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theWatt Podcast 55

In the show, Avi Friedman (professor of architecture at McGill University, director of the affordable homes program at McGill, author of many books, winner of UN world habitat award) talks about homes and how they will change around energy prices and how suburbia may change. Interview starts at the 14:43 mark. Transcript available below.

Also in the show: Biomass in the UK, Penn State students have a good old fashioned sit-down in support of the Kyoto Protocol at their university, an Inconvenient Truth and also gas prices in the US.

Help support the show: Once a month please vote for us at PodcastAlley

Disclaimer: This transcript was provided by a 3rd party and may not be 100% accurate. Please refer to the audio as well.

Ben Kenney: The summer driving season has already creep up on us, springing its regular spike in gasoline prices and with natural gas prices all over the map and hurricane season just around the corner once again, I think that the definition of the American dream, which is to buy the biggest house in the suburbs is already being redefined. Today, we are going to be tackling energy efficient design and architecture basically talking about the homes that we should be living in and the types of homes that we all might be forced to live in one day. Joining me is Avi Friedman. Avi is a professor in the School of Architecture at McGill University in Montreal. He is also the director of the Affordable Homes Program at McGill. He has written a number of books about designing homes that are ready for change and he has won awards like the United Nations World Habitat Award and he has been called one of the 10 people who will change the way we live. So, thank you so much for coming on the show Avi.

Avi Friedman: Thank you very much for inviting me.

Ben Kenney: No problem. I first heard about you Avi when I was reading the book Fueling the Future and that was a couple of years ago. So, other listeners might be familiar with that book because it was quite popular, at least in Canada, and Avi wrote a chapter in the book called Ideas from the Home Front. It was all about how to make your home more energy efficient. So, Avi, you have written a lot about how people’s lifestyles tend to change and how we should be developing homes that are capable of changing as well. I think that people have always been changing the way we live, but do you think that the rate of change, so like the rates of how people are changing, is that increasing?

Avi Friedman: I do believe so and one of the reasons for this happening is the predominant power of the media. It is easier today to find information about change. If something did occur across the ocean, it took weeks, if not months, if not years, to find about it. Today, you can find about it instantly. So, the points of methods are much more available to people than they were in the past and they no doubt are accelerating those changes.

Ben Kenney: And those changes are changes that will need changes in our homes, in our lifestyles?

Avi Friedman: Yes, I do believe that many of the changes that did happen in society do require of us to rethink housing unlike the way we did in the past. It is time to name a few changes. I think that some of them are so fundamental and they go to the core of who lives and how we use home and are very, very effective. One of them of course is demographics. If you go back, say, 40 or 50 years ago, the traditional family was made out of mom stay at home, father working, and two of the kids. This is not today’s family. Families are completely different. So, there are demographic changes with tremendous impact on housing. Other issue has to do with aging. We live longer today. People who will live into their 80’s according to statistics will most likely live into their 90’s. So, we cannot count on our home serving a person for a shorter period of time, but homes we have to build be light cycle homes.

Ben Kenney: Yeah. So, they will be able to adapt with people adapting. I would expect also that as energy prices continue to climb, then we will see more and more people wanting to change their homes and change their lifestyles around the energy prices.

Avi Friedman: I think that if one needed incentive to change way of life, what happened to energy is no doubt a push forward. I recently spoke with a colleague from Japan who told me that today all Japanese homes [04:33 unintelligible] factories in Japan are equipped with photovoltaic panels and the reason was that 1 kilowatt of energy in Japan cost 22 cents whereas we still pay 4 or 5 cents for a kilowatt.

Ben Kenney: Yeah.

Avi Friedman: So, we did not in the past have an incentive, a push, to change our ways. I am talking about common people. Now with the height in the cost of energy, people now start to consider the type of cars they are driving, the way they will fuel their home or heat their home or cool them, and the way they construct them. People are taking a second look at their windows before replacing them and recognizing that they should better buy good windows that save them energy as well.

Ben Kenney: I would like to learn more about sustainable living with respect to how we can make our homes more sustainable and also the location of our homes more sustainable and I know that you have helped design a house called the Grow Home and also has called the Next Home. Can you explain what these designs are and how they are different from what we are familiar with today?

Avi Friedman: The homes, the Grow Home and the Next Home, were designed to seat with a new mindset of how communities can be more sustainable and they are based on three main features. The first is that homes need to live with environmental constraints. In other words, everything that we do today in housing should not impose or tax future generation. They should not build homes that consume too much energy or in their building use much more natural resources than any other homes that we leave a deficit for future generation. Second issue has to do with society. Today, families have completely different lifestyle and habits and so on and we need to build homes that enable people to design or adapt the interior to different family types and to the people who lives in them for a long time. The third feature is economics. We are living in a society where the private sector is still dominant in home building, in the building industry, and we need to build societies and communities that will not impose on us in future generation too many penalties, say, if you are to design a community with very wide roads, you will have to surface these roads many times in years to come.

Ben Kenney: Yeah.

Avi Friedman: You will have to clean the snow and it will cost too much more. So, reducing width of roads is not only for safety purposes or for saving land, but also for economic reasons. We will not have to spend much money in the future and as a result invest what we have in reason or elements that are important to keep society in good shape.

Ben Kenney: What are the main aspects of energy efficient architecture? I have read some of your work and it is all focused around making the home smaller and designing it so that you can maybe reduce the surface area exposed to the environment.

Avi Friedman: Yes. These are the key features of how any home can become energy efficient. If you are to reduce the size of a home, to reduce the size from a large to a smaller footprint, you are likely to benefit a lot because the surface of the home, the façade, the elevation would be smaller as well. If you are to build homes taller rather than wider, you will also save energy because you will have less foundation, the area from which heat escapes and also area from which much of wind escape and you will take advantage of physical phenomena whereas cold air or heated air rise, so lower flow with warm upper. The other possibility has to do with joining homes together. If you are to design a more compact design, one that enables you to join homes to raw housing, you will have each home benefit from losses and cure by adjacent home. So, heat will not be wasted. There will be very few façade to lose the heat from and if you are to take these measures and if you in addition to that will make sure the detail used in the construction, the type of insulation and so on, it is also of higher quality you will have immediate gain.

Ben Kenney: These are all features that are implemented into the Grow Home and the Next Home?

Avi Friedman: That is correct. They are all elements that guided the philosophy of the Grow Home and the Next Home whereby we designed… The Grow Home is the original design on campus. It was only 14 feet wide, but it was 36 feet long and it was taller. It was two or three stories high. In the Next Home, we created a three-family home. In other words, it is like a triplex, but it is a sophisticated triplex that enable you to divide the interior according to your needs, say, if you have two families, one to buy this entire three-storey structure, it can be a duplex. Inside you can locate, you are only able to buy the quantity of elements that you want rather than do what happened today in the building industry where people are obliged to buy a very large kitchen, several battles. We regarded in the Next Home the design or the home as a catalog much like a restaurant menu that enables a person to select the quantity of items that they need, can afford, and you will use in the future.

Ben Kenney: Okay, is that what flexible housing is; basically being able to pick the features that you want and maybe upgrade later on if you want to?

Avi Friedman: Yes. This is exactly the trust of flex housing. Flex housing see homes as continuously evolving organisms if you wish whereby the situation is never static. If you have a static situation, it means that you live in a certain discomfort because you have to adapt your personal constraint to the constraint of the home. Flex housing means that if your family life changes and you become older, you should be able to install all the features that will enable you to live in the home for many years to come. You will be able to, if you need and your child would like to move in or out, you will be able to move partition and change them and adapt them as easy as you can.

Ben Kenney: And were these homes designed out of need in North America or out of what you expect will be the need?

Avi Friedman: I think that the issue in today’s North American housing is that it is hard to predict the need. Unfortunately, what is happening in North America is that many people do have access to very good financial support, in other words many people here can get very large mortgages, people in the past they can also purchase large homes, but in general what happened is there is still a big chunk of the population who cannot afford to buy them because they are families that are made of one or two people and they need homes and what he have attempted to do is to accommodate them within the residential market and enable them to become homeowners.

Ben Kenney: Is this the same situation outside of North America as well? I know you mentioned Japan.

Avi Friedman: Well, there are countries that have the same constraints or the same challenges, but happened to accommodate them in a different fashion. If you go to, say, an Asian country because of the large number of people living in them, they have to build with very high density. We are still fortunate here in North America that people still regard their first home a single family detached house. When you have young couples, many of them believe that this should be or this can be their home. However, if you visit European countries, nobody there in Europe dream to live in a single family home as their first home. Most young couple or young families begin their life in an apartment. Now, these are the solutions that they need to resort or what we need to do here in North America is to find a middle ground, the common way whereby people will live in smaller units and still benefit from the amenities, all the opportunities, that the single family homes are providing them, but of course we cannot house in my opinion, we can no longer house people in a large sprawling community.

Ben Kenney: I just want to get back to the energy consumption of homes. I think that the energy that a home consumes is an important aspect, but I do not think that it is the whole picture. I think it is also important to look at the total life cycle energy intensity of a home. So, how important is the manufacturing process of a home in terms of energy intensity?

Avi Friedman: I think that once again you pointed out a very, very important point and there is a [15:57 unintelligible] or statement that captures what you intended to suggest that this is the design from cradle to grave. Design of housing need to see their energy performance not only during their occupancy, but even during their design, say, if you are to use lumber wood, the amount of energy that is invested in taking a tree and making it into a building material is relatively small, say, to the amount of energy that you invest in creating a steel stand.

Ben Kenney: Yeah, yeah.

Avi Friedman: Steel stand consume more energy; however, in steel stand, for example, the advantage of steel stand is that you can recycle it. You can take a steel stand once the building has been demolished and turn it again to a kiln or oven and turn it again into new material. You cannot do the same with wood. Wood, it is hard to recycle a stand and you probably will have to discard it. Now, this type of approach need to see the building not only from choice of material, not only from where the material has been manufactured, how long and how far they have traveled to the place of installation, but what happened to those material once the house is demolished? The idea of same communities is from cradle to grave, not only a single home, but an entire community has become extremely important. Communities need to be designed to be re tooled, re adjusted, in order to have longevity to their life and as a result make them more sustainable.

Ben Kenney: Yeah. One of my favorite quotes of all time is about the suburbs and that is the suburbs are the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. So, what are your thoughts on the suburbs exactly?

Avi Friedman: Once again, I fully agree with this statement. I fully agree with this statement. When the suburbs were introduced in the 1950s, 1940s or 1950s, the suburbs were introduced first in England at the turn of the 19th century, but they became very popular in North America in the 1940s or 1950s. Of course, the sprawling communities, the long commute, the sprawling homes on the large material are tremendous misallocation of resources. However, we need to bear in mind that 65% of North Americans is living in suburban homes, if not more, in some places 70%, which means it is really very hard to ignore the benefits the suburbia also to people because most people decide to locate in the suburb. However, in my opinion what we need to do is to design a different type of suburb. What we have done in the past few years is we created two dominant urban alternative, the first one is the city on its crowded and dense buildings, offices, and apartment building and at the far edge of the scale we created suburbia, four to seven units per acre with very low density. In my opinion, the solution in the future will be to come up with a middle model that will offer solutions in between, say 20 units per acre, which will enable people to take advantage of the amenities the suburbia offers. This is a small backyard, the idea of having privacy, your private view; however, once you build them in higher density, you will make the possibility to introduce tours in the heart of the community economically possible, which is not possible now. You will make public transit economically possible. You will save tremendous amount of land. The commute will be shorter and so on. This is something that we need to do. In other words, saying let us build a city rather than a suburb is in my view unrealistic. What we need to do is to build another type of suburb and I wrote about it in my book, Planning the New Suburbia.

Ben Kenney: Is it possible to reconfigure the current suburbs instead of building a whole new suburb? Is it possible to take the suburbs that we have now and reconfigure it?

Avi Friedman: It is possible to a degree. Let me suggest some example. Some communities, in British Columbia, for example, have legalized what we call secondary suite. Today, you have many communities in which there is tremendous shortage of housings, small unit housing, and on the other hand, these homes, the large homes, are housed by elderly people on a lower income, of fixed or lower income. The idea of turning suburbs in existing homes to legal suites for rent is one way to go. In addition, we are expecting a tremendous effect on society when the boomers will retire introducing or suggesting that in the future people will be able to take a large home and subdivide them will stand a chance to increase the density and once the density of these communities have been increased, you then have a serious chance to build a few stores, public transits, and all kinds of other amenities that are only possible when the density is high. This in my view will be the way to fix [22:49 unintelligible] so they will make other services and amenities possible.

Ben Kenney: Well, thank you so much for coming on the show, Avi. Before we end, I just want to point out your latest book, which is called Peeking through the Keyhole: The Evolution of North American Homes, and that is available on and I understand you are also writing a new book about the suburbs as we speak?

Avi Friedman: Yes, I wanted to mention to your listeners that I wrote another book called Room for Thought. It was recently published by Penguin.

Ben Kenney: Okay.

Avi Friedman: This conversation has taken place when I write another book called Sustainable Residential Development, which will enable people or developers or communities and individuals who are planning to live in a sustainable community to buy these types of homes and build them and it will be published by McGraw-Hill and it will be available in hopefully a few months.

Ben Kenney: Excellent. We will look forward to that. So, thank you so much for coming on the show, Avi. Bye-bye.

Avi Friedman: Thank you and thank you for inviting me. Bye-bye.