Granite friggin’ countertops and why builders should be climate leaders

Let’s start with some provocative statements. First, you can’t do green building separate from sustainable development. Green building is healthy, durable, energy-efficient buildings, while sustainable community development refers to healthy, durable, energy-efficient neighbourhoods.  Second, if you call yourself a city builder, you are responsible for both because both cut greenhouse gasses and improve the resilience and marketability of your developments.

green building
Urban sprawl in the United States. Photo via U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In terms of green building, the Canadian National Energy Code will keep getting stricter because energy use is connected to climate change. We live in the Ottawa region and we used to think our electricity comes from “green” hydro power (c’mon – it’s just water spinning a turbine, right?) but this is not the case. It’s a mix of hydro, natural gas, nuclear and renewables, and long transmission lines, all of which have carbon footprints (yup – hydro too) and all of which are vulnerable to increasingly severe heat, rain, ice, snow and wind events. We will create more resilient and secure neighbourhoods when we switch to green energy and more localized power generation. We think there are dollars to be made in teaming up with green energy suppliers, especially in Ontario.

Codes and zoning reflect green building and sustainable development. Codes are “encouraging” us to tighten up our building envelopes and add insulation. Zoning encourages denser developments (e.g. towns, row housing, apartments and condos) mostly to cut energy demand from car travel. Codes and zoning work together to result in energy efficient houses and neighbourhoods.

A granite countertop over energy efficiency? Image via Wikimedia Commons.

However, we have heard too many times from builders and developers that consumers still want singles in car-oriented neighbourhoods. We also hear that when builders offer house buyers a choice between energy efficiency upgrades or cosmetic upgrades buyers usually chose granite countertops. It’s the trade-off the consumer makes. Why should I pay for something that benefits the next buyer if a sexy kitchen will help me sell faster? But if consumers all take that attitude, then every second-hand house is a code house. That’s why codes and zoning get ramped up: consumers are not demanding higher standards. Here’s the glitch: although energy costs can make a house unaffordable, it seems consumers need to be convinced to go green.

So why would a builder do anything beyond code? There’s enough competition in housing without trying to sell upgrades that a consumer can’t see. And why build towns when consumers still demand singles? And industry reps insist that it’s almost impossible to sell green building, which is why a tiny fraction of new residential builds in North America can be considered really “green.” Why change what you’re doing in this hyper-competitive market?

It’s simple. Weather. Record-breaking storms, thousands of homes destroyed here and in the States. Risks, regulation, responsibility, and new sources of revenue too.

green building
The PassivHaus scheme. Image via Passivhaus

So we’re going to go radical and suggest that city builders push past the slow pace of government initiatives and consumer apathy and actually team up (through your local builders’ association, for example) to aggressively stimulate the market for green building and sustainable development. If everyone in the business contributes, no one loses competitive advantage and you all open up a new market segment. It also makes long term sense. You need predictability as three levels of government struggle to get it together. One of the main focal points for big industry globally is how carbon pricing will be applied. How will it affect production costs and competition? And what will governments and taxpayers subsidize? The market drives sales, but you can take some control by nudging the market in the direction regulation is already going. But the industry must act together.

So how do you market green building and sustainability without your buyer’s eyes glazing over? Everyone is tired of the “G-words”. How about promoting code and zoning upgrades rather than grumbling about changing regulation? How about using some of your marketing budget to educate consumers about neighbourhood resilience? How about simultaneously teaming up with green energy suppliers and pushing for energy labelling on your new homes? And maybe it’s time to engage mortgage lenders and insurance companies more seriously in a discussion about incentives for green building? And hey – how about turning some of your units to the sun instead of the road…? Because in the end, green building will make housing more secure and affordable for all consumers.

Maybe it’s time to talk to other industry leaders about cutting climate change unpredictability and creating new markets for green building and sustainable neighbourhoods.


Gary Martin holds a doctorate in sustainable urbanism from Carleton University. He splits his time between building stuff, sustainability advocacy and teaching, and trying to connect the three. [email protected]

Ruth McKay PhD is a tenured professor at Carleton University’s Sprott School of Business. One of her areas of interest is business risks from climate change.  [email protected]

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