Saturday, April 26, 2008

Jennifer Corson's Green Story

My great grandfather was a stone mason who moved from Italy to Canada with his two brothers. Together they built some of the most significant structures in their small Canadian town. If I had made the connection to my building roots, I would have gone straight to the construction trades to gain experience. Instead I followed some wise(?) person’s suggestion to combine my interests in math and the arts and enroll in an architecture program. One thing led to another and next I knew I was building earthen structures in West Africa on a thesis term. The proverbial ‘light bulb’ moment occurred, standing in remote Guinea, realizing that the nicest places to sleep is built with local materials (not being able to afford or access things from afar), cooled with natural ventilation (simple holes in an earthen wall), and designed with whatever creative details that can be done with simple materials and your hands.

Back on North American soil, these ideas of ‘local’, affordable, recyclable and renewable and beautiful have stayed prevalent in my design work. Although no longer building earthen structures, our design company’s mandate is to design green – always, and without question.

My second official title is as ‘salvager’ (which I believe is the Scottish side of my family lineage). A client’s design job reignited the salvage-minded approach that I witnessed in Africa. In designing a solar-oriented, energy-efficient home, the added request was to have it look 100 years old upon completion. It seemed ludicrous to me to specify new wood and beat it up to look old. I went ‘dumpster diving’, talked to contractors and realized there was the opportunity not only to salvage enough doors, flooring and hardware for this project but to divert tons of materials that was otherwise going to the landfill. The result, now 14 years old, is Nova Scotia’s oldest all used building material facility.

Green building to me refers to an ultimate goal, still intangible, that we have yet to achieve. It is a lot of fun and hard work learning how to design and build ‘green buildings’ (a term that is already over- and inappropriately used). Every project we touch gives us a learning experience that we use on the next project to help us get to that goal.

Being a parent of two youngsters has influenced the pace that I want to get towards good green building. It seems imminent that our natural surroundings are changing, species, habitat and view-lines disappearing with screwed-up examples that are anything but green.

--Jennifer Corson M. Arch. is an architect with Solterre Design and president of Renovators Resource Inc., an architectural salvage and dismantling business in Halifax, Nova Scotia

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