AHCP Working Paper: Sustainability and Affordable Housing

Affordable Housing Challenge Project is an initiative of the University of Toronto School of Cities. The AHCP collective brings together scholars from across the University of Toronto, who are researching issues related to housing affordability from different disciplinary perspectives, with the objective of working together to research, discuss and debate the causes, processes, policies and consequences of declining housing affordability.

Sustainability and Affordable Housing: Harnessing the Potential of the Sustainable Development Agenda

Publication Date


  • Paula BraitsteinUniversity of Toronto, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Division of Epidemiology
  • Victoria Haldane, University of Toronto, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation
  • Angela Mashford-Pringle, University of Toronto, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Waakabiness-Bryce Institute for Indigenous Health
  • Yina Shan, University of Toronto, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Division of Social and Behavioural Sciences
  • Danielle Toccalino, University of Toronto, Dalla Lana School of Public Health, Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation

Context: Why sustainability is an important consideration in affordable housing

Human-induced climate and environmental change (CEC) has reached such critical levels globally that the long-term health and viability of human civilization are in question (Whitmee et al., 2015). This concept is encapsulated in a relatively new term but old idea: planetary health. At its most fundamental, planetary health is an anthropocentric concept defined as the ‘health of human civilization and the state of the Earth’s natural systems on which it depends’. Three key factors are mediating CEC: unsustainable and excessive misuse of finite natural resources (which is closely linked to affluence), population growth, and available technologies (Whitmee et al., 2015). A study ranking nations (for which relatively complete data were available) on their past and present effects on the environment reported that, overall, increasing absolute wealth was the main factor for increased environmental impact – mediated by consumption (Bradshaw et al., 2010). A core domain of consumption and aspect of human civilization – indeed of human survival – is housing. Housing is both a key social determinant of health and a human right (“Social determinants of health: Key Concepts,” 2011). The pledge of UN Sustainable Development Goal 11, to make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, provides an unparalleled opportunity for the attainment of collective and inclusive progress, and for the achievement of sustainable development in the world.

Today, over half of the world’s population live in cities. The number of people living in urban centers will likely double by 2050  (World Bank, 2015, 2020). The reasons for this vary by region but the lure of employment and prosperity is the most frequently cited cause. North America contains some of the most urbanized human landscapes in the world. In the United States (U.S.) and Canada, approximately 80% of the population is urban, with Mexico slightly less (World Bank, 2015). Population growth combined with economic growth has fueled recent urban land expansion in North America, driving the conversion of wild land and agricultural land into urban settlements (McPhearson et al., 2013). Cities are magnets for talent and investment and have become the world’s major growth engines. They generate more than 80% of the global GDP and help hundreds of millions of people lift themselves out of extreme poverty (World Bank, 2020). However, the speed and scale of urbanization brings tremendous challenges. Widening income gaps, worsening pollution, and aging buildings and bridges are all telltale signs that today’s cities are struggling to keep up with city dwellers’ growing dreams for a sustainable, prosperous future. Poor air and water quality, insufficient water availability, waste-disposal problems, and high energy consumption are exacerbated by the increasing population density and demands of urban environments (Whitmee et al., 2015).

Simultaneously, climate and environmental change are challenging urban centers to become more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable to mitigate and prevent their impacts. Cities occupy only 2% of the world’s landmass, but they leave an enormous carbon footprint (C40 Cities, 2020; Moran et al., 2018). Cities consume “over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70% of global CO2 emissions” (C40 Cities, 2020; Moran et al., 2018). As well, “residents of just 100 cities account for 20% of humanity’s overall carbon footprint”; Toronto ranks 43rd for the world’s heaviest urban carbon footprints of 13,000 cities measured (Miller, 2018; Moran et al., 2018). As 90% of the world’s cities are located on coastlines, these densely populated urban centers are at high risk of experiencing the devastating impacts of climate change, such as rising sea levels (i.e., flooding and displacement of human populations) and the urban heat island effect (with resultant deaths from extreme heat) (C40 Cities, 2020; Whitmee et al. , 2015). Evidence from past extreme events suggests that societies are taking steps to build resilience to them. However, the global economic cost of disasters has increased in recent decades, at a faster rate than population or economic growth. The total costs of extreme weather events between 1980 and 2004 is estimated to be $1.4 trillion, of which only a quarter was insured (Whitmee et al., 2015). Urban growth represents an unparalleled opportunity to improve population health, increase resilience to environmental change, and reduce the environmental impacts of cities through improved urban planning, design, housing, development, and management. 

People in need of affordable housing are the very same people at highest risk of the adverse impacts of CEC. These risks arise from the interaction between specific hazards, exposure, and vulnerability. For example, factors that make people more sensitive to CEC include malnutrition (under- or over-), age (both the very young and the old are often at increased risk), and the presence of a pre-existing disease burden (Whitmee et al., 2015). Poverty increases risks from CEC through both increased sensitivity and exposure. Those living in poverty are at increased likelihood of living in hazardous locations prone to flooding or landslides, or close to waste sites. Environmental racism has long plagued Indigenous and other racialized communities in Canada and elsewhere, and this issue is deeply intertwined with access to affordable housing (Allan & Smylie, 2015; Schell et al., 2020; Turner & Turner, 2008). In Canadian urban areas, 25% of the lowest socio-economic status neighbourhoods are within a kilometre of a major polluting industrial facility compared to just seven percent of the wealthiest (Canadian Institutes for Health Information, 2011).

Integrating affordability and sustainability in housing is paramount to adequately addressing the climate and housing crises in the City of Toronto and addressing inequities in both realms. In recent years, residents and businesses have been affected by more frequent severe weather events, such as flooding, which are expected to worsen with climate change (Gerard & Hadisi, 2019). In October 2019, the City Council unanimously voted to declare a climate emergency for the purpose of “naming, framing, and deepening our commitment to protecting our economy, our ecosystems and our community from climate change” (“Declaring a Climate Emergency and Accelerating Toronto’s Climate Action Plan,” 2019).The declaration included a commitment to net zero emissions by 2050 and to exploring “all viable and equitable financing mechanisms” to support climate actions (“Declaring a Climate Emergency and Accelerating Toronto’s Climate Action Plan,” 2019). Simultaneously, Toronto residents are met with rapidly rising housing costs and levels of homelessness. In 2018, there were approximately 181,000 individuals on the city’s centralized housing waiting list (Knope, 2019). The number of people experiencing homelessness has doubled in the last five years and approaches 10,000 (“Facts about Homelessness in Toronto,” 2019; Purdon & Palleja, 2019). Advocacy groups have urged the City to declare the homelessness and housing crisis a human rights crisis and a state of emergency in order to drive a coordinated intergovernmental solution to the severe lack of affordable, supportive, and transitional housing (Clapp, 2020; Wong-Tam, 2019).

The environmental and climate crisis is interwoven with the housing and homelessness crisis. The impacts of both crises are inequitably distributed, as people who experience more social marginalization and economic deprivation tend to live in substandard housing or be homeless and bear the brunt of environmental consequences (Krieger & Higgins, 2002; Policy on human rights and rental housing: IV. Social and economic status, 2009; The Lancet Planetary, 2018). With respect to housing, the lack of viable affordable options for home ownership and rental housing has profound impacts on lower-income residents. In Toronto, rent and housing costs have skyrocketed, growing two and four times faster than income in the last decade, respectively (Where will we live? Ontario’s affordable rental housing crisis, 2018). Decreasing affordability of inner-city neighbourhoods forces lower- and middle-income households to disperse to surrounding suburban regions, which in turn contributes to urban sprawl (Hochstenbach & Musterd, 2018). Urban expansion involves the conversion of agricultural and forest lands into commercial and residential areas; the resulting decline in agricultural land places significant pressure on food systems and increases food insecurity (Abu Hatab et al., 2019; Wang et al., 2015). Moreover, as low- and middle-income workers are forced to seek housing further away from the city centre and where they work, they undertake longer commutes and bear increased transportation costs, since public transportation infrastructure typically focuses on the city core (Savage, 2019). Suburban commuters also tend to use cars over public transit due to cost, time, or convenience, which contributes to increasing transportation emissions (Savage, 2019). The detrimental impacts of urban developments on a liveable environment, including urban heat islands and loss of public green space, disproportionately impact people who live in substandard or precarious housing due to crowding, a lack of ventilation and cooling mechanisms, and inequities in access to green space (Klein Rosenthal et al., 2014; Wolch et al., 2014).

As part of the problem of climate and environmental change, cities also have the opportunity to be integral to its solution. Any consideration of affordable urban housing needs to integrate resilience to natural disasters and environmental sustainability into their design. By the same token, sustainable development decisions must consider affordable housing. This paper will review current trends in thinking on the question of affordable housing and sustainability and provide examples from the literature on how this has been achieved in various settings.

Conceptual framework of sustainability and affordable housing

Our conceptual framing draws on a holistic approach where sustainable housing is defined as housing which meets the physical, economic, and social needs of the current residents without compromising the ability of future generations of residents to meet their own physical, economic and social needs, while actively decolonizing and regenerating communities. The act of achieving this vision must be founded in community-led co-design and deep engagement. A diagram illustrating our conceptual framing can be found in Figure 1. This conceptualization draws on the Health Map framework, which is guided by a socio-economic framework for human health (Barton & Grant, 2006). However, we expand upon this framing by including concepts of community regeneration, decolonization, co-design, and deep engagement as crucial to sustainable affordable housing.

Figure 1. Sustainable Affordable Housing Conceptual Framework

Sustainable housing is generally used to describe the process as it applies to the housing industry – in short, less waste, more re-use and recycling of local resources, together with lower life-cycle environmental impacts and costs, better reliability, less maintenance, and greater user satisfaction. A broader conceptualization of sustainable housing finds its foundation in the 1987 Brundtland Report framing of sustainable development and is, as defined by Priemus, “housing that meets the needs of the current residents without compromising the ability of future generations of residents to meet their own needs.” (Our Common Future, From One Earth to One World: An Overview by the World Commission on Environment and Development. , 1987; Priemus, 2005). This includes not only ensuring minimal negative environmental impacts but also actively preserving the air, water, soil and biodiversity of the land where the housing is located. Importantly, this environmental stewardship and risk mitigation must occur both during construction as well as during ongoing habitation and maintenance (Priemus, 2005).

The concept of sustainable housing promotes the triple aim of environmental protection, economic development and importantly, social equity (Campbell, 1996). These combined aims are counter to prevailing Western neoliberal housing policies, which are hallmarked by deregulation, financialisation, and privatisation, and which contribute to phenomena such as gentrification, social exclusion, segregation, and limited access to affordable and accessible housing (Mete & Xue, 2020). Such housing policies and their resulting social consequences actively oppress groups of people, particularly Indigenous people, racial and ethnic minorities, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and questioning, and Two-Spirited (LGBTQ2S+) individuals, youth, women, new migrants, and people with mental illness and addictions.

To achieve housing that is socially and environmentally equitable, the dwelling must provide for the social needs of residents while minimizing environmental impacts. Attendance to social and environmental needs must be mutually reinforcing and support community regeneration – for example, through responsible recycling of brownfield sites and existing buildings in urban centres, as well as through ‘bottom up’ approaches within housing organizations that empower residents and local communities (Brown & Bhatti, 2003).

Brownfields, former commercial or industrial sites now vacant or underused, are often the only available land in dense urban centres, and regeneration of these key sites requires ongoing engagement and consultation with community leaders, residents, and public health officials to ensure rigorous environmental testing before, during, and after development (Brownfields redevelopment, 2019; Greenberg, 2002). In considering what comprises sustainable housing, the role of social resources and processes cannot be underestimated as catalysts of communities that are sustainable and resilient (Thomas, 1995). These social processes include shared facilities that promote social contact and interaction and purposeful design that enables residents to move from mutual recognition of other residents towards active participation in community building, mutual aid, as well as towards community ownership and management of local facilities (Thomas, 1995). Seyfang discusses the concept of “sustainable housing niches” where grassroots action not only aims to thrive autonomously in a single location but also influences a more large-scale shift towards adopting sustainable, low-impact development that leverages widely accessible and affordable materials and building techniques (Seyfang, 2010). These principles are also embodied in the concept of Active House, a holistic approach to buildings that create healthier and more comfortable lives for their occupants without negative impact on the climate. Active House principles are centered on comfort (a building that creates a healthier and more comfortable life), energy (in which the building contributes positively to the energy balance of the building), and environment (in which the building has a positive impact on the environment) (Feifer et al., 2018).

These concepts are not novel. For thousands of years, Indigenous communities worldwide have created dwellings and fostered ways of living that promote regeneration, and a deeply reciprocal relationship with the land, water, animals and plants, and all aspects of the natural world (Mcgregor, 2014). Across Turtle Island, or what is now known as North America, Indigenous communities have conceptualized the physical, social and spiritual domains of dwellings. Thistle, a Cree-Métis scholar describes how housing is more than the physical structure of a dwelling and is instead a composite of “all my relations” where everything – humans, animals, plants, land, water, and the spiritual world – are interrelated (Thistle, 2017).Further, Indigenous conceptualizations of home are rooted not only in interconnections between humans and nature but also how these connections exist between human relationships amongst kin, community members, ancestors and stories (Nabokov & Easton, 1988). Globally, Indigenous knowledges, particularly in regard to sustainable development and place-making, are recognized as exemplary ways of building and existing to mitigate and be resilient to climate change (“Climate Change,” 2008).

To achieve these goals and realize sustainable housing in densely populated, multicultural urban settings such as Toronto, we must use co-design to ensure that dwellings are designed with an inherent understanding of the needs of residents, as defined by residents. A foundation of co-design in sustainable housing development is the idea that the resident has expertise about their particular needs, and determines whether or not the design and development of the housing meets their needs and environment (Shelby et al., 2012). This process, ideally, should be user-led and based on urban regeneration methods, such as ‘deep engagement’, where trust, dependability and empathy amongst communities, developers, planners and researchers is actively nurtured with an emphasis on community immersion and understanding (Glackin & Dionisio, 2016). When considering Indigenous knowledge, engagement requires concerted action to decolonise design, development, construction and ongoing maintenance of housing and communities. This should include the adoption of new ways of thinking by those acting within settler-dominated systems, for example trading the expert mindset for a learner mindset when engaging in urban planning processes with Indigenous communities. We must also reframe or dismantle the overly technical and bureaucratic planning and development structures that actively exclude Indigenous voices (McCartney, 2016). For example, McCartney et al. (2016) suggest that in an Indigenous-led housing system, settler planners, architects, designers and builders must become learners and work alongside Indigenous people to adopt a housing model that meets local needs in sustainable and ecologically sound ways while creating sites of cultural regeneration (McCartney, 2016).

Sustainable (and Unsustainable) Building Materials

The construction sector is a significant drain of resources and contributor to waste globally. It contributes 40-50% of greenhouse gas emissions, generates 25% of waste, consumes 40% of both natural materials and energy, and uses 15% of freshwater resources (Mokhlesian & Holmén, 2012; Ramesh et al., 2010). To reach net zero emissions, decarbonization efforts must target two major construction materials used in heavy industries: steel and concrete. The production of steel and concrete are highly energy-intensive, accounting for a sixth of annual global emissions, which is equivalent to the carbon footprint of the entire United States (Vaughan, 2019).

Concrete is typically composed of 10-15% cement, 60-75% aggregate, and 15-20% water, with proportions varying to achieve different levels of strength and flexibility. Cement production constitutes the most energy-intensive manufacturing industry and heavily relies on coal and petroleum coke. One of the main components of cement is limestone, which is typically surface-mined, transported to a crusher, and mixed with other raw materials at approximately 1480 degrees Celsius. Surface mining involves removing large areas of soil and rock to expose the underlying mineral. Once cooled and ground to powder, the mixture (cement) is transported by heavy-duty, often diesel-fueled vehicles, rail, or ship (Think Wood 2020).

Steel is an alloy with a carbon content of 0.2-2.1% by weight. Its major ingredient is iron ore, which is also surface-mined through open-pit mining, crushed, and transported by train or ship to a blast furnace. The ore is heated to 1650 degrees Celsius with coal or petroleum coke and charged with limestone to form iron (Think Wood 2020).                                                

In acknowledgement of concrete’s contribution to greenhouse gas emissions, several ‘green’ alternatives have entered the market. ‘Green Concrete’ refers to a suite of concretes developed to replace some of the traditional elements of concrete with recycled or renewable materials (“Eco-Friendly Alternatives To Traditional Concrete,” 2019; “Green building materials that are alternatives to concrete,” 2016). AshCrete, TimberCrete, and other alternative ‘cretes’ use by-products of other manufacturing processes as a mix-in with cement, reducing the overall carbon footprint of the resulting concrete alternative. Alternatives like hempcrete or papercrete are lightweight alternatives for non-load bearing applications, such as use in sound barriers or sound proofing or insulation between walls (Bedlivá & Isaacs, 2014; Hussain et al., 2019; “What is Hempcrete?,” 2019).

Sustainable building materials has no widely accepted designation, making the development of broadly adopted guidelines or principles difficult (Bedlivá & Isaacs, 2014; Franzoni, 2011). However, there is a general need to focus on both the performance specifications and the greenhouse gas emissions in the material production (Ding, 2014). For construction to be ‘sustainable’, it must therefore strive to reduce this resource use and waste generation. This can be done through the process of construction itself; however, for the purpose of this report, we will focus on the reduction of emissions, waste, and resource use through the materials that are used.

Performance specifications are addressed in guidelines such as the Canadian Home Builders’ Associations Net Zero Home Labelling Program (“CHBA Net Zero Home Labelling Program,” 2017). Programs such as these emphasize construction that reduces the energy demands of the completed building and offsets the demand with energy production, for example through solar panels installed on the roof. In North America, insulation plays a significant part in the overall reduction in a building’s energy demand, decreasing both heating and cooling related needs. However, many highly efficient insulating materials, while reducing the carbon footprint of a finished building, have quite high carbon footprints themselves, requiring significant energy input and resulting in significant greenhouse gas emissions during their production or difficulty in reusing or recycling at the end of the life cycle (e.g., polystyrene and fibreglass insulations). The use of natural or recycled materials for insulation has become a viable and more sustainable alternative, with many options already available commercially (Asdrubali et al., 2015). A further benefit of pursuing natural or recycled materials as insulation is the ability to source supplies locally, minimizing transportation emissions.

Physical elements of sustainable housing in urban centres attend to four key aspects: where the building is located,how the building is constructed, how the building is used, and the opportunities for regeneration (Winston, 2009). Location refers to housing that incorporates sustainable land-use planning best practices such as mixed-use developments and proximity to public transport. Construction, design, and use are broader domains that acknowledge the need for sustainable construction and designing for sustainable ongoing use of the dwelling. Renewable, or recycled locally sourced materials may include wood, straw bale, cob (mud and straw mixtures), reed and thatch or alternative concrete formulations (‘hempcrete’ or ‘papercrete’) (Seyfang, 2010). Technological interventions towards sustainable design and use include microclimate design, renewable energy technologies, and waste and waste-water systems to promote water conservation and quality, as well as waste reuse and recycling (Sullivan & Ward, 2012). However, reliance on technological ‘solutions’ is itself problematic, and caution is warranted in viewing technology as a panacea for sustainable housing. Indeed, sustainable housing is underpinned by an acknowledgement of the need for respectful use and stewardship of natural, local resources by the residents and communities who benefit from their use. This approach lies in contrast to dominant ways of building, which rely on manufactured materials, often travelling vast distances, and specialized technologies or skill sets for construction and maintenance (Smits, 2017).Importantly, current building practices mark a shift from independent development, which leverages local skillsets, tools, and materials, to dependent development where residents are unable to maintain, extend, or replicate their housing without external inputs (Smits, 2017). This shift has occurred over the past century or so in North America, with the increasing prevalence of high-rise buildings and other construction that cannot be easily maintained or replicated by those who live there (Landau, 2020). Some have argued that sustainable housing should focus on de-growth, that is, to not rely on the construction of new dwellings, but first and foremost aim for better utilization of existing housing (Mete & Xue, 2020). Beyond the physical structure, sustainable housing also includes access to green space, affordability, comfort, and social aspects of the housing environment. Regeneration encompasses all of these elements and emphasizes partnership with residents and renovation over demolition.

Ecological building design, therefore, is a focus on environmentally friendly or environmentally responsible materials from local, renewable sources that are sustainable throughout their life cycle and have low energy in manufacturing. However, when building sustainable neighbourhoods or cities, one must not only consider the building itself, but also the spaces around it.

As of May 2018, all new development in Toronto is required to follow the ‘Toronto Green Standard Version 3’ (TGS3) (“Toronto Green Standard Version 3,” 2018). The standard has guidelines on air quality, energy efficiency, water quality/efficiency, solid waste, and ecological impacts for low-rise and mid- to high-rise residential buildings. A minimum level of sustainability (Tier 1) is required; however, most sections of the guideline have additional tiers for increased sustainability. Each section considers several aspects of sustainability pertaining to the overarching theme. Air quality includes considerations to increase walkability and reduce the impact of heat islands. Green roofs (roof area covered in vegetation 50% of area), cool roofs (made of reflective or light-coloured roofing material, 100%), or a combination of green and cool roofing and solar panels (75%) are required. Energy efficiency includes reducing the energy load of the building (net zero constructionencouraged) (“CHBA Net Zero Home Labelling Program,” 2017) and enabling the use of solar energy. Water quality/efficiency includes water use during construction and in the completed building. In the completed building, stormwater retention and ‘treatment’ is considered as well as the efficiency of water use and needs in and around the property. Ecological features include increasing the tree canopy, using native and pollinator supportive species in landscaping, reducing bird collision potential through window treatments, and minimizing light pollution. Waste management includes designated space for sorting solid waste, reusing or salvaging building materials, using sustainable building materials, and diverting construction waste.

One noted concern with the Net Zero Home Labelling Program is the carbon- and energy intensive processes that go into the creation of some of the materials used in net zero construction (Fairbank, 2019),which is not fully addressed in the waste management section of the TGS3. Additionally, these guidelines apply to all new development in Toronto; however, it is unclear to what extent renovations or additions to existing infrastructure need to adhere to these guidelines, if at all. If Toronto wants to fully embrace sustainable housing practices, the default should not be to start from scratch with each site but rather to combine reallocation of existing housing, creative retrofitting of existing structures, and sustainable building development.

Sustainable development and affordable housing

In order to meet the dual objectives of equity and sustainability, affordable housing needs to be a core principle in sustainable development, and environmental sustainability must be a core element of affordable housing. For example, in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, high density and public transit infrastructure contribute to greater environmental sustainability (Gurstein, 2012). Additional density in Toronto’s downtown core is unlikely to have a substantial impact on environmental sustainability. However, if affordability is neglected in development and densification policies or left to passive policies, increasing densification will likely impact low- and middle-income residents and renters through rising land and property values and subsequent displacement (Gurstein, 2012). Currently, an inclusionary zoning policy for Toronto is under development (“Inclusionary Zoning Policy,”). The policy would require a minimum percentage of new private residential developments to include affordable housing units to create mixed-income housing and address housing affordability. Additional approaches to consider in equitable sustainable development include cooperatives and community land trusts, as well as property taxation to support housing projects (Gurstein, 2012).

CASE STUDY: Tiny Homes for Veterans Experiencing Homelessness in Calgary

Tiny houses have seen increasing popularity and in recent years have been the subject of documentaries, books and popular TV shows. From a sustainable development and construction perspective, tiny houses are promising in that they can be incorporated into existing neighbourhoods given their small footprint, can be built with sustainable building materials, and can even be constructed to be “off the grid” (Redlitz, 2016). Tiny houses have been lauded as a way to facilitate a sustainable lifestyle by encouraging residents to embrace minimalism by limiting available space to fill with waste or unnecessary personal items, as well as requiring less energy to heat and maintain (Cross, 2019). Tiny houses also offer a promising way to provide sustainable and affordable housing in urban centres for persons experiencing homelessness.

In Calgary, the Homes for Heroes initiative in collaboration with Mustard Seed Tiny Homes and a construction company (ATCO) developed a ‘village’ of 15 tiny homes for veterans experiencing homelessness (Dorozio, 2018). The village opened to residents on November 1, 2019. Residents have their own housing and access to individualized counselling and resources to connect them to other services. The village aims to offer veterans a place to transition out of homelessness and equip them with the support and skills required for independent living. Each home is 275 square feet and rent is set at $600 per month. Those who are unable to pay can defer payment until they are able, a process supported by the village’s social services. To design the village, the Homes for Heroes foundation met with over 200 veterans across Canada to understand their needs and develop acceptable and appropriate housing and complementary programming (Brandt, 2019). Given the ongoing success of the program in Calgary, Homes for Heroes has been granted approval to develop a similar village in Edmonton (Riebe, 2020).

CASE STUDY: Nuutsumuut Lelum, Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre Passive House

The Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre, in partnership with DYS Architects, built a ‘passive house’, called Nuutsumuut Lelum (meaning ‘all in one house’), to provide 25 affordable suites for youth, elders, and families of the Indigenous community in Nanaimo, British Columbia (“Nanaimo Aboriginal Centre Passive House,” 2017). The development was the first affordable family housing facility built in Nanaimo in 20 years and was also the first certified Passive House facility in Canada aimed at providing affordable housing for families (Cooper, 2018). In passive houses, optimal temperatures are maintained through purposeful positioning of windows, wall and roofing insulation and only supplementary heating or cooling, without additional forced air recirculation (“What is a passive house? ,” 2015).

Importantly, the development of the house sought to achieve social goals of interaction and strengthened intergenerational relationships between Elders, youth and residents, as well as fostering community regeneration and support through the physical space (Yu, 2018). To meet these goals, the project is anchored by a community space for gathering, ceremony, celebrations, and space to support students’ learning beyond the classroom (“Nuutsumuut Lelum (Nanaimo Passive House),” 2019). Nuutsumuut Lelum consists of ground-oriented suites arranged around a central open courtyard designed for optimum solar access while also honouring local Indigenous architectural traditions and building materials such as red cedar. The site is located on a major arterial in the urban centre and the entry is identified by an 11m tall totem pole and ceremonial entrance with Indigenous art throughout the site (Simpson & Imada, 2018). The construction took into consideration simplicity of building systems to lower maintenance costs thereby reducing energy consumption and in turn minimizing resident’s monthly costs.

CASE STUDY: UniverCity on Burnaby Mountain, British Columbia

UniverCity is a residential and retail community located next to Simon Fraser University (SFU) on Burnaby Mountain in British Columbia and is managed by the SFU Community Trust (“Sustainability: Mission Statement,”). UniverCity was founded on four pillars of sustainability – environment, equity, education, and economy – and is modeled as a sustainable community (“Sustainability,”). Its environmental commitments are to preserve or improve natural resources on Burnaby Mountain and to minimize its carbon footprint for amenities, buildings, and transportation. In line with a green zoning bylaw, new buildings at UniverCity are required to be at least 30% more energy efficient and 40% more water efficient (“Sustainability,”). Community members also have access to public green spaces and conservation areas (“The Community: Parks and Green Spaces,”). Its equity objectives are to provide a variety of affordable rental housing and ownership options and to nurture a safe, healthy, and accessible community in which to live and work. In terms of education, UniverCity provides financial support to SFU through the Trust to enhance university life and academics for students. Lastly, its economic sustainability goals involve stimulating innovation in local enterprises and finding significant cost savings in constructing sustainable housing. The sustainable community model highlights opportunities for accessible, affordable, and sustainable residential developments in cities such as Toronto in partnership with the University of Toronto or Ryerson University.


In this paper, we have illustrated the importance of, and potential for, integrating sustainability and affordable housing. Both are critical needs in the current crises of climate and environmental change and housing and homelessness. While housing and urban infrastructure can drive negative environmental impacts, so too can they generate and model solutions that meet the interlocking objectives of the Sustainable Development Goals: economic prosperity, social equity, and environmental sustainability. Tackling environmental sustainability is no longer an option: it must be central to every aspect of our lives and societal development. The case studies presented demonstrate the art of the possible. The next critical step to undertake is mainstreaming these innovative approaches, strategies, and materials into affordable, livable, and sustainable housing conceptually and in practice.


  1. Reorient affordable housing policies and programs to incorporate sustainability into their design, construction, use, and maintenance.
  2. Building designs must focus on environmentally responsible materials from local, renewable sources that are sustainable throughout their life cycle and have low energy in manufacturing.
  3. Ensure affordable housing comprises environmental protections, economic development and social equity in order to meet current housing needs while protecting the needs of future generations.
  4. Incorporate Indigenous knowledge, epistemologies, housing use co-design principles, and deep engagement strategies into affordable housing concepts, policies, and practices to ensure that dwellings are designed to support the local environment and be oriented to the needs of residents, as defined by residents.
  5. Establish a consensus definition of, and way to monitor, sustainable building materials.

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