Places to Grow – Rethinking Housing

My last two articles discussed how Places to Grow legislation has bogged down over 6 years without successfully slowing the loss of greenfield lands. The response from the development industry has been to blame government. Municipalities and developers have found it difficult to steer even the minimum 40% of new development into existing settlement areas.

Developers argue that Places to Grow necessarily requires that new-home buyers must settle for smaller spaces at higher prices. I wondered if this is necessarily so. It took me only a short time browsing the Clean Tech website to discover that it is not. Ontario is not alone in struggling with the issue of urban sprawl versus Smart Growth. Governments and organizations in the United States, U.K. and elsewhere are also seeking solutions. Most significantly, some developers who are genuinely concerned with the needs of their clients are developing real solutions to make a real difference. The following is not an endorsement of one company but I want to draw attention to this firm, originally profiled in a Clean Tech blog, as an example of original and meaningful innovation.

Deltec Homes, located in Ashville, North Carolina was featured in an article titled, “Deltec Net Zero Homes – They’re Not Just a Pretty Face”:

“… these homes not only cut energy an amazing two-thirds compared to standard new homes, but they do so at prices that beat out most of the competition – including energy-efficient models – by a stunning 30 percent.”

Maybe you’re thinking, “Oh, but that’s in North Carolina”. Deltec has representation across the US and in Canada too. Their designs are suitable for “very cold climates”. So what’s the secret? First of all, a more moderate overall size that saves on materials and construction cost:

“Home sizes have more than doubled since 1950 in most of North America. Average household size in the United States has dropped steadily from 3.67 members in 1940 to 2.62 in 2002. The average size of new houses increased from about 1,100 ft2 (100 M2) in the 1940s and 1950s to 2,340 ft2 (217 M2) in 2002.”
(Small is Beautiful: U.S. House Size, Resource Use, and the Environment,, 2005)

“In 1947, … the Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation began publishing catalogues of housing plans … They were cheap and well-planned, but shockingly to modern eyes, they were often no bigger than 1,000 square feet … By the turn of the millennium, Canadians lived in some of the world’s largest houses – and were filling them with some of the world’s smallest families.”
(The incredible shrinking home: Why Canada’s houses are getting smaller, Tristin Hopper, National Post, July 2012)

Size also has other implications: “As house size increases, resource use in buildings goes up, more land is occupied, increased impermeable surface results in more stormwater runoff, construction costs rise, and energy consumption increases.”

Deltec’s approach is to “to find the “sweet spot” between square footage and creature comforts”.  The result is “an incredibly sustainable home”, and all without sacrificing on comfort and livability” according to the company. Design elements include “passive solar, passive lighting and “climate modeling”, which fits a home into its environment rather than vice versa …”

Deltec also developed its own unique designs for round houses because they “have at least 15-percent less surface area exposed to the outdoors, which reduces the need for insulation …”  (traditional designs are also available) The next step was to focus on lifetime energy efficiency rather than just the initial cost of construction:

“ … in very cold climates, models also offer 10-inch thick double-stud walls, one inch of exterior foam insulation, an AirBlock gasket system – essentially a layer of insulative foam used to seal the exterior wall sheathing to the frame, insulated double headers over doors and windows, and triple-pane thermally efficient windows.”

The final secret to success is factory-manufactured precision components that are more quickly assembled on-site:

“The most energy- and cost-efficient home building paradigm is in a factory, where AutoCAD design insures accuracy down to the centimeter.”

By adding renewable energy components, “solar photovoltaic and solar thermal hot water heat”, the true net-zero house “buys all its energy upfront!”

Now you’re thinking, “Wow, that must be expensive!” According to the profile published in September, 2013, “The total package adds a mere $8,000 in cold climates – less than the cost of a decent bath remodel.”

All the approaches described above also apply to multi-storey and commercial building as well. So, what ideas can we take from this? I can think of a few:

  • A Sustainability Index rating for all new home designs. House designs that consider a proper mix of sustainable size, materials consumption, passive solar energy efficiency and renewable energy use could possibly rank ahead of other proposals and get approval faster.
  • A focus on factory-manufactured modular housing components as the basis for faster, more efficient construction methods and more sustainable housing
  • A much higher building code standard for insulation in new construction
  • Include water conservation measures such as a water cistern and grey-water system as part of the sustainable design
  • Let municipalities assign a higher priority to infill construction ahead of greenfield development to meet their minimum 40% intensification target

Places to Grow – What’s Wrong?
Places to Grow – No Simple Solutions