The coming revolution

By Aaren Madden, March 2011

The energy-efficient home could well be the radical seed that develops into a green city.

Some houses have enough air leaks that, added together, would equal the diameter of a basketball. But if you seal them all without reworking your ventilation, you can end up with nasty mould, even sick-building syndrome. A house has to breathe. 

The process by which it is made to breathe in an optimal fashion is what Peter Sundberg, executive director of City Green Solutions, calls building science. “It’s actually just the systems approach. When you change one thing in a home, it impacts something else,” Sundberg explains. He assures me that often the solution can be as simple as the right bathroom fan.

Sundberg thinks a lot about filling the gaps—literal and figurative—in creating energy efficiency. He believes that individual homes and buildings are a crucial part of the larger system required to become the city we could be. That includes fulfilling the provincial greenhouse gas emissions reduction target of 33 percent below 2007 levels by 2020.

City Green Solutions, known as an enterprising non-profit, is based in Victoria and employs about two dozen people. Its mission is “to excite, inspire and lead British Columbians in finding innovative home and building energy efficiency solutions.” Known for its popular home “energy audits,” assistance with rebate programs, and advice about the most cost-effective, energy-efficient renovations, it also provides efficiency modelling for new homes, manages some low-income initiatives and helps municipalities, churches, schools and developers.

Says Sundberg, “What we do is educate the homeowner or builder as to what all the options are,” all the while constantly seeking creative ways to broaden the scope of energy efficiency. Doing so has garnered City Green a heap of awards, including the District of Saanich 2010 Business Environmental Award, 2010 Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year and Innovation awards, and the Premiers Innovation and Excellence Award for the one-stop website for information on energy efficiency for BC residents: www.saveenergynow.ca.

While studying at Simon Fraser University, Sundberg worked with his father in fishing and logging on northern Vancouver Island, where his emerging awareness of depleting resources shadowed the beauty of his surroundings. Sundberg also worked with his dad in carpentry and home construction, which he says “was a good foundational primer for getting into energy efficiency because I started learning about homes, about how they are built, whether they are built well or not, what the opportunities are,” he recalls. 

His calling coalesced during four years he spent in Nicaragua working on a reintegration training program for war veterans who had lost limbs to land mines. The vets learned about building and installing renewable energy projects at the community level. Eleven years later, the program has left a legacy of successful, self-sustaining businesses and nonprofits. (Sundberg now sits on the board of directors of Mines Action Canada.)

Sundberg returned to Canada with a new perspective. An understanding of our inevitable impact on our environment no matter where we live met with an eye trained to mitigate that impact. “While it’s very interesting and rewarding to work in Nicaragua and that was a formative time in my life, when I came back here, I started to think, ok, how are our houses built? Look at our existing building stock; most of it is incredibly inefficient,” he notes. “The potential to increase the energy efficiency in all types of our buildings is huge.”

And it’s not just a matter of sealing those drafts. “BC is slowly addressing some of its building stock, but if we are really going to have a massive awareness, we need some trigger points that are code-driven or mandated as information available at point of sale.” A low energy rating affecting a home’s resale value can make a seller realize they “should probably do something rather than just slap some paint on.” New insulation, air source heat pumps, or solar hot water heaters should be as prominent selling features as, say, hardwood floors, believes Sundberg. 

City Green’s pilot projects educating realtors about home energy labelling, which is now just voluntary, could become part of “a conscious government effort towards understanding that improving the energy efficiency of the existing building stock is one of the key stepping stones for us getting to a dream city.” Noting Victoria’s many heritage and traditionally constructed buildings, Sundberg feels that it is perfectly possible to both protect the beauty of the city and achieve energy efficiency at the same time.

Then there’s new construction, the clean slate where the potential is wide open. Sundberg lauds the new, greener building code coming out next year, but urges “pushing the building code further by asking how this city is going to be, say, 50 years from now. If we are building a home just to code today,” he argues, “that home is already obsolete in terms of energy efficiency.” 

Sundberg asks, “How are we designing for the future?” It’s a question that applies to each structure that exists and those yet to be built, but as is true within those structures, how we do it affects larger systems; building science extends to the city scale.

Ideally, the care we take in individual buildings compounds into an intrinsically green economy. In Victoria, Sundberg says, the “opportunities are boundless for entrepreneurs of all ages.” He lists, just within his own growing sector, “Government workers who create the policies, legislation, building codes and regulations that advance the industry; developers who plan and finance green building; architects, designers and consultants who work on the planning side; certified energy advisors who provide the energy modelling; carpenters specializing in advanced framing utilizing sustainable wood products.” Builders, plumbers, electricians, realtors and others can all play important roles on the path to energy efficiency.

Going green on the home energy consumption front also has a rather contagious, spill-over effect on other aspects of living. “Once a home is renovated or newly constructed to a high level of energy efficiency,” Sundberg continues, “the residents living within it provide a market for a wide range of other green collar workers who can grow, transport, sell or cook sustainably produced local food. Getting to and from work and around town provides another significant opportunity for the local green economy—be it the companies designing or constructing light rail, expanding bike paths, or selling and maintaining fuel efficient and electric cars, bicycles and other self-propelled vehicles.”

More of the available jobs will be of the “green collar” variety. Says Sundberg, “If people can find more meaningful work, I think that’s pretty intrinsic, like having a home. Together these things define who we are, and so [dictate] how we can reduce our impact on the environment…Having a sustainable home and a sustainable place of work is a key foundation to helping Victoria be a better, more beautiful city.” 

You could call it a whole city that can breathe.

Aaren Madden vows to change the fact that every time the wind blows, she can feel it right through her front door. She’ll start by finding grants for door replacement at www.citygreen.ca.