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Five building blocks for the homes of the future

How will we sustain 9 billion people in a resource-constrained world when everyone wants the good life? That large comfortable house filled with energy-guzzling gadgets, ideally a retreat from city life in a suburb, with a car parked outside. There just aren’t enough resources to go around – we would need three planets to support this lifestyle for 9 billion of us.

It’s what people think they want, but what we have found at my company BioRegional is that if you offer something different, such as a home that enables a one-planet lifestyle, it brings a surprising number of other benefits, including better health and quality of life for residents and improved sales, retention and resale.

So how can we build and manage the environmentally friendly homes and neighbourhoods of the future, for rich and poor alike?

I think there are five keys to sustainable homes for 9 billion people:

One. Energy saving and renewable generation with local storage and grids

Homes need a lot of energy to keep warm or cool, for lighting, hot water and the ever multiplying gadgets we own. If we are going to sustain 9 billion people we need net zero carbon homes that are resource efficient in operation and that act as mini power stations. They could, for example, have building-integrated photovoltaics (PV) and could be supplied by local renewable electricity and heat grids. Energy storage and direct current LED lighting are two ways to make building-integrated PV work well. This approach is already being developed at theBicester eco-town in Oxford, UK. In Guangzhou, China the 6,000-home Jinshancommunity draws on traditional methods like high ceilings and shading to reduce the need for air conditioning. With energy prices rising there is now a huge market for energy retrofitting in existing homes. The Rockefeller Foundation found that in the United States alone, an investment of $279 billion could yield more than $1 trillion of energy savings over 10 years, creating 3.3 million cumulative job years of employment. All over the world we will need totally decarbonized electricity grids by 2050. The European supergrid is one exciting idea. And in the poorest of homes that have yet to get on the grid, going renewable will reduce the need for expensive energy infrastructure through mini-grids.

Two. Walkable communities and higher density living

We can’t consider our homes in isolation – what happens when we walk out of the front door? Where are the shops, the schools, the public transport? In the United States the financial crisis led to a flight from the suburbs as people couldn’t afford high gas prices for their cars. Now, skinny homes are the new trend in North America, fitting two or more homes in urban areas where one stood before. This is not just an issue for the wealthy, and poorer people are often priced out of the central locations where they work. The latest UN Habitat reporthighlights the need for access, as opposed to just planning for transport

Three. Connected living

Technology is transforming our home lives and it can enable sustainable living. Tablets can be used to tell us our energy consumption, the time of the next bus or train, to book a vehicle through a car club or to browse local second-hand items or services. As we order more of our goods online, our homes are now our shopping centres, to the detriment of the traditional high street and shopping malls. Instead, we are seeing more high street community hubs where people can pick up their Internet deliveries, work locally, buy a coffee and meet their neighbours. Mobile phone technology is similarly transforming the lives of the poorest with mobile banking, health and education services already well established.

Four. Building less, refurbishing and building smarter

At the London 2012 Olympics, a study found that most of the environmental impact wasn’t people flying in, it was the construction. By opting for lower impact materials, leaner buildings and infrastructure and avoiding wasting materials, London slashed the carbon footprint by 20% and cut costs, too. This sort of approach should be applied across all construction and refurbishment.

Five. Government strategies and finance for infrastructure and affordable homes for the poorest

For 30 years, governments have increasingly followed a “leave it to the market” approach to housing. As a result, many poorer people are unable to live in a decent home. Social housing is not only a social good – it is also a good investment. If you build someone a house, they will pay you rent, which will pay back the capital expenditure in time. Better than that, in such a home children will thrive and social problems, which cost society money, are reduced.

With the population of urban areas set to increase, especially in Asia and Africa, it’s important that we build affordable and sustainable homes. All the data shows that sustainable homes and communities are better for people, better for business and essential if we are to sustain a world of 9 billion.

Author: Sue Riddlestone is co-founder and chief executive officer of the BioRegional Development Group. She is a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur.

Image: Solar thermal collectors are seen against a backdrop of public housing flats on the roof of a building at the United World College of South East Asia (UWCSEA) East Campus in Singapore. REUTERS/Tim Chong