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Let’s Build a Home

Originally appears in the Winter 2013-2014 issue

Housing is, for many, the largest financial and most environmentally significant investment they will ever make. When designing a house, thoughtful consideration of heating, electrical and water efficiency, building materials and site orientation can transform a house from an energy consumer to an energy producer. Energy efficient buildings have lower operating costs and a smaller carbon footprint over their life cycle.

For the past six years, I have been facilitating “The Sustainable House Project” with groups of 17-18 year olds as part of an Ontario curriculum course entitled “The Environment and Resource Management.” The basic concept is to have groups of students design and build a scale model of a sustainable house from recycled or recyclable materials over a period of 4 to 6 weeks. Their sustainable house must fit into the local neighbourhood and retain the original design and flavour of the area. In other words, it should not stand out too dramatically. To get them started, I usually select a house from the neighbourhood and have the students decide whether it should be renovated or rebuilt on the site. But with group consensus, students can select another house to focus on for their project.

Students must reduce the overall ecological footprint of the house by considering energy consumption (including renewable and nonrenewable sources), waste production, water consumption and the use of the sewage system. Overall, the house must be as close to a zero net energy structure and preferably a net energy producer.

While teaching this course I have found that giving young people the tools to create a model of their potential future can be transformative and empowering.

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Paul Hackl teaches Geography at Riverdale Collegiate Institute in Toronto, Ontario.