Sustainable housing and real estate in Kitchener-Waterloo Region


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.



Renewable energy in housing

Most of our energy comes from non-renewable resources such as coal, oil, natural gas or radioactive elements. Once removed from the ground and used, these energy sources can take up to millions of years to reform. At the rate we are going, most of the resource deposits in the earth will be completely used up in less than 200 years (and maybe faster).

Renewable energy replaces itself quickly and can come from the natural flow of sunlight, wind or water. We need to spend more time and energy developing ways to harness these natural energies and to do so using sustainable resources. There are actually relatively cheap and easy ways to build yourself energy collecting devices You can check out www.re-energy.ca for some ideas to get you started. They can also be installed or retrofitted into your home so that you can create as much energy as you use and be more sustainable. This can result in great energy and money savings!

Did you know that Natural Resources Canada, the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation and National Research Council Canada have been working together to export innovations in energy efficient housing (http://www.super-e.com/)?

We do have the research abilities here in Canada. In fact, we even have a Canadian Centre for Housing Technology to help test it out for us (http://www.ccht-cctr.gc.ca/). Many of these energy-efficient houses look just like any other suburban or city area from the outside. They have been working on these projects for over a decade, why are they not yet reaching the market?

Consumer choice and lifestyle will have a huge impact on the housing market and it’s progression. Look into other energy options. You might find out that an intitial investment will actually save you in the long run. You might even be able to help fund it through governments grants and incentives.

If you want more details, please ask me.



Toxins in the home.

Now don’t panic, but many different types of toxins are found throughout the average home. These toxins can be extremely harmful to our health. While it is incredibly difficult to remove all the toxins from our households immediately, it is something you should be aware of and begin to take steps towards reducing. Many of these toxins are carcinogenic (meaning cancer causing), and fatal or life threatening to humans in certain doses. They can cause severe health issues. Many are not naturally eliminated from the body and can be stored over time with each exposure, eventually reaching potentially dangerous limits. Many of these toxins are accumulated in our bodies and can be passed on to our children. Some of these toxins can accumulate in our fatty tissues and only become more highly concentrated as they move up the food chain. This is something we should be concerned about. We can take steps to reduce the toxicity of our home ourselves, which I will detail shortly.

 The building industry needs to be aware of this issue and make some changes to ensure housing is less toxic and that toxic materials are not used in its making. They are slowly becoming more aware. Some companies have switched to using more environmentally friendly and non-toxic products. The government has taken steps to prevent some of chemicals (such as asbestos) from now getting into our buildings, but have not taken enough steps to fully protect us.

 Some carpets, electronics, furniture padding and mattresses, and other materials contain brominated flame retardants (BFR’s). These chemicals can disrupt hormone and reproductive systems.

 Pesticides are often introduced into the home to get rid of insects, weeds and moulds. Different types of soaps, household cleaning products, paints, wallpapers and other materials can be sprayed or coated in pesticides prior to sale. Pesticides can cause disruption of hormones, reproductive systems and are also very carcinogenic. Some also contain heavy metals, which can be absorbed, inhaled or ingested into the body. Pesticides are poison, meant to kill living things.

 A range of products contain perfluorinated chemicals such as perfluorooctanyl sulfate (PFOS) and perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). These are often found in floor polishes, denture cleaners, shampoos, herbicides, insecticides, adhesives, and for surface treatment of clothing, carpets and cookware. Perfluorinated chemicals are carcinogenic and can also disrupt horomone and reproductive systems.

 Many cleaners, paints, textiles and leather treatments, pulp and paper processing and agricultural chemicals contain alkylphenols which can also disrupt hormone and reproductive systems.

 Many of our electronics products are full of toxins that are highly dangerous to humans, especially during the manufacturing processes. People should take caution when repairing, breaking or disposing of these products so that they do inhale, ingest or expose themselves to toxins or leach the toxins into the ground water systems. Certain light bulbs can contain mercury, so can several newer electronics devices. Cadmium can be found in SMD chip resistors, infrared detectors, semiconductors, older types of cathode ray tubes, and some plastics. It concentrates over time in the body and can cause severe health problems. Electronics can also contain BFRs, barium, beryllium, hexavalent chromium, dioxins and furans; all highly toxic to humans and animals.

 Also toxic in the home: most paints, furniture polish, spot remover, varnish, glues, drain cleaners, oven cleaners, floor cleaners, disinfectants, ammonia, scouring powder, bleach, laundry detergents, flea sprays, fertilizers, air fresheners, aerosol sprays, batteries, and motor oil.

 There are easy (and usually cheaper) alternatives that are easy enough to make. Baking soda, washing soda, vinegar, lemon juice, cornstarch, table salt and borax when mixed in the right proportions can work fabulously in place of many cleaners, polishes etc. You can check out http://www.greenaction.org/toxics/home/index.shtml for more details or ask me for recipes or suggestions.

 When painting your home, you can look for paints with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are now offered in many brands, colours and choices. They do not release toxins into the air.

 Avoid using no-pest strips as they can contain pesticides which are released into the air. Get good screens, and fix cracks and doorways. Cedar blocks or bags of cedar chips hung with clothes work to prevent mothballs. Placing dried bay leafs around the corners, cracks, windows or doors will help to prevent spiders from coming in and taking up residence in your home. There are lots of natural alternatives to pesticides.

 When buying new furniture or remodeling, consider using a company that is more environmentally friendly or that uses non-toxic materials. There are many sustainable and healthy choices now available. If you don’t know, ask. If they can’t tell you-look elsewhere. You don’t have to make giant leaps, take baby steps.

 If you want more suggestions, please ask me!



What is a green roof, and how can it enhance my property?
February 17, 2009, 11:09 pm
Filed under: Rebecca Sargent, Sustainability | Tags: , ,

While green roofs have really taken off in parts of Europe– they have yet to really impact the North American market. In our quest for sustainability and “green” products, green roofs make a lot of sense.

Green roofs are kind of just how they sound- roofs that are green spaces– spaces full of plant life. They can be places to grow fruit, vegetables, flowers or any other type of plants. They can be parks, or gardens, an oasis in the hussle and bussle of the city. They can help with heating and cooling in buildings, saving almost 25% of cooling costs in the summer months and even more in heating costs in the winter. They are great insulators, reducing sound by as much as 40 decibels.
They can increase the life span of the roof, lasting almost twice as long as conventional roofing. They reduce stormwater run-off and filter pollutants from air and water, improving air quality in the home and city. They help to increase wildlife habitat in urban spaces, increasing biodiversity. Good tree coverage can add 6-15% value to a home, and green roofs can have similar impacts on home value. It can also be a safe and protected location for gardens, not easily accessible to those living outside the building, limiting vandalism or assault.

But very few buildings take advantage. Large apartment complexes could have urban coops. Share the work amongst the entire building, and everyone reaps the benefits. Or they could sell this space off to urban farmers. We could revitalize mostly currently unused spaces and make them into urban parks or farms.

In the days of emergency prepardness– does it not make sense that those in the city should be able to help feed themselves in some ways? Green roofs can help do this. It also helps to reduce shipping costs– the amount of fuel and energy needed to get our produce and our foods to us. Our produce could be cheaper, because it comes from right beside us.

If all our city buildings had green roofs, our cities could help to feed themselves. We would have more natural spaces in the cities and we would save money and energy.

If you want more information about green roofs, check out http://www.greenroofs.org



Sustainability in the housing market.
January 13, 2009, 2:58 am
Filed under: Market Conditions, Rebecca Sargent, Sustainability | Tags: ,

More sustainable living options are available, but the real estate market has been slow in responding to these options. Perhaps people are unaware of the options that are avilable to them. The market is based on the demands of the people, and the people aren’t demanding it. Realtors aren’t advising their clients to upgrade to more sustainable solutions because many improvements don’t increase the value of properties in the market by as large amounts as other more cosmetic upgrades. Not all builders or contractors are salvaging and recycling their materials or using more sustainable solutions in their building practices because they don’t know they exist or believe it is too costly. The government housing structures and policies have not legislated enough to ensure that more sustainable housing is mandatory. It is a complicated system that is influenced by many factors, but you as buyers and sellers of real estate property can help sway the tide.

Not only are sustainable living measures looking towards the long-term health of the population, and the planet, but most also make long-term financial sense. A more efficient home, that uses sustainable options wastes far less energy, and therefore money. Many simple and easy solutions result in instant savings. Caulking windows, adding insulation, turning off lights, unplugging unused appliances or switching to a programable thermostat are cheap alternatives that can save you a bundle. There are low-flow toliets, and shower-heads for the bathrooms; even fixing simple leaks or drips is important. There are tons of energy-efficient appliances that reduce energy waste. You can insulate your hot water heater and pipes. There are soo many options for you to reduce your consumption in your home for little to no cost (and actual savings on your energy and hydro bills)! If you want to know more, please ask me!

An initial moderate investment in more efficient heating systems, windows, roofing, etc. can result in significant difference in energy usage resulting in great savings! A more significant investment into sustainable energy solutions such as solar panels, wind turbines or geothermal powering can reduce your energy bills to zero, and possibly even result in rebates if you sell your excess back to the system. Wind turbines can start at as low as $2,500.

Did you know that can switch over to sustainable power in your home today? It is slightly more expensive than traditional energy supplies, but means that you are not using polluting and non-sustainable solutions such as natural gas, or coal; or using potentially dangerous raditation producing nuclear supplies. Bullfrog power supplies Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge with alternative sustainable power supplies. Check out http://www.bullfrogpower.com to learn more.

The governments of Canada and Ontario offer rebates and programs to help assist you in retrofiting your home to be more energy efficient and sustainable. There are nearly $10,000 worth of grants available to many households to do this. Take advantage of them. Check out Natural Resources Canada at http://oee.nrcan.gc.ca/corporate/incentives.cfm to learn more about these programs or ask me!

If the market (YOU- when buying or selling a home) begins demanding these changes- they WILL happen! We all have a part in this, and can work together to make change happen!