the agritect

@VELD architect, southwestern Ontario

Archive for agritourism

Wilmot Township barn declared unsafe for gatherings


The verdict issued by the Ontario Fire Commission on Tuesday is a complex issue and an important debate for agritourism in Ontario. It highlights the difficulties and often the rigidity of policy that townships must uphold, and the lack of discourse between residents who are the heart and soul of a place, and the municipality they live in. My biggest disappointment in this verdict is not the fact that they are required to meet safety requirements, but that the township was unwilling to come to reasonable safety requirements in an open conversation.

I the case of the Wilmot barn they are holding occasional events in their bank barn. Already we run into the first problem, the building code has no provisions or rules when it comes to temporary or occasional uses. You either are or are not a barn, not sometimes a barn and sometimes a gathering hall. So when this grey area needs to be interpreted by the municipality many interpretations can occur. In this case Wilmot township chose to interpret that there is no temporary assembly use of the farm building is permitted. This may or may not be a value held by other municipalities.

The bank barn, when originally constructed was not built under any building or fire codes, but has now been slotted into our current regulations as a farm building. There are certain criteria that you must meet to be considered a farm building, foremost being low human occupancy. When 200 people gather in a building there are risks and the building code is designed to protect the safety of the public. The building code is the law designed to protect us. If we start with that idea, not that it is designed to make us jump through fires hoops it becomes less of a burden. No one is exempt from meeting the minimum code requirements.

However, there was an engineer engaged in this project to assist the Owners through this process of hoop jumping. In the building code there are many paths you can choose to travel and the engineer proposed alternative measures that met the intention of the building code without using prescriptive methods. However most municipalities get very nervous when they are asked to approve alternative measures as they do not want to be liable for damages should these measure fail to protect the public. Nevertheless the alternative measure proposed we designed to satisfy the building code and the fire code (different but related laws). These alternative measure were likely designed to be a reduced cost to the owner, more feasible, and likely more appropriate for the existing building to protect the public. This is where I feel the municipality really let their residents down. They failed to have a discussion on alternative measures that would satisfy them and also the Owner. They forgot that without this Owner and the blood, seat, and equity they put into their barn and their community there would be no reason for the existence of the municipality. Not to mention economic stimulus, increased tourism, and overall community culture.

Verdicts like this and from the building code commission are often used as precedent for future disputes, and unfortunately this is a bad one that could hurt other barn conversions and agritourism similar to this. The owner was more than willing to protect the safety of the public through the alternative measures proposed in the engineering report.  The lack of discourse and flexibility in code interpretation shows Wilmot’s lack of support for its community culture. Many municipalities have recently changed planning policy and zoning regulations to make it easier for agritourism to thrive. They have recognized that when their residents succeed they do to.


Rural Revitalization Idea #1 -tobacco kiln B&B




As many of you probably don’t notice anymore, smoking in bars, entrances, and other places has mostly disappeared from Ontario. All you have to do is go to Europe and you will appreciate the smoke-free environments we enjoy in Canada. However, this industry shift took a very hard toll on Tobacco farmers in Ontario. In many places, these Tobacco farmers have gotten quite ingenious with the old kilns, good soils, etc. and have gone into niche markets. But many farms lay with abandoned tobacco kilns sitting empty waiting for a use! Well I have got one… Wouldn’t it be cool to renovate a farm with a few kilns and turn it into a B&B or hotel! Or even a campground! Image a landscape full of kilns all mini cottages with long-term cottagers and your weekenders! Each kiln could probably hold a small family, with a great loft bedroom! Each kiln could have a semi private porch, skylights, views of the rural landscape. Each kiln nestled between rows of vegetables and decorative plants. Each morning you could get up at the crack of dawn to help the farmer, relax in a hammock all day, or go on a day trip exploring the rural landscape.



I was told once that the more you share your ideas the more they come back to you. So this is part of a series called Rural Revitalization Ideas where I throw my ideas out to the universe and hope they come back to me! The series will focus on projects in rural Ontario(or anywhere) that I think (and hopefully others will too) would be cool places to add to Ontario’s rural tourism, culture, and atmosphere. Feel free to add and suggest your own or contact me if you want to pursue one of my out-of-the-box ideas!

Happy New Year

Good luck with all your 2013 projects!

Check out my guest post at Rural Futures Lab talking about my story and my visions for a healthy rural culture!


The RUPRI Rural Futures Lab aims to create a new future-oriented narrative for rural America. They focus on the economic drivers that will make rural regions increasingly vital to the nation’s well-being in the coming decades – food, energy, natural resources, and ecosystem services. These systems offer considerable potential for economic opportunity and quality of life improvements for rural people and places.

Rural Relics – A Foundation for Possibilities

I was recently introduced to a bit of Waterloo Region's history. Black Horse Corners, a once bustling small town with an Inn, tannery, fueling mill, pump shop, shingle mill, shoemaker and blacksmith shop, all of which are not longer present except for some remains of the old Inn which burnt down.  Located at the corner of Northhumberland Rd. (58) and Cedar Creek Rd. just east of Cambridge is Black horse Corner and you’ll miss it if you’re not paying attention to the small yellow sign at the intersection.  The Inn used to sit at the north-east corner and the ruins of the walls are just a few feet down from the field surface. The inn was built approximately around 1859, it had a horse stable and outhouse. Jeff Stager, the owner of the farm says that the Inn is only a few feet down and he could easily expose the ruins for curious visitors to explore.

But we cannot forget the cheese factory which still stands near the corner on the farm of Jeff Stager. It has been restored,  along with a smoke house, and designated as a heritage structure. When Jeff took me on a tour of the cheese factory it was a cold windy day.  As we walked into the cheese factory it was warm and cozy and the view across the yellow corn field to the inn was perfect! So perfect I felt that the windows should have a see-through film with and artist rendering on what the small town would have looked liked in its hay-day!

View towards the Inn site

Black Horse Corner it Jeff’s little secret and he wants to share it! There is a great piece of history just waiting to be explored by everyone. Jeff and I spoke about many possibilities for the site including; B&B, cabin rental, a new artisan cheese maker, a cheese store, an artist studio.  We also thought a path along the creek on his farm would lead you right from the cheese factory door to the ruins of the inn, you could even make a corn maze out of it! If you have idea for adaptive reuse, renting the space, or an agritoruism/history project, want to be involved with the abandoned town, leave a comment here.

to LEED® or not to LEED®…

…that is the question I get all the time.

But first, what is LEED®. LEED® stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It is a process of third part certification that determines the energy performance of your building. Based on a scoring system you can achieve a number of different levels;

  • just certified (40-49 credits), 
  • Silver (50-59 credits), 
  • Gold (60-79 credits), 
  • Platinum (80+ credits).

These credits can be achieved by meeting the various requirements from each of the following categories (note that each category has prerequisite credits that must be followed in order to achieve any certification);

  • Sustainable Sites (14 available credits) – deals with choosing brownfield’s for your developments, encouraging alternative transportation (hybrid, cycling, etc), protect and restore habitat, manage stormwater, reduce light pollution, reduce heat islands from roof and paving surfaces.
  • Water Efficiency (5 possible credits) – deals with minimizing water use in building, processes, landscaping, maintenance, etc. Also credits for innovative water technologies.
  • Energy & Atmosphere (17 possible credits) – This category deals with reducing your energy use by using innovative technologies, renewable energy, measuring and monitoring energy use.
  • Materials and Resources (14 credits) – the credits associated with this category is about supporting local business and regional materials, using certified wood, using renewable materials, using materials with recycled content, or recycled materials, and maximizing waste diversion to recycling centers.
  • Indoor Environmental Quality (15 credits available) – this category encourages you to use low off-gassing materials, increasing the comfort of occupants with daylight and access to views, providing good ventilation and operable windows.
  • Innovation & Design Process (5 possible credits) – this category suggests you hire and architect (just kidding)! But it would definitely help in coordinating and managing all these credits. This category is for interesting and unique ideas that do not fit into other categories.

After you total up your points then submit the necessary paperwork, you can have LEED® certification! See here for a more detailed checklist.

So what good is that most people ask?

LEED® has a number of benefits. It does good things for the long term operating costs of your building For example less turnover of employees because of the great environment, reduced energy costs, a sense of responsibility to the future quality of the environment. LEED® can also be a major marketing tool, for example the Fifth Town Cheese was the only LEED® certified facility in Canada of its kind, that pretty unique marketing.

So how much will this cost me? 

This is another common question.  The costs are becoming less and less as more and more people implement green strategies. The legal standards set out by the Building Code, Conservation Authorities, and Municipalities become more in line with LEED® criteria and thus the credits are now required by law anyways. It depends what point you are pursuing and what your project baseline is, but generally there seems to be a range of 0-3% of your construction costs additional. However this upfront cost, will pay itself back many times over through the life of the building. It requires some long term thinking, which most business owners would appreciate.

Material, Energy, and Water savings

Should I pursue LEED®?

This is the most important question! Is LEED® right for you and your project? I recommend that LEED® certification be used where your clients will recognize the certification or you can use it for marketing purposes. But I also always recommend good sustainable design and construction practices and LEED® is a great guide to the options.  But there are other options as well such as Passive Haus, ecological footprint, Green Globes, etc. All which have good ideas for building sustainably.

…in the end its up to you to define what sustainable means to you and how you want to pursue it in your next building project.

Find out more about LEED® here. Or send me a comment if you have more questions about sustainable energy-efficient design

Who moved my cheese?

That's what I felt like after biking 35km to the Fifth Town cheese factory in Prince Edward County. Designed by Lapointe Architect, it has been on my architecture bucket list for many years for a few reasons; it was designed by an architect; it gave me hope that an architecture career in agritourism was possible; it is LEED platinum, and I love cheese. Unfortunately, within the past few weeks it entered bankruptcy and was closed (and not because the architect went over budget), just as I had the time to visit Prince Edward County.

After a 30km bike ride to get there it was a welcome rest point, with dedicated VIP bike parking (a LEED point). Unfortunately I was not able to go in or get a guided tour there was lots to see from the outside, and I had done my research on the unique green features.

The factory is one of Ontario’s only cheese factories (or any rural building excluding wineries) that is LEED certified. It meets the criteria for Platinum, which is the highest level of certification. For those of you who don’t know what LEED is, (a post is coming) it stands for Leadership in Energy and Efficiency Design and it is a certification process the measures and confirms reductions in energy use for your building. The diagrams below shown the energy, water and material savings the design provided to this business owner, when compared to other industry standard designs of the same type of building. These savings would get passed onto the business owners! you the farmer! Not to mention its a great marketing tool!

Material, Energy, and Water savings

The building has some unique building materials to give it character and make it unique. Not only does it have corrugated steel cladding (inexpensive) it uses a composite lumber (the red stuff), as well as this unique product called Durisol blocks for the foundations. Durisol blocks are like insulated concrete forms (ICFs), but they are made of a concrete wood fibre blend, giving them additional strength, more insulation value, and more sustainable materials. The Durisol blocks make up the walls for one of my favorite features of the facility; the aging cave. You can see me standing on what looks like a big mound of dirt, which it is, but it is cover and keeping cool the cheese aging cave. You can see in the photograph the viewing window/cave entry on the bottom right. The cool temperatures of the earth significantly reduces the energy required to keep the cheese cool as it ages.

Aging Cave viewing entry, and earthen covering

The facility also looks after water management and waste in a sustainable manner. Whey and wash water are waste products from the cheese making process. The site was designed with bio-wetlands to filter and clean this waste water so that it could naturally infiltrate into the ground again. The Factory also uses cistern to collect roof water and use it for non-potable (non-drinkable) uses.
Whey bio-filtration system

Whey bio-filtration system

Although there was no opportunity for me to taste cheese, there plenty for the building to “say” cheese, with all its goodness!20120605-124500.jpg

Farmer meet Building Code, Building Code, this is Farmer…

Ontario Building Code

I can just image how the conversation would go after that introduction…Farmer; “why do I need to put a sprinkler system, fire alarm, washrooms, in my building? its just a barn! With all this red tape and regulation your going to put me out of business!!”
Building Code; “The requirements are a health and safety concern for the general public who might be coming to visit your farm. I know it’s just a barn, but when the public arrive, its more than that. I am just trying to look out for the well-being of the general public.”

If your having a rough day with the building code, check out this for a laugh.

I am continuing to encounter the grey area that is in between the Agricultural Building Code that governs farm and low occupancy buildings and the Ontario Building Code, that governs all other buildings types as I look at various rural projects. As farmers bring the general public out to the farm with agritourism and on-farm markets, this grey area is going to become more and more contentious.

To give you an example, there was a farm in my area that was holding weddings in the old bank barn (a beautiful setting and probably quite lucrative business). But when the township discovered this, they sent the building inspector over. As you can probably imagine there were a lot of deficiencies. So much so, that they were unable to meet these needs and they closed their doors. In another instance a friend of mine visited a winery to see if they could hold their wedding at the location. They viewed the facilities and it was quite clear that the barn was not originally designed to be a wedding hall, and did not have the necessary requirements (ie, washrooms) to meet their needs (including a lack of aesthetics), let alone building code requirements (ie. number of exits from the building).

As an architect I am very familiar with the Ontario Building Code, it dictates almost everything I can do with a building and it is designed to protect the health and safety of the general public. The Agricultural code, however is more concerned with the general good practices building practices, nutrient management, and building structural integrity. As a farmer if you are considering bringing the public to your facility you may encounter some of the following issues;

1. Washroom count – based on your occupancy use(store, or wedding hall, or office space) and your occupancy count (number of people), the building code dictates how many washrooms you require. Of those washrooms it is likely that a number of them will be required to be barrier free (or handicapped accessible), see number 7 below. Using the occupancy load recommendations, posting a maximum occupancy, or designing a specific load the architect can keep the washroom count reasonable and suited to your business and budget requirements.

2.  Your project should fit into on of these major classifications Group A-assembly, Group B-Care, Group C—–, Group D-mercantile, Group E-business and personal services, Group F-Industrial, and further into the subdivisions. So if you want to host weddings at your farm, then you need to be in the Group A-assembly use. But if you just want to have a store or spa service, then you classify as Group D or E.  The occupancy of your building will determine requirements such as number of washrooms, sprinkler systems, fire alarm systems, etc.

3.  Once the occupancy type is determined using the defined groups above in the building code, then your building is sub-classified and must meet the requirements of a certain sub-category that is mostly based 3 factors;

  • area of the building
  • sprinklered or not
  • what it built out of (combustible or non-combustible materials)

Each category often has other requirements that can help or hinder your project. An architect can creatively fit you into a category by managing the above factors, that does not blow the budget, schedule, or aesthetics, etc.

4. So barns are made of wood right, well thats true, but the building code is going to have something to say about what you building your building out of. The code will define if your building is made of combustible or non-combustible construction. Wood is the cheapest structure but it is definitely a combustible material. Depending on which classification your building falls (see item 3) into you may need to do one of two things with your structure;

  • cover and fire rate your wood structure, this often involves 2 layer of type ‘X’ drywall (thicker and more expensive than regular drywall), or
  • Change your building structure into a non-combutible material. This is either steel, concrete, masonry, and heavy timber. Note that steel is generally non-combustible but it does melt, so it does not have a fire rating if fire ratings are required.

5. Barrier free and accessible design are a contentious issue.  Most people think that accessible design is for wheelchair only, but it also include visually and hearing impaired persons. Accessible design in the building code is very specific and quite stringent. The code will affect things like ramps at 5% slopes, universal washrooms containing special fixtures, grab bars, and space to turn a wheelchair around, elevators if necessary, colour and texture contrasting materials, corridor widths, automatic doors, etc. The most costly item that may be affected by accessible design requirements is an elevator.  It is good to work with a designer and the building department to ensure that a elevator is not required if you cannot afford it. Creative solutions might need to be found as a ramp to replace an elevator to go up one full storey will be about 60meters (200ft) long!

Are there any building code issues you recently encountered with your agritourism project?  Let me know. Or if your having issue now, feel free to contact me. Remember the code is a huge document of approximately 2500 pages. An architect is well versed in the code and can help you navigate it smoothly without costly requirements or renovations before your done construction.

(note: requriements from the 2006 Ontario Building Code)