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Scrap wood house a triumph of sustainable design

No trees were cut down for this eco residence as the timber was sourced from salvaged logs harvested from trees felled by a wind storm on Vancouver Island.

Scott M. Kemp Architect

Architect Scott Kemp not only found a one-of-a-kind waterfront paradise, but he built a one-of-a-kind house made entirely from scrap wood.

And he did it on a tight budget, proving that sustainable housing needn't just be a vanity project.

The house, which is one of Canada's first single-family dwellings to be certified LEED platinum, is situated on a dike just outside Ladner Village. The glass and wood structure sits on a strip of mixed-use waterfront, facing a quiet channel on the south arm of the Fraser River. It looks across the calm, silt-grey estuary to a long slip of an island where an eagle's nest hangs heavy in a bare tree. To the rear of the property, across the street, a heritage house sits on acres of former farmland.

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As far as protected waterfronts go, it doesn't get much better than this tiny fishing village enclave, known as Port Guichon. It's a tight-knit community where Mr. Kemp and his golden retriever Riley have become friends with the resident houseboat dwellers on their regular walks along the dike. Bald eagles hover overhead. Boats bob on the water. When traffic is good, the city is less than a 30-minute drive.

"There are so few places like this in the Lower Mainland," says Mr. Kemp, looking up the empty channel that gets the occasional fishing boat and kayak. The island across from his house is only populated by trees, and he says it will stay that way.

"You're in the middle of a city of two million people, and this is your backyard. This whole delta is one of the most important migratory bird eco-systems on the whole West Coast, from Mexico to Alaska. All these islands are part of that. You can never develop it. It's guaranteed that it will always be like this. It's on a flood plane, it's reserve, and you can't get to it. It would be astronomically expensive to build a bridge and it wouldn't be profitable."

Mr. Kemp had another mission besides building a sustainable house on one of the Lower Mainland's most scenic and secret properties. Because so many examples of sustainable housing are totally unaffordable for the average person, Mr. Kemp made a point of designing a low-cost house. By using trees that had fallen in the windstorm of 2006, Mr. Kemp only spent about $20,000 for the logs and another $12,000 to mill all the wood for the house, including decking and siding. The wood was of a higher quality than could be purchased from a lumberyard, and it was cheaper than buying from a lumber mill. As well, recycling the fallen wood fit with his sustainability goal.

Mr. Kemp had purchased property that was central yet tucked away enough that it was under-valued. He paid $500,000 for the empty property at the peak of the market three years ago, which is comparatively low for the Lower Mainland.

He built the house for $650,000, or about $250 per square foot, which is also relatively inexpensive. He had a budget, and he stuck to it. He and his wife were living in a rental apartment in Richmond, saving up to build the dream house, where they plan to live for the rest of their lives. They've even built a separate apartment type quarters on the main floor, when they are too old to climb the stairs.

"There is no point in sustainability if it's $1,000 a square foot," says Mr. Kemp. "And today, what is frustrating is that most of the sustainable houses are big honking houses. They throw a huge amount of money into it and call it sustainable. Well, it's not sustainable in my opinion."

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The LEED (Leadership in Environmental and Energy Design) program recognizes that it's a waste of resources to build a house that's 10,000 square feet and only houses four people. The more wasteful the size of the house, the more points required in order to achieve certification. Because Mr. Kemp's 2,200 square-foot house has four bedrooms, it didn't need as many points.

And most LEED certifications have been for condo projects or commercial buildings. LEED's single-family home certification program is relatively new, and Mr. Kemp regards it as a major breakthrough for sustainability.

"Most of the buildings built in North America are single-family homes, right? And none of them are very sustainable. So if you're an architect and you really want to make an impact holistically in the city, you change single-family homes. And it's got to be affordable for the average person."

His house is reflective of a career devoted to sustainable design. The prefabricated cedar structure is built entirely out of timber that had fallen in a windstorm on a Vancouver Island elk reserve. Mr. Kemp had designed projects for the natives who hunt on the elk reserve, and so he was in a unique position to make a deal to log the fallen wood. His clients needed the fallen trees removed to restore the elk migration pathways, which had been blocked off and curtailed their hunting.

Not a single tree was cut down to build his house, says Mr. Kemp. The trees were logged and milled near Port Alberni and the house built in sections before being brought to the site. Mr. Kemp also saved a lot of cost by acting as the general contractor on the 11-month custom-built project, which finished last September.

"I was on site every day. It was an architect's dream," he says. "Most homes are built in a very similar way - the general contractor knows what the job entails. On a custom design like mine, a contractor would have added a considerable contingency for the unknowns."

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Mr. Kemp even built much of the furniture inside the house, recycling some old decking to make desks for his home office. The house contains sustainable products such as recycled glass counter tops, slate walls, pure wool carpet made from free-range sheep's wool, and toilets that use captured rainwater.

The house is designed for solar heat gain so that in the winter the direct sunlight heats the concrete floor. His electricity bill is about $100 a month, and until he can figure out an affordable way to generate electricity from the river's current, he'll stay on the grid.

"You could pull it off the grid, but you'd need photovoltaic panels," he explains. "Those are really expensive. The other thing I don't like is you would need batteries. And batteries haven't really got there yet, from an environmental point of view."

One of the most interesting features of the house is the geothermal heating system, which uses the latent heat of the river instead of a conventional ground loop to heat and cool the house. It proved to be a cost-saving measure as well. The heat exchanger is a four-by-12-foot stainless steel plate that hangs underwater off the dock. Heat is transferred using food-grade ethanol pumped between the steel plate and two heat pumps that heat the house's floors and water. In summer, the process is reversed, with heat taken out of the house and transferred back to the river.

"It works great," says Mr. Kemp. "We had really cold days this winter, and I have no back-up. The problem with geo-thermal is drilling the loops is really expensive. This whole system, everything in, was less than $50,000."

Mr. Kemp says his house has already caught the attention of environmental design bloggers. It is being praised for details big and small, such as his use of low-maintenance native plants around the house that help keep the river clean.

"As an architect, it's what I believe in, but I also encourage my clients to do sustainable design, so I figured it would be terribly hypocritical not to do it.

"Did I have to do a LEED platinum house? No. But the goal of the house was to incorporate as many sustainable features as I could, and keep it affordable. I had it designed and then LEED became available for houses, and I had it evaluated, and it turned out that it qualified for LEED platinum. That's how design should be. You allow for the budget and the climate, and you take it to whatever level you can."

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