Energy Award

Green Subdivision: Eco-friendly Alberta Suburbia Goes Solar
By Patrick White, Globe and Mail – July 13, 2007

It's not so strange for an eco-conscious person such as Jennie Willings to collect rainwater in barrels or own a home heated by solar power – or have a statue of the Earth goddess Gaia in her backyard.

What's a little odd is the location of her little slice of ecological utopia: suburbia.

"Some suburbs look awful," says Ms. Willings, traipsing through the drought-resistant sheep fescue in her front yard on a recent weekday afternoon. "We feel we can do so much more here." Welcome to Drake Landing, North America's first solar subdivision.

Located in the ecological oasis of Okotoks, Alta., half an hour south of Calgary, it's a study in contrasts. There are the requisite suburban trappings: square front lawns, white fences, two-car garages.

But the front yards are covered in wildflowers and creeping thyme, the white fences are only five feet high to encourage neighbourly banter, and the garages are topped with solar thermal panels that trap 90 per cent of the heat needed for the 52-home development.

Workers just finished tying each house into the solar-thermal system a couple of weeks ago, but Drake Landing is already being viewed as a model for sustainable suburban construction continent-wide.

"The demand for this kind of home is definitely growing," says Ron Stanners, president of the Calgary Real Estate Board. "There are only a handful now, but that's set to change." Ms. Willings and her partner Joanne Grout first moved to Okotoks a few years ago from Calgary. When they found out how much the town encouraged environmentally friendly developments, they looked into building a straw-bale house, but that proved impractical.

Then they heard about a development that promised to incorporate dozens of green attributes such as a gutter-and-barrel system that saves rainwater, sustainably harvested lumber, recycled drywall and insulation that makes the homes 30 per cent more efficient than standard abodes.

The kicker was the 800 solar panels attached to garage roofs.

The black panels transfer solar heat to an antifreeze solution that is relayed by underground pipe to a central heat exchanger.

There, the antifreeze passes its heat to storage tanks full of water.

During warmer months, the hot water is stored in boreholes sunk 37 metres beneath a town park. The water warms up the surrounding soil to temperatures as high as 80C. During winter, the heated soil acts as a kind of subterranean furnace, warming up water that is then circulated to homes.

"I don't pretend to understand all of the technology," Ms. Willings said. "But I know it works." She's not the only believer. Drake Landing sold out soon after construction was announced in 2005, with buyers coming from as far away as Seattle and Quebec. The homes were originally slated to sell for less than $300,000, but with the Okotoks real-estate market booming, the new homes are being resold for closer to half a million dollars.

They have attracted a few dozen families whose ecological orientation binds residents more than neighbours in most suburbs. On a recent weekday afternoon, neighbours chatted over their fences, swapping tips on tweaking home furnaces for efficiency, and xeriscaping, a landscaping method that minimizes water use.

"There's definitely an us-versus-the-world mentality here," says Maria Cameron, a stay-at-home mom. "We're all a little different here." While the new residents of Drake Landing settle in, the Town of Okotoks is forging ahead with an ambitious green plan. Like many of the towns sprawling outward from Calgary's fringes, Okotoks is undergoing record growth. In five years, it has spread from a quiet hamlet of about 10,000 to a bustling town of 17,000.

But just because the town is growing doesn't mean it's growing unchecked.

"There's this notion that with increased growth comes increased consumption, but that's not necessarily true," said Rick Quail, the town's municipal manager. "There's always an alternative to increased consumption." In 1994, the province offloaded planning responsibilities to smaller municipal commissions. Some, such as the heaving suburb of Airdrie, are now overhoused and underserviced as a result. But the people of Okotoks decided to take a very different route.

"In the mid-nineties, we as a town asked ourselves, 'What do we want to be when we grow up?' " Mr. Quail said, ". . . and this was the vision." So far, they've succeeded. Since that time, the town's per-capita water use has plummeted by about one-third and greenhouse gas emissions by one-fifth. A sewage treatment plant processes human waste into compost. And although a Wal-Mart store arrived five years ago, there's still plenty of foot traffic downtown, where a new community centre that will be powered in part by solar panels is being built.

The world beyond the southern Alberta plains is taking notice.

In March, Prime Minister Stephen Harper called the town "the greenest community in Canada, and maybe the world." In June, a dozen central energy planners from China toured Okotoks looking for sustainable solutions they could use to remedy their country's growing pains.

One of the stops was Drake Landing, where they might have seen Ms. Cameron's four kids frolicking in the front yard.

"I never saw myself living in the suburbs," Ms. Cameron said.

"I always thought suburbanites were totally two-dimensional, that they drove the same cars and kissed the same wives. I guess I was wrong."