A friend recently bought a new house, and asked what could be done to make it more sustainable. I responded with a list of what I consider to be the top ten keys to household sustainability.

The list is in order of greatest impact. The reason for this order is that some of the things we do take more energy than others, so we can have more impact there than elsewhere. Also, some of the ways we deal with our impact are more effective than others. For example, conservation is more effective than replacing with renewable energy. For more about the order, please see the background section of this post, found below the list.

That said, some of these are much easier to achieve than others, so don’t worry too much about the order. Just recognize that it is best to start at the top of the list, as these will give you the biggest impact for your efforts. Some people will try super hard to reduce their impact in ways that have little effect, whereas they could probably do something they prefer and find less hard, and it would have a greater impact. The best thing to do is whatever you can do, and whatever you feel fits best with your life and makes you happiest.

Keys to Household Sustainability

In brief, what I would suggest to increase household sustainability and health, in order of most impact, is found in the following list:

1. Curb vehicle use.

If you can have only one household vehicle, even better.  Efficient vehicles are also important, but this should not replace curbing vehicle use.

This reduces transportation energy use, and also reduces other environmental pollutants. Also, any alternative transportation, even transit, involves more exercise, so this increases health as well (and it is not a negligible effect). Reducing vehicle pollutants also increases air quality, contributing to everyone’s well-being (but this effect is smaller).

As an example, one way to do this is by buying in an inner-city neighbourhood that is close to many services, and walkable. Walking to daily destinations can reduce vehicle miles traveled, and have quite a significant impact. Many houses in inner areas are infill (the buzzword often used is “brownfield” development). This has a smaller impact on the environment than a new home. New homes require converting land, stripping, grading, loss of habitat and agricultural capacity, etc. These all cause disturbance to the land and environment.

 2. Try to buy local goods, and fewer goods.

This reduces transportation energy and pollution from shipping, as well as the environmental costs of manufacturing all the things we have. It also reduces waste products.

Having a home garden is a wonderful way to work towards this, and definitely using rain water for your garden is an important way to reduce water use and storm water impacts from our built environment. Second-hand buying is also a great way to achieve this.

This strategy is easiest when focusing your buying power on great things to do rather than things to have.

3. Reduce Home Heating

Don’t buy a massive house with tons of space you’ll never need. Draft-proof your home. Ensure you have sufficient insulation. Wear a sweater and slippers J. If possible, use radiant heating rather than forced-air heating. Ideally, this radiant heating would be in the form of in-floor heating, warmed using solar hot water panels (solar thermal panels). Solar hot water panels can also be used to heat water. These panels are more efficient and a lot more cost-effective than solar electric panels (also called solar PV panels). If a furnace is the only option, then high-efficiency is definitely better. (However, forced air heating can be drying, exacerbating the dry skin many already experience in Calgary.)

All of these (again, in order) contribute to reducing or replacing your household heating loads. The best way I can see to do this would be passive solar homes, but this requires a shift in the way homes are constructed. Thermal massing, air tightness, and glazing are very important to passive solar homes, and normally have to be built in from the beginning.

4. Reduce Electricity Demand

The largest draw on electricity comes from the refrigerator, because it’s always on. The fridge should be just big enough to hold the food you want, and not too big. If you’re going to have any efficient appliances, this is the one to have. (Of course, the others are great, too, but this is the one that makes the most impact.) One of the next biggest things is the dryer. This uses a lot of energy, and can be replaced by air-drying. Although this can be hard when doing laundry for many people. But your clothes last longer that way J. Power bars are another great way to reduce energy, as are efficient lightbulbs (when used properly, ex: some cannot be in enclosed fixtures). The remaining electricity use can be replaced or offset by solar PV panels, or by buying wind power such as Bullfrog power. These services let you pay a little extra for electricity, and make sure that your electricity use is covered by wind power in the provincial grid.

5. Reduce Energy Used to Heat Water

Try to reduce hot water use by washing clothes in cold water, having a water (and energy) efficient laundry machine and dishwasher, and having low-flow faucets and showers. If possible, heat water with the sun, with hot water panels mentioned previously, or have an on-demand hot water heater.

6. Reduce Water Consumption

Conserve water in general (both cold and hot), with low-flow toilets in addition to the low-flow fixtures mentioned above. Also, save rainwater, as mentioned above. Grey water can be recycled for gardening and toilets, (but this is much harder to do, on the order of changing to radiant heating, getting solar thermal panels, re-insulating, or changing to on-demand water heaters).

7. Reduce Waste

Use the recycling provided by the City, and compost. This will help reduce waste, and also help feed the home garden.

8.Take Care of Indoor Air Quality

For health, materials used in the home (when/if you renovate), should have low VOC (volatile organic compounds). Indoor air quality is often worse than outdoor because of all the chemicals in our paint, carpets, varnishes, etc.

9. Buy Responsibly

In the same vein, buying organic (food and products), is important. Organics use fewer pesticides and herbicides, which are quite destructive. They may also use less water.

Fair trade buying is also important, as it contributes to social sustainability.

 10. Build Community

Maintain a good social network, including friendship, volunteerism, and civic involvement. In my opinion this should be higher on the list, but the effects could be harder to quantify. However, this strategy is important for building strong communities, an important part of social sustainability. It is also good for people’s health, both mental and physical. Finally, it facilitates citizen involvement in government, such as through local initiatives. This last one is important for ensuring good governance, another important part of social sustainability.



Sustainability is normally considered in terms of environmental, social, and economic aspects. This breakdown arises from  the original definition of sustainability from the Brundtland Commission, in 1987. I have considered health separately above, because it is important to people. However, I would normally include health with social.

The strategies above mostly target environmental sustainability. But, they almost always have one, if not more, additional impacts. I’ve noted some of these, but they’re really too many to completely cover. One of the most beautiful things about sustainability is once you get started, everything builds on itself, and each facet reinforces the other. People often see the three “pillars” as being in opposition, but this is not the case.

For example, environmental sustainability is critical to ensuring we have enough for people in the future (actually, this is what it is by definition), which is important socially. This can seem abstract to us here, but there are food riots all over the world, and conflicts arise over scarce resources. Food scarcity is likely to be a big problem globally, with our exploding population and increasing droughts.  In addition, you’ll notice many of the environmental strategies can save money, some after initial investment, but most immediately.

Energy Impacts

The order of the list of keys comes from the following:

In Canada (Alberta) our most significant residential energy use (that is, not including commercial or industrial use) comes from:

  1. Transportation, followed by
  2. Space heating, followed by
  3. Electricity and hot water.

This is easily checked via Stats Canada, who collect number on this. I last checked these when I did a study in 2008-9, so they may have changed, but they won’t have changed significantly, and these orders will still generally be the same. These are average numbers, and will vary by household, but they still serve as a good guide to where the greatest gains can come from.

In addition, there are three ways to combat energy use:

  1. Conservation,
  2. Replacement with renewables, and
  3. Efficiency gains.

Conservation is first because the returns are much higher when investing in conservation vs. renewables (can be 5 times higher). Efficiency is last because gains in efficiency are typically offset by more use. For example, very large gains have been made in auto efficiency, but these have normally been put towards more power in the vehicle, rather than less energy use.

The above indicates that we would first want to conserve, first in transportation, then space heating, electricity, and hot water. Then we would want to replace or offset remaining energy use, first in transportation, etc. Finally, we would want to use efficiency gains (although to determine actual energy use to be replaced/offset, this would come second, it is listed third because it has often had little impact).


As always, questions and comments are more than welcome. I would love to hear what you would have suggested!

One Response to 10 Keys to Household Sustainability

  1. stefan says:

    Yep, I agree that conservation is more important – in the sense that one should also not replace older “things” (cars, fridge, washer) after few years. It may save energy to you, aside from the buying price, but producing a new car or washer or fridge cost a hell of energy.
    For that reason I am also not so sure if one should recommend electric solar panels. Their production is really energy expensive. About water-solar-panels, I actually don’t know. Would be good to have an internet reference on that stuff.

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