This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

July-August 2008

College students learn sustainable design—by building it themselves

Jesse McLean

Fleming college students constructing a green building.

Fleming College students constructing a green building.

“No one would think it’s possible to have students with no construction experience making an entire selfsustainable building from scratch,” says David Elfstrom, a graduate of Fleming College in Peterborough, Ontario. But that’s what he and 25 of his classmates in the sustainable building design and construction program did in 2006, erecting an eco-friendly outdoor-living centre in five months.

Since the program began in 2005, Fleming’s students have raised three structures around eastern Ontario, including a food bank and a performing arts centre. Its goal is to produce graduates who have the skills and knowledge to create truly green buildings, and some of the program’s grads have already formed their own sustainable-building companies.

While green construction is gaining momentum throughout the country, most sustainable construction focuses on individual parts, such as solar-energy collection or water conservation. In this unique-in-Canada program, students and two instructors design, build and decorate a sustainable building—using earthen plasters, earth-bag foundations, straw-bale walls and natural paints.

Chris Magwood pitched the program to Fleming College in 2004 after close to 100 people applied for an unpaid, unadvertised apprentice position at his green construction company. “It struck me that if this many people wanted to work with my company for a season, there were a lot of people who wanted to push sustainable building into the mainstream,” he says.

The school signed on. Within months, Magwood was developing an intensive 20-week, hands-on program. The students, many with no construction experience, spent nine-hour days, five days a week, on-site, their nights filled with theoretical readings. “No one said it would be easy,” Magwood says.

The program’s first project was in Haliburton, Ontario, where the local food bank and thrift shop resided in a dilapidated storage garage. The municipality provided a construction site and money for building materials, and the class set to work. Five months and $120,000 later, the 4Cs food bank and thrift store had a new home.

Thanks in large part to solar panels adorning the building’s roof, the annual operating cost for the new building is less than what the old space cost in a month. On sunny days, the panels suck in enough energy to both power the structure and send surplus energy to the grid, to be used by the neighbourhood. While the building uses some conventional power for heating and electricity, energy bills have been dramatically reduced because of the store’s solar panels and radiant-floor heating. Like all of Magwood’s projects, the 4Cs site uses at least 50 percent less energy than a conventional building.

Still, the project is special for more than its environmental benefit and cost savings. “The community takes a fair bit of pride in it,” says Ted Scholtes, who sits on the food bank’s board. “We point it out to people because we have something unique.”

This year, 92 candidates applied for 26 spots in the Fleming program, and the college received several proposals from business and homeowners looking to get a sustainable building. Despite the program’s popularity, Magwood doesn’t expect similar ones to start appearing across the country. “I go to conferences and people are interested, but the field is still so new,” he says. “We’re a little ahead of the curve, and I think it will be a few years before the others catch up.”

Program graduate Elfstrom is more hopeful. “The success [at Fleming] is making other colleges think twice about their own programs,” he says. “There should really be more of this.”

[Editor’s note: this article originally appeared in the July-August 2008 issue of This. There have since been two more buildings built by Fleming students—a summer camp environment centre and a Habitat for Humanity residence.]

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