As climate change continues to become a pressing issue, more and more homeowners are looking for ways to live sustainably and reduce their carbon footprint. Sustainable and eco-friendly building materials and practices are becoming top of mind as Canadians strive to reduce their impact on the environment.
Sustainable home construction practices embody the use of renewable and recyclable materials, reducing energy consumption, and minimizing the impact on the planet, while improving your health and comfort. The primary goal of sustainable construction is reducing the impact of building projects on the environment. Green building projects are focused on designing and building sustainable homes, increasing water and energy efficiency while reducing waste and emissions.
This article will explore sustainable and eco-friendly building materials and practices in Canada, including their benefits, challenges, and government policies and programs that support them.
Core sustainable building principles
1. Building design and planning
Design plays a crucial role in the sustainability of a building. Sustainable building practices begin with the design and planning stage. Architects optimize the project’s potential by designing their buildings to take advantage of the site’s organic features, such as natural light and ventilation, while using materials with low embodied energy, incorporating renewable energy systems, and implementing efficient water management strategies to reduce the impact of the building on our earth.
They will also consider the building’s orientation and location to maximize solar gain and reduce energy consumption. High-performance home designers use energy modelling software to determine your home’s energy performance and make informed decisions about its energy efficiency. Sustainable building design aims to create structures that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
2. Energy efficiency
Energy efficiency is a critical aspect of sustainable building practices in Canada. According to Petro Oleksiyovych Kapustenko and Olga Petrovna Arsenyeva, in the Handbook of Process Integration (PI) (Second Edition), “Buildings account for about 40% of total energy demand and 36% of total greenhouse gas emissions in many countries and are considered both consumers and producers of energy.”
Sustainable building practices aim to reduce energy consumption by designing buildings with high-performance insulation, energy-efficient windows, and efficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.
Energy-efficient lighting and controls can also help reduce energy consumption. Additionally, using renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and geothermal, can partially or fully offset your home’s energy consumption.
3. Water conservation
Sustainable building practices in Canada also prioritize water conservation. Buildings consume a significant amount of water, and reducing water consumption can help reduce your home’s environmental impact. Home designers can specify water-efficient fixtures, such as low-flow toilets and faucets, and implement rainwater harvesting and greywater recycling systems to reduce water consumption.
Landscape design can also play a crucial role in water conservation and minimizing water usage. By choosing appropriate plants, designing efficient irrigation systems, and implementing rainwater harvesting techniques, landscape designers can reduce the amount of water needed to maintain a healthy and attractive outdoor space. Designing landscapes that capture and retain rainwater can recharge groundwater supplies and reduce stormwater runoff, which can contribute to erosion and water pollution. By prioritizing water conservation and minimizing water usage in landscape design, we can help to ensure that our communities have access to clean, reliable water supplies for generations to come.
4. Indoor environmental quality
The quality of your indoor environment is an essential aspect of sustainable building practices. Adequate ventilation helps to maintain indoor air quality and reduce the risk of indoor pollutants such as mould, volatile organic compounds, and carbon monoxide. By using low-emitting building materials, we can reduce the amount of harmful chemicals released into the air, which can also improve the indoor air quality.
Improving acoustics through super-insulation, a sealed building envelope and sound-absorbing materials can reduce noise pollution and promote a more peaceful indoor environment. Upgrading to energy-efficient lighting can reduce energy consumption and costs, while also improving the quality of lighting.
Improving thermal comfort through insulation, sealing air leaks, and using efficient heating and cooling systems can also reduce energy consumption and costs while ensuring a comfortable indoor environment year-round.
5. Operational and maintenance practices
Sustainable operational and maintenance practices are crucial in ensuring that your home is energy-efficient and minimizes its carbon footprint over its life cycle. These practices include regular maintenance of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning systems, such as cleaning filters and adjusting settings for optimal efficiency.
Proper insulation and sealing of air leaks can also reduce energy consumption for heating and cooling. Regularly inspecting and upgrading appliances, lighting, and water fixtures to energy-efficient models can significantly reduce energy consumption and costs over time.
Environmentally responsible home design in 2023 includes providing homeowners with a detailed maintenance plan for achieving a long, cost-effective lifecycle. Sustainable operational and maintenance practices not only reduce energy consumption and costs but also contribute to a healthier indoor environment and a more sustainable future.
Sustainable and eco-friendly building materials in Canada
1. Wood as a sustainable building material
Canada has a vast supply of sustainably harvested wood which makes it an excellent choice for sustainable building materials. The forestry industry in Canada is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which ensures that the wood is harvested sustainably and responsibly. Wood is a renewable resource, and it has a lower carbon footprint than other building materials, such as concrete or steel. Additionally, wood is an excellent insulator, which makes it a great choice for reducing energy consumption.
Sustainable construction is about maximizing your home’s lifespan. Post and beam construction uses large, durable wood beams that require less material than traditional stick framing, reducing the amount of waste generated during construction. Using sustainable building designs such as post and beam construction, in combination with super-insulation and an airtight building envelope can significantly reduce your home’s carbon footprint, with a potential service life of more than a century, while contributing to a more sustainable future for generations to come.
2. Bamboo as an alternative to wood
Bamboo is another sustainable building material that is becoming increasingly popular in Canada. Bamboo is a fast-growing grass that can be harvested within a few years, making it a highly renewable resource. It is also strong and durable, making it an excellent alternative to Canadian softwood lumber. Bamboo can be used for flooring, walls, and even structural elements of a building. It has a natural resistance to pests and mould, which reduces the need for chemical treatments.
3. Recycled materials in home construction
Recycling materials for building construction is another way to reduce waste and promote sustainability. The use of recycled materials reduces the need for virgin resources, conserves energy, and reduces the amount of waste that ends up in landfills. Recycled materials such as reclaimed wood, glass, metal, and plastic can be repurposed for use in flooring, countertops, cabinetry, and other structural and design elements of your home.
Recycling materials not only reduces the environmental impact of extracting new resources but also contributes to the circular economy by giving new life to materials that would otherwise be discarded.
4. Natural insulation materials
Natural insulation materials such as cork, straw, wool and rock are becoming increasingly popular in Canada as people strive to reduce their energy consumption. These materials are renewable, biodegradable, and have a lower carbon footprint than synthetic insulation materials. Additionally, they are excellent at regulating temperature and sound insulation.
Cork insulation, for example, is a byproduct of cork tree bark and can be harvested without harming the tree, while straw bale insulation is made from agricultural waste and is a highly effective insulator. Wool insulation is derived from sheep’s wool and has excellent thermal and acoustic properties, while rock wool is made from volcanic rock and is non-combustible and moisture-resistant.
5. Low VOC paints and finishes
Low VOC (volatile organic compound) paints and finishes are another way to reduce the impact of home construction on the environment. VOCs are chemicals that can be released into the air, contributing to poor indoor air quality and environmental pollution. Low-VOC paints and finishes have fewer or no VOCs, making them safer for the environment and human health.
Traditional paints and finishes can release a high level of VOCs, which can have adverse health effects and contribute to air pollution. Low VOC paints and finishes are made with natural and sustainable ingredients, such as plant-based oils and water-based solvents. This reduces the amount of hazardous waste generated during production and disposal, making them an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional paints and finishes.
Sustainable and eco-friendly building practices in Canada
1. Passive solar design and thermal mass
Passive solar design is an approach to home design that maximizes the use of natural light and heat. Passive solar design involves orienting the home to maximize sunlight exposure and heat gain during the winter months while shading and ventilation systems prevent excessive heat gain during the summer months. Passive solar design reduces the need for artificial lighting and heating, which reduces energy consumption.
Thermal mass materials such as concrete, brick, or stone are used to store and release heat, helping to regulate indoor temperature and also reduce energy consumption for both heating and cooling.
2. Green roofs and walls
Green roofs and walls are becoming more popular in Canada as people strive to reduce their carbon footprint. Growing vegetation on roofs and walls helps to mitigate the urban heat island effect by absorbing and reducing the amount of heat absorbed by your home, reducing the temperature of the surrounding environment. They can also improve air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide and other pollutants while releasing oxygen back into the atmosphere.
Green roofs and walls provide numerous benefits for building occupants, including thermal insulation, noise reduction, and improved mental health and well-being.
3. Rainwater harvesting and greywater reuse
Rainwater harvesting and greywater reuse are two sustainable building practices that promote water conservation and reduce the environmental impact of your home. Rainwater harvesting involves collecting rainwater from roofs and other surfaces and storing it for later use in irrigation, toilets or other non-potable uses. This can help to reduce the demand for municipal water. Rainwater harvesting can also help to reduce storm water runoff, which can cause flooding and erosion, and contribute to water pollution.
Greywater reuse involves collecting and treating wastewater from sinks, showers, and washing machines, and using it for non-potable purposes such as irrigation or toilet flushing. This can significantly reduce water consumption and demand for municipal water supplies and can help to reduce the environmental impact of buildings by reducing the amount of wastewater that needs to be treated and discharged. Greywater reuse can also help to promote a sustainable and closed-loop water system, where water is used and reused within your home, rather than being wasted or discharged into the environment.
The key benefits of using sustainable building materials and practices include reducing the environmental impact of your home, conserving natural resources, promoting energy efficiency and reducing operational costs, improving indoor air quality and the health and well-being of your family, and contributing to a more sustainable and resilient built environment.
By incorporating sustainable building practices such as using low-emitting building materials, maximizing solar gain through passive solar design, and harvesting rainwater and reusing greywater, you and your designer-builder can reduce your carbon footprint, save money on energy and water costs, and help build a healthier and more sustainable environment for generations to come.
Reid Madiuk's been putting on a toolbelt since he was twelve years old, alongside his father, one of Whistler's first residential builders. As a third-generation Squamish and Whistler builder, Reid brings over 20 years of carpentry expertise to designing and constructing exceptional homes.