lesson gleaned from building the Earth Residences is that central collection, sorting and grading centres are required if we are to re-use and re-cycle effectively and on a large scale in the future.

The site and landscaping design optimizes the use of native, low maintenance plants and re-cycled or re-used construction materials.  A new parking lot is surfaced with 100% re-cycled gravel, tree spades have been used to re-locate scores of semi-mature trees, and grading and planting are contrived to provide an agreeable micro-climate, prevent erosion and ensure that rain-water run-off is returned unpolluted to the aquifer.  Trees which are not suitable for re-use are mulched and used on the new pathways.


These first two buildings represent the first stage of a far-sighted initiative taken by an enlightened client who is dedicated to encouraging people “to live lighter on this earth”.  Thousands of children (and many adults) will be taught love and respect for nature and hopefully realize that transforming lifestyles can be challenging and fun.  By taking a leadership role within the national organization, the Kitchener-Waterloo YMCA has made a commitment to the promotion of environmental values and knowledge for many generations to come.  The Environmental Learning Centre will offer people the only camp of its kind in Canada -- and probably North America.
SUSTAINABLE ARCHITECTURE - An exploration in holistic design