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Elephant Thoughts: Passive Buildings Educating Next Generation Environmental Stewards

It is difficult to hold hope for the future in a world riddled with environmental and social issues. Many professionals in the sustainability sector wrestle with the mental toll this work brings. Some find relief in nature and time with loved ones. For others, it can be challenging to find inspiration and motivation when global news is routinely bleak. Yet, while it sounds cliche, hope - in its rawest form - is found in the hearts of children.

This powerful and infectious source of ambition can be moulded into tangible change through connection with nature from a young age. Throughout Canada, youth nature programs foster this connection and create armies of young environmental stewards ready to fight ecological concerns like climate change every year. But in picturesque Beaver Valley near Kimberly, Ontario, one specifically extraordinary project is underway. There, a passive building is under construction that will act as a retreat for youth to connect with nature and develop resilience. There, Mr. Ben Lowery is using his skills as a passive house professional to create a safe and sustainable environment for Canadian children to find love for themselves, each other and the earth.

Ben is an accomplished builder, designer, entrepreneur and manufacturer. He is the founder and owner of Lowery Building, a company that is successfully delivering passive house prefabrication in Canada. Ben is passionate about the benefits of prefabrication, especially for passive building projects and he is currently a board member for Passive Buildings Canada. He recognizes the sustainable and efficient nature of prefab. He emphasizes how it allows for a tighter and more collaborative design process that saves time and money while producing stellar results.

The Canadian non-profit Elephant Thoughts recognized Ben's passion and innovation in sustainable building. They quickly enlisted his services to build their new passive retreat at The Wood at Kimbercote. This organization specializes in youth's environmental and cultural education and was keen to build passive for their new school. The long-term financial and health benefits made passive construction an obvious choice for this charity.

Close to the Niagara Escarpment, a UNESCO world biosphere site, construction of this passive retreat is currently underway. At over 2000 sq ft, the building is orientated for optimal southeast glazing exposure and solar gain while being nestled into a hillside to protect against the elements. The site is dotted with natural vegetation and tall shading trees, left undisturbed to ensure efficient shading and cooling in the summer months.

While Ben is an experienced passive builder, this project presented unique challenges. The building is located on a hill, so a typical slab on grade build was not viable. Instead, Lowery meticulously worked with the project design team to develop a passive building with a walk-out basement. Careful design and planning combined with top-grade building methods and materials allowed the team to overcome the air barrier transition between the basement's foundation wall and wood framing.

Similarly, as the building will eventually have a high occupant load, it requires a significant amount of fresh air, reducing its efficiency. However, Lowery and his team recaptured most of the lost efficiency through a combination of air source heat pump mini-splits and an unvented flat hot roof. This gently sloped insulation package allows for effective draining while increasing the building's r-value. In addition, cellulose, the chosen insulation, adds little to the building's low embodied carbon while drastically insulating the 16-inch joist space.

The Kimbercote project is currently in its first phase, and Ben is excited to see it through phase two until completion. Each phase of the building will provide slightly different teaching and learning spaces for youth and the wider community in general. Elephant Thoughts' choice to build passive is a clear example of how charities can benefit from this innovative building standard. The new retreat at Kimbercote will provide safe and clean air and a carefully regulated thermal environment for learning for many generations. It will also allow this non-profit organization to practice what they preach regarding sustainability, while low maintenance and energy fees will allow for deeper investment in their fantastic education programs.

While Ben is preoccupied with the Kimbercote build, his business is quickly growing, and he is working on various other private passive projects. By designing, manufacturing and providing prefabricated passive building shells (walls, windows and doors), he makes the sustainable building financially accessible for more projects and people. While prefab and passive standards are more compatible with simple morphological structures, Ben continues to prove how the prefabrication design process can help overcome some of these building challenges. His process is exceptionally efficient and sees an average 2100sqft 2-story gable roof home constructed with three weeks of prefabrication in shop and one week assembly on site.

Ben claims that prefabrication is the future of passive house. It eliminates typical complications and dangers with scaffolding and bad weather while creating a planning system that integrates designers, architects, builders and trades better, allowing for a more focused and collaborative building process. It allows for cheaper and faster buildings without compromising on quality or sustainability. Lowery is excited for the future of prefab, insisting that private investment drives innovation, which will eventually result in fewer logistical obstacles and an overall cheaper, more efficient process.

Wishing Ben and the team at Elephant Thoughts all the best in the future. Their innovation and drive will empower and inspire youth, other organizations and private investors to protect the earth and hopefully continue building passive. Here's to a safe and successful build at Kimbercote.

Articles on the PBC website reflect the views of the author and not necessarily those of PBC.