I’m also passionate about living my life as sustainably as possible without sacrificing comfort. That’s why I’m posting all the tips and tricks I’ve learned over the past 8 years right here. I want to help you achieve a sustainable lifestyle too!
Finding sustainable housing in Canada is a serious challenge. Not only is housing expensive but it’s also a pretty significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Most buildings, even today, still create far more pollution than they should. Sadly, there just aren’t that many sustainable options. But, there are a number of other things you can choose to do to minimize your footprint while still maintaining a comfortable home.
Location is probably one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a home. If you have children, living within walking distance to a school would be desirable. If you have a demanding job, you may want to live really close to work to minimize commute times. Others might want to live really close to a park for the outdoor recreational opportunities. If you suffer from any respiratory problems, you wouldn’t want to live too close to a major road. I think it’s pretty safe to say that most of us would like to live in a safe, walkable neighbourhood. For obvious reasons, inner city property is generally more valuable making housing costs more expensive. Sometimes, giving up the second car will make inner city living more affordable. Maybe you’ll decide you don’t need a car at all. These options all factor in to how sustainable your home will be.
As a child, I grew up on a rural acreage that required long car rides to get groceries and even longer bus rides to get to school. When I came to Calgary to go to college, I moved into an apartment is Sunnyside a block from the C-Train station and a Safeway. I loved it. Everything was at my finger tips. I didn’t even need a car and I was never hampered by the weather. Growing up on a farm made me feel isolated and trapped. Living in Sunnyside made me feel connected yet independent and free. I was never going to live in a suburb.
That said, suburbs aren’t inherently bad. It’s just that many of them are built unsustainably. Every neighbourhood should have a main street within walking distance. Those streets should include all the amenities you need. New homes built in these suburbs should be mandated to incorporate more eco friendly practises such as passive solar, solar electricity, solar hot water, wind power, better insulation, more multi-family dwellings, better use of land, better design, more compact layouts, rain-water collection, less lawn, more edible plants, less cement and more trees. They should also be built utilizing less toxic materials and with a lot less waste. Home builders are a big contributor of waste to Calgary landfills every year. Governments are finally recognizing the need to mitigate the impacts of climate change, and that means changing the way we construct, but many of these policies won't be effective until 2030.
Homebuilders will only choose to use more sustainable practises when the market demands it or public policy enforces it. Your choices can have a direct effect on how our city gets built. For example, Jayman Homes now includes solar panels on all of its new homes. It remains to be seen how much grid demand will be offset by these installations but it’s a step in the right direction. Those solar panels help Jaymen Homes sell houses and it helps them stand out from all the other builders. If you choose to buy one of their homes versus another builder, you’re casting a vote for more solar power. Another policy change could include increasing the cost for waste. The more waste costs the more likely home builders will try and reduce their waste and adopt more sustainable building practises. Of course, that would apply to residential waste management too. By providing compost pick-up the City managed to reduce the amount of organic waste going to civic landfills by 46% in one year!
Figuring out how much space you really need is important too. Do you really need a living room AND a family room? How many kids do you have? Could you buy a bunk bed and better utilize the floor space in a smaller room? Will you really use a double car garage to park your cars or collect junk? Do you even want to own a car? Is a lawn necessary? Do you enjoy gardening? Maybe a townhouse might be a better option for you? Would you be happier in a condo near a park? Do you really need a yard? If you work at the airport do you really want to commute from MacKenzie Town? How long do you plan to live in one place? Is this a long term investment or do you see yourself moving in a few years? When it comes to sustainability, the smaller your home, the lower the footprint of your housing will be. Multi-family housing usually offers the lowest footprint of all.
I have lived in apartments ranging from 250 square feet all the way up to an 1100 square foot bungalow. And by today’s standards, that’s still a small house. I’ve figured out that I really don’t need that much space as long as I feel connected to the outdoors. I’ve lived in some pretty small homes but they have always included a small outdoor space where I could practise gardening. In some cases, it was a just a west facing balcony, but that was enough to make me happy. Smaller homes are also cheaper to maintain and heat. Smaller homes are more human scaled and feel cozier. Of course, some of this comes down to personal taste but even small spaces can be designed to look bright and open. A good interior designer can work wonders! If that’s unaffordable, I suggest visiting the library and finding inspiration in books and magazines based on successful projects that others have already completed. There are many publications that focus on small spaces.
Do you rent or buy? Across Canada, and especially in Calgary, buying versus renting seems to be the preferred option but I’m not convinced it should be the only option. It makes no sense to move far from work just to afford a house if you end up drowning in debt because you failed to factor in how much the extra car payment would cost you. Kristin Wong’s advice to look at buying a home as a 'purchase' rather than an 'investment' really resonated with me. Often, homes don’t make the best financial returns and if you rented instead you might save more money by putting your money in safer investments. It’s also important to do what’s right for you and not what others think you should do. In Calgary, there is a lot of single family housing and developers have done a really great job of selling the suburban dream to us. I often hear others say that if you don’t own a home you’re wasting your money or you’re just not very successful. When you rent you still get a place to live. Don’t try to ‘keep up with the Joneses’. Your neighbour might have a bigger, more beautiful house but that doesn’t mean they are more comfortable than you. The point is that neither option is good or bad. It’s just what makes economical and sustainable sense for you. Living sustainable isn’t about the pursuit of possessions but rather finding comfort in more simple living. In other countries renting is the norm. In fact, some families will rent the same apartment for generations. It’s important to understand that home ownership has been promoted by banks for decades as the best way to invest long term, especially for families. Banks would love to give you a mortgage but it may not be the best investment for you. I would explore all other options before deciding to buy a home
I was a homeowner at one time. In fact, I bought a duplex. So, I was a homeowner and a landlord. The duplex earned me a small return in the five years that I owned it, but I had no savings. Between unexpected expenses and the need for constant management I decided to sell it and go back to renting. I still live in a wonderful home, I have more disposable income to spend on other things like travel or entertainment and if something breaks my landlord has to fix it. I can’t afford to buy in the neighbourhood I want to live in but I CAN afford to rent in it. I have had many envious people ask me how I can afford to live where I do. They assume I bought my home. They are usually surprised when I tell them I rent.
Once you have found the right home for you, it’s unlikely to be perfect. You will probably need to make some simple upgrades to reduce your emissions further. Low flow shower and faucet heads are a great way to reduce water use. I would also suggest adding a rain water barrel in your yard if you need water for a garden. I hang dry most of my laundry. Your clothing will last longer too. I use a smaller folding laundry hanger to dry my stuff. When not in use, it fits in my closet nicely. We’ve switched all the light bulbs to LEDs. Softer, more natural lights are available now. Plus, the bulbs last for years of use rather than months. Use natural light from windows whenever possible and task lighting when not possible. The dishwasher and the washing machine in my home had to be replaced but we encouraged our landlord to buy refurbished appliances. Buying used is always better than new. Less resources are needed to refurbish old stuff compared the to the manufacturing of new items. This goes for home renovations too. It is always more sustainable to retrofit an old house to be energy efficient than it is to build a brand new one. Turn the heat down when you’re not home and at night when you’re sleeping. I also make an effort to unplug any appliances that I’m not using. Reduce your phantom electricity use and you could reduce your energy bill by as much as 10%. Use non-toxic vinegar and reusable towels to clean your home. Try not to buy anything that comes in packaging that can’t be recycled or composted. Compost all your food scraps, soiled tissue and pet waste.
When decorating, use low VOC paint or chalk paint. If you have old, single pane windows but can’t afford new ones, insulated curtains are an effective alternative. We built wooden valances over the windows to reduce heat loss even further. Curtains also help keep your place cool in the summer. Curtains make a great design element. Find furniture that fits your space. I’ve sold pieces that were too large for my living room and then used the earnings to buy smaller pieces that fit better, second hand of course. I've even bought vintage frames to display some of my favourite photos in. We spend a lot of time in our homes so I think it's important to furnish and decorate it in way that let's you enjoy the space. You can live in comfort and be sustainable at the same time.