Building blocks of sustainability
Picture a small boy sitting on a tall drafting stool, drawing rocket ships, submarines, and houses – sculptural, impossible, fantastical houses. That was me almost 50 years ago, enjoying the drafting board that my architect father kept at home. In the cozy living room below, my parents entertained friends from all walks of life. Among them were folks who had moved from California to B.C. to experiment with living closer to the earth and each other. It was the end of the 1960s, a time of creativity and chaos, and a time of growing awareness of the fragility of the world and our social systems. My parents felt this, and bought a quarter section of land out of town as a place to go should things get out of hand. In me a seed was planted.
As a young adult in the 1970s, I gravitated to others who were questioning the status quo. I spent time on a Kibbutz, bought a tipi, grew my hair and beard long, and lamented being too young to have been part of the counterculture. The early 1980’s found me in architecture school. Initially I flourished, winning scholarships and awards, but after two years I left, disillusioned by how the profession seemed so oriented to serving the elites of society, and oblivious to the social and environmental crises I believed were just around the corner. Cross-disciplinary bachelor’s and master’s degrees followed, where I sought to understand the lessons the counterculture offered in how we might exist in harmony with the natural world. In pursuit of a more alternative lifestyle, I moved to the Kootenays, where I fell back into architecture – initially because I needed a job and happened to be good at it. It became a passion that continues to this day.
A concern since my return to architecture is the nagging question: what do architecture and building have to contribute to sustainability? In other words, how do we design homes that are not simply less bad–being more energy-efficient, say, or having better indoor air quality or renewable materials–but are actually neutral or even positive in their impact on the world?
This is a vitally important question. In North America, buildings consume massive amounts of resources and contribute roughly 40 percent of our total CO2 impact to the atmosphere. If you add on the impacts from water use, runoff, commuting, our consumer habits, and so forth, you can see that where, how, and what we build has huge implications for the planet.
What is being done to change this? To my mind, not nearly enough, There have been a few tiny wins: incremental tweaks are made to the Building Code to encourage better energy efficiency; windows and doors are better insulated; Comox requires new homes to be Built Green, Bronze level. Consider the last two decades of building here in the Comox Valley – largely built on the idea of car-focused sprawl: wide streets, big lots, large homes, conventional infrastructure, big-box stores. The course of the evolution of our valley seems to have been entirely left in the hands of the developers, while well-thought out initiatives like the 2010 Comox Valley Sustainability Strategy languish on the shelf.
Leaving the important issue of urban planning aside for now, what does a truly sustainable home look like, one that is not simply less bad? I’m not sure that such a thing exists, although the Living Building Challenge strives for this very goal. What I do know is that we can build a home that is so energy-efficient it doesn’t need a heating system. We can harvest rainwater from the roof to use for domestic consumption of irrigation. We can recapture waste nutrients from sewage and waste heat from its plumbing systems. We can grow food and recycle nutrients through composting. We can build with natural, low-carbon materials like hemp, lime, wood, and earth. We can generate electricity from the sun sufficient to be “net zero” over the course of a year. We can do all these things, making in the process a beautiful, healthy, and enduring home that is on the way to being entirely benign.
And what does it cost? The answer to this question depends on why one chooses to build this way. If someone wants a more “green” home to feel like they’re doing something positive, but has at the same time all the other lifestyle expectations prevalent in our society – lots of space, lots of stuff – it’s going to be expensive, costing perhaps 30-50 percent more than a conventional home. However, if one wants to make a serious attempt to live sustainably, the home will be smaller. It will probably have fewer modern conveniences, and a sweater might be chosen over turning up the heater on a really cold day. The house will contain less and its owners will make things last. In this scenario, a sustainable home might cost the same or even less than a conventional home.
The kind of sustainable living I’m talking about includes a culture change. How we live is determined by our values. What is a good life? How much is enough? What is my fair share of the commons? How do I begin to take responsibility for my personal impact on the planet? I believe these are the questions we need to be asking and the answers are what will lead us in the direction of real sustainability. Today, nearly 50 years after the start of my story, I’m still grappling with them. I live with my family in cohousing, which is a good way to cut back on stuff. Our home, at 1,450 sq ft is smaller than the average home but it’s conventional in construction. We grow food, but only a small part of what we eat. I walk to my office most days but we have a car and it gets driven more than we’d like. We don’t fly anymore but we take road trips to see friends and family. The way our world is currently set up, it’s hard to do it on our own.
This is why sustainability is a journey: we’re all somewhere on that road, some just starting out, others well on their way. Going the distance will take courage and a willingness to abandon the “if I can afford it, I should have it” ethos of our society. Sustainability is certainly about living a more frugal and modest life materially, but it’s offset with finding simpler pleasures in community and daily life, and where better than here, in the Comox Valley.