Since time immemorial, humans have relied on homes in their many forms for safety, comfort, and community. But in recent decades, our penchant for big homes built quickly has come at a great environmental cost. If you’re thinking about building or renovating your home, consider using sustainable materials and energy sources.
“A home is your canvas,” says Arno Keinonen, who, after an itinerant career as a marine engineer in the Arctic, decided to put down roots by building a carbon-negative home in East Sooke, BC. Built from blocks made of hemp and lime, Keinonen’s home is a stunning tribute to eco-friendly design, perched atop a cliff with a sweeping vista of the sea and sky.
“People called me crazy at first,” says Keinonen about the early days of planning his home build. But he persevered. Keinonen and his wife now live in a self-sufficient home that pulls carbon out of the atmosphere and runs on the power of the sun. They recycle rain and grey water, grow food year-round in an integrated greenhouse, and donate residual energy to the grid.
“We called it the ‘Harmless Home,’ not because it does no harm—all buildings have some impact—but because it does much less,” Keinonen says.
The hidden cost of construction
Construction has a colossal impact on our environment. Most construction waste ends up in a landfill, despite the fact that three-quarters of it could be reused or recycled. Over a quarter of the waste in Canadian landfills comes from construction. Meanwhile, buildings account for around one-quarter of our country’s total energy use.
Did you know?
Within a single generation, the size of the average Canadian home doubled—from 1,050 square feet in 1975 to 1,950 square feet in 2010.
What is green building?
Green building is the practice of creating buildings that do less harm to the environment and require fewer resources to maintain. It can be applied to the entire life cycle of a building, from site selection and design to construction, operation, maintenance, renovation, and demolition.
In practice, this can look like building on land that is already in use and close to public transportation, choosing a sustainable building material such as recycled or salvaged wood, and reusing and avoiding construction waste. It can also look like installing smarter energy and water management systems and choosing nontoxic flooring, furniture, and paints.
“A house should be built with nature, not imposed on it,” says Ryan Elliot, founder of Cast Sustainable Construction, an eco-friendly renovation and construction company based in North Vancouver.
When it comes to construction, Elliot believes we need to lean into Indigenous principles of acting as a steward, rather than an owner, of the land. “The way we build needs to mirror the way that humans would live in harmony with nature.”
Benefits of green building
There are many benefits to going green, and it doesn’t need to break the bank.
Cathy Finley, a farmer who built and lived in a hemp home in Langley, BC, estimates that her home cost only 10 percent more than a traditional build—a small margin when you consider the long-term savings on energy, water, and maintenance. She says the experience itself was invaluable.
“Our building site was just people and buckets,” she says. “We had no toxic concrete mixes, and we mixed the hemp ourselves.”
Despite the DIY element, Finley says her home’s sleek and modern design shattered people’s stereotypes of an “eco” home.
“At first, people would come to visit the house wearing 15 layers of clothing,” Finley laughs. “They expected it to be freezing!”
To the surprise of guests, her house stayed toasty throughout the winter. And in the summer, the hemp walls kept the home so cool that food stayed fresh in the refrigerator without it even needing to be turned on.
During its lifespan, hemp absorbs a significant amount of CO2 from the atmosphere. Hemp makes for an efficient insulator, and certain types of hemp blocks are also resistant to fire, earthquakes, noise, and mold.
The future of green building
“The more people build green, the more affordable it will become,” says Keinonen. “We need to lead by example and show that there is demand for these materials and practices.”
Both Keinonen and Finley say that it’s important to keep facilitating fact-based conversations about green building for a wider audience. Finley also believes that we need more government support, potentially in the form of subsidies, to get the ball rolling.
“We need leadership that makes sustainable building accessible,” she says. “We need to see a greater willingness to research and understand innovation.”
Elliot worries that relying on the government and industry to promote green building may stifle more systemic change. He dreams of a future in which we innovate on a smaller scale, with different people working on radical solutions to live in harmony with the land.
“We’re just one part of the whole,” he says.
Making sense of certifications
Looking to make it official? A range of green building certifications are available, including the following.
A national certification program accounting for energy and envelope, materials and methods, indoor air quality, ventilation, waste management, water conservation, and building practices.
LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)
An internationally recognized third-party certification offering certified, gold, silver, or platinum ratings on five criteria: location and transportation, sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, and materials selection and indoor environmental quality.
Living Building Challenge
A global program combining philosophy, advocacy, and formal certification. It offers regional solutions rather than a “checklist” of best practices and focuses on seven areas: place, water, energy, health and happiness, materials, equity, and beauty.
Sustainable choices from floor to ceiling
Energy—renewable energies, including solar, wind, geothermal, hydro, and biofuel power
Flooring—bamboo, cork, natural fibre carpet, sustainable wood
Insulation—cellulose, mineral wool, cotton, sheep’s wool, mushroom fibre, agricultural products
Paint—low- and no-VOC (volatile organic compound) options, such as latex or milk paints
Roof—green roofs with living vegetation, permanent or nonpermanent
Walls—hemp, non-wood-fired bricks, recycled bricks, clay
Water—rainwater capture system and greywater recycle system
Windows—triple-pane windows, if living in a cold climate
Wood—recycled, reused, or reclaimed wood from construction waste
For more information on these materials and practices, check out greenbuildingcanada.ca.