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RecoSolutions

Reflections on Touring the Calgary ecoHouse

by Matt Hanson

Recosolutions guests surround a living room table for an introductory exercise led by Jorg Ostrowski (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
Recosolutions guests surround a living room table for an introductory exercise led by Jorg Ostrowski (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
Info-labels mark areas of interest to educate and welcome new guests
Info-labels mark areas of interest to educate and welcome new guests
Guests are asked to identify various ecologically sound architectural samples (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
Guests are asked to identify various ecologically sound architectural samples (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
Jorg Ostrowski shares his passion and knowledge with a welcoming candour (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
Jorg Ostrowski shares his passion and knowledge with a welcoming candour (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
Jorg Ostrowski presents to the tour group very specialized window recofitting expertise (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
Jorg Ostrowski presents to the tour group very specialized window recofitting expertise (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
Indoor greenhouse lush with algae, fed by internal composting system
Indoor greenhouse lush with algae, fed by internal composting system
Energy efficient fridge and cold closet
Energy efficient fridge and cold closet
Dining room, where many potlucks are had with community
Dining room, where many potlucks are had with community
Russian Stove / Korean Ondol / Chinese Kang central heating
Russian Stove / Korean Ondol / Chinese Kang central heating
Before heading into the kitchen, the group further explores many publications and press on the dining table dedicated to sustainable housing and the Calgary ecoHome (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
Before heading into the kitchen, the group further explores many publications and press on the dining table dedicated to sustainable housing and the Calgary ecoHome (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
Waterless composting toilets are essential to the overall equation
Waterless composting toilets are essential to the overall equation
Natural light pours in abundantly through specially insulated windows
Natural light pours in abundantly through specially insulated windows
The kitchen is an energy mainstay, and worthy of serious reflection for maximum energy efficiency (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
The kitchen is an energy mainstay, and worthy of serious reflection for maximum energy efficiency (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
Upstairs, the master bedroom is a beautiful example of natural light, heat circulation and architectural design (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)
Upstairs, the master bedroom is a beautiful example of natural light, heat circulation and architectural design (photo credit: Helen Ostrowski)

 

Jorg Ostrowski and his wife Helen are two trained architects who have trail blazed sustainable housing in Canada and around the world. On April 20, Jorg opened his home on Scurfield Drive in northwest Calgary to the public, in celebration of Earth Day, for RecoSolutions, offering free tours on sustainability. “All of my projects since 1972 have been sustainable,” Jorg wrote via email. “We have built with rammed earth, straw bale, stack wall, double log, EcoStuds, prefab, Blackie Block and stick built. I have given ‘hands on’ workshops on rammed earth and straw bale in various provinces, including a 6 day workshop for the David Suzuki Foundation, in BC.” 

 

Arriving at the doorstep beneath the iconic sunray-painted awning above the front door, Jorg announced, “Transportation is part of the equation,” pointing to two automobiles in the driveway. Behind the Smart Car is a VW Golf that is converted to run on waste vegetable oil as part of a continuing R&D program. Recent trips to Vancouver and back, and cross-country on other excursions have cost zero dollars. People often donate vegetable oil. Japanese restaurants are reputed for the highest-grade waste vegetable oil. "The goal is to download electric and thermal energy into batteries, grid and slab," Jorg wrote. 

 

Along the outside porch, the most noted sustainability measures are various blue water bins collecting rainwater that goes into a cistern able to store enough water for many months, based on low consumption and average rainfall. An apparatus below the front porch is shaped like an oversized foghorn with a square container fitted inside with a cooking pot. The solar cooker concentrates enough sunlight that even in -25 Celsius on a clear day, the inside temperature rises to 100 degrees centigrade.  

 

Inside the home, a large office space to the left leads down a short hallway to a cozy living room reception. About ten people attended the ecoTour at three o’clock in the snowy afternoon under unlit LED lights, also fitted throughout the home. With over 140,000 guests so far in its 20-year history, the Alberta home/office is unique in Canada for not using city water, sewer, gas or furnace. The ecoHouse is heated by passive/active solar, internal heat gain and left over waste as backup. 

 

On any given month, schoolchildren will graduate from the ecoTour given by Jorg Ostrowski himself, chock-full of architectural knowledge (the legacy of a career spanning four decades beginning with an M.I.T. graduate education in architecture) and an astounding display of hands-on examples for small-scale, local sustainability. Beginning in the living room, natural light pours in from all angles, especially south-facing, including an “experimental window” featuring unrivalled five-pane krypton-sealed glass. On the coffee table, a seemingly unimpressive array of likely architectural samples is strewn about. As conversation ensues, each item reveals itself as highly innovative environmentally friendly material or technology, including organic wool carpet, flaxseed Marmoleum flooring, recycled newsprint insulation, and solvent-free adhesive, motorized airtight damper, and the latest LED lights, among many others. 

 

The moral of the story: making the home airtight is the key to conserving energy. Utilizing natural heat sources like the position of the sun, and even body temperature are integral and often underwritten in the dominant modes of contemporary architecture. A centerpiece of the home is a traditional fireplace and oven common to many European and Asian traditions, known as a Russian Stove, Korean Ondol or Chinese Kang heating systems among many other names. The fireplace is used for central backup heating and cooking, including for heating water. After priming the central heating mechanism before a recent month-long trip during the winter month of March, the empty house only lost about eight degrees centigrade without additional oversight. 

 

From the living room through a concave hallway into the kitchen, numerous plants line windows and vegetation of all kinds hangs from the ceiling. A beautifully set deadfall tree acts as a post for second floor beams. Allowing live trees is important to continue to absorb CO2. Especially abundant are aloe plants for their exceptional capacity to purify the air and provide a natural source for glyconutrients and medicine. The energy mainstay of the kitchen is the refrigerator. Used for only about six months in the year, an indubitably pragmatic cold closet replaces the need for a refrigerator in the cold climate, substantially reducing kilowatt-hours per year and extending the life cycle of the very energy efficient fridge/freezer right beside it. 

 

Next, Jorg leads the ecoTour into a personal office space, where small portholes, reminiscent of a ship’s cabin, line the wall. Behind the glass at least six examples of alternative insulation are exhibited, including sheep’s wool, an expensive though probable example. Around the house, vents are fitted to facilitate heat and air circulation, and air-to-air heat exchangers minimize heat loss.

 

The middle of the home features the dry compost toilets on both levels, with the upstairs fully functional for guests. The system is “not perfect” said Ostrowski, although an exemplary means to recycle human waste, and in addressing a crucial need for water management in mainstream housing infrastructure. All biological waste goes into an engineered multi-purpose year-round composting chamber, combining 3 critical household operations.

 

  1. Major blue box recycling centre and deposit box of the house to receive all biodegradable waste, including all human and kitchen waste                                                                                                                                                                                                            
  2. Major water conservation equipment to save 200,000 litres of drinking water per year (family of four)                                                                                                        
  3. Fertilizer plant to produce healthy earth, and compost tea, a great liquid fertilizer                                                                                         

 

"In summary, although not perfect, it is the stomach of the house, quite efficient and critical to the sustainable future of the planet," wrote Jorg.      

 

Upstairs, bedrooms are designed for accessibility. Two smaller rooms on one side have a connecting doorway, to facilitate spatial linkages for small children and potential opportunities for bed & breakfast hospitality or simply an office-bedroom combination. The master bedroom is flooded with natural light from a panorama of south-facing windows tastefully mirrored, with ceiling windows, two hallways, and a catwalk built of metal grating above the living room, offering a distinctly interconnected ambiance between the master bedroom with the rest of the home. Ventilation above the center of the bed draws from the central, water-based heating system. An antique tub is installed in the adjacent ensuite, with consideration for recycling the work and material required to reuse such conventionally obsolete fixtures. With adequate attention, there is natural light enough to grow tomatoes aplenty on the windowsills. A small addition alcove to the master bedroom, located above the greenhouse, provides much needed sanctuary. 

 

Outdoors, solar panels are fitted on ground level around the ecoHouse with mind to wind, dust and snow that often collects on often poorly conceived roof-installations. Ground placement allows optimal accessibility in maintenance, and effectively the highest degree of energy output. 

 

All in all, RecoSolutions was a lesson in successful, off-the-grid sustainable housing within the limits of a major city in North America. With a single prime mover, such as the 70 HP power mechanism used in the VW Golf to provide heat and electricity for a long-distance car ride, over one hundred homes in the likelihood of Jorg Ostrowski’s ecoHouse can be sustained. These homes not only sustain renewable energy sources, but also reduce the risks of outgassing from chemicals in standard building materials, contaminants in public water and damage from power outages. Furthermore, the ecoHouse can facilitate the production of energy, exporting power back into the grid. 

 

The lack of sustainable housing development in Canada, especially when so willfully and ably illustrated as in the RecoSolutions ecoTour in Calgary, only adds to the shameful prerogatives of national priority. Helen Ostrowski, who co-organizes events and activities at the ecoHouse, also active with international development work in the Philippines, China and most recently Iran, among others, commented that when they were starting out in the 1970s, there was no opportunity for young people to be involved with sustainable housing in university programs, or in applying environmentally friendly architectural products as today. When they had built their ecoHouse nearly twenty years ago, the city of Calgary was uniquely open to their alternative housing development with respect to their work as two highly trained graduate architects, active and recognized in the field.    

 

At the end of the ecoTour, a very intelligent participant was flabbergasted that mainstream society continues to neglect the most important of these very simple and doable measures. Western lifestyle identifies human settlement first and foremost through consumer values. Modern human life is defined by consumerism, and is inextricably linked to the catastrophic waste-chains of urban and suburban housing. In the normative social and political agenda of North America, human existence depends on consumerism. True productivity and actual development does not merely contribute manufactured material to the growing waste stream but reciprocates human life with natural energy cycles.  

 

In the growing petro-state policies of the federal government of Canada, energy consumption far outweighs energy production. Without public awareness campaigns such as the RecoSolutions ecoTour, ignorance perpetuates the consumer mode of being as the only way of being. Yet, in this the same world as that of increasing urban sprawl, one energy/grid independent, sustainable ecoHouse illustrates how human beings also produce energy and give back to what Jorg named as the three most important points of sustainable living; clean water, healthy earth, and reusable energy. 

 

On June 1 and June 8, the Calgary ecoHome will be open for public tours.

Please see the Calgary ecoHome website, ASH - Autonomous & Sustainable Housing Inc. AND/OR Contact Jorg Ostrowski at ecojdo@gmail.com for more details. 

 

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