I met a fellow active community member recently. She mentioned that she had read about the Mill Creek NetZero Home (MCNZH) here, and included a short lament about how her family would afford to upgrade her own home. I felt a pang of guilt - why should my family be empowered to build our way to energy independence when so many others aren't?
For The Record
For the record, we can afford to build this home due to a mixture of a very simple lifestyle, luck, fiscal prudence, fortunate career choices, and luck with real estate (did I mention luck?).
My wife and I started relatively well-paying IT careers circa 1999. From the beginning, we followed the philosophy described in the book Your Money or Your Life. In the book, they talk about how we immediately become consumers once we start making a bit of money. We fill our lives with things - TVs, computers, cars - and we become enslaved by debt along the way. Some night while drinking beer with an old buddy, we realize that the happiest days of our lives were back when we were poor students. We had nothing, and yet we were happy. How could that be? Well, my wife Rechel and I decided to never stop living like students. We have made a lifestyle of enjoying the free and cheap things in life. A vacation in an old VW Jetta is just as enjoyable as one in a Jeep Grand Cherokee. A bike ride on a summer day is really the best thing that I can think of doing - and it costs nothing. We don't feel that we've missed out on anything. We've just centered our lives around the important things, very few of which costs any significant amount of money.
This generally anti-consumerist approach easily translated into a green (and even cheaper) lifestyle as we became more environmentally aware. We gave up one of our cars early on, and 1.5 yeas ago we finally gave up our remaining car. It's hard to overstate how much money we've saved by going car-free (it's also hard to explain how much it's improved our lives, but that's another post entirely). It's just stupid how much extra we work for our automobiles in this society.
So we've had disposable income and a low cost lifestyle from the start. We were fortunately both in professional careers and we were lucky enough to keep advancing in those careers. The next key was how we invested our money. We decided to avoid stock markets early on. I'm a big picture kind of guy, and I just couldn't get over the fact that infinite growth is impossible in a finite system. Since that's a fact, when you decide to invest in the stock market, you're basically betting that you're going to get out before growth stops (and reverses). We saw no reason to believe that growth would continue for another 40-odd years, so we stayed away from stocks and mutual funds. Instead we invested our extra money in GICs, energy efficiency, paying off debt and real estate. The GIC money is still around, untouched by the recent market meltdown (we're going to pull most of it out to pay for the MCNZH), and the energy efficiency investments (in light bulbs, insulation on our current house, a new fridge, a front-loading washing machine) have been paying us back every month tax free since we made them. We have also always aggressively paid down our mortgage.
Finally, we bought the house two doors down from us in the summer of 2005. That was right before the big real estate boom, and the fact that we were sitting on two properties during that boom, combined with the factors mentioned above, is why we can afford to build a Net Zero home in the middle of the city.
Green Homes For All
As resources become more and more depleted - I'm thinking specifically about natural gas here - northern communities like Edmonton will face an increasingly severe crisis. Our homes require enormous inputs of fossil fuels to stay warm. It's scary really. Since it enters our home silently through a tiny pipe, we really have no concept of the huge quantity of energy that we use for heating, but if we heated with wood, the average home in Edmonton would burn enough to completely fill a large 110 square foot bedroom. That's packed tight, and it would probably take a week's worth of work to split it and pack it. This enormous amount of energy, if we don't make our homes energy efficient, will eventually need to come from coal. That's a big fear of mine - that Edmonton will one day have a grey haze of coal smoke blanketing it in winter.
Those who can afford to build new (hopefully only tearing down really old houses and deconstructing them as much as possible before doing so) should build Net Zero or near Net Zero homes. Others who own their own home should radically renovate them for energy efficiency. I'm not talking about putting in new windows and adding an inch of foam on the outside. I'm talking about bringing them as close to Net Zero as possible.
Talking about money is tough, but I think that this post is long overdue. We will probably spend over $500,000 building the MCNZH. So how do we prepare for a world that is scarce in natural gas when it costs $500k to completely rebuild a home?
How To Afford It - Individual Actions
You should get yourself into a Net Zero or near-Net Zero home. I think it's the best decision that a person living in our cold city can make. If you don't have $500k lying around, here are some ideas:
- Co-habitation - don't have the money to build/renovate a super-efficient home? How about you and your brother combined? What about your parents? Your best friend? This is thinking outside the box a bit here - after all, we're Albertans, wasting space is what we do best - but I think we need to change our expectations a bit given the energy crunch that's coming our way.
- Retirement fund - give up on Freedom 55. Seriously, if growth hasn't permanently ended yet, it will before you're ready to cash in, or even worse, while you're cashing in. Pull your money out of mutual funds and invest in something real - energy efficient housing stock.
- Do it yourself - take some time off and start insulating.
How To Afford It - Collective Action
One obvious answer is that the government should be subsidizing these things. The incremental cost of building a new home so that it achieves 85% of what a Net Zero home does is only $20,000 - $25,000. Every new home should be built to that standard (that is, R50 walls with a super-tight building envelope and good windows). The province could both enforce it and subsidize it. Furthermore, the province should be converting our fossil fuel money into green homes for all - there should be subsidies of at least $50,000 for the complete energy efficiency retrofitting of older homes.
I hate to dwell on how poorly things are run in this province, so I'll refrain from getting too upset that the government will just keep doing what it's doing, which is nothing. Let's just forget about any level of government. I think that what we need to do is start renovating houses as a community. Let's start holding energy efficiency Barn Raisings in this city. I just stumbled on the concept, and I think it's brilliant. Get 20-40 people together, make a plan, buy materials and then super-insulate and seal a whole house in a weekend. It's a community-based solution that everyone benefits from. After all, energy security is everyone's problem.
Similarly to how Habitat For Humanity builds houses, a group in Cambridge has been holding these barn raisings for awhile. I think we should start seriously considering energy efficiency barn raisings to help increase Edmonton's energy security moving forward. In fact, I plan to make this a project once I'm done with the MCNZH project. Imagine it. We'll be meeting and helping our neighbours, saving the earth, saving resources, and learning new skills. Sounds like the right thing to do. We should all be able to afford the security that a Net Zero or near-Net Zero home can provide.
(cross posted at raisingspaces.com)