Can a building clear the air?

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Smog over Almaty city, Kazakhstan - Igors Jefimovs


The competition is now closed.  Thank you to all who contributed.

Please check back on March 30th when a gallery of the design submissions will be made public and voting will begin for the 'People's Choice Award'.




Community Forests International (CFI) is excited to announce its second architectural design competition for the backwoods cabin of the future.  The first, hosted in 2014, drew in over 50 entries from 11 different countries and served as a platform for exploring how humans can get back to nature in the 21st century.  Bringing together visionary architects, artists, green builders and DIYers, this new challenge addresses the climate crisis and will help transform the organization’s 235 hectare (580 acre) organic farm and forest outside of Sussex, New Brunswick, Canada into a Rural Innovation Campus.

The winning design will be constructed in the summer of 2016 and will accommodate students, guests, and innovators-in-residence on campus.  The winning team will receive a $1,000 cash prize.

The Rural Innovation Campus compliments parallel efforts in Tanzania, where a sister facility was constructed on the island of Pemba, Zanzibar in 2013.  These two facilities, though worlds apart, are aligned in an international partnership devoted to uniquely rural solutions -  solutions to challenges such as: food, water, and energy insecurity; economic marginalization; and, above all else, climate change.

Permaculture training at the Rural Innovation Campus - Pemba Island, Zanzibar, Tanzania


Can a backwoods cabin help us reach these goals?

The build-up of greenhouse gasses in our planet’s atmosphere is one of the biggest challenges of our time.  It’s changing the Earth’s climate – upsetting a natural balance which for thousands of years has ensured that the tides rise only so high, the rains come when needed, and the polar ice remains, well, ice.

If our generation is to meet this challenge we need to change too.  We need to change how we generate energy, grow food, travel, build - we need to reimagine it all in light of how our lives impact our climate.  Business as usual got us into this trouble, so now it’s time to disrupt the status quo. 

The goal for anyone willing and able to tackle this historic problem is twofold:

1) limit the amount of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere as quickly as possible; and

2) pursue innovations which allow humans and the planet’s natural ecosystems to absorb excess emissions and sequester them safely.


What do buildings have to do with it?

This is no small question.  Buildings contribute 30% of annual global greenhouse gas emissions and consume more than 40% of global energy![1]  The building sector is such a large contributor that if we don’t figure out how to reduce its impact we’re locking ourselves into worst-case scenario climate change.  It’s a deal-breaker.

The good news is that like all big problems this presents an equally great opportunity.  The building sector has the biggest potential for delivering significant greenhouse gas reductions at low or no-cost – more than transportation, agriculture, or waste.[2]

For the intrepid designer the bar is now set. Can we reshape our built environment so that it supports our natural environment?  Can a building help heal the climate?

CFI staff explain the ideas behind the challenge and provide a tour of the completed 2014 winning design - Atlantic Journal / TV1


Design Challenge

In the interest of making this exercise as free and accessible as possible, CFI has modified the conventional approach to architectural design competitions.  We hope that our architect friends will forgive us for taking liberties!  The competition is open to anyone from anywhere - no registration required - and teams are invited to submit questions at anytime throughout the designated Q & A period (Feb. 12th - 26th, 2016) using the comments section below.




  • Conceive and design a small all-season shelter for backwoods accommodation of one or two people.  The shelter will be used primarily as sleeping quarters for students, workers, dreamers, and guests.  The overall user experience of this unique retreat-like accommodation should be a central design consideration.


  • Compact size and efficiency are important.  Although there is no minimum size in this challenge, the shelter’s ground level footprint must not exceed 17.09 square meters (or 184 square feet).  It should sleep at least two and provide for a woodstove.  Loft accommodation may be considered, and additional features such decks, tables and seating are optional.  A composting toilet will be located in a separate shelter ‘on site but out of sight’.  Primary cooking and washing facilities will be accessed at communal infrastructure nearby (i.e. no washroom, plumbing or kitchen necessary in the shelter design).


  • Minimize greenhouse gas emissions.  This is where the real innovation happens, and a building’s overall impact on the climate will be of primary importance in evaluating design entries.  In this case we are looking for designs that pay careful attention to: 1) minimizing the embodied carbon of the construction materials (i.e. choosing materials with a low carbon footprint); and 2) minimizing the emissions associated with operating the building (i.e. designing for efficiency in terms of heating, cooling, and lighting).  For more information on the carbon footprint of various building materials we recommend the Inventory of Carbon and Energy Database produced by Circular Ecology and available for download in Excel format here (see Summary Table tab within). A table drawn from that database and demonstrating the differing embodied carbon values for some common building materials follows:


Table 1. Embodied Carbon of Common Building Materials


  • Material costs for the cabin must not exceed $10,000 CAD and design solutions which keep costs low are encouraged.  We understand this presents a significant challenge.  As a charity we are limited in our resources, and in the interest of making our work transferable we have to assume the same for most other people and organizations too.


  • Teams are encouraged to carefully consider the region’s climate and geography, and to respond in meaningful and appropriate ways.  We are situated within a local snow belt in a forested upland valley at 2,593,372 meters easting and 7,415,708 meters northing (UTM NAD 83 CSRS New Brunswick Stereographic).  The average mid-winter low temperature is -14 °C (7 °F) and the average mid-summer high temperature is +25 °C (55 °F). Insulation and heating efficiency for the winter months is very important, but so are sun shading, passive cooling, and natural ventilation during the summer.


  • Develop strategies that maximize the use of local, sustainably sourced, and non-toxic building materials.


  • Teams may also draw inspiration from existing buildings on site and / or the region’s local architectural design and material history.  This inland area of the Kennebecasis River Valley has straddled Mi’kmaq and Maliseet territory for thousands of years.  The traditional dwelling of both these peoples is a portable wigwam constructed using softwood poles, spruce root lashing, and birchbark sheathing.  The region’s Acadian architectural history includes stone foundations and fireplaces, shingled roofs, dovetailed logs, and heavy timber frames with cob infill walls.  The early English settlers introduced more log shanties and timber frames, stone enders, saltboxes, etc.  Wood construction has dominated in the region since the mid-1700s, due mainly to the abundance of forest products.


  • Teams should aim to keep structural and building techniques as simple as possible so that winning solutions are transferable to a wide scale.


Submission Requirements

Teams are required to submit their completed entries via this UPLOADER or by email to


1) Illustration (up to 6 pages)

Each proposal can consist of up to six (6) illustrated pages of letter-sized paper (8.5 × 11 inches) documenting the architectural design strategy.  All submissions will be displayed in an online gallery under Creative Commons licensing via the CFI website and short-listed entries will also be displayed at a public venue in Saint John, New Brunswick.  Your presentation should include the following drawings:

  • Site Plan
  • Floor plans
  • Elevations
  • Exterior perspective or Axonometric 
  • Building section or sections
  • Any other drawings or diagrams that you think might help explain your project


Illustrations are to be submitted as .PDF files labelled with the following filename designations:

  • TeamName_1.pdf
  • TeamName_2.pdf
  • TeamName_3.pdf
  • TeamName_4.pdf
  • TeamName_5.pdf
  • TeamName_6.pdf


Design entries will initially be displayed anonymously for judging purposes, so make sure that the pages themselves do not have your team’s name or identity listed.  Following judging, team authorship will be included with links to relevant online portfolios.


2) Project Description (up to 2 pages)

Provide a brief explanation of your entry’s design and approach, highlighting the particularly innovative and / or central themes (max 500 words).

Submit as .PDF file with the following filename designation:

  • TeamName_description.pdf


3) Materials & Price List (one page)

Provide a materials and price list for your entry in an Excel file.  Remember that material costs for the cabin must not exceed $10,000 CAD.

Submit as .XLSX file with the following filename designation:

  • TeamName_budget.xlsx


Building Site


Topographic map of building site and surrounds - Rural Innovation Campus, New Brunswick, Canada

Topographic map of building site and watershed - Rural Innovation Campus, New Brunswick, Canada



The building site is located on a southeast-facing slope at ~150 meters (~490 feet) elevation within a forest stand composed largely of white spruce and white pine.  The tallest surrounding trees range between 16 - 18 meters (50 – 60 feet) high and irregular openings in the canopy allow dappled sunlight to reach the forest floor.  Sightlines towards the south provide views over a young orchard and farm fields along the Whaelghinbran Valley.  Moving west the slope climbs to ~290 meters (~950 feet) elevation.

Minimal selective pruning and canopy removal will be carried out at the south end of the building site to increase solar exposure for a photovoltaic array and / or passive heating.  Aside from careful maintenance of this solar exposure and removal of hazardous trees when necessary, the site will remain largely untouched.

Aerial photo of building site and surrounds - Rural Innovation Campus, New Brunswick, Canada



Access to the building site is provided by a nearby forestry extraction trail and footpaths to the east which connect to a public dirt road.  Therefore, only light machinery may be used for delivery of materials, excavation, construction, etc.  The finished building will be accessed primarily on foot and seasonally by snowshoe or cross-county ski.

Whaelghinbran Nomadic Cabin - Rural Innovation Campus, New Brunswick, Canada


Additional Buildings

Currently the only additional building in the immediate vicinity is the Whaelghinbran Nomadic Cabin, a realization of the winning design entry from our previous competition.  A simple firewood shelter will also be constructed nearby in the future as well as a small composting toilet.  In time, it is envisioned that this area will be populated by a number of independent retreat cabins - a network of private accommodation sharing central cooking and cleaning facilities. Though teams are encouraged to consider how their design will contribute in a unique way to the larger community of buildings, each cabin will be sited for privacy and will be experienced in isolation.




Kate Wallace – Journalist, Writer, Founder of Ignite SJ

Kate has worked in the arts for well over a decade, most recently as a national award-winning journalist and as Executive Director of ArtsLink NB. A native New Brunswicker, she believes fully in the place of the arts in her province’s future. With degrees in anthropology (McGill, 1997) and journalism (Concordia, 2005), and lots of international stamps in her passport, Kate brings a deep curiosity about culture and a broad perspective to her work.


John Leroux  - Architect, AANB

A graduate of the McGill School of Architecture and the graduate program in Canadian Art History at Concordia University, John has worked at several award-winning architecture firms in Toronto, Atlanta and Fredericton. John is a contributing architecture columnist for the Telegraph-Journal and Canadian Architect magazine, and also the author of six books on New Brunswick architecture including Building New Brunswick: an architectural history.


Kim Thompson  - Natural Builder, Teacher, Executive Director of the Deanery Project

Kim lives in her handmade home in Nova Scotia, which happens to be the world's first ever code-approved load-bearing straw bale house.  Her latest endeavor is the Deanery Project - a not-for-profit organization with a focus on the environment, youth and community, natural building, and the arts.  In addition to straw bale the Deanery is a regional leader in such techniques as sod roofs, hempcrete, and natural finishes like earth plasters and milk-based paints.


Nathan Fisher – Architect, Defending Champ

An intern architect at Architects + Research + Knowledge in Toronto, Nathan was the winner of CFI’s first cabin design competition in 2014. He graduated from Lawrence Technological University, where his thesis project won a Re-Thinking the Futures International Thesis Award in 2013. Like his winning designs, Nathan seeks a symbiotic relationship between nature and architecture. In his spare time, Nathan can be found restoring his century-old home in Toronto.


Judith Mackin – Founder and Creative Director of Punch Productions, Punch Inside, and Tuck Studio

Judith Mackin is a Saint John-based entrepreneur with distinctions ranging from interior design and freelance journalism to heritage conservation and the arts. Judith recently completely an ambitious modern build with Acre Architects in the heart of St. John’s heritage district - INTO THE WILD – which was featured in the prestigious quarterly International Architecture & Design.


Craig Applegath - Architect, PPOAA, AAA, Architect AIBC, NSAA, FRAIC, LEED® AP

Architect, urban designer, and a pioneer in planning and design for regenerative buildings, urban resilience and symbiotic cities, Craig is a Principal at the Toronto studio of DIALOG, a multidisciplinary architecture, engineering, design, and planning firm. 


Estelle Drisdelle – CFI Co-founder, Homesteader, and Permaculture Designer

Can we have our conservation and eat it too? This is the focus of Estelle’s work as Food and Ecology Specialist at CFI.  Estelle is certified in Permaculture design - a holistic practice that emphasizes low-carbon and passive approaches to buildings and the natural systems that surround them – and she lives off-grid in hand built straw bale house.  As CFI’s jury representative, Estelle will contribute her personal experience (read trials and tribulations) putting ecology and ethics first in the design, construction, and operation of a small home.

Mongolian ger (yurt) - Rural Innovation Campus, New Brunswick, Canada



All entries will be displayed via the innovation platform on CFI’s website.  Short-listed entries will be printed and displayed in a public exhibition in Saint John, NB.  The winning entrant will be announced on April 1st, 2016 and awarded a $1,000 cash prize.  The winning design will be constructed at CFI’s Rural Innovation Campus in the summer of 2016 and profiled in associated media communications and on the CFI website.



Feb. 12th, 2016                                     Competition and Q & A Period Opens

Feb. 26th, 2016                                                   Q & A Period Closes

Mar. 26th, 2016                                                   Competition Closes*

March 30th - April 13th, 2016             People’s Choice Voting / Jury Deliberation

Apr. 15th, 2016                                     Winners Announced & Released to Press


*11:59 PM Atlantic Standard Time (AST) / Heure Normale de l'Atlantique (HNA). The Coordinated Universal Time (UTC) offset for AST time is: - 04.



All entries will be protected under Creative Commons licensing (Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International).  Entries submitted should be the original work of the participant or team.


View south from building site area over young orchard and farm fields - Rural Innovation Campus, New Brunswick, Canada


[1] Buildings and Climate Change: Summary for Decision-Makers. United Nations Environment Program – Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative. 2009. pp. 6

[2] Common Carbon Metric: for Measuring Energy Use and Reporting Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Building Operations. United Nations Environment Program – Sustainable Buildings and Climate Initiative. 2010. pp.2

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