The two-storey cob house sits in the background surrounded by trees and gardens.

WHERE: 3295 Compton Rd. Victoria
WHO: Ann and Gord Baird

Nestled atop a winding driveway in the Highlands, Eco-Sense feels worlds away from the LEED-rated modern buildings of downtown Victoria. The 7.5-acre lot features nature as the primary architect, with a home, workshop, eco-hut, and gardens all constructed from natural materials. Eco-Sense was the first residence in the world to be rated under the Living Building Challenge program—the world’s most rigorous performance standard for buildings.

Just over 10 years ago, Ann and Gord Baird set out to build a home that was regenerative to the land. The couple wrote out their proposed plans and consulted multiple municipalities in search of farmland.

“Our goal was to live and build reflecting our values, which is difficult these days because how do you break out of the system, right?” says Ann. They ended up with damaged land previously owned by a junk collector. Scotch broom, ivy, and Himalayan blackberries had taken over and the whole lot was situated on a giant rock.

Despite these challenges, the Bairds designed and built a cob home that uses 90 per cent less electricity and water than the average home. “What we’ve learned is that you can’t impose your own ideas on the land,” says Ann. “The land tells you what you can and can’t do.”

Ann and Gord Baid in front of the cob house in February.

In October 2010, Eco-Sense received Petal Certification under the Living Building Challenge. The rating system focuses on making sure the built environment is regenerative not destructive to the surrounding ecosystems. Eco-Sense met the strict regulations and received Petal recognition for four categories: site, water, health, and beauty.

Built entirely of non-toxic and natural materials, Eco-Sense features solar energy, composting toilets, grey water recycling, rainwater harvesting, living roofs, and solar thermal hot water The Bairds chose cob for its suitability to the south Island climate, inexpensiveness, and structural stability. The home embodies a modern and affordable vision of earthen architecture.

Eco-Sense is heated by a highly efficient wood gasifier. It ties in with the solar thermal hot water to act as a combination system to warm the space and the in-floor heating and also provides domestic hot water. In the summer, the excess heat filters into a solar dryer that dries fruits and vegetables. The composting toilets are highly efficient and productive. After a two-year composting cycle, all the materials can be used in the gardens.

The home has all wood countertops and recycled earthen features, staying away from the “red list” of toxic materials the Living Building Challenge outlaws such as mercury and cadmium. “Our home is a lot of high-tech things mixed with mud,” says Ann. “Our home could last over 500 years if the roof is maintained.”

The eco-hut

Although Eco-Sense did not earn Petals in the energy and material category, it achieved net-zero energy, producing all of its own electricity. Petal certification requires that structures be built out of 100 per cent recycled material. Eco-sense fulfills this—with the exception of wood features—which were 90 per cent sustainable.

Along with building a home to suit its environment, Ann and Gord have protected much of the site with a covenant. They have kept their impact to areas that were already damaged while simultaneously regenerating them. They produce all of the fruits and vegetables they consume and their plant nursery is open to the public in the spring and summer.

“It’s amazing how much food we can produce on a rock,” says Ann. “There is a way of fulfilling our needs while still enhancing the natural ecosystem.”

Eco-Sense shows the potential for modern technology and nature to exist as one. “Everything we’ve done here can be done in a city,” says Gord. “Use what suits and preserves the environments you are in.”

— Shayna Kuffert

photo credit April Garrison and the Bairds. See the Eco-sense flickr account for more.

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