Sustainable housing and real estate in Kitchener-Waterloo Region


Visions of integrative-sustainable housing.

Anyone who knows me knows that I’ve been dreaming of building my own earthship on a large acreage (enough for a woodlot, orchard and gardens)  for many years now. I think about this all the time and hopefully someday in the no-so-distant future it will become a reality. I love growing vegetables/gardening, and definitely love the idea of living in a home that can provide me with self-sustaining renewable supplies of food, energy and water.

Integrative Sustainable city

I also have dreams of a more integrative city in the future. A city where green spaces collide with living spaces and buildings can “live” on their own. Buildings that can collect and store energy, collect and clean water, and even grow food for their occupants, not to mention help clean the air.

It doesn’t matter whether you believe climate change is “hype”– these types of building and designs make sense in many other ways. In a world where security is an issue and people are told to create “emergency preparedness kits” for their homes, it makes good sense to not have to rely on a grid that could be possibly unreliable. It also saves money, create oxygen and creates a more natural looking setting.

It makes good sense to have a way to feed cities within the cities. This ensures that in case of emergency there are still food sources available to the population. It’s also much, much cheaper to grow your own produce from seeds than buying it and it tastes so much better because it hasn’t ripened on a truck or sat in storage at some facility before being shipped. There are even services out there now in some cities that you can hire to come and tend your vegetable garden for you if you don’t want to grow them yourself. They can be grown on roofs, sidewalks, and any space big enough to hold a pot. The spaces on roofs and boulevards can also be rented out to others for them to grow produce or flowers.

city gardening

It makes good sense to have energy available on a renewable individual basis without having to be attached to some massive grid. Again it’s cheaper– much, much, much cheaper. Installation costs can be returned on utility savings in short periods of time and if you are collecting enough energy, you never pay for utility costs again. You only have to worry about maintenance and replacing the systems every 15-25 years. Again– in the case of emergency– you still have power. Makes sense.

reed bed waste treatment

It makes good sense to have a way to clean and collect water. We all need water to live, and we use a LOT of it. There are many creative ways to reduce, collect, treat and clean water that have been converted to home use and could be done on a much larger scale. Reed bed waste water systems,  for example, have very low operational costs compared to other types of waste treatment options because they use gravity for the main pumping instead of coal-burning fuel. They also look better from the outside, because instead of a massive treatment facility spewing out sludge there is only a space full of plants (creating more green space).

green roof

The city I imagine uses space wisely– more efficiently and thoughtfully. It integrates and maximizes spaces like the roofs and walls of buildings in innovative ways. It diversifies the usages of the land– combining retail space with business space, with residential space, with farm space, with industrial space, with recreational space, and making them all work together, reducing the need to travel for daily activities.

green wall

These types of initiatives are starting to happen all around us. The more we invest and use these types of systems– the better they will become. Ontario has started to implement Smart Growth policies in an attempt to redevelop the land to help prevent urban sprawl.

sustainable city growth

So let’s start creating energy, creating useful space and creating clean air instead of using energy, destroying useful space and polluting the air. It just makes sense!



Welcome aboard the earthship!

What is an earthship, you ask?

Earthship in Brighton

Earthship in Brighton

Let me tell you. The earthship was the brainchild of one American man named Mike Reynolds who began experimenting with different types of architecture in the 1970s.

Reynolds dreamed of a home that would be entirely self-sustaining, using natural materials indigenous to the area or recycled materials for building, with the home being able to generate its own electricity, heating and cooling, as well as cleaning and collecting its own water, and in many cases even incorporating greenhouses within the space to grow some or all of its own food. These homes would be entirely “off the grid”, so to speak. As the concept developed over the years, Reynolds began even creating subdivisions of these homes that from outward appearance, looked much like any other neighbourhood. The difference is, the people living in these suburbs had annual combined utility bills of $0-100, cheaper building costs and healthier indoor space.

Interior

The idea experienced a lot of flack in the beginning. The American government nearly shut down construction and research permanently as it hammered Reynolds with red tape involving what a  legal subdivision should entail and denying him permits or permissions to build any new structures. As with any new technology, some kinks needed to be worked out. The technology is getting better everyday, as more homes are built and more people learn the trade.

Recycled bottle bathroom

The first homes had difficulty being entirely “off-grid”; some complained about extreme temperatures or lack of water or other comfort issues. Many of the first homes had composting toilets, but are now mostly using a system involving a solar-enhanced septic tank with leach-field and planter cells. As time went on, these kinks started to unravel and the technology got better and better and more comfortable to live within.

Rammed tire walls

Mike’s most common design involves using recycled tires and ramming them full of earth until they have great load-bearing capacity, thermal mass and resistance to fire. They are then plastered and decorated. You would never know they were once old tires underneath. So why are we not building most homes using these types of technologies yet?

Interior

It’s coming, slowly, but surely. People seem reluctant to invest in something they consider “experimental”, especially when they themselves and their families will be living within it. Earthship rental properties available in Taos, New Mexico that offer people the chance to see what it’s like to live in this type of home seem to be an encouraging idea.

There are several under construction right now in Ontario. Check out here and here for some more details.  Want to learn some techniques how to build your own earthship in Ontario? Check out here and here.

A different design

Mike even exported this idea to tsunami victims in Southern Asia to help the local population rebuild cheaply, sustainably and in more weather-resistant ways. This technology is now sprouting up everywhere, with earthships from Nicauragua to India. There is a really great documentary now available on Mike’s struggle to bring out this technology called Garbage Warrior. I highly recommend you check it out!

WBuilding an earthhip in Nicaragua.

Want to try living in an earthship of your own? Check out this earthship for sale in Ontario.



What does sustainable really mean in housing anyway?

We’ve heard the word “green” for so long now, what is this other new catch word “sustainability”? Sustainability is a holistic concept, concerned with the big picture. It looks into the overall cost in terms of economic, ecological, and social costs. It is about looking at where the raw materials that went into a product came from, what happened to them along the way and the final result of where it ends up. It’s looking at the entire lifecycle of something and figuring out the most efficient way to make it happen with the least waste as an end result.

In housing, this translates into efficiency in water usage, energy usage and the minimizing of overall adverse health problems. It also means looking into where the building materials came from in the first place and finding out whether or not they are using a system that is maintainable and respecting human rights. It’s about reducing the waste that goes into a product, and finding ways to reuse the product in a new way once it’s reached its usability. It’s about thinking about the ways we are living and finding ways that better suit our current needs. Desiging the spaces around us, around our environment and figuring out the best usage.

Many innovative designs are available. Architechture and engineering schools are turning more and more to sustainable designs and ideas, but the turnover to the building industry is slower. The turnover to the real estate market, probably the main driver of how the building industry will run, even slower.

Not all of the kinks in the new technologies have been worked out, and we should not rely solely on one means of securing energy. Instead we should diversify. The more energy efficient or energy creating technology becomes in demand, the more research will be done and the more options will come out.

It’s not about changing everything overnight, but it is about making small changes to be more efficient and cost-effective (including social and ecological costs as well).

It doesn’t even mean making any real structural changes. It can be as simple as switching your energy provider to one that offers more sustainable energy (in K-W you can try www.bullfrogpower.com). It’s about stopping the leak in your sink, and cauking the cracks. It’s about turing the heat down one degree and putting on a sweater. It’s about updating windows and doing proper insulation. It’s about changing lifestyles to be less wasteful.

The smaller maintanence and daily lifestyle changes make huge differences. Not only in reducing environmental impact, but also in costs. You will save money. Sustainable efficient living will save you money. It will save the amount of toxins getting into your home and into your body.

All housing requires maintenance. When you do the maintenance, think about using more sustainable options in place of what you would normally do. If you don’t know what options exist– ask me! I’d be happy to share my resources with you.