A Green Office in Alberta

Walking the Talk: MCA Environmental Management

23, Dec, 2016

An emerging trend is incorporating sustainable technologies and practices at work. So we talked with Melinda McLauchlin, C.Tech, Owner of MCA Environmental Management, to discuss how she’s made a green office at her Bluffton, Alberta home.

ASET: Can you outline the history of how you designed and built the office?  

Melinda McLauchlin: We drew it on a napkin, ha ha.  Seriously, both my husband and I are environmental professionals and we needed a garage, and an office to share for our companies, ELMatters and MCA Environmental Management. So this was an obvious solution to both issues.  Once we outlined how we wanted the structure to look — it’s a box really — we discussed the ways we could build it to ensure it was energy efficient.  We selected contractors for each portion of the building process, from the earth movers to the carpenters, plumbers and electricians.  Everyone knew what our goals were for the building and we put some sweat equity into it as well.  

A: What are the technological features of your structure?

MM: The office is a 2,000 ft2 two-story slab at grade structure with in floor heating on both levels.  The main floor is a three-bay garage, and the upper floor has three offices, a guest bedroom, a full bathroom and mini kitchen.   

Starting at the top, we have solar operated attic fans on the roof, and the insulation of our roof and ceiling is R60 and R45, respectively. We constructed insets for electrical in the concrete floor so that no holes exist in the exterior wall.  We also constructed bulk heads for lighting on the ceiling, again so we don’t have any holes in the building at all.  The exterior of the building is covered in hardy plank, a concrete board that helps increase insulation.

Moving down, we also have a double staggered stud wall (8 inches) that prevents thermal bridging. The concrete floor has in floor heating, but the second floor provides a thermal mass for the passive solar window design, which allows the sun to come into the building during winter months.  Finally, the building has triple pane windows, and generation 6 LEDs in all our fixtures.   

With our solar panels and wind turbines on site, we generate 2.2 kW of solar power, 2.7 kW of wind power, and 1.8 kW of solar hot air.  This is roughly 2900 kW hours per year of solar and 1800 kW hours of wind power — overall the building is net positive.  We supplement our heat with approximately 500 litres of propane per year.  

A: Beyond the sustainable technologies, what other environmental practices do you follow?

MM: MCA recycles cardboard and paper, as well as batteries. I drive a hybrid vehicle. We compost, feed lunch scraps to our chickens and ducks, and we have LED lighting through out the building.  Portable coffee mugs and water bottles are a must when travelling.  

A: What do you think are the tangible and intangible benefits of choosing to function in a green office?  

MM: Besides the serious operational cost savings, it is nice to walk to the talk.  As an environmental consultant, it is great to be able to look around and know that you are doing what you can to reduce your carbon foot print.  How better than to invest in your own building?

The building is also very solid and energy efficient.  It is very quiet.  The building maintains a pretty constant temperature due to the solid build and thermal mass it can hold.  It is also a great conversation piece with clients when they come to the office and see for themselves the solar panels, the thick walls of the building and the turbine whirring.  

A: What are important considerations when planning to build/convert current workspaces into green offices?  

MM: The capital cost is high.  We easily spent 15 per cent more than a normal build, but we have more than made that money back since it was constructed in 2008.  

Be energy-efficient first, then worry about microgeneration.  Little things make a big difference.  By not putting holes in the outside walls or ceiling we have significantly reduced the heat loss in the building.  So again, we spent more on the building to accommodate these little things, but the result is an appealing, thoughtful interior.  

Work with someone you know and trust.  Our contractor was excellent.   He was excited to learn about alternative energy ideas that we wanted to implement, such as thicker staggered walls, concrete floors and hardy plank on the exterior.  He had excellent ideas on how to design the bulk head on the ceiling to make it look nice too.  

There is a trade-off for being efficient.  Be aware that if you seal your building envelope you need to deal with the interior air quality.  We installed a heat return ventilation (HRV) system to keep up our air quality.  If your building is too sealed up you have no air flow, and you need air flow to deal with moisture.  

Continue learning and remain practical. We found solar is a much better return on investment than wind, and is more reliable for any location in Alberta. Also, the solar hot air panel was an add on so we did not vent it throughout the whole building. It turns out that the solar hot air is often way too hot as it only vents into my office — great in the winter, not so much in the summer. If we were to do it again, I would have vented it throughout the building to disburse the heat better. Finally, some people go into building/converting a green office with the intent of going off grid. In my opinion, an office is not necessarily the best place to go off grid.  I need constant power all the time to run my business, but I feel good knowing that I can offset my power use.  

Examples of unique building modifications to limit heat loss through exterior walls. Top Left - Floor insets for electrical outlets. Top Right - Ceiling bulkheads for lights. Bottom Left - The wind turbine is located about 200 m to the southeast of the building in an open 160 acre field to increase the turbine's activity. Bottom Right - Outside view of the structure, including a solar hot air panel on the second floor, and the solar array on the east side of the building.

To view the original article in the online issue of Technology Alberta, please click HERE.