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Southern Alberta Institute of Technology

Good bones: Eco-friendly home wins 2021 Prairie Wood Design Award

“The Confluence,” an eco-friendly home in the foothills of southern Alberta, has won a 2021 Prairie Wood Design Award from Alberta Wood WORKS!. The three-level, 2,238 square-foot dwelling claimed top spot in the Residential Wood Design category.

When SAIT, Woodpecker European Timber Framing and an Alberta family set out to build one of the greenest homes on earth, they knew Canada’s abundant renewable resource would play an important role. Now, “The Confluence” is being recognized for excellence in sustainable wood design and construction.

“This year’s award winners showcase ingenuity and creativity in new construction,” says Rory Koska, Program Director of Alberta Wood  WORKS!, “and an affinity for wood by not demolishing buildings but celebrating wood in the restoration of history through engineering and craftsmanship.”

Going against the grain: Building “The Confluence”

To really understand the role of wood in constructing “The Confluence,” who better to ask than the homebuilder?

Peter Graul first discovered his passion for sustainable building while apprenticing in Germany to become a journeyman carpenter and timber framer. He founded Woodpecker European Timber Framing nearly two decades ago, where sustainability starts in the shop and is part of everything they do.

“We heat our facilities with wood waste from our manufacturing, we drive cars instead of trucks to commute to work sites and produce little waste because of our modeling, material selection and indoor manufacturing,” he says.

The Woodpecker European Timber Framing team member stand smiling for a photo.

The Woodpecker European Timber Framing team, including founder and owner/operator Peter Graul, in the grey patterned button-down on the left.

Partnering with SAIT and the Molenaar family to build a home under the strict eco-friendly guidelines of the Living Building Challenge (LBC) was a welcomed opportunity for Woodpecker, but presented new challenges when it came to sourcing timber. LBC compliance required that all wood be Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified or salvaged (with few exceptions), sourced as locally as possible and not contain “red-listed” toxic ingredients in glues and treatments — all of which required time and patience to satisfy.

What’s the deal with FSC-certified wood?

FSC certification ensures wood comes from responsibly-managed forests. It factors in the social implications of harvesting, including land use and Indigenous land, and environmental implications, including biodiversity, monocultures and sustainable harvesting.

But inconvenience bred ingenuity. Where glued and composite products such as plywood might typically be used for sheathing the walls, solid spruce was installed in its place. Instead of using oriented strand board (similar to particle board) sheathing on the second-level floor, joists were strapped with tongue and groove two-by-sixes installed diagonally — a beautiful design element visible from the kitchen and living room below. The wood was left untreated to preserve the natural look and fresh scent indoors.

The kitchen of "The Confluence", complete with untreated joists and diagonal flooring visible above.

Untreated joists and diagonal flooring are visible from the kitchen and living room below.

Project goals of producing minimal waste and using reclaimed materials inspired another clever building solution. Excess sheathing made from wood fibre, a by-product of wood manufacturing, was shredded down and blown into wall cavities as insulation.

Bringing the outdoors in

Biophilic design is an architectural approach that seeks to connect building occupants with nature. The use of natural materials, like wood, helps to strengthen this connection and is part of what makes “The Confluence” so special.

“The intentional use of wood throughout the project integrates the surrounding forest into the design and allows an intermingling of the home and the region’s ecology,” says Hayley Puppato, project coordinator with SAIT’s Green Building Technologies and one of the project team members tasked with researching, sourcing and documenting use and waste of timber.

“Exposed beams inside and outside play with light and cast shadows in the home, and stratifying roof joists represent the forest canopy, creating a comforting, sheltered effect.”

Sunlight illuminates the eco-friendly home "The Confluence", and the exposed beams on the outside cast shadows.

Natural light hits the exposed beams, casting shadows inside and outside “The Confluence.”

An internal shot of the kitchen and living room, complete with stratifying exposed wood joists above and large windows.

Stratifying roof joists represent the forest canopy, bringing nature indoors.

While some materials virtually never change in appearance, wood wears the passage of time like a badge of honour while remaining structurally sound — a feature embraced by the design team.

“The custom stairs were built with solid pieces, meant to endure the hustle and bustle of three kids and pets. The treads and risers will develop character with every scratch, nick and dent — and will surely stand the test of time,” says Puppato.

When asked to choose her favourite wood feature, it’s a no-brainer for Puppato.

“I love the sap dripping from the beams. It’s something I haven’t seen in other buildings and I think it brings another level of texture and fragrance to the building.”

Sap drips from a beam inside the house.

Sap drips from the beams of “The Confluence.”

Red trusses on the exterior of the house.

Red trusses on the exterior of the house, peaked to emulate the nearby Rocky Mountains.

Peaked timber trusses emulate the nearby Rocky Mountains.

Red front porch timbers complete with a rope swing and a bird's nest.

Front porch timbers were quickly used by the homeowners’ children for swings and local birds for nests.

Wood for good: Sustainable building

When it comes to choosing sustainable building materials, wood checks quite a few boxes. In fact, through a combination of careful project planning and proper harvesting, timber used in construction can go through its entire life cycle leaving almost no environmental footprint.

“It absorbs carbon while it grows and doesn’t create as much pollution as concrete or steel during manufacturing,” says Graul.

“During construction, cut-offs can either be recycled into other products. Even after the building’s life cycle, the wood can be recycled.”

Beautiful hardwood flooring salvaged from the rafters of a Vancouver warehouse used to store baking essentials for the military in World War II.

Hardwood flooring was salvaged from the rafters of a Vancouver warehouse used to store baking essentials for the military in World War II.

While composite products might be a seemingly attractive “maintenance-free” choice for homeowners, Graul warns about the larger implications of overlooking the greener option.

“Think about how those products are manufactured and, even more importantly, where they end up after the life cycle of the building has come to its end. It’s up to consumers to ask these questions and put pressure on builders, manufacturers and suppliers to shift in the right direction,” says Graul.

“Wood is an environmentally, aesthetically and structurally unbeaten building material. Let’s go back to the basics and consider materials that have proven to do the job for thousands of years.”

Build what’s next

Whatever project your organization is looking to conquer, SAIT’s Applied Research and Innovation Services can help you get there. Connect with our team.

Ready to nail down a new career? Check out SAIT’s four-year Bachelor of Science Construction Project Management.

Adrienne Madden

Adrienne Madden

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