The following is the text of a 10 minute presentation given as part of a Green Building Forum at Victoria’s annual Organic Island Sustainability Festival, held July 10 and 11th, 2010.
Good morning. In the time I have available I’d like to share with you some ideas about what I think sustainable design means and some ways we can design homes to reduce their ecological footprint, reduce their cost and make them more resilient places to live the years to come.
There is a common perception that sustainable homes and buildings are going to come about from technological advances like paint-on solar panels and better heat pumps. I won’t deny that these likely have an important role to play in future sustainable dwellings. However, before we get caught up in the technology there is an even more important requirement: good design.
Good design is what helps us make the most of finite resources, fit our buildings to their site and to the sun, and respond to the needs of their occupants.
But even good design is not enough to get us to where we need to go with our buildings if we leave all our habits and expectations unquestioned. I can think of a couple of extreme recent examples that illustrate what I mean, such as a 6000 SF “Green Mansion” profiled in the Times Colonist in May 2009, and Jay Leno’s 17,000 SF “green garage” with its wind turbines and solar panels to make it more “sustainable”
I would say that we need a shift in values and culture towards things like greater personal responsibility, smaller homes, less stuff and new measurements of happiness. If we were to approach the design process with an open mind and a willingness to question what we really need to be content, many things are possible!
So, the design process that we like to promote in my firm starts with these bigger issues and leaves the technological decisions to later in the process. Here’s a condensed list of what you might consider if you were planning to build a home with a truly smaller footprint.
We would encourage you to start by purchasing a building site where you could get to work, to shopping, to schools or to meet friends, without spending half your day in a car. The ability to meet your daily needs by walking, cycling or taking transit would have a huge impact on your carbon footprint. People in North America move, on average, every 6 years or so. Consider making this home a place where you’ll stay for the long term, rather than treating your home as a short-term step towards the home you really want. A serious investment in sustainability is much easier to make if you are going to be the one benefiting from it over the long term.
Next, we would work to make your planned home no larger than it absolutely needs to be. Some guidelines suggest a figure of 500-600 sf per person as a reasonable target. This saves land, materials, energy to build and operate, saves money, frees up resources to invest in sustainable features. And it means you need less stuff. Remember, the average home today has more than 200% more space per occupant than it did 50 years ago. Were people less happy then? The stats say no.
Once we got the square footage down, we’d situate the house on your site so that it got lots of sun in the heating season, and then design the roof and windows to take advantage of that sun. We’d make it longer in the east-west direction and seriously cut down on glass on the north and west sides. There would also be big overhangs to keep it cool in the summer and lots of opening windows to allow natural ventilation.
Then we would make the house as airtight and well-insulated as you could afford – so that it would require very little energy to heat or cool it. In fact, in our climate it is possible to insulate well enough to do away with a heating system altogether. There’s a home near Sidney that’s operated this way since the 1980’s.
Inside this snug structure we would put heavy, dense materials to create thermal mass. This would keep indoor temperatures relatively constant day to day and season to season, by moderating extreme fluctuations. We would also make sure that all electrical fixtures, lights and appliances in the house were super-efficient.
Another important and often overlooked consideration: If you really wanted the house to be sustainable, and to last for many decades, we would make it beautiful, so that future generations would see that beauty and be inspired to put the energy into its upkeep and renewal.
Once we’d covered these aspects, we would design systems that captured the renewable energy and rainfall that occurred naturally on your site. This is where the technology comes in.
In our region the water that falls on the roof over a year is sufficient to provide for the modest needs of a careful household. With proper heat storage, solar thermal panels or tubes can supply up to 100% of your hot water needs, and can also be used with a radiant in-floor heating system.
A modest photovoltaic system would generate much of what you needed for electricity throughout the year. If it was connected to the electrical grid, at night and in the winter you could buy whatever little bit of extra power you needed. In the summer, you would sell your excess production to hydro – resulting in an annual net bill of zero.
Once the house was completed, we’d plant the yard with a great variety of food-producing and soil-building and habitat-creating plants. This could dramatically reduce your food footprint and begin, in a tiny way, to rebuild the natural legacy of rich soils and biodiversity that we started with.
So far, I’ve been talking about new housing, where it’s obviously easier to go further than when you’re dealing with an existing home. However, lots of these same principles and ideas – such as increasing insulation and utilizing renewable energy – are applicable there as well.
The important thing to realize is that the home is a tremendously empowering place to invest your efforts towards sustainability. The opportunity to modify your environment, to impact very significantly on the amount of energy you consume, to create food, to harvest water and wind and sunlight, to recycle and reuse your wastes, all these things go a long way towards putting you back in a nurturing and harmonious relationship with the earth.
I’d like to leave you with a quote from architect Rolf Disch, a pioneer of green building in Germany. He says: “When you build a home, you have a responsibility for the whole society”. I would extend that to add a responsibility to future generations, and to the planet as well. On a finite world, every action we take has consequences, and few actions have more consequences than how we build and live in our homes.
I believe that if we acknowledge that building has this moral dimension, what we need to do to achieve true sustainability becomes much, much clearer.