A vision of Greentopia

Why doesn’t Calgary do everything possible to reach ultimate sustainability?

Windmills should stand on the rooftops of every house in Calgary. Solar panels should line the south face of every building. Condominium walls should be solid bricks of straw while the walls of single-family homes should be thick sod packed into discarded tires. The dishwasher should drain into the toilet tank as should the shower and then we could flush our toilets with the recycled water. And our sewage should be treated by willow marshland in the countryside.

Why not? Why aren’t there urban wind turbines everywhere? Why don’t we use grey water to flush the toilet and water the garden? Why aren’t there more rain collectors? And community gardens? And buildings made from salvage? Why are all of our homes stick-frame structures? Why don’t we used straw or cob or rammed earth? Is there any reason the next infill house in Calgary can’t be an earthship? Why is everything made of lumber and sheet rock and fibreglass? Why do our homes and workplaces need so much heating in the winter and so much cooling in the summer? Why is it so difficult to travel in Calgary without a car? Why? There are reasons for all these things but are they good reasons?


According to volunteer-run Sustainable Calgary “Calgarians are among the most wasteful resource users on the planet.” The city’s total consumption has increased 38 per cent since 1990 and is continuing to increase along with its rapidly expanding population.

Dr. Jim Love holds the University of Calgary’s chair in sustainable building technology. He says one of the reasons we use energy the way we do is because it’s relatively cheap here. If it was as expensive as it is in Europe or created the intense pollution we see in major cities like Beijing we would be acting much faster to reduce our consumption and find clean alternatives.

Why don’t those of us who are ready now just throw off the shackles of Alberta’s expensive dirty coal-fired electricity grid by generating electricity with wind turbines in our yards? Not a good idea says Canada Wind Energy Association engineer Tim Weis.

“How much energy you get out of wind [is] related directly to the wind speed and the strongest wind happens at the highest altitudes…. It’s really hard to build huge huge towers in an urban setting. The other fact is that in urban settings you have buildings and trees and the houses create turbulence and they actually slow the wind down really significantly” he explains.

There may not be enough room or wind to make urban residential wind turbines feasible but Weis says there are other good ways for the city to generate renewable energy.

Solar panels and passive solar heating are fairly obvious methods to generate electricity but the cost is prohibitive — it costs about $5 to buy enough solar capacity to produce one watt of electricity according to U.S. Solar Market Insight. The average cost to outfit a house with enough solar paneling to meet it energy needs is about $20000 and that’s after federal tax rebates.

Calgary can also take a page out of Europe’s urban energy-efficiency methods and use shared heating districts especially in ultra-dense areas like the downtown core. “Instead of having furnaces in all those buildings you could have a system that heats all those buildings together” Weis says explaining that a giant radiator system circulating fluid heated at least in part by waste heat given off by the core’s other systems isn’t too far-fetched.

Despite our efforts in Calgary and urban Alberta on the whole our ability to switch to a clean energy system is hamstrung by the provincial energy grid. Alberta has one of the largest stocks of large-scale windfarms on the continent mainly in the southwest corner of the province. Yet the majority of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. Weis says it’s difficult for Alberta cities to provide citizens with adequate power without those plants since they still produce much more than our windfarms currently do. He hopes policy makers and the public recognize that expanding renewable energy options particularly wind power is key to achieving our energy reduction targets.


Why do we build the way we do? There are exceptions but by and large the typical Calgary home is a stick-frame single-family house with large windows and high preferably vaulted ceilings and natural gas heating and fibreglass insulation.

“Why? Because it’s cheap” says Love. “It’s a low-cost way to build and it’s fashion. People have been persuaded that this is fashionable…. The average homeowner still seems more interested in the impression their house will make when someone visits than in its energy performance.”

Love says even University City condos which are well designed in terms of the project’s walking distance to public transit the university campus and shopping have a serious design flaw in their all-glass exterior walls. The enormous windows look great but residents will have a hard time keeping their home at a comfortable temperature.

What if you’re determined to live differently? Many of us have seen homes built of cob (a clay-sand-straw mix that can support the weight of an average size house) or Michael Reynolds’ earthships made out of tires and rammed earth and found them beautiful enough to begin fantasizing about building one of our own. And how much could mud and tires cost?

The development industry isn’t going to start building earthship subdivisions anytime soon because while the materials are cheap the labour costs are prohibitive and it’s always easier to continue using familiar methods. Love adds that they’re not a good design for Calgary’s climate. Many earth-based sustainable housing designs use thermal mass — absorbing the heat of the sun in the day and releasing it at night to maintain a pleasant indoor temperature without furnaces or air conditioners. While this is fine for San Diego Love says in Calgary “it gets cold and stays cold. So thermal mass is going to be of very little benefit. What we need is a lot of insulation to hold the heat in.”

That means straw bale wall construction is still an option. Straw bales can be as insulative as fibreglass are much better for the environment and are becoming increasingly mainstream as building material. Edmonton already has multi-storey straw bale condominiums on the market that when finished are indistinguishable from other new homes. Calgary is not entirely bereft of cutting-edge sustainable housing either. The EcoHome is an off-grid demonstration house built in 1994 by Autonomous and Sustainable Housing Inc. It uses filtered rainwater and recycled grey water solar energy wood heating and an indoor greenhouse. The community of Drake Landing in Okotoks is a larger example of local forays into sustainable housing. Among other green technologies homes there use solar energy to heat their water and provide electricity.

Why after decades of trial projects like EcoHouse which still gives public tours is something like off-grid housing still the exception? Love says in his experience building codes can sometimes be restrictive or outdated but the biggest obstacle is inertia in the building industry. “It’s cheaper to do things the same way you’ve always done them” he says.


What if we used decaying landfill garbage as a source of methane fuel used our sewage for fertilizer composted household food waste and salvaged construction material for use elsewhere? We already do to an extent.

For example Calgary has a long-established practice of spreading our sewage on rural fields as fertilizer. Since we are on the verge of producing more sewage than we can handle with current methods the city is now working to install centrifuges at our water treatment plants that will “de-water” the sewage and make it safer and easier to apply to farmland.

The City of Calgary wants to divert 80 per cent of our garbage from landfills by 2020. To that end blue cart recycling began in 2009 and while the green cart compost program has been slow to start when compared to other municipalities officials expect to have a citywide household waste composting program operational by 2016.

Despite the city’s recent dedication to reduce the amount we discard there’s lots of room to improve.

Weis whose specialty is cold climate architecture points to the chimneys on the city centre’s numerous office towers. That represents heat simply being vented into the atmosphere when it could be recirculated to power or more efficiently heat the buildings.

What of landfill gas capture? Edmonton already has it while Calgary is looking into it. And as for our waste wood Calgary sees way too much construction lumber heritage wood at demolition sites and park and residential prunings thrown away to be considered anything but decadently wasteful although some people are making an effort to put that discarded wood to new use.

A case in point is Calgary furniture manufacturer Refined Rustic Furniture. When the 2013 flood tore down riverside trees across the city the company’s manager Len Wasik used some of those trees to make tables.

Calgary is moving forward on progressive waste policies and has a community of people who make salvage an art — what we need is more of that.


This is another case of Calgary being fairly progressive but handicapped by choices of the past. Sustainable Calgary says the city’s highest per capita density (3228 people per square kilometre) occurred in 1951 and we have been spreading ever since. Much of the city is only accessible in any practical sense by car.

Love says that was mainly the development industry’s idea. If you think the new residential density limits still give individuals too much room Love points out there was a time when the city didn’t believe densification was even possible. He says that in the 1970s Calgary planning and development proposals to build high-density areas comparable to what currently exists in the west end of downtown were dismissed out of hand.

He now says areas like the Beltline Eau Claire Sunnyside and Marda Loop with dense housing proximity to public transit amenities and pedestrian-friendly design are models of effective sustainable communities. Also after decades of debate the wind-powered LRT network is slowly expanding to new parts of the city.

Arsheel Hirji from the city’s Sustainable Infrastructure office says the city requires that all new city-owned buildings as well as those that receive municipal funding such as the new Central Public Library Decidedly Jazz Danceworks complex and the National Music Centre must be built to LEED Gold sustainability standards. Hirji says applying those standards to building requirements for the private sector is mainly hindered by the lack of a big city charter that would put Calgary in charge of its own building code which is currently regulated by the province.

The city’s energy and environment co-ordinator Justin Pockar echoes Love’s assertion that it isn’t really building codes that hold us back it’s cost.

“There are actually remarkably few outright restrictions” Pockar says of using unconventional building methods. He says the city is happy to try to help an unusual idea become reality but in order to meet code the builder has to prove the project is engineered to remain standing. That’s where the costs start to grow.

“If you talk to any consultant there’s the point where they convert the term ‘leading-edge’ technologies to ‘bleeding-edge’ technologies [because] the first time you do something there is a learning curve” he explains. However Pockar points out that as new technologies become standard the price comes down.

For that reason Weis says it’s important that successful sustainable technology pilot projects are mainstreamed rather than forgotten. “If a demonstration just remains a demonstration then in some ways it’s a failure” Weis says. Love echoes Weis’ sentiment and while crediting Calgary’s recent steps forward on sustainability he warns against becoming complacent.

“In 50 years looking back society will say that’s one of the big regrets — that people didn’t get on this sooner and make the changes sooner. But we’re always fighting the wrong battles in history” says Love.