Don't just rebuild houses, build 'em better

Building better, unfortunately, inevitably costs more than taking the path of least resistance so government financial help will be required

Troy Media

CALGARY, Alta.  —  If you were to build a home today - one you would want to stay in for decades - then it's fair to predict you would want more than marble countertops. In the age of climate change and soaring energy prices, homeowners have to worry about better fire and flood resistance, the greatest possible efficiency and even the ability to generate power.


These priorities, however, are at odds with the pressure Fort McMurray is under to get some structures up and running. It needs to replace 2,400 structures destroyed in the May 2016 fire, and it can't take a decade to do it.

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Building houses to minimum codes standards, however, is at best a wasted opportunity. Canada needs to upgrade its entire housing stock; it makes little sense to keep adding structures that may be adequate today but will certainly be useless in the not-too-distant future.


Fortunately, people are thinking about seizing the moment. An advisory committee is mounting a campaign called Build Back Better. The Green Building Technologies Centre committee, based in Calgary's Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, has convinced the Government of Alberta and the local municipality of Wood Buffalo to raise awareness of resilient home construction alternatives to the standard fare.


The committee, writes Chair Andree Iffrig, aims to avoid some of the mistakes that occurred during the reconstruction of Slave Lake after it was largely razed in a 2011 fire. Iffrig says shoddy and hastily erected homes in that city resulted in structures that in some cases were never finished or which failed to meet standards.The idea of building to the best possible standard makes sense on the face of it, but two pressures make it easier said than done: The first is the urgency issue; the other is the question of cost. Building better inevitably costs more than taking the path of least resistance. Insurance companies, in fairness slammed by huge payouts, are not likely to pay for "unnecessary" upgrades.


Some construction changes, however, cost little or nothing more. A fire-resistant roof made of steel, for example, is simple way to add a little protection to a home, as is cement-based HardiPlant siding. Fire resistance is top of mind for me as I sit in a home with walls of OSB (a wood-and-glue product) and vinyl siding - making it a matchbox just waiting to ignite. If my own house were built today, these are not the materials I would choose.


The same applies to flood-proofing homes. Parts of the country that have experienced recent flooding may question why vital electrical and heating equipment is situated in the basement where it will be destroyed by water. They should be moved to upper portions of the structure. In New Orleans, some reconstructed homes were placed on stilts, so any flood waters that might invade do minimal harm. Is that such a crazy idea?


Even smarter, of course, would be prohibiting the reconstruction of homes in flood plains. But, as we saw in both Calgary, after the 2013 deluge, and in Fort McMurray, politics often overrides common sense. Homes get built - and rebuilt - in places they should never be.


Finally, while energy efficient standards have improved dramatically in the past couple of decades, new homes should be built with at least the potential to become net-zero - i.e., the ability to generate as much heat and power as they use. That means state-of-the-art windows, ultra-high insulation, ventilation, reverse electrical meters and the bones of a building that can be easily upgraded in future.


It's a lot to ask homeowners to take on the cost of these upgrades themselves. People who have lost their homes often have also found themselves out of work and under financial stress. Many are in not position to shell out even more cash.


Governments need to consider whether they can help by providing either loans or grants for such upgrades. With carbon taxes appearing across the country, here is a reinvestment from all that new revenue that might actually pay dividends down the road.


Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is President of Troy Media Digital Solutions and Publisher of Troy Media.

www.troymedia.com

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