Build-a-green-home tips, from someone who did

Sustainability consultant Coro Strandberg's green home in Burnaby.

Nina Winham

Coro Strandberg has long used her Burnaby home as a tool for building a sustainable society.  A respected sustainability consultant, Strandberg has helped build the capacity of B.C.’s sustainability sector by offering her home over the years as a venue for informal events and networking opportunities – creating connections, fueling conversations, and kick-starting careers.

So when her family decided to build a new home, it was a logical choice to build “green,” incorporating as many sustainability values as possible. They’re now happily living in a beautiful, efficient, environmentally friendly home. But the project came with challenges that Strandberg agreed to share with readers who may be considered building, renovating, or buying a “green home.”

There were a few things Strandberg wanted to include in her project that didn’t work out. The site isn’t suitable for permeable concrete, and local systems aren’t adequately developed to support an affordable integrated resource monitoring system that would provide feedback about gas, water, and electricity usage. But she’s pleased with her results, which include:

“My favourite is the energy efficiency,” says Strandberg. “I feel like we went almost as far as we could on that; we achieved our goals and I feel very satisfied with that.”

Strandberg is continuing her work to educate others about sustainability by sharing details about her house project – you can read more about the project on her site

Here are some of her tips and advice.

1. Set personal goals for your project

“There are so many choices to make that it would be overwhelming and very costly to try to do everything,” says Strandberg. “The reality is, you can’t. If you set some goals, you can focus on areas that are most important to you.”

Strandberg and her partner determined that reducing energy use, reducing water consumption, and improving indoor air quality would be their main points of focus. When cost, availability or timing forced a tradeoff, they were able to use this focus list to set priorities.

2. Use a green building certification program

Strandberg’s project used both the Built Green and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) systems. Both provide ratings for new construction based on the extent of environmental and energy efficiency measures included.

Strandberg’s home is targeting Built Green Platinum, and is one of the first five residential projects in B.C. to target LEED Gold. “The good thing about LEED is that it provides a bit of a checklist,” says Strandberg. “I’d definitely recommend it because it helps with all the choices you have to make. Plus, it’s useful to say to your builder, ‘This is what we’re trying to do,’ because this is new territory for them as well.”

3. Choose an area for innovation

“Identify one or two areas where you would like to innovate and experiment – and build that in up front,” says Strandberg. “In our case we happened into it, so we didn’t have the research and knowledge we needed to be very clear about what it was we wanted.”

Strandberg and her partner chose to include photovoltaic (PV)  solar panels that will supply 10% of the home’s electricity.

“We don’t perceive much ROI [return on investment] for the PV panels,” says Strandberg. “We put them in because we’re interested in innovation, we wanted to explore how it works, and it’s a good learning tool for the kids. In the same way we included an electric-car plug-in  – we want to encourage innovation and be able to participate in it. I’d suggest people help lead the market – commit to a bit of innovation, be willing and prepared for it, and add it to their goals. Identify what area you want to innovate in – new types of pavement,  or roofing materials, or insulation or carpet.  Then, be prepared to do some research.”

4. Hold an integrated planning meeting before launching your project
Getting everyone involved in your project on the same page, and involved in the green discussion at the outset of your project will likely smooth the way when your innovative ideas or non-traditional desires stymie your suppliers. “Even for renovations I think this is relevant,” says Strandberg. “There’s a lot of value in getting the suppliers together at the outset – the architect, the builder, some of the trades – to have an integrated design meeting.”

5. Expect to do your own research

“One of the challenges we faced was the knowledge gap on our part and on the part of our builders, about what are the best products at the best price to achieve our green goals and to help us advance on LEED,” says Strandberg. “We were working with mainstream builders and suppliers – high quality, but mainstream nonetheless. So, we had to do a lot of original research. The good news is that we didn’t encounter resistance or barriers. The customer does drive the process in that regard.”

6. Keep an eye on the timetable
Ensuring that you achieve your green goals can take time – for research, responses from specialty suppliers, etc. Strandberg says there were instances where building had progressed beyond the point where a decision could be made before she and her partner had the information to make it.

“We’re just residents with a desire to apply our values in our purchasing, but we were in territory we are not familiar with,” she says. “We weren’t always aware of the points of intervention that would be necessary to achieve our objectives – so we missed a few things along the way because we had run out of time.”

Nina Winham is a Vancouver-based sustainability consultant and writer.