Right now is a white-knuckle time to be a homeowner. Not because of bubble worries in the condo market or fears of an interest-rate spike. Over the past few years, global warming has become undeniably more menacing. It has caused an increase in roof-wrecking, basement-flooding storms and the type of sweltering, seemingly endless heat wave that makes homes feel more like giant saunas.
In the recent floods in southern Alberta, for example, when torrential rains caused the Bow, Elbow and South Saskatchewan Rivers to spill their banks, over 100,000 people were evacuated from their places, many of whom returned to find their single most valuable asset severely damaged and without power.
And experts warn that, as greenhouse gases continue to accumulate in the atmosphere, this is just the tip of the rapidly melting, proverbial iceberg.
Leading-edge designers, though, are starting to work with innovative products and approaches to make our manses more resilient for the new climate norms. Foundations that float, downspouts that turn rain into usable water, all-grass driveways that prevent basements from flooding (while looking like centre court at Wimbledon) and gardens that flourish through both droughts and monsoons.
Some of the ideas are, to say the least, experimental. For those who live in flood plains or below sea level, for example, so-called amphibious houses have buoyant, raft-like foundations. During a tidal surge, the piles literally float up from the ground. To keep the homes from drifting away, special ties secure the buildings to their sites, a bit like boats moored to a dock. The homes aren’t mass-market yet but prototypes are popping up, including one in England, by Baca architects, and another from Brad Pitt’s affordable housing charity, Make It Right, in New Orleans.
Not all the solutions are so uncharted. The Vertical Rain Garden, designed by Toronto-based Moss Sund Architects and available through Hauser, takes the idea of a rain barrel (a centuries-old, water-harvesting technology that’s basically a cistern at the bottom of a downspout) and upgrades it for modern life. It’s only 16-inches wide, so tucks easily and discreetly into tight modern lots, but comes in stackable, 70-inch modules so can still store between 230 and 450 litres. It’s also pretty. The decorative metal gill creates a pretty perch for climbing vines in the summer, but still looks nice when bare in the winter.
Rain barrels such as these are important in flood prevention. They help stop the type of storm surges that overwhelm the sewer system and cause basement-drenching backups. Instead, the water can be reused to irrigate the lawn, or, when attached to a grey water filtration system, can be pumped into the house and used to flush toilets.
Using tools, like rain barrels, to create a comprehensive water strategy is something that architect Graham Whiting does well. He helped design Reep House, a publicly accessible show home in Kitchener, Ont., specifically renovated to highlight and promote climate-adaptive design.
“It was a 100-year-old, flood-prone house,” explains Whiting, “The city wanted to tear it down.” To prevent that from happening, Whiting, along with landscape designers Quiet Nature, used a number of deluge-proofing features, including a backyard pebble-filled “rain garden” that basically acts like a plant-covered trench to direct excess water away from the home. In the front, a driveway of ultra-permeable pavers over a filtration system performs a similar function.
It’s easy to tell that the design is successful because, as Whiting points out, “in the recent, heavy rains the house didn’t flood.”
Driveways, generally, are an opportunity to deal with flood risk, especially by replacing the old-school asphalt kind (which either dumps the water right into the sewer system or lets it pool up by the house) with something more absorbent. Walter Hermann, president of Pickering, Ont.-based Green Innovations, has created a particularly striking option. His PG45 Paving Grid is like the SpongeTowels of driveways. A substrate of high-strength, 100-per-cent recycled polyethylene supports the weight of a car, but is in-filled with gravel and topped with grass to suck up and retain excess water.
But when it comes to creating a resilient house, sometimes it’s the most straightforward, practical things that makes the biggest difference. Brock James is a designer with award-winning, Toronto-based LGA Architectural Partners who oversees the firm’s Building Science & Sustainability team. He recommends considering upgrades like high-efficiency insulation in the walls and roof, or putting in triple-pane windows.
“Maintaining comfort in the homes is important,” notes James, especially “during extreme temperatures or heavy rainfalls that interrupt the power supply.” A tightly encased place maintains a reasonable indoor air temperature even when the AC isn’t working because it doesn’t let the hot, outdoor air infiltrate.
There are also many supplemental things James suggests homeowners can do to extend the benefits of top-notch insulation. “A great building envelope and a small, efficient wood stove could allow someone to ride out a power outage for a few days in the middle of winter.” Similarly, an old-fashioned, basement root cellar, built to take advantage of the natural cooling properties of the earth, allows for food storage when there’s no electricity for the fridge.
Living somewhat off the grid is something one of James’s colleagues, LGA co-founder Janna Levitt, is already doing. Her 1,500-square-foot, custom-built home in downtown Toronto doesn’t have air conditioning, but stays cool midsummer because it’s tiered with heat-absorbing green roofs and was designed to maximize natural cross ventilation. “It’s not cold,” she notes, “but it’s bearable even when it’s freaking hot out.”
The green roofs, as well as the lush gardens around the house, also mitigate the risk of floods because they absorb excess rain. That said, in the event of a dry spell, Levitt was careful to pick plants, like succulents on the roofs and river birches on the grounds, that won’t droop or die if they go without water for a while.
“It’s really nice,” she points out. Midsummer, when the leaves are out, “you can’t even see the house for all the green.”
This piece originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on Thursday, August 1, 2013.