Bottom rung

170px-Charles_Darwin_by_Julia_Margaret_Cameron_2It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change. ― Charles Darwin

As I mentioned in my last post, I traveled to Germany in February and experienced first hand some of the ways that Energiewende – “energy transformation”, the national policy to eliminate fossil fuels and nuclear from the country’s energy mix – has manifested itself. One of the most striking was the way it has sparked innovation. Necessity is the mother of invention, after all. Dramatically rising energy costs have forced German industry, institutions, and governments at all levels to innovate, and in so doing, to adapt.

Energy efficiency is one of these adaptations. Germany is home to a building design standard called Passivhaus (which, as you might expect, translates as “passive house”). This standard uses aggressive insulation, thermally efficient windows, weather stripping, energy-efficient appliances, and heat recovery ventilation to bring the net energy consumption of a house close to zero. In the North Rhine-Westphalia city of Bottrop, I saw my second passivhaus. It was a low-income housing project.

That was a surprise. Here in Canada, I’ve come to associate highly efficient housing with wealth. Perhaps it’s terminology like “LEED gold” or “LEED platinum” that evokes riches by referring to precious metals. Perhaps it’s the reputation that an efficient building is an expensive building.

Perhaps it was the experience of my first passivhaus, the office of a respected and successful architectural firm in Guelph. It is a lovely two-storey Victorian home whose exterior is indistinguishable from neighbouring houses. There is one exception, being the complete absence of icicles – a dead giveaway that little or no heat is escaping into the attic space to melt the accumulated snow on the roof. (This winter in particular, there is plenty of accumulated snow.) Once inside, if you are particularly observant or, as in my case, have it pointed out to you by the owner, you notice that the walls are about a foot thick. I was awed to hear that the light fixtures and human occupants give off enough heat to keep the place comfortably warm. The furnace almost never runs.

Back to Bottrop, where the passivhaus I encountered was intended not for the wealthy, but for the poor.

The wisdom of making social housing hyper-efficient is inescapable. As energy prices rise in excess of the overall rate of inflation, the ones that feel it most keenly are the ones on the bottom rung of the income ladder. Recipients of social assistance, as well as those not dependent on the state but earning an income not far above the poverty line, are hit hard. They are faced with the impossible choice of either keeping their house warm, or feeding hungry mouths.

If the state provides housing that comes with a large and growing burden of energy bills, it will inevitably have to raise the amount of social assistance it delivers. If, on the other hand, the building can be kept at a livable temperature at little or no expense, the somewhat larger initial investment in the building pays for itself.

If, as in the case of the Bottrop building, there is actually an income stream from rooftop solar panels, the logic of energy inflation is turned on its head. The occupants actually benefit from rising prices for energy, since they are using little or none themselves and have an excess to sell to the grid (and, by extension, their neighbours). Higher energy costs actually mean that less social assistance is needed.

Passivhaus is an intriguing technological innovation. Similarly rooftop solar panels for electricity production. However, these are not nearly as fascinating as the social innovation of applying both technologies in the context of affordable housing.

Social Darwinism is a concept that has earned much derision and disdain from those with a social conscience. The idea that those unable to provide for themselves should be abandoned to their fate, thereby strengthening the human species, has been thoroughly discredited. However, the German experience has shown that the environmental stress of rising energy costs can lead to an innovation that helps the most disadvantaged and disenfranchised. Social Darwinism is being reborn, but in a way that promises to offer the “weak” not a cold shoulder, but a warm home and some welcome extra income.

I’ll give the last word to Charles Darwin again:

If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.

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5 thoughts on “Bottom rung”

  1. Hello Alex…
    As Darwin has suggested we must evolve & change what we do for the better, if we are to survive. It is great that the Germans gave you the inspiration for your latest post. I guess the question is when will Canada be the inspiration for others based on our flurry of innovation.
    Alex, I’m trying hard not to ‘hack’ but simply ask when will we begin to see those innovations?
    We’ve seen OPA raise the costs of electricity 6% in 2013 with another 25% forecasted in the next 5 years. We’ve seen rural heating costs go up dramatically this year as people need more to fight a winter that won’t quit. In add’n, propane has reportedly been in short supply driving those costs even higher.
    Innovation is great but we need to change the ‘status quo mentality’ & get moving on a corrective path which implements those innovations. We know viable solutions are available but the glaciers move faster than most decisions.
    When we recognize that that the problem is ‘US’ & our complacency & need for convenience, then we will understand that we are all involved in the solutions from the low-income housing units right thru’ to BigCorp. We must engage everyone – nobody gets left behind or we all fail.
    But it is our needs that should drive the bus – as it was mentioned in a previous post. We have huge needs to fulfill in providing for everyone – the most needy included & we are more likely to achieve those goals if we can make it profitable (CSR included) for BigCorp to take up the challenge.
    It’s time to stop looking in the rearview mirror…..

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    1. Thanks again for another thoughtful comment, Peter. My short answer is, “Watch this space.” Guelph is working on some exciting things on district energy and residential energy efficiency. Whether these are innovative or not depends on your perspective. DE has been in place across North America on university campuses for decades, and in municipalities across Europe for just as long. Guelph is looking to build on both experiences and set a new standard for the continent. The same goes for energy efficiency. Our goal is to move beyond being a testbed and proceed to operationalizing these changes. Exciting times are ahead.

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  2. Alex, you are correct that, given energy price pressures, housing must be efficient to be affordable in the not-too-distant future. There is no real affordable housing program in Canada, and no government funding to speak of. 50,000 people are on wait list for affordable homes. In lieu of funding, we have to find a way to develop affordable housing within the current housing market. I see two pieces to the puzzle…

    The first is innovative funding. Life lease is one method that has been utilized by Options For Homes in Ontario to produce more than 2,500 homes for low-income families across the country.

    Second is changing our building methods to focus on energy efficiency and simplicity. After a dozen years working with green buildings (including two dozen LEED projects), I now believe that Passive House (aka Passivhaus) building methodology is the key to accomplishing the dual goals of ultra-low energy and affordability. Passive House offers simplicity, rigour, and cost effectiveness – crucial success elements for affordable housing with low purchase and operational costs.

    Through my company Local Impact Design, I am currently providing consulting services on the Cordage Green affordable housing in Niagara region, which is aiming to be the first certified Passive House low-cost housing project in Canada. Here is a link to a white paper on my website discussing why Passive House is the ideal approach for the affordable housing sector.

    FYI, I’ll be presenting on this topic at the Transition Guelph Resilience Festival this Thursday, March 27 – 7:00 pm to 9:00 pm at 10 Carden, Guelph.

    Rob Blakeney
    rob@localimpactdesign.ca

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Rob, and for the helpful supplemental information. It’s very encouraging that some of the innovations I saw in Germany are happening here as well – with your help! Keep up the good work. To my readers – I particularly encourage you to read Rob’s white paper (the last link in his comment). Exciting stuff!

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  3. Alex…
    Wonderful to read more on Rob’s company & his attempts to positively impact the low-income housing issue. He’s right, there is no over-arching program to help those 50,000 families on the wait list – the really disheartening fact tho’ is those numbers are escalating far faster than Rob can build housing. But it’s a start & we should all see it as a step in the right direction. With significantly reduced energy costs, those costs almost can be viewed as a ‘fixed’ cost in the day-to-day expenses & annual P/L for a Gov’t sponsored build. Think of this opportunity to house more of the people who can’t even afford the Life Lease type of programs – the Gov’t is overwhelmed by those that are currently facing heating costs vs. food costs for their families.
    But we should recognize the upside to this project & encourage more contact with local, provincial & federal politicians to enlighten them. I look forward to more ideas & comments from your posts, Alex. Kudos to Rob & his team.

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