Accidental Sustainability

Who defines what a sustainable building should look like or how it ought to be constructed?

Is it the engineers who came up with the LEEDS building code, or the hippie dippy folks pounding old tires into new homes in the quaintly named Greater World Earthship Community outside of Taos, New Mexico? Or is it the people who live in straw bale homes they built with the help of their friends?

Even if I could answer that question, what does it actually have to do with me at this point in my life? I’m part of the demographic urban planners call the ‘young-old’, and consider myself a model of living an active, productive life beyond the official age of retirement. Since I love what I do, I don’t plan to retire, ever. Meanwhile, I dream of building my very own version of a sustainable house as soon as I can get my hands on enough money. I love building homes. One of the most satisfying things I ever did was to build our first home. Sheer necessity forced me to become the ‘building contractor’, and so I hired a framing crew, sorted out all the paperwork and the inspections and then bought a prefab Pan Abode package which another crew of men pounded together in three days. We moved in after only two months of building, just in time for the opening of school.

My kids were impressed; my husband wanted something grander, but it was what we needed to get out of the semi-slum we had inhabited. That was in 1969 and again, it was necessity, not sustainability, that drove me. If I actually were to build a home today, it would likely be in a place accessible only by car. The dream of living in the country, without having to worry about traffic and noise pollution I share with many people my age. Trouble is, that wouldn’t be sustainable at all, in fact, a retrograde step considering greenhouse gases and the spectre of aging. At some point, I probably won’t be able to drive any more and then what? I’d be stuck in the ‘burbs, that’s what.

It has occurred to me that my current lifestyle in an affluent uptown neighborhood in Vancouver is actually more sustainable than I had thought. This has as much to do with the building itself as with its location in the heart of uptown Vancouver.

I live in a small wood frame apartment block built back when the world wasn’t worried about sustainability at all, in 1940. It has only 10 nearly identical apartments and has been completely updated and renovated. Sort of. There is precious little in the way of insulation; the wind blows through the single pane windows and I can hear what kind of music my neighbors across the hall consider cool. Conversations and car noises drift up from the street but we have some protection courtesy of Mother Nature. The four large Japanese cherry trees in front of the building provide a mass of pink flowers in spring and leaves in summer that insulate the building from the sun on its southwest exposure where my apartment faces. Heat is provided via noisy and somewhat temperamental hot water radiators. It’s always hot in here on the top floor, winter and summer and in between. The owners have steadfastly refused to consider a green roof though the west façade is covered with ivy like plants so aggressive they grow right into half open windows. They look pretty and the birds and insects love the black berries that hang in thick clusters under the fleshy green leaves. It offers another layer of natural insulation. Once a year, a half naked man on a ladder wrestles the triffid-like growth into temporary submission.

This old building may in fact be more ‘sustainable’ than I had thought. For one thing, its very age guarantees that there are no toxic off gases coming from any part of the building. It uses plants to regulate its temperature, and I hardly ever use the small air conditioner in my kitchen. The lack of an elevator forces me to run up and down three flights of stairs on a daily basis. Good for the heart, they say. It’s affordable because I moved in a long time ago, when rents were low. It’s within easy walking distance from everything I need to sustain body and soul—including several bus lines. I don’t need a car. In many ways, it’s an ideal urban existence. I didn’t plan it that way; it just evolved from a combination of luck and unforeseen circumstances.

If we had stayed in the Pan Abode house I built, I would now be totally dependent on driving for just about everything I can do on foot here. It’s something to consider. My dream of building another house far from the congested streets of my apartment life is due for a sustainability overhaul. Okay, scratch that dream. For now.

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