Sustainable Housing: Achieving a Future for Everyone

Wed, 07 Feb 2024

By Victoria Barclay
MA, UBC Department of Sociology

The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.

What comes to mind when you hear the word “infrastructure”? Maybe you think of bridges, roads, or transit systems. Perhaps you think of water or waste systems. But how about housing? Is housing ever thought of when one considers infrastructure?

In the simplest terms, housing can be understood as a physical structure. But as stated by the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, housing is much more than four walls and a roof.

Housing as critical infrastructure

During her January 23rd President’s Faculty Lecture, titled A Sustainable Housing Future, Dr. Andréanne Doyon brought this idea a step further, stating that housing is critical infrastructure. “Housing is necessary to support the functions that are necessary for everyday life,” she said.

Dr. Doyon declared that in one sense, housing is a product—a noun used to describe the physical space where people live. Housing, she said, can also be a verb that denotes the process in which people find a space to sleep, eat, and live their daily lives. But importantly, housing can be a system that dictates what is accessible to us, such as proximity to job opportunities, healthcare systems, grocery stores, schools, and much more.

Reflecting on this event, I think that this multifaceted perspective on the concept of housing is important as we consider our current approach to the housing crisis. When we talk about fixing the housing crisis in Vancouver, in Canada, or even across the world, do we want to strengthen housing as a product, a process, or a system? Perhaps the answer will depend on whether you ask an engineer, a planner, a politician, or a landlord. But what answer would you hear if you asked a single parent raising several children, an unhoused neighbour, or a young adult barely holding on to the possibility of homeownership?

What is sustainable housing?

Dr. Doyon presented sustainable housing as “a way for us to rethink housing and the role it plays in our lives,” particularly as we collectively respond to the climate crisis.

Characteristics of sustainable housing include having a zero-carbon impact, engaging with the circular economy, improving physical and technical elements that deliver resilient structures  amidst climate change, and aligning housing efforts with international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emission. 

In conversations about how to respond to the housing crisis, particularly political ones, financial considerations are often at top of mind. But as emphasised by Dr. Doyon, inefficiently-built buildings will not be affordable long term due to energy and maintenance costs.

“We often think about housing in this country as an investment… [asking] ‘how much should the house cost right now?’ We spend a lot less time thinking about how much money it will cost to run the house,” Dr. Doyon said.

In other words, we shouldn’t just ask ‘how much?’, but ‘how much for whom?’ Development companies and governments invest millions into housing construction. But individuals and families bear the costs of living in that house—“managing it and maintaining it,” in Dr. Doyon words, and with much smaller budgets.

Examples of sustainable housing

A Canadian example of sustainable housing is small/laneway housing. These houses have become increasingly popular in Vancouver and Toronto, with detached secondary suites being built on existing lots, often in the backyard or replacing a garage.

Shared housing is another sustainable option consisting of isolated units with shared living facilities —a design scheme focused on social outcomes. An example is the Nightingale Housing in Australia, which prioritises shared spaces in a way that challenges standard housing design.

But building sustainable housing is only one part of implementation—financing is another. Building sustainable housing can cost the same as standard housing if planned properly, but financing does not come without challenges.

As Dr. Doyon explained, banks and lenders generally avoid risky investments so they may be hesitant to try something new. There are options for financing, such as ‘green’ mortgages with  banks approving loans for more energy efficient homes, and some governments providing rebates for retrofits and renovations to encourage sustainability. But as these important  initiatives enable homeowners to move toward sustainability, renters are not able to take advantage of these benefits.

Housing policy and programs in Canada have a history of neglecting renters, likely a result of this country’s predominantly market-based housing system. As we move through the housing crisis and rethink our approach to solving it, maybe it is also time we consider more carefully who we are solving the crisis for. 

As shared by Dr. Doyon, 50% of Vancouver residents are renters. And while many of these renters might dream of becoming homeowners, that is not the case nor the fate for everyone in this city, let alone the country. Can we imagine a sustainable housing future that ensures renters are not left behind? I believe that we can.

What now?

There is a lot to be done to speed up the implementation of sustainable housing. But is it enough?

Regulations and planning approaches need to be strengthened by policymakers, and financing options must become more widely available. Research that can guide changes in policy and industry must be prioritised and seriously considered. 

Dr. Doyon ended her lecture with a quote from her co-authored open-access book that I will also leave you with to offer some hope for the future. “This might seem like a challenge, but as the evidence and case studies demonstrate, this type of housing future is possible.”

To learn more about sustainable housing and Dr. Andréanne Doyon, watch the recording of the her President's Faculty Lecture here!