Making Homes Green in the Great White North

The New Sustainable

By DC Rutherford

I bought a house recently, a Craftsman built in 1910 in a rural community. The region is one many of you will find familiar—it’s susceptible to the unpredictable swings of a four-season climate. The polars of stifling summer heat and humidity and crippling winter storms are both what makes the area a delight and a challenge. Moving in mid-pandemic made me realize that not only is it my civic responsibility to reduce the carbon footprint of my new abode, but in light of COVID-19 the realities of the unknown make sustainability a priority for me and my family. But where to begin?

My first inclination was to pad my roof with solar panels, build a greenhouse, order some goats, and ensure the integrity of the existing well and septic tank—though this seemed more inclined to apocalyptic fears as opposed to a desire for sustainable living. Doug Parks of Brantford’s Board of Your Flooring set me straight. 

“Knowledge is power,” he tells me, adoration for his business palpable in each syllable. I sincerely doubt there’s anyone who knows more about flooring sustainability and cares for their work as much as Parks, whose experience is matched only by his passion. It’s Parks who taught me that sustainable living is built on a foundation of quality products that will not just last a lifetime, but endure the environment in which they live. A floor in Muskoka is not the same as a floor in Tuscon. “It comes back to all the prep and mitigation, understanding the right products for the environment and understanding the environment in which you’re working and how you have to mitigate that environment and put the product in.”

“Most people spend more time picking paint than they do and understanding floors. And you can always repaint that wall—it’s cheap and cheerful and easy to do that. But you can’t just go in and replace [a floor] because it’s very expensive and it’s very messy.”

Aaron Miller of Hummingbird Hill Homes agrees. The company has been a leader in holistic building in Ontario. “We are both PassiveHouse™ and WELL™ AP certified and work with the leading architectural firms to fuse together stunning architecture with materials and methods that promote health and wellness for both our clients and the environment. We can now measure embodied carbon of different material options and help guide selections that are both cost-effective and environmentally friendly.” 

Miller also notes that, “Some simple construction methods can have an enormous impact on the sustainability and durability of a home or cottage such as mitigating air leakage, transitioning towards renewable energy vs the burning of oil and gas, optimizing options with glass and orientation of natural light that reduce unwanted heat in the summer yet allow this passive heat to warm the space in the winter.”

Having established that knowledge is power, I wondered about power itself. How does a homeowner address electrical sustainability in their home or cottage? Steve & Mitch McNair and Muskoka’s McNair Electric provide home automation and power solutions to ensure that every aspect of your home and cottage is in your control at all times, whether you’re up in Muskoka or trapped in the city. McNair Electric “​​strongly believes that in our ever-changing environment we need to be conscious of the energy we consume. Part of being a Smart home is being an efficient home. That’s why we offer our Muskoka clients Savant power to get your home in tune with on-peak and off-peak hydro consumption.” In addition, McNair outfits homes with Lutron Lighting control and shades control the sun’s every effect on your property’s interior, while maintaining its beauty. “​​We’re talking about efficiency, you’re talking about aesthetics, and luxury shades fall into all those categories.”

Technology doesn’t just lend itself to sustainability in the literal construction and implementation process, but in the project and planning phases as well. Candice Manastersky of Aspen & Ivy Interior Design—“a collective of designers, decorators, and industry professionals” offering an “all-inclusive interior design experience”—for over a decade, adds “​​We use an extensive and well-integrated online platform, enabling us to significantly reduce paper use. We are also able to conduct virtual meetings with clients and share documents and presentations online which reduces carbon emissions. The online platform also gives us easier and more frequent communication with clients, allowing them to feel more closely involved with their projects, which again ensures our designs are perfect the first time around, eliminating the need to redo projects or renovate in a few short years.”

Planning and longevity are just part of a sustainable living initiative—a tacit understanding of environmental impact is essential to responsible building. Ashley Smith of Enviroshake, an eco-friendly roofer, asserts “we recognize that demand for cedar roofing is a major factor in deforestation. We are driven to provide a sustainable alternative to natural cedar without sacrificing its timeless beauty. That’s why Enviroshake was formulated using 95% recycled materials to combine the authentic appeal of cedar shakes with the engineered longevity and performance that natural cedar simply can’t match.” Smith adds, “Each Enviroshake roof provides property owners with the peace of mind offered by a market-leading engineered material as well as the knowledge that they have made a stand to protect our planet’s natural resources. Enviroshake roofs also generate significantly less waste than a natural cedar shake roof with a waste factor of typically less than 10%. Compare that with the 20% or higher waste factor of a natural cedar shake roof. Further, water runoff from an Enviroshake roof is nontoxic and even meets WHO drinking water standards. In contrast, the chemicals used to treat natural cedar roofs render their water runoff non-potable.”

The scope and breadth of innovation in home sustainability promises the future of our homes and our planet is in good hands. Kathryn E. Stasiuk Riddell of KSR Engineering, an engineering and professional services firm focused on water safety notes, “As alternative housing models are pursued (community housing initiatives, tiny homes, modular homes, etc.) opportunities for communal servicing are available including cluster systems, centralized disposal systems, greywater systems, and more. The sustainability benefit of centralized onsite sewage treatment and disposal versus individual well and septic systems for each home is that the sewage effluent plume can be isolated in one area away from water sources (such as a neighbours well).”  

“Steel and concrete production account for a good percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions (approximately 8% and 7% respectively). While concrete tanks are the fan favourite in many parts of Ontario, alternate tank materials may offer an overall reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for new installations. A life-cycle analysis of HDPE (plastic) tanks could be compared to concrete tanks. Plastic septic tanks have not been around as long as concrete though, so we aren’t sure yet if they can last as long as a concrete tank can.”

All of which is to say: My understanding of sustainable living was a fraction of what the practice includes. As Doug Parks says, “Knowledge is power” and I was powerless—neither wind nor solar nor hydro-electric. Educating yourself with the assistance of experienced local business owners is the best way to protect you and your home from whatever the future has to offer.