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Homes, moms and BC Hydro have changed since the 1960s

1960s-era BC Hydro ad recommends flooding the living room with light to prevent eye strain when viewing TV.

A utility that once helped us use more electricity is now Power Smart

"Notice the 100 square foot luminous ceiling which floods the attractive Arborite counter tops with glare-free light. Shadows are eliminated everywhere, even under the cupboards."

– Promotional pamphlet, "1958 Ease-of-living Home"

To get an idea of how much electricity has changed the modern home, start in the kitchen. The sense of convenience — liberation, even — is manifest in old brochures touting the inexpensive operation of labour-saving devices: "Madame, A score of servants for so little cost!"

For just two cents per week to power a vacuum cleaner, and 75 cents per person per month for an electric range, electricity slashed drudgery. How many of us even remember that hot water once necessitated running up and down the stairs to monitor a basement burner?

In the 1950s, BC Hydro's predecessor B.C. Electric ran advertisements encouraging homeowners to use more electricity. There was even a buy-back program to entice people to give up their old heat-on-the-stovetop irons and replace them with electric models.

By 1961, when our modern BC Hydro was born, homes were changing again. More than just a labour-saver, electricity was now adding luxury and style, influencing home design. The 1958 "Ease-of-living" home included the ability to activate a kitchen circuit — and switch on the coffee pot — from the master bedroom.

With an eye on progress, homes of the 1960s were being wired with "adequate power for appliances today and further electrical conveniences in the future."

Changing society, changing homes

It's hard to say whether technology has shaped society, or the other way around. Whatever the case, homes and home building have evolved significantly over the past 50 years.

"It's clear today that you don't have for the most part a stay-at-home mom, a go-to-work 9-5 father, 3.2 kids, and old assumptions about how we do things and how the family operates," says Murray Frank, a building science instructor and principal of Constructive Homes Solutions. "As the way that a family needs to enjoy a home continues to evolve, so does the design and equipping of the modern home."

"Compared to 50 years ago, home designs today are larger overall, and more flexible too," says Doug Overholt, of BC Hydro's Power Smart New Home Program. "Things are less formal now, and living spaces have paralleled that informality."

These developments have created opportunity — and challenges. "It used to be you had wood, you had tarpaper, you had some glass, steel and cementitious materials," says Overholt. "You knew how those materials interacted because you'd been using them for ages.

"Now we're into plastics; the exploitation of oil-based products and chemical derivatives has revolutionized the construction industry. The challenge of it has been the interactive effects between all of these materials. ... Plus, there's more lighting, there are more appliances, there are electronics – and these have all had implications for builders."

Building codes key to conservation

There's a rising awareness of how much energy buildings use, and how much they contribute to greenhouse gas production and climate change. Although energy efficiency has been a consideration in building since the 1970s oil crisis, it has taken changes in building codes to force it into the mainstream.

"Building codes were originally developed as life safety codes — if it didn't affect life safety [i.e. fire standards], it wasn't deemed to be something that the building code had a say on," says Frank. "But we've tried to tempt people into energy efficiency, we've tried to incent them into energy efficiency, and it's become clear that we're going to have to be regulated into energy efficiency. So the major change we've seen in building codes has been the inclusion of energy efficiency requirements."

old fridge handleGetting Power Smart about homes

The utility that once encouraged you to use more electricity now, through BC Hydro Power Smart programs, encourages energy efficiency. Power Smart will even pay you $30 and take away your unneeded old energy-hogging refrigerator to help you use less electricity.

And to embed energy efficiency in new home construction, the Power Smart New Home Program works with builders and developers to encourage the use of electricity-saving technologies, from CFLs to ENERGY STAR windows, doors and appliances.

Homebuilders are encouraged to have their homes EnerGuide rated, a measure of energy efficiency. Building codes are expected to continually increase efficiency standards, while forward-thinking builders are experimenting with "net zero" homes — those that produce as much energy as they use.

More comfort, lower bills

For homeowners, this means homes that are more comfortable to live in, and cost less to operate over the long term. They're healthier too, as builders work to mitigate the potential air quality impacts not only of paints, carpets, and materials, but also of tightly-sealed efficient homes that require enhanced ventilation.

Adera Seven35 unit living roomMeanwhile, shifts both in technology and society are again influencing design.

"We went from small homes to large homes, and the trend of the future is smaller homes again," says Overholt, who has already seen developers consciously targeting smaller families, cost-conscious buyers, and empty nesters with homes in the 1,200-1,800 square foot range. "Conspicuous consumption is not as fashionable anymore."

Neighbourhoods are changing too.

"In B.C.'s densely populated areas, we're getting to a point where, for all intents and purposes, we're built out," says Frank. "So we're seeing a tremendous exploration of the sustainable city as a concept. That's taking us into planning that includes district energy and local market supply, where people can enjoy a high quality of of lifestyle with a minimized transportation infrastructure.

"You'll walk a block and a half to get fresh vegetables for dinner that night. You can get an almost European concept in lifestyle from densification."

"The dawn of the subdivision was in the mid-60s, and also the beginning of corporate home-builders," says Overholt. "Now, there's demand for developments that include green spaces and community amenities, like small clubs, walk-throughs, and connections to trails.

"I've noticed a lot of developers providing an aspect of community in their developments, which was a real failing of the traditional subdivision."

He notes, however, that most new housing developments still fail to include commercial properties, so people can still be isolated.

"Densification, resilient cities, energy efficiency and the evolving lifestyles and expectations of the homeowner — these are all setting the stage for us to reasonably expect that homes are going to continue to evolve, probably at a greater pace than they have in the past," says Frank. "There's an increased accountability with regards to the amount of energy that we're using in homes, and if we do use less, then we're having a real impact on global carbon emissions. It is helping to lighten the load."

"Things have gone from small to big, from simple to complex," says Overholt. "Now, there's some sense of returning to simpler values in the midst of complexity. I think we're trying to resolve ourselves as humans in a living environment called our house, and coming to some resolution about that in a healthy and vibrant manner."

Electricity revolutionized the modern home. Now, our need to use it wisely promises a new era of evolution — and smarter homes as a result.