The Carbon Question: through both ends of the telescope

Joggins Fossil centre

High-performance glazing improves the thermal performance of the large windows and diffuse natural light deep within the building. Hemlock siding is locally sourced

by Ron Burdock Carbon is suddenly the word on everybody’s lips: carbon dioxide, carbon footprint, carbon offsets, carbon sequestration, carbon tax. The accumulated effects of two centuries of burning fossil fuels on a huge scale have made human activities, including those associated with the built environment, a significant contributor to the rate at which the planet’s climate is changing. But climate change itself isn’t new.  This is a project that reaches back to the Coal Age to shed some light on an issue very much in the headlines today. Joggins, Nova Scotia is the finest Coal Age fossil site in the world where fossils were laid down alongside coal seams some 300 million years ago.  Rich, local vegetation thrived in that era, and as the plants died and were covered by silt, the carbon they contained was removed from the atmosphere, resulting over time in a lowering of average temperatures. It’s the reverse of the climate change direction we are experiencing now. Creating a site development plan for the 16km of Bay of Fundy coastline associated with the Joggins Fossil Cliffs presented a conflict: keep operational costs of the interpretive centre as low as possible while also supporting the maximum number of activities, tourists and the researchers whose admissions would support its operation. And this was not to be just any rural attraction; the site was on Canada’s nomination list to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site, imposing a very high standard on every aspect of the project. Fortunately, the building stands on the site of an abandoned coal mine and the poetry of using that story to illustrate how our relationship to fossil fuels must change could not be missed.  More pragmatically, saving energy to reduce operational costs became a vehicle to increase public information and awareness. Along with the chance to use a world-class resource to educate visitors about the fossil story itself and about the related processes of climate change, came the responsibility to ensure the ongoing stewardship of that resource. Instead of burning fossil fuels, a locally manufactured 50kW wind turbine will potentially supply close to two-thirds of the facility’s power. A smaller fraction is provided by solar photovoltaic panels. These two measures are the most visible of several green building strategies. Energy consumption is minimized by making the building as small as possible while still meeting its program requirements. Air-to-air heat pumps combined with wall and roof insulation values of R-25 and R-34 respectively reduce space heating demands, and solar hot water panels reduce domestic water heating loads. The building is zoned to permit seasonal-use areas to be kept at a lower temperature in the off-season. Abundant natural light is provided to most occupied spaces; south light with sea views in offices and public spaces, north light in exhibit spaces.  Nova Scotia-manufactured glazing improve the thermal performance of the large windows and diffuse the natural light deep within the building. Water efficiency was also critical, and complicated by well water quality on the site compromised by the historic coal mining activities. Captured rainwater from the green roof for non-potable needs saves on treated water. From an aesthetic viewpoint, the naturalizing vegetation on the roof caps the cliff-like form of the building and blends the centre into the landscape. Local materials have been used to good effect in creating this connection to the landscape, and to the geological and industrial history of the site.  Wallace sandstone, quarried less than 100km away, and Nova Scotia-harvested hemlock clad the building, their shadow lines parallel to the sloped roof recalling the layers of sedimentary rock in the cliffs and the now-vanished mine structures. As the project proceeded, the client quickly realized that the sustainable design approach was inseparable from their mandate of stewardship of the fossil resource and encouraged the pursuit of LEED certification. The project is aiming for LEED Gold. Joggins’ fossils have always been associated with big ideas.  In the 19th Century it was evolution, with the likes of Charles Darwin and Thomas Huxley citing their evidence to support natural selection.  In the 21st Century, the fossils are helping to explain climate change while the Centre itself is an example of how sustainable design adds both tangible value and deeper meaning to a building project. Visitors to Joggins take away a better understanding of the world-renowned fossils, of climate change, and the means to address it. It is an understanding that comes from viewing the issue through both ends of the telescope. Ron Burdock, NSAA, MRAIC was the Design/Project Architect for WHW Architects Inc.


  • Client: Cumberland Regional Economic Development Association /Joggins Fossil Institute Association
  • Architect and Interiors: WHW Architects Inc., Halifax
  • Structural Engineer: BMR Structural Engineering, Halifax
  • Mechanical/Electrical Engineer: F.C. O’Neill Scriven & Associates, Halifax
  • Landscape: Vollick McKee Petersmann, Halifax
  • Contractor: Pomerleau, Halifax
  • Civil Engineer: ABL Environmental, Dartmouth  Environmental  Strum Environmental, Bedford, NS
  • Photographer: Craig Mosher, NSAA, MRAIC,WHW Architects Inc., Halifax [except Aerial Photo – John Eaton]


  • Exterior: Solera glazing by Advanced Glazing Systems, Green roof with Soprema membranes and IKO Aquabarrier AVB primer/ adhesive, local sandstone and local pressure-treated hemlock sidings, exterior stain by Olympic Stains [PPG]; Fibrex CWB insulation and TrueFoam roof insulation
  • Interior: Interior paint by Pittsburgh Paints, dual flush toilets and waterless urinals, Lightolier and CFI lighting by Canlyte, InterfaceFLOR carpet tile, Global Contract office furniture
  • HVAC: Heat pumps by Trane, heat recovery ventilators by Nu-Air Ventilation, photovoltaic panels by Sharp, Veissmann solar hot water panels
  • Building Area: 1182  sq. m
  • Budget: $5.4M

Automation and Building Controls

by Blaine Mayo The various mechanical systems are controlled a building automation system that integrates all the mechanical systems together through communication networks and graphical user interfaces. In this application, comfort, air quality and energy conservation were all incorporated into the design of the building. Heat recovery ventilators take heat from outgoing indoor air and transfers it to fresh incoming air. Air quality sensors provide a signal to the control system which varies the amount of fresh air delivered to the various spaces in the building using variable speed motor control. This allows the amount of fresh air delivered to the building to match the requirement based on the number of occupants. Domestic hot water is heated through a solar system which is monitored by the control system. Potable domestic water usage is monitored through a meter connected to the system. Rain water is stored and used for toilet flushing. The control system monitors this usage, and only takes water from wells when there is not adequate stored rain water. Blaine Mayo is president of Advanced Energy Management Ltd. in Moncton which installed and commissioned an Alerton Native BACnet building automation system.

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