The First 100 Miles

TEXT Sean Ruthen

Without sounding naively optimistic, 2012 may go down in history as the moment when our collective consciousness came to the realization that we have reached a tipping point with respect to global climate change. Our planet’s rising temperature is melting the ice caps and threatening to release trapped methane from the permafrost, which will contribute to a catastrophic acceleration of global warming. The comprehension of the science behind it has permeated popular culture to such a degree that even young children are capable of grasping the global environmental challenges that we must face. This is a debate that current policy-makers have little interest in addressing, but it remains very much a discussion in which conscientious professionals such as architects must engage.

For as much as architects are responsible for the design and construction of buildings, we are also responsible for specifying the materials used to construct them–materials which are bought and sold in a global marketplace. With this in mind, in the spring of 2012 the Architecture Foundation of British Columbia (AFBC) proposed an ideas competition known as 100 Mile House (not to be confused with 100 Mile House, the small town located within the interior of British Columbia). Central to the purpose of the competition is the following question: “Can we build a single-family home with materials sourced from within 100 miles of its site?” The competition received nearly 60 submissions from 17 different countries and drew upon an ongoing international debate between regionalism and globalization. Some entrants even questioned the appropriateness of a competition that would dare promote economic ideologies like “Buy Local” in the first place. Should we not focus on fair trade issues rather than relying on local markets to carry the load of environmentally responsible building?

The competition’s goal was to simply challenge the way we think about the single-family home, as it most certainly did for the entrants who had to rethink everything we take for granted as designers. For instance, the higher the material’s embodied energy–as in aluminum windows and mechanical equipment–the less likely it is to be sourced locally. The winners best demonstrated this understanding, through careful technical documentation indicating where their materials were sourced. The first-place winner of the competition, Tony Osborn of Vancouver, went one step further by proposing a potential material that currently doesn’t exist. Using mycelium derived from harvesting mushrooms, this futuristic material provides a food stock for two seasons before being able to be made into a concrete-like, fireproof substance that has good insulating properties. Instead of trying to use local materials to fit into the mould of conventional building technologies–typically wood- and concrete-framed structures–Osborn proposed a masonry unit that can be sourced anywhere, one that is ideal for single-family home construction and is flexible to accommodate a variety of building configurations.

If the winning entry had just been about the material, it most likely would only have garnered the innovation category prize. What secured its victory was how it went one step further regarding single-family zoning in Vancouver–here, Osborn had the home advantage over the competition co-winners from Scotland and New York. Understanding the complexity of the RS–1 zone in Vancouver’s inner suburbs, coupled with an awareness of the current ongoing debates over increased density in the city’s older neighbourhoods, Osborn imagined a longer life cycle for the house than what the market currently considers. He also thought about how the physical form of the house could actually grow and change as the demand required, evolving from one household to two, with the final built-out scenario including a live-work component–all constructed within a typical RS-1 lot size. Osborn then demonstrated the most important lesson of all–using materials wisely is commensurate with efficient land-use policies. And with the current debates over appropriate residential densities in Vancouver, there are lessons to be learned about innovative approaches to increasing densities in urban areas. For this reason, Vancouver was made the origin of the competition, and the centre of the 100-mile radius.

The second- and third-place winners demonstrated a firm understanding of balancing a single-family home’s materiality with its program and site footprint. The second-place winner even achieved carbon neutrality, the goal of many current environmental policies being implemented around the world. The competition’s Innovation Award went to a designer who combined urban agriculture–in this case an apiary–with a single-family home, while the student prize went to a pair of designers from Madrid who proposed several passive systems, including a large photovoltaic array on the roof of the home. With the majority of entrants from North America (21 from BC, 12 from the US), 22 came from abroad from places such as South Korea, Hong Kong, Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Italy, and even one from Dubai. Each entry brought its own unique interpretation to the challenge–given the fact that they were interpreting their own local construction laws–each with varying levels of success.

Some of the comments from the jury, which was comprised of a range of consultants, academics and practitioners–Larry Beasley, Ray Cole, Michael Geller, Mike Harcourt, and Jim Huffman–included a central message that it wasn’t good enough for the entries to simply propose a project with locally sourced material; this should only be the starting point to the conversation.

Since its launch in early 2012, the ideas competition has attracted the attention of both local and global media, including a segment on the local television news, as well as international attention from France, New York and Los Angeles. As such, it is the ambition of the AFBC–now independent of the Architectural Institute of British Columbia (AIBC) of which it was formerly a part–to build one of the winning entries and donate it to Habitat for Humanity. Furthermore, the results of the competition will be featured in a 1,500-square-foot exhibit at the IDS West show in Vancouver this September.

With the idea for the competition coming from the popular 100 Mile Diet, the Foundation hopes to be a voice for regenerative sustainability in British Columbia and beyond, advocating for an environmentally ethical architecture similar to the one architect Michael Green is espousing in regards to his wood high-rise buildings, and similar to the agenda of the University Sustainability Initiative led by Dr. John Robinson at the University of British Columbia (UBC). With environmental stewardship shifting from the public to the private realm, doing more than enough may be what in the end makes all the difference. So much good has been done already–like the Velo-city conference held in Vancouver this past June, and the opening of milestone buildings such as the CIRS building at UBC. The Foundation similarly recognized the opportunity to use the results from the 100 Mile House competition as an effective vehicle to exhibit a complex urban problem to the general public, one which employs current environmental technology such as photovoltaic and geothermal systems, rainwater harvesting and more.

The 100 Mile House competition successfully questioned the business-as-usual model used by the current construction industry, asking whether it makes sense to assemble our neighbourhoods of materials made in sweatshops thousands of miles away. The competition ultimately was an exercise to see not whether we should live within our carbon footprint, but whether we even can anymore. Understanding this, and effectively communicating it to the general public will be part of the answer to clima
te change, contributing to an overall greater understanding of how different sustainable systems can rewire our current architectural paradigm, whether it is LEED or the Living Building Challenge. In the end, the competition provided a forum for the dialogue to occur, while simultaneously launching a new chapter for the AFBC as they seek to create a legacy for the advancement of regenerative sustainability in BC, Canada and abroad. CA

Sean Ruthen is a Vancouver-based architect and writer. Please visit http://100mh.architecturefoundationbc.ca/about-100mh/results/ for more information on the competition. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the AFBC Board of Directors.


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