Design & DIY

5 factors for a sustainable home or cottage

Man installing solar panels

According to the Sustainable Housing Foundation, there are approximately 6.5 million existing homes in Canada, many of which are more than 30 years old. These aging buildings require excessive energy and water to run, and are contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

This is why many homeowners are starting to assess how sustainable their properties are. It’s a trend driven not only by climate change, but also by the rising cost of energy and utilities. A result, “sustainability” is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot, but it’s sometimes difficult to determine what exactly it means.

While it’s easy to get caught up in certifications or the latest technology, here are five key questions to consider when evaluating how sustainable your home or cottage is.

1. What is your energy use?

Buildings—including homes and cottages—account for roughly one-third of all the energy consumed in Canada. This isn’t surprising, given our long winters, which require extra heating and additional hours of artificial light. But determining the energy efficiency of your cottage is a lot more complex than reassessing what type of light bulbs you use.

Zero energy homes—which produce as much (or more) energy than they consume—are the gold standard in sustainability. But unless you’re prepared to install geothermal heating or photovoltaic systems, it’s best to focus on small steps that will improve your cottage’s efficiency. First, determine how airtight your cottage is, especially if you’re using heating or air-conditioning. Walls alone lose 15 to 20 percent of a building’s heat, so ensuring your cottage is properly insulated with modern air exchange systems in place is key.

Next, look at the age of your appliances. Are you still using the same fridge that came with the cottage when you bought it in 1972? Although retro hues like avocado are very in at the moment, you may want to consider upgrading to Energy Star rated appliances.

Finally, examine your day-to-day energy consumption. Do you turn off lights when you leave a room? Do you close blinds and open windows instead of turning on the air-conditioning? A sustainable home typically uses elements of passive design to reduce energy use.

2. What is your water consumption?

While the old adage “if it’s yellow, let it mellow” can be found taped above toilets across cottage country, there are other options for reducing your water consumption. In fact, this popular rhyme is proof that your cottage is the place to try out new technology. What might not be considered socially acceptable in the city—like not flushing—is totally par for the course up north.

A composting toilet may not be ideal in your primary residence, but it’s a great option to reduce water consumption in your home away from home.

Similarly, why use fresh, treated water in your toilet cistern when you could be using recycled shower water or dishwater? If this sounds like a valid argument, installing a greywater recycling system is your best bet.

3. How do you plan to build, landscape or renovate your home or cottage property?

If you are renovating your cottage to improve sustainability, it’s not just the result that matters—the entire process should be approached holistically. Regardless of whether it’s a small project (like installing low-emissivity windows or replacing old laminate with cork flooring) or a massive renovation (taking your entire cottage off the grid), consider the environmental impact from start to finish.

To determine the total carbon footprint, start with these questions: Was consideration given to the building site’s location and natural features? Are you maximizing passive design? How were the building materials manufactured, transported, and installed? How are you disposing of construction materials? Have you hired a local contractor, or are workers travelling dozens of kilometres to the site every day?

However, keep in mind that there are many shades of “green.” While a building material might tick the box in one category, it may fail to perform in another. Take, for example, concrete. A natural material that’s built to last, concrete production results in Co2 emissions and the end product isn’t biodegradable. In many cases, it may be a matter of choosing the lesser of two evils.

4. How long do you plan to use your home or cottage?

While the upfront cost of greening your cottage may be tough to swallow, it’s important to think in terms of generations—not just a few years. When it comes time to renovate or redecorate your cottage, stay away from cheap fads and focus on products and processes that will last long enough to be enjoyed by your great-grandchildren.

In fact, the easiest way to determine sustainability is implicit in the word itself—are you building a home that can sustain and withstand the test of time?

5. Are you sustainable in your day-to-day actions?

Even the “greenest” home can have a high environmental impact if its occupants aren’t living sustainably on a daily basis. Start by carefully evaluating how much waste your household is producing—including your use of energy and water—and follow-through with the basic tenets of reducing, reusing, and recycling.

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