Sustainable housing and real estate in Kitchener-Waterloo Region

Rebuilding in Haiti using Sustainable Housing (Earthships)
January 29, 2010, 5:21 am
Filed under: Rebecca Sargent, Sustainability | Tags: , , ,

This is the best idea I have seen for rebuilding Haiti so I have decided to pass it on in hopes that the organizers can reach their funding goals and provide the maximum assistance to those in need.

Those at Earthship Biotechture intend on teaching the people to build their own sustainable housing (earthship technologies) using locally found materials.

Currently the organizers are in need of:

– Camping food, Camping Gear
– Money
– Vaccines
– Connections with people and organizations in Haiti to partner with.

Please check out their website and pass this information on to everyone you can!

Thinking of those in Haiti. Our hearts and minds are with you.

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!

Some criticism of sustainable technologies.

Sustainable technologies such as solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal heating are just really starting to take off. The more these type of technologies are used and become popular, the more efficient they can become, allowing  different and new types of technology to emerge onto the marketplace.

There are criticisms of many of the systems and those who use them will surely tell you they are not without their flaws. Some of the first earthships created, for example, were designed in such a way that they produced excessive, unlivable amounts of heat. They had to be tweaked and perfected in such a way that would address the problems so that they could be livable. As a result, newer earthships are better designed and more comfortable to live in. They needed to be used, tested and tried to even discover what the real problems were to be able to even begin to address them.

Tree hugger

Renewable energy and sustainable technology is really only at its infancy. We are just beginning to realize the true potentials and possibilities that are out there. The best is yet to come.

One of the biggest problems I see with many of the renewable energy technologies (such as solar, geothermal and wind turbines) being truly sustainable is the resources that they require in batteries or heavily mined materials to manufacture them. All batteries require mined metals and minerals that are non-renewable and incredibly waste intensive. Many of the technologies are also incredibly waste intensive during their manufacture, distribution or at the end of their lifecycle, as they wind up in landfills leaching toxins into the garbage soup that may eventually find its way into our groundwater.

Sustainable means thinking about the entire lifecycle of a product, not just how much energy it will save during its usage. How much energy went into its manufacture? How much waste was created? How far did it travel? Where will it go when its done being useful? Will it wind up in a landfill, or can it be recycled? I always like to add to this, was it created/distributed/disposed in a manner respectful of all human rights, because to me, this is also part of being truly sustainable. If a product was manufactured using slave labour or disposed of in a way that will toxify other human beings– it is definitely not sustainable.

So what’s best to use? Which technologies are best? How should we live our lives in the most sustainable way?

There’s no magic answer. Mostly, because the way the world is set up right now, it’s next to impossible to really find out the full details of every product you are using, even if you wanted to. The average product makes at least 10 stops along the way before it ever reaches our stores and we throw it away when its finished its use with little regard for where it will truly end up. This is not being sustainable. There are many great technologies out there waiting to come out and many companies trying to be as fully sustainable as possible, but unfortunately they are being shrouded by all the greenwashing that’s out there.

It’s time to stop greenwashing, and instead really focus on being truly sustainable. This won’t happen overnight, and will take some trial and error. It will take companies looking into the entire lifecycle of their products and finding ways to reduce their impact overall, people wanting to be more conscious and governments strong enough to make responsible legislation.

If you find faulty “green” claims out there or cases of greenwashing- you can report them under the Competition Act.

Home energy audits may soon be mandatory for all residential real estate transactions.
April 13, 2009, 3:55 pm
Filed under: Rebecca Sargent, Sustainability | Tags: , ,

Ontario is in the process of passing  a couple of pieces of legislation that if passed will make home energy audits mandatory for any residential real estate transaction (full legislation information here and here). Many are elated at the progress this will have on making energy efficiency more of a priority in home ownership, while many others feel that this just another unnecessary cost that will be added to the transaction and are angered that it applies only to residential and not commercial sales.

The first piece of legislation to be brought to the table, the Home Energy Rating Act, was referred to the Standing Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs in October of last year, after its second reading was carried in the Legislative Assembly. The second piece of legislation is currently under consideration for becoming a Bill by the Standing Committe on General Government after being carried through its second reading in the Legislative Assembly March 11, 2009. These legislations will apply to all residential detached, semi-detached and low rise multi-unit buildings that have no more than three stories and are smaller than 600 square metres. This bill would require all sellers to have a home energy rating report to provide to prospective owners or tenants for any new buildings starting January 1, 2010, and for all other buildings January 1, 2011. The full details are still being hammered out. Home energy rating reports would cost the sellers an extra approximately $300.

Forcing energy audits  while home inspections that check for structural, mechanical and safety in the home are not mandatory, seems slightly unreasonable. The safety of the future occupants should be a prime concern. Combining home inspections with energy audits could help to solve this problem and would help to keep the prices of the additional audit lower, as the two services could be performed in one viewing by the same inspector.  Some companies do offer both services, but they are usually performed by separate inspectors, trained with different standards and certifications. Having dually certified inspectors or combining these two certifications could be a definite advantage.

The biggest problem with combining the two services is that it is usually the buyers who purchase the inspection, whereas it would be the sellers who would be required to purchase the audit. Both services are really in place for the benefit of the buyer. If positive reports, both services are really advantageous to the seller. So who should be stuck with the bill? It’s complicated.

Standard contracts for real estate sales here in Ontario drawn up by the Ontario Real Estate Association now include a clause in bold alerting the Buyer to the importance of the home inspection and that it is not automatically included in the contract. The inspection and audit can truly assist the buyer in knowing the full costs of their new purchase. These measures allow the buyer to see how to improve the value of their purchase, where problem areas lie, and the best strategy to go about fixing them in the future. The new audit could have the effect of saving the buyer a great deal of money in the future AND increasing the value of their home. It alerts the buyer of any potential problems in the future and prevents unpleasant suprises from occuring.

Some fear that the audit will have the effect of depressing prices and sales volumes as the buyers use the assessments as an additional negotiating tool trying to reduce their sale price. There will surely be some who will abuse these reports, but experience with similar legislation in other parts of the world has had the effect of improving the overall housing stock and reducing costs for first time buyers. Over time, it will only help to increase home values, not reduce them. Properly educating clients (and Realtors) about the realities of what the reports mean will help to prevent them from immediately driving the prices down. 

The Ontario Real Estate Association has recently made a public annoucement stating their opposition to the new legislation. I find this infuriating. The fear that seems to be overwhelming among Realtors is that homeowner’s values will decline because they rated poorly in auditing. The reality is that there are currently very few highly-rated homes on the market and this measure will have more of an effect several years down the line once people begin to become more familiar with the importance of energy savings and will not immediately depress home values as they fear. Each successive home owner will be able to make improvements and will only increase the value of each property over time with each upgrade. Without this measure, energy-efficiency in homes takes a last place in importance to much more superficial factors that should have little effect on overall value. Realtors have the duty to help our clients make informed decisions about their purchase and this new legislation provides us with an additional tool to do so. It reveals the more true costs of home ownership.

The public and business sectors, who are responsible for far more energy wasting, should be setting examples for individuals and should be the first amongst the legislated. Unfortunately, the legislation applies only for residential properties. This needs to change.

I’m interested in finding out people’s thoughts on the new legislation. Is energy efficiency something you care about in your home? Would you find this audit useful to helping you judge the costs of carrying a property? Do you feel it is another unnecessary added expense to home ownership?

What is geothermal heating and cooling?

Heating and cooling of indoor space is one of the biggest energy wasters in our homes and businesses. What if we could let the earth do this naturally for us, reducing our heating and cooling costs by as much as 50-70%?

A geothermal heat pump moves heat into or away from the earth through a ground loop system (a system of pipes that run deep into the ground). It quietly and comfortably controls the temperature in the home, providing more consistent heat that stays on longer and changes the temperature more gradually. It also has the capability to heat water in your home in place of a traditional water heater. In the summer, the system works as a cooling system with no need for a separate air conditioning system.

The geothermal heating system is made up of 3 main components:  the ground loop system, the heat pump furnace unit, and the distribution system. The ground loop is a system of polyethylene pipes which extract heat from soil beneath the frost line deep into the earth. In the cooling mode, the pipes return heat to the earth. The heat pump furnace unit moves heat from one place to another, and the distribution system channels it around your home through duct work and vents.

A geothermal system starts at about $20,000. With federal and provincial incentives and rebates, you can receive about $7,000 back on your system ($3,500 under federal rebate, matched in Ontario), provincial sales tax can also be waived, resulting in a further savings. Ontario also has programs for those who qualify for between $8,000 and $9,000 in possible rebates. See below for links to rebate programs.

Geothermal heating and cooling is best for new home construction or in rural areas since these present the fewest construction barriers when installing the system. Low levels of electricity are required to move the heat about, but electricity is not required to create the energy. There is no combustion taking place, therefore there is no need for a chimney or flue and there are no combustion hazards or concern for carbon monoxide gases.

Since the entire system is either indoors or below ground there is little potential for vandalism or destruction from weathering that can occur with other cooling systems. Other than at installation, noise from the system is minimal.

The initial costs are about two times as high as normal heating systems, but when you consider that the system is also responsible for cooling, the costs don’t seem nearly as high. Payback for the system can occur from savings in only 2-7 years, depending on which fuel/or system you are trading from. Most systems come with 10 year warranties, but can last much longer (20-30 years). The pumps have an average life span of about 20 years. The earth energy pipes are typically warranted for 25 years, but have a useful life of 50 years if maintained and installed properly and depending on local conditions. The best time to think about geothermal heating or cooling is when it is time to replace your old furnace. With rebates and incentives, the cost is not significantly higher than traditional systems and can result in great overall savings.

There are some concerns over the use of geothermal energies. These systems are different than the air to air heat pumps that were installed in the 1950s and 60s. They have become much more efficient and environmentally sound, and the more they are installed and used, the more options will start to come out and the cheaper they will become.

There are environmental impacts to consider when heat mining (which is what geothermal essentially is doing) and an environmental impact assessment (EIA)should be done in advance of any development to make sure the ground is suitable for this type of extraction. You are getting heat from deep aquifers in the ground, and in this process certain minor emissions of gases from the earth are possible. Geothermal heating is said to produce approximately 79 g/kWh of CO2 when the electricity is generated.  Compared to the 955 g/kWh of CO2 emitted from coal generated electricity, this is significantly less.

There is also the possibility of waste water pollution if the waste water is not treated properly. Solid wastes of calcite and silica are also possible to deposit in the pipes as travertine and siliceous sinter build up. These can cause blocking of pipes and boreholes and reduce the permeability of aquifers being developed. The environmental impact assessment should detail ways to help reduce these negative impacts. If done properly, the system should be significantly less wasteful and environmentally impacting than traditional systems.

Geothermal heating and cooling is not for everyone, but for new home construction or rural properties it can make a lot of sense. It is best when used in combination with other renewable energy systems so that the electricity needed to move the heat can be created renewably and so the environmental impact is less and the home is more self sustainable.

How geothermal works:

Check out to find an Ontario installer.

ecoEnergy rebates:

Ontario rebates:

Ontario power authority (rebate of up to $550):

Cambridge Hydro (rebate of up to $1,500), call them directly at (519) 744-9799 to find more details.

If you would like more details on rebates and incentives, please talk to me.


Can wind energy work to power our homes?

It costs anywhere between $2,000-$8,000/per kilowatt power produced to purchase a small wind turbine. However, the wind turbine costs represent only 12%-48% of the total cost of a small wind electric system. There are also costs for other components, such as inverters and batteries, as well as sales tax, installation charges and labour. People sometimes opt to install the turbine themselves.

After installation, there are maintenance costs, as with any mechanical device. These are said to average approximately 1% of the original cost per year. The blades and bearings need to be replaced approximately every ten years. The wind turbine can last 20-30 years (or longer) if properly installed and maintained. It must be oiled, greased and safety inspected regularly. Bolts and electrical connections must be checked annually, along with checking for corosion and to ensure proper tension on the guy wires.

In cold conditions the turbine will have to de-iced and the batteries must be stored in an insulated place. Turbines should never be placed on a rooftop, as they are said to cause damage to the roof through vibrations. There have also been some complaints of noise or vibrations causing discomfort to those living inside a home with a turbine on the roof.

The turbine does produce noise. From a distance of 250 m away a typical wind turbine produces  approximately 45 dB (A) decibels) of noise. This is similar to the noise inside a typical  office building. If not properly installed or maintained, turbines have the potential to get louder.

The blades of most turbines are made of fibreglass or wood, and as such are transparent to electromagnetic waves such as radio and tv.

They must be placed in a large open area with a certain level of wind (which varies depending on the type and size of the turbine).  It is recommended to have them in an open area free of trees or buildings,  approximately 1/2 an acre or more in size for best use.

From what I have read, the claim that wind turbines are dangerous to birds is misleading, with a large window on a home posing more of a threat. This can be reduced with certain measures, such as netting.

Wind power does not create toxic by-products in its generation. Some of the material inside the batteries can be toxic, and should be disposed of properly. Overall, the environmental impact and toxicity of turbines is considerably less than the use of fossil-based or nuclear energy.  The electrical components should be stored properly to keep away children or animals, like any other mechanical or electronic devices capable of carrying electricity.

There are a couple types of wind turbines, the horizontal axis wind turbine (HAWT) and the vertical axis wind turbine (VAWT), a design more like an egg-beater.

An adequate wind turbine can generate 50-100%+ of a household energy needs. If it creates a surplus of energy, this energy can usually be sold to a local energy provider. How much do you pay for energy every year? If your energy bill was $0 every year, how much would you save? How long would these savings take to pay for the system? Probably much less than 20 years, the lifespan of a typical wind turbine.

A wind turbine is not for every property or person, and is best used in combination with other energy systems (such as passive heating and cooling, geothermal systems and solar devices). But if  you live in a rural environment and have space available, it is an option you should consider. There are government grants available to help subsidize the costs, and savings in the long term will help pay for the system.

The more we move towards alternative renewable energies, the more options there will be and the cheaper they will become.

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 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.