The word sustainable gets bandied about a lot. But some things that are considered sustainable can be done in an unsustainable way, and vice versa.
Take wood. We often talk about the sustainability of wood over steel. But if one were to reuse steel from a local recycler instead of import exotic woods from a rainforest in Brazil, well that’s an entirely different thing.
The part of the equation that we need to bring in here is known as “embodied energy”. The dictionary definition is “the energy that was used in the work of making a product. Embodied energy attempts to measure the total of all the energy necessary for an entire product”. And might I add, “throughout it’s entire life cycle”.
Yes this does change everything. So when considering a product we don’t only consider how long we will be able to use it but how far was it transported, how much mining was involved, how many different parts are there and where did they come from. In a global economy transport is key. And all these steps take energy.
Take your lowly pencil. It’s pretty simple right? Wood, graphite, paint, eraser, metal thingy to hold the eraser. But look closer and consider how it was made and that all of those parts could not possibly have come from one factory. The rubber is from some far away forest, the graphite was mined, the metal thingy was also processed somewhere before it even went to a factory. And from that factory moved to still another factory where it was assembled. And then shipped to a very very large warehouse where it sat for several weeks or months when it was finally shipped to your local Dollarama.
So the embodied energy in that simple pencil is fairly large given what it does and the cost. Now think about your average cell phone. Or car. Or house. And the equation for embodied energy becomes very very complex. And comparing two things also becomes a rather convoluted process. But it is important because as we make decisions about the products we use while walking on this planet it becomes more and more important to consider using things that are made locally, created with our own two hands if we can and avoid reliance on complex energy intensive items. Because given the state of the planet, Gaia is in stress (in case you’ve been asleep) and we need to seriously rethink how we walk on this planet.
I gotta be honest I haven’t attended the Home & Garden show religiously. In fact the last one I went to was no less than 3 years ago. It’s not that I purposely avoid going to check out the newest trends and the latest technologies in building. I prefer to save the admission fee, the cost of parking and the crowds while using google and youtube for my education. But this time was different. I had a mission.
So I wandered past the landscapers, the roofing companies, the kitchen renovators and made a beeline for the most interesting (to me) exhibit. I wanted to check out Lethbridge’s latest in tiny house building, Teacup Tiny Homes.
While I know this is not Lethbridge’s first tiny house per se, it is probably the first one that is available for sale to a commercial market that is heretofore untested. I know a friend who built one independently on a 20’ trailer complete with tiny wood stove, highly insulated 2x6 walls and very much geared to off-grid living. She still owns it and like many tiny homes that are being built today in the US and Canada, has to deal with finding a safe (and legal) place to park it.
I spoke with the owner of Teacup Tiny Homes, Jenny. Her views are optimistic and her vision is clear - establish a tiny house community in Lethbridge and meet a growing need for what people really really want. The means by which she is doing this are by working the system - amend the existing rules and bylaws.
Those rules are many and varied - from zoning regulations to city bylaws to architectural controls to building codes to infrastructure. To be fair, there are presently no Lethbridge bylaws that state a minimum for house size, so that’s one less hurdle. It’s also good to know that most people are fundamentally in favour of these changes but to sit down and enact them will take time.
Still, examples are popping up. In Alberta the town council in Big Valley is creating a whole subdivision especially for “tiny homes”. Now of course, one needs to define the term, tiny house. Anyone who has looked deeply into this will see there are still some misunderstandings as to what constitutes a tiny house, a micro house or even a mini house. Like any movement in its early stages coming to terms with defining what’s what can take some time. Big Valley is defining a tiny house as being under 700 sq ft. Here’s one story about the Big Valley development
So at the core of it all, this movement towards smaller, easier to manage and more sustainable is part of a larger picture that is being drawn by visionaries and freedom lovers everywhere. And it won’t be stopped any time soon as people seek to downsize, free themselves from mortgage payments and have more freedom. And that’s a good thing.
Last week I facilitated a meeting in a tiny hamlet 75 kms from here (Lethbridge). It was with regards to creating two “event days” in the community that would give residents a chance to trade items, sell crafts, listen to some music and eat locally prepared food. I started the meeting by asking each attendee what their number one reason was for being there. No less than 75% responded with a similar answer; to meet people, to be part of a gathering, to join with others in the village, etc…
In all the years I’ve attended and lead meetings of various groups I have consistently come across this. The theme of just “doing things together” is the biggest draw for most of us. And it’s no surprise that as more members of our society experience isolation from each other, the more this need comes to the foreground.
I think we can agree that people are social animals. We’ve gathered in tribes, clans and villages forever. The importance of community is intrinsically tied to our survival instincts. The desire to connect and the pleasure of simply working side-by-side can be seen all around us in many ways. Check any local event in which volunteers are asked to step forward. When those people come up to do the work needed there is little fuss about how important their respective tasks are, no quibbling over how much harder one works than another, no concern about hours spent to do the task at hand. What is of utmost importance is the chance to work with others in a situation that is “more like fun, less like work.”
And now the scientific evidence is mounting in favour of this idea. We are discovering that our brains are hard-wired for social engagement. From a baby’s earliest recognition of smiling faces to the neurological chemistry when witnessing someone experiencing stage fright to the amount of chemicals in our brains secreted when doing work that is cooperative rather than competitive. This research even moves into the animal kingdom and how cooperation is a superior model of survival. Check this fascinating vid: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aYOPcHRO3tc (The video goes far beyond the theme of this blog after the 5 minute mark. It goes on to provide a wonderful alternate view to competition as we know it.)
Today we see that “creative competition” has resulted in huge swathes of humanity being left behind. Sadly, most residents on this planet are locked out from receiving the benefits of the collective efforts of humankind. This is about to change.
In the next few years we will witness the movement away from top down hierarchical systems that have been responsible for this iniquity. On a more direct and local level we will see changes in land use, building technologies and work environments to create a world that is attendant to our individual needs and is more focused on solutions than on regulations. Truly these are interesting times.
I’m going beyond the GeoStudio today. I’d like to address the 2nd most important element in creating a truly off-grid house. Not only due to an interest in tiny houses (a growing phenomenon in the US and Canada), but because it is front and centre for this company’s plan to upgrade the GeoStudio to the status of tiny house in the next 12 months.
To paraphrase a saying, “He who controls hot water controls the world”. In simpler terms, generating hot water allows for not only personal hygiene but is potentially an ingredient to heat one's home, to generate electricity and to help prepare food. So you can see it is fundamental to making a space liveable. And if you can control its creation without fossil fuels you can therefore create all of these options.
Some examples of fossil free hot water generation technology are solar tube collectors, a large magnifying glass and a parabolic reflector - there are others but this sample tells us solar truly is coming of age.
The large magnifying glass idea can be created with a large transparent plastic sheet suspended on a rack of 4x4’s, in which the water acts as a ‘magnifying glass’. Check out this very cool idea: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eeSyHgO5fmQ
There are solar tube collectors now on the market that are being refined. And they needn’t look too large or awkward and would make addition to any tiny living space.
My favourite however is the parabolic reflector. This is an umbrella shaped device that you invert and point to the sun, like a satellite dish. Only it has a mirror-like surface that will reflect the sun's rays to a centre focal point. (On a satellite dish this is the piece that sticks out and concentrates the signal.) At this focal point the heat is intense enough to boil water - under sunny skies of course. The Lethbridge Sustainable Living Association has used such a device in solar cooking demonstrations. It is very effective, you can put a pot of water suspended on a grill at the exact focal point and boil water in minutes. My plan is to use one of these to run some metal pipe up into that focal point and back down into a tank or boiler system in order to store hot water. After that the water can used domestically to help heat one's space on the coldest days of the year.
So at this point I’m soliciting my readers. I’m looking for someone with solid plumbing knowledge to create such a system. This would bring us all one step closer to being able to create an off grid tiny house. And off grid living I believe, is the “Rosetta stone” of small footprint sustainable living.
So if you know a plumber or engineer or just all around “inventor guy” who would be interested in participating in this challenge - please message me!
Gilles Leclair is the founder of GeoStudios. Somewhat eccentric, fairly environmentalist, politically aware, he believes the world should have more off-grid communities... many more.