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Sustainable Housing

1483621313_881abddef2_m In a post-“peak oil” world, many of the items we consider essential will become luxuries. Our reliance on petroleum based plastics and energy intensive building materials will stop. 90% of what is  considered green or sustainable by the general public will be obsolete technology in an age where building materials and furnishings will have to be natural or baaed closely on raw or waste materials, as the cost of producing and transporting most construction materials will be prohibitively expensive.

This post is part of a series focusing on Strategic Sustainability for Survival.

When looking at the lofty goals of many organizations when it comes to sustainability, I was struck by their naive optimism, a general feeling that if we make some small changes everything is going to be OK, maybe ban plastic shopping bags and incandecent light bulbs, reduce office paper wastage, but ignore the fact that you drive a gas guzzling vehicle everywhere to do anything!

I’ve created this series in order put words to the thoughts in my head, specifically for the Kootenays, but relevant for the rest of the world as well. Many of the ideas tie together neatly, real estate values and sustainable housing; food security and agricultural clawback. All of them represent a future that we need to be prepared for and ready to adapt to.

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

The appliances we use every day are coated in or constructed from oil based plastics, some of which are known carcinogens as they degrade under UV. Will we even have energy available to run a refrigerator? 100 years ago, refrigerators were cooled by large blocks of ice delivered to your home. Electrical appliances were rare back then, and I’m not suggesting that we will regress to such times entirely, but the idea of having a sustainable home must include how we store food and choose to furnish our home.

Readily Available Materials

Once upon a time housing was made from materials that were readily available in the immediate vicinity, mud huts, stone cottages, log cabins, caves, igloos are all examples of housing styles that reflected this fact. Today we are much more likely to clad our dwellings in materials that are fashionable, stucco, brick, hardiplank are examples of materials that may be readily available today, but are manufactured sometimes thousands of miles away from where they are used in construction. Oil based materials such as plastics, both rigid (in pipes and appliances) and flexible (coatings and membranes) will no longer be available. There goes the main construction technique endorsed by Building Codes in North America – Wrap it in Plastic!

Read more after the jump…

Small Enough To Heat

Houses today have grown up to five or more times the area per inhabitant since the beginning of last century. With cheaper building materials, better interest rates and dirt cheap energy, houses are expensive to heat and cool (like we really need them to be cooled anyway!) and we have spaces that are never used, except to store the accumulated junk of a materialistic society.

Hoe much space do you really need? I guess that depends on what you think you can do in the space, for generations most people lived happily in small spaces with central or communal family areas as the focal point. As energy prices increase, or energy sources run out and construction materials become harder to find due to transportation and production costs, houses will become smaller by necessity.

Gas furnaces are worthless without electricity. Baseboards and electric space heaters need I really say more? Sustainable housing will incorporate sustainable, or at least locally viable methods of heating. Very few houses today can be heated without any electricity, in this area, the Kootenays, BC, some are exclusively heated by wood fired stoves, but these are in the minority, certainly across North America. The only modern form of housing that I know of which requires so little heating due to its design, is an earth covered home, this design is of such importance that I will dedicate a whole article to it within this series.

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Close to Essential Services

The village model of community has many benefits, the first being that everything that you could possible need is available within walking distance. Thinking about this from a planning perspective, sustainable housing needs to be located sustainably: local to supplies of goods, food, water and lines of communication and transport. The suburbs that many of us live in now will likely become urban ghettos, eventually abandoned to make way once again for farm land. Malls will be memorials to a materialistic society, all but the smartest and most efficient boarded up by the now bankrupt corporations that ran them. The local market will be the place to purchase your goods, an entrepreneur might see that as a business opportunity.

Sustainable Objectives

The days of the four bedroom three bathroom, double garage house covering the entire lot are coming to a close, never before in the history of the world has there been such a wanton misuse of resources as of the past three generations, and the realized dream of larger cars and massive houses are the price that we have paid as a society.

This article is not intended to reinforce apathy or induce depression, rather for society to get creative and find solutions to our problems.

I’d love to be wrong, I’d love to have faith in alternative sources of energy and wake up tomorrow to hear a headline that the Peak Oil Theory was a calculation error and Global Warming is over. I’m done pretending that life can continue as it has, but while there’s still a party, it’s human nature to enjoy it, right? I can still drive to Safeway, fly to Vegas, and by a luxury speed boat, but one day, perhaps soon, we are all going to have to bite the bullet and face the reality of a changed world.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.