Millions of homes are built each year and many are designed to last over 50 years. If we’re going to achieve even minimum climate goals we’ll need to built those homes to use much less energy and in a way that externalizes much less carbon.
Fortunately one of the hottest trends in home building is Zero Net Energy (NZE) homes. A zero energy home combines advanced design and superior building systems with energy efficiency and on-site solar panels to produce an ultra-comfortable, healthy, quiet, sustainable homes that are affordable to live in because they don’t have any power bills. Essentially NZE homes are built with excellent insulation so they use much less energy to heat and cool and then what energy they do use is generated on site, usually with solar panels. In California, USA all new residential home will be NZE homes starting in 2010.
Once we build a home to be net zero energy use we can start to look at the carbon it takes to build that structure. This is most often referred to as embodied energy. New wooden skyscrapers and straw bale homes are examples of structures with lower embodied energy.
Last month, we rallied around the idea of using less stuff and working fewer hours.
Using less stuff is relatively easy. Letting go of excessive consumerism provides fairly instant gratification: your wallet grows fatter, experiences become richer, and time seems to multiply.
But working fewer hours? That can be more challenging, given the ever-increasing cost of living. Fortunately, there are many ways that we can live affordably while also advocating for housing as a human right:
We must champion a housing-for-all campaign.
No one who needs and wants shelter should have to go without—and no one should spend more than 33% of their income on housing. Earnings and expenses may be relative, but exceeding a third cannot be considered affordable. As we work to ensure housing security for everyone, let’s remember to Turn21 by insisting on green and net-zero construction.
We can build affordable housing.
Government agencies aren’t the only ones who can create change. Local citizens, through private organizations like Habitat for Humanity, are already working to create new affordable housing. We can establish new—and strengthen existing—local inclusionary zoning policies that mandate a percentage of new housing to be built affordable. We can demand that new affordable housing be distributed throughout the community, which not only creates a feeling of equality, it also helps thwart the stigma of being on the so-called right or wrong side of the tracks. However, it’s important to remember that new housing isn’t a magic pill: construction projects may move too slowly to make a real impact, available lots may not offer enough land, and critical water and sewer resources may be inadequate to support population increases.
We can convert existing properties into higher-density housing.
Sprawling, car-centric malls are becoming obsolete and rundown. Big-box stores that went bust are still gathering cobwebs. Foreclosed overly-large single-family homes languish in sparse neighborhoods. Making an effort to repurpose and “green” our existing infrastructure—and maintaining what we have—requires the lowest energy investment to see a positive return. This kind of transformation is already becoming a trend, and the oldest shopping mall in the U.S. has become micro-apartments.
We can consider moving to more-affordable areas.
When major cities and coastal hamlets become too pricey, one option may be for some people to relocate to lower-cost areas. It’s true that there may be unequal privilege when it comes to the employment, telecommuting, and financial stability required to move, and we must be aware of community reaction to a sudden influx of newcomers. However, as population growth, climate instability, and resource availability become increasingly volatile, relocating will likely become unavoidable. If nothing else, those of us who don’t necessarily need to live and work in the city can help alleviate housing-supply pressure by reducing demand for the limited amount that exists.
We can build smaller, more-affordable units. Tiny houses, small flats, and cozy cottages are all trending, and the sharing economy is making it unnecessary to own a home that will be mostly empty and unused. Voluntary simplicity and the streamlining of one’s lifestyle are increasingly favored over extravagantly large, stuff-filled properties. These smaller homes are naturally more affordable: not only do they require less time and fewer materials to build them, they also need less maintenance and fewer resources to heat and cool them.
We can buy housing for the purpose of protecting its affordability.
When communities publicly buy up housing stock in an area and create locked-in, deed-restricted affordable units, they’re able to ensure that young people can continue to live in the area in which they were raised—and that more people can live closer to where they work. If each municipality converted even a mere 10% of housing stock to permanently affordable housing, we could see incredible transformations for the better within our local communities.
Remember, as we move forward to a holistic solution, we need to make sure that we’re reducing or limiting the overall growth of the human population, which will ultimately help lower the cost of housing. The reason is simple: we still live in a world with an entire economic and life system predicated on a mathematical impossibility, one that assumes we can enjoy infinite and exponential growth by fueling it with finite, dwindling carbon resources.
Until we can reduce demand, we must work to provide housing to all people who need it—not only because it’s the morally correct thing to do, but also because it keeps us focused on working together to solve our big problems.
Working together, we’ve used science to put a man on the moon, and when called upon in times of scarcity, we’ve grown gardens to put food on the table. Our generation’s greatest challenge will be carbon reduction, and it’s time to help each other change the world—starting right in the comfort of our own home.