The Faculty of Agriculture’s TREEhouse project is well underway. The TREEhouse project - the "TREE" part standing for technology for the responsible use of energy and the environment - represents an innovative project that combines applied research, teaching and innovative design in the creation of a sustainable working environment.

The goal of this project is to produce a research building that will allow modern, “greenbuilding materials to be applied, compared and evaluated, while providing students with the opportunity to gain hands-on understanding in modern building practices, recycled products, and innovative designs.


The objectives of this project are to provide opportunities for a range of educational activities:

  1. Research: Technologies, materials and techniques, monitoring and subsequent data analysis
  2. Interdepartmental collaboration: Multi-disciplined project teams
  3. A practical teaching aid: Hands-on experience in project management, waste water management, ecology, design, budgets, engineering, woodworking, structures, communications and computer classes
  4. A demonstration site: Showcase for innovative technology and materials
  5. Information: Presenting the project as a case study and providing online access to sensor data to demonstrate the types of projects and initiatives available to students; providing public access to project results

Project phases

It is hoped that this three-phase project will become a resource to demonstrate how renewable and energy-efficient resources can be incorporated into a home or office setting through renovations or new construction.

Phase 1

Phase one was due for completion in September 2010 and focused on the initial renovation to produce a useable space. The building now benefits from passive solar, recycled insulation, energy efficient lighting, recycled flooring and paint, recycled roofing materials, and exterior siding produced from locally sourced wood products. 

Demolition resulted in the house being completely gutted down to the original studs and wall sheathing. The next step was to assess the potential gain from passive solar. Green Power Labs of Dartmouth, NS completed a solar efficiency survey, which indicated that the installation of five large windows would take advantage of the houses south-facing orientation, resulting in a predicted 20% annual reduction in heating requirements. The majority of the hot summer sun will be blocked by a green roof extension, planned for phase 2. The design of the roof is such that the low winter sun will provide significant heating and lighting during the part of the day when the space will be occupied most.

New wiring was installed with more efficient lighting and the ability to monitor and control temperature, humidity, and light levels and to control energy use in different rooms of the house. Different types of lights were installed to allow comparison between compact fluorescent bulbs, LED bulbs and fluorescent tube lights. The house was wrapped and insulated with two different types of insulation. The east side of the house has walls that are six inches think and are insulated with insulation batts made from recycled pop bottles. Acadian Drywall from New Glasgow supplied the batts, which contain 70% recycled pop bottle and a combination of filler. The insulation has the appearance of fiberglass insulation batts and install easily. The west side of the house has 8-inch thick walls and is insulated with traditional fiberglass batts.

Sensors have been installed in the walls of each zone to allow evaluation of the insulation properties and performance of the different insulation types. Acadian Drywall also supplied the drywall. The paper portion of the board is made from recycled paper.

The house has been broken down into 3 zones separated by lighting type, insulation type, and wall thickness. Researchers will have the ability to monitor each zone in real time to measure light use, airflow, as well as heating and cooling requirements. The individually controlled electrical circuits will allow comparison of the performance of a range of different materials and products. 

The siding chosen for the house is a 100% wood product sourced locally through Marwood. This product is a natural, sustainable product. Recycled roofing material, called “EnviroShake” was selected. These shingles are made from recycled products like plastics, cellulose fibre, and rubber. 

The house has a number of different heating sources to allow comparison. Initially, electric baseboards will be used to allow energy use to be monitored and benchmarks established. Renewable and innovative sources will then be compared to the benchmark set using electric baseboards. 

Renewable sources will be installed in phase three and include solar, heat recovery, grass pellets, and wind energy. One example of an innovative heating source is the application of a system that will capture solar gain using a heat sink; air will then be circulated through the heat sink and around the house. This will be achieved by modifying a standard air exchanger.

Phase 2

This phase of the TREEhouse project deals with waste management, including water used by toilets, internal gray water, and rainwater runoff. The house features a composting toilet, able to manage the capacity of 16 people on a daily basis. Composting toilets keep the waste on-site in a heated container that facilitates breakdown of the solids and evaporation of liquids. The unit will need to be cleaned out once a year and decreases the volume of waste by 95%. Composting toilets are vented and, if used properly, have no odour associated with them.

Systems for gray water management will also be incorporated into the building, along with a “green” roof, which is a flat roof that has 3 to 4 inches of topsoil and is populated with shallow rooting plants. The green roof will provide shade from the summer sun for the five south-facing windows but allows sunlight to enter the house in the winter. The green roof also provides an opportunity to manage rainwater run-off. Gray water from internal domestic use, such as kitchen or bathroom sink water will be captured and used to provide water for innovative landscaping.

Phase 3

This phase considers opportunities to generate electricity onsite thorough renewable energy technologies like wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) panels. Options for the house consist of using a small vertical-axis wind turbine, as well as installing a stand-alone solar PV system. Vertical axis wind turbines are small turbines that are useful in situations such as urban areas, which experience inherently turbulent wind regimes. It is hoped that with the two systems operating together, enough electricity can be generated to completely power the house.

Overall, the house looks very much like a normal house; however, the details tell another story. It is possible to easily renovate a home with technologies for the responsible use of energy and the environment. Many of the faculty, staff, and students at the Faculty of Agriculture have participated in the construction process with very little of the work being contracted out.

Creating the TREEhouse has been a hands-on learning experience for many people so far and projects in the house will be incorporated into the students’ learning environment. Several classes are already looking at ways to integrate the house into different programs of study. A strong partnership has also been formed with many local companies. It is hoped that the TREEhouse project will remain an interactive learning experience for years to come.