Shopping for a Greener Home in France

By Barry Rueger and Susan Evans
Published: Asparagus Magazine (PDF Scan)
September 2022
1622 words

It’s been almost 10 months since we arrived in France with hopes of settling here for life. Sometimes it seems incomprehensible that we could have blithely sold up and closed down everything we had going on in Canada, and set off with two suitcases and a cat on a plane to a new life in a new country on a new continent—all taken on trust, sight unseen.

There have been waves of regret and tsunamis of self-doubt, but one thing remains constant: in almost every way, we love this new country of ours, and are resolved to take the time necessary to build a secure sense of belonging, the one missing piece of the puzzle.

For the most part, we feel, France is getting “it” right, culturally, socially, and politically. The French government assumes a position of social, national, and global responsibility that we aren’t used to, coming from a country where ecological tragedy can be brushed aside in favour of preserving a few more years of profit from oil, gas, and coal.

Yes, we all know about the mountains of paperwork and forms to fill out before anything moves forward in France. But move forward it does, logically and steadily, if maddeningly slowly. And it’s all worth it in the end, because we reap the benefits of belonging to a system that’s “doing it right.”

From the moment we arrived here—despite all the difficulties of language and not knowing a soul here—we felt supported. Moving through different government departments, we encountered a rational, thoughtful, unrushed way of doing things, and received help from government staff every step of the way.

We soon began the process of purchasing a house in Alençon—a small municipality in Normandy, about 200 km southwest of Paris—and found ourselves navigating a universe of carefully planned regulations and funding programs aimed at making French homes warmer, greener, and more comfortable. And it is heartening that these programs are designed specifically to benefit average working people, and not just well-heeled home renovators.

When looking at heating choices in Canada, our Vancouver homeowner brains were wondering: “If we can’t use gas for heating and hot water, what’s left? And if it’s electricity, isn’t it expensive? And how about the ecological and environmental costs of generating electric power?”

In France there are many more central-heating-system options than are commonly available to Canadian home-owners. Examples include heat pumps, condensing boilers, wood-pellet or “biomass” burners, and solar-powered heating. Many are more eco-friendly than gas or oil, and more economical to run. But what makes them even more attractive are the generous government subsidies that can cover up to 100% of the costs of upgrading.

In Canada we tend to focus on automobile emissions and power generation as key areas to reduce carbon emissions. But according to a 2020 European Commission report, “Buildings are particularly energy-intensive, accounting alone for almost 45% of final energy consumption and 25% of greenhouse-gas emissions in France… [And] 7 million dwellings are poorly insulated and almost 4 million households struggle to pay their bills or deprive themselves of heating.”

From the beginning of July 2022, homeowners in France were prohibited from installing a new oil-fired furnace, and owners of new homes were prohibited from installing gas heating. The government of France declared that new installations of equipment for heating buildings or water must fall below a conservative greenhouse gas emission ceiling. Meaning you won’t be allowed to install an oil, gas, or coal-fired heating appliance except in exceptional circumstances.

The house of our dreams was a big 18th-century mansion with many floors, many rooms, fireplaces, and a lovely setting in the middle of Alençon. It was a two-minute walk from the historic round Halle au Blé, from our favourite sidewalk bistro, and from a great boulangerie (bakery). Lovely though it was, we faced the challenges common to owning houses built two or three centuries earlier: as well as the expected renovation of wooden floors and 300-year-old walls and ceilings, we would be facing bills for heating and energy-use very near the top of the chart.

Those gigantic fuel bills, and our general concern for reducing our own contributions to climate warming, made it obvious that we would have to spend many thousands of euros to bring the house up to something approaching 21st-century energy efficiency. We eventually decided against purchasing this house, but first we had a chance to explore what that process might look like.

In France, home buyers are very well protected. They’re given a wealth of information about the house that they hope to buy, and everyone involved takes the concept of vices cachés (“hidden defects”) very seriously. These can include everything from structural issues, to neighbouring development projects, to troublesome neighbours. And work done on the house, whether by a professional or a well-meaning do-it-yourselfer, is subject to a 10-year period of warranty called une garantie décennale.

In Canada, when you purchase a house you’ll sign a sales contract that might run five to 10 pages long. If you’re lucky, there may be a home inspection report as well, but it’s often a case of “buyer beware.” In France, you’ll be reading and initialling every page of a document well in excess of 100 pages, and sometimes much more than that.

As well as telling you everything you don’t want to know about the structure, the roof, and the presence of asbestos or lead paints, it will outline in detail how energy efficient the house is. It is government-mandated that you be told where your heating efficiency lies on a scale from an excellent A to a very sorry G, and how many CO2 emissions your home will generate over a year, also measured on a scale from A to G. Every real estate listing also includes the charts showing these ratings.

Fortunately, the French government also is very generous in helping homeowners improve both of these numbers. Depending on the project, the government will pay up to 100% of the costs of an upgrade, but the specific amounts depend on several factors. First, household income, and the number of people in residence. Unlike in Canada—where equivalent funding programs only look at how much is being spent—the funding available is much greater for homeowners with less income. Second, the extent of the improvement provided by the upgrade: Will your efficiency move from the bottom-most F or G levels to something in the middle, or will you reach the topmost A or B levels?

All of this work begins at the MaPrimeRénov website where homeowners can apply for funding to replace old heating systems, insulate their homes, and replace aging windows with new triple-glazed ones. There is also funding available for solar and geothermal heating, and for other ventilation improvements. The funding process is complex, but if you’re a homeowner, it’s too generous to ignore.

One of the biggest expenses we looked at would be a new furnace. The quote for that was approximately €20,000 (about US$20,000).  If we had purchased the house, we could have received significant financial assistance for a more sustainable form of heating. As well as exchanging the old furnace for a new heat-pump, pellet-burning, or geothermal unit, we also could have applied for funding to cover some or all of the other improvements listed above. We’re advised that we would have saved at least 60% of our household fuel bills.
To be funded, all of this work has to be completed by a professional installer: do-it-yourself tinkerers need not apply. And landlords must promise that the home will remain a tenant’s principal residence for at least five years after the work is finished—an Airbnb property won’t get the subsidy.

There are also programs to offer zero-interest bank loans to homeowners doing energy improvement work, through a program called éco-PTZ. Works that can be paid for with these loans include: roof, wall, window, and door insulation, and installation of renewable-powered heating. One of the benefits of taking out an éco-PTZ  loan is that there is no requirement to demonstrate income levels to support it. You must simply be the property owner.

From this September, anyone who wants to sell a property that is ranked in the F or G categories will also need to pay for an audit énergétique—a far more precise measure that aims to inform future buyers not only of their likely energy bills—but also of the cost of renovations needed to make the property fall into the B class. And in July, the new laws made it illegal for landlords to increase the rent of properties with ratings of F or G, and illegal to rent them out full-stop from 2025.

Living in North Vancouver, we were always made to feel guilty for the less-than-ideal environmental choices we’d made. Even when alternatives weren’t offered, were beyond our means, were untenable because of our age or situation, or, at best, were incredibly difficult and time-consuming to achieve. In France, it feels like the powers that be are truly helping citizens change their habits and lower their impacts.

When we finally find our new house in France, multiple financial incentives will make it much easier for us to renovate or replace inefficient heating systems, poor insulation, or draughty windows. The French government uses financial aid as a carrot incentive to encourage us to improve our home’s energy efficiency. There is no punitive stick of guilt or financial loss if we don’t have the means to pay. What our new government understands is that we won’t solve the climate crisis by only handing money to corporations. It’s often a much better investment to help individuals and families to make their houses green.

 

Save lives, money and reduce pollution: Why roundabouts are a solution for every city

Published: Globe and Mail
May 7, 2022
920 words

Round-aboutCOVID-19 restrictions are disappearing and France is expecting another one million Canadians to visit the country this year. Many will arrive after a lengthy flight, collect their luggage and clear customs at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, then climb into a rental car. Minutes later, they’ll suddenly find themselves immersed in a stream of French drivers circling around a traffic circle or rond-point. And once they’ve escaped that first traffic circle, they’ll immediately find themselves in a second, and a third, and in all likelihood, yet another.

Welcome to France, and the first of more than 30,000 traffic circles, the multilane roundabouts that challenge visiting drivers to learn new rules, new signs, a new language. They also provide no chance whatsoever to just stop and figure out where you’re going.

It is an item of faith in France that the roundabout was invented in Paris in 1907. The goal of its creator, the architect and urban planner Eugène Hénard, was to better manage the horse-and-carriage traffic throughout Paris. His first roundabout was at Place de l’Étoile in Paris, (since renamed Place Charles-de-Gaulle) where multiple lanes of circulating cars, motorbikes, vans and buses still circle around the Arc de Triomphe.

More specifically, these drivers battle for supremacy over 12 unmarked traffic lanes where cars entering the circle from the right have priority over everyone else. The result is legendary chaos and massive traffic jams.

Regardless of where traffic circles were invented, it was in Britain, not France, where they first became popular, with an explosion of construction in the 1950s and 60s, and a rethinking of how they functioned. It was the British who decided that incoming traffic should yield to those already on the circle. It was the success of this improvement that led to the adoption of the new British design in France.

The first French version of the “English roundabout” was opened in 1976 in Quimper, near Brittany’s Atlantic coastline. The rond-point’s official entry into the French Highway Code happened in 1983, the same year that decentralization moved much of town planning to local governments.

These town and village governments embraced the roundabout with enthusiasm. Since gaining popularity in the 1980s and 90s in France, roundabouts have been adopted in every corner of the country. And civic pride has led to another French tradition: the sculptures placed in the middle of the traffic circles. From the beautiful to the bizarre, these emblems of local pride have not only become important landmarks for lost tourists, but have led to websites, documentaries and Pinterest groups celebrating – or mocking – these roadside artworks.

The modern rules for French roundabouts are simple: Entering traffic must yield to the vehicles already circling. Once you’ve entered, keep to the inside, left-hand lane, with your left-hand-turn signal activated. Once you approach your exit, switch your signal to the right and move to the outside, right-hand lane, then exit. For drivers used to traffic lights and street corners, it can be nerve-racking to figure out which of the three, four, or even five exits you want, before you can change lanes and escape.

All of this happens while you’re watching both rear view mirrors and trying to spot a directional sign that almost never matches what your GPS is telling you. Having a spouse to act as navigator is a big help. (My wife Susan says that depends on which spouse is providing the navigation.)

Roundabouts aren’t just another French oddity – they’re actually a solution to a few problems that are faced by every town and city.

They completely eliminate stop-and-go traffic. Instead of dozens of cars sitting with their engines pumping out exhaust fumes at every red light, traffic moves constantly into and out of intersections. And because they do away with the need for stop lights or advanced left-turn signals, infrastructure maintenance costs are dramatically reduced. For small towns and villages, this saving is a valuable advantage.

Most importantly, though, roundabouts turn out to offer significant advantages in traffic safety. Every car entering a traffic circle has to slow down, so cars, trucks and buses move more slowly than usual. There are no red lights, so there are no drivers who accelerate through the intersection on a yellow. Deadly 90-degree collisions are a rarity in France. And because everyone moves in a counter-clockwise direction, and exits to the right, there’s little chance of cars appearing out of nowhere from your blind spot.

The result, according to a 2018 report by the European Commission, which examined 44 studies where junctions where converted to roundabouts, is a 41-per-cent reduction in traffic accident injuries and a 65 per cent reduction in fatal accidents.

In addition, a World Economic Forum report from December found the United States is saving lives and energy costs by replacing lights with roundabouts. It also notes that France has by far the most roundabouts per capita, about double the number per capita of the United Kingdom and Ireland.

“Here’s a controversial idea that turns conventional thinking about road safety on its head: traffic lights cause accidents, increase pollution and we’d be better of without them,” starts the report.

Still, when your jet-lagged self is suddenly dealing with multiple roundabouts, you’ll appreciate the two big secrets to manoeuvring around them. First, it’s okay to circle two or even three times until you know where you’re going. Second, in the event you take the wrong exit, in all likelihood there’s another roundabout just ahead, so it’s easy to double back to where you got it wrong.

Car-Free Parenting

Published: Asparagus Magazine
April 30, 2021
1046 words

As an on-again-off-again cyclist, I’ve always had a grudging admiration for those people who choose to ride everywhere, all of the time. I know people on Vancouver’s North Shore who ride to and from work — up to 25 kilometres away — every day, and even more that ride for fun and fitness. I can actually see myself commuting with rain gear and a briefcase, but what would happen if I also had a family to transport?

I asked North Vancouver District councillor Mathew Bond. When Bond’s daughter Wilhelmina was born, he didn’t rush out to buy a minivan: he decided to stick with his bright red 2016 Ezee Expedir cargo bike. When he became a father, Bond stepped back from his career as a transportation systems engineer for BC’s Ministry of Transport and became a stay-at-home dad. Because his work as a city councillor tends to be confined to evenings, he’s free during the day to parent.

Wilhelmina is now 6, with a 3-year-old sister named Coral. Bond still loads them onto the back of his bike and rides with them all over the hills and streets of North Vancouver.

A basic cargo bike like the Benno Carry On can be purchased for under US$1,500, but if you add extra carrying capacity and electric-assist, prices can quickly reach five times that number. So before you spend that much money, you really need to make sure it’s the right choice for you. Bond says he bought his cargo bike before they were all the rage, and he chose an electric version to take on the hills in his area.

Ask lots of questions

Bond cautions the curious to test ride these bikes before making a commitment. “My suggestion to people thinking about a cargo bike is to go borrow or rent one. Try it out, see what it’s like, even if it’s just for a day or just for a ride,” he says. “If you haven’t been biking in a long time, or you’re not a person that bikes regularly, try a little trip to the grocery store. I regularly put $300 worth of groceries on the bike. Carry some other things around before you carry your children around on it.”

Try it out, see what it’s like, even if it’s just for a ride.

But Bond’s biggest tip is a simple one: get advice from people already riding. In Vancouver, there are family biking Facebook pages, which include members that are taking their kids on cargo bikes. Social media offers a community that can answer questions about what type of bike will work best for each person’s circumstances. You can ask questions like: What kind of gear do you need, and where can you get it? Who has the best shops and the best services?
“And get a buddy and do a few rides… while they’re out and about on their cargo bike,” says Bond. “See where they go, what they do and how they do it. And ask them to come with you on your first few rides, or when you’re trying something like carrying a large load.”

Kid safety

If you’re planning on loading your kids onto the bike, you have a whole new set of concerns, according to Bond. First off, is helmet safety: “You have to wait till your child’s head fits a helmet.”

Bond started each of his girls riding up front in a seat between his arms. When Bond’s youngest, Coral, started riding, he added a second seat on the back of the bike for Wilhelmina. Eventually both Bond’s girls wound up riding on the rear carrier. If you’ve got two small people on the back of a bike, face them away from one another so they don’t knock helmets.

Learn your bike and your hood
The father of two also has some advice for those in the driver’s seat. “Make sure you’re comfortable. Build up your confidence, and learn your routes,” he says. “Take your kids on a ride in the park, somewhere safe, and then kind of build up from there.” He’s also the former president of the North Shore Mountain Bike Association and believes that cycling with his girls gives them a better understanding of their hometown. While most kids travel in a rear-facing car seat, his girls are riding along with him.

“Kids have a lot less freedom nowadays,” says Bond. “Because they get driven around, they don’t even understand their own neighbourhood. I think developing that kind of sense of place is important.”

As well as helping his daughters to map out their own hometown, the bike trips build confidence and knowledge in his daughters. “The girls know how to get to Lynn Valley, or their friend’s house. Wilhelmina can give me directions: ‘Okay, it’s this way. And let’s go here; let’s go there. Remember when we saw that animal here?’”

Consider storage options

Bond’s final piece of cargo-bike advice is to think carefully about storage. If you live in a condo or apartment, or if you have to navigate a small elevator, what are the best places to park and lock your bike? And if it’s electric, where can you plug in to charge it?

Bond has a parking space with a regular electrical outlet, but had to ask his strata for permission. And then they had to figure out how much to charge him.

After years of riding everywhere on a cargo bike, juggling kids, and home, and council work, Bond is happy with his choices. “When I tell people I use it for almost all my everyday trips, many are stunned, but also excited, and ask ‘Well, how do you . . . ?’”

When I tell people I use it for almost all my everyday trips, many are stunned, but also excited.

Growing up on the back of a cargo bike has one more important benefit for Bond’s daughters. It’s no surprise that Wilhelmina is proud that she can now ride on her own.

“I already knew how to pedal when I was 4,” she says. “I practised and practised… I first started with no pedals. Then I said, ‘I have enough balance Papa.’ Then I tried the pedals.”

And when asked if she had ever fallen: “Yeah. But not too hard.”

Get to Know the Global Scheme that Promotes Green Building

Published: Asparagus Magazine
November 4, 2020
1000 words

The Vancouver Convention Centre is LEED-certified platinum.
The Vancouver Convention Centre is LEED-certified platinum. (Photo by Faruk Ateş via Flickr / CC BY 2.0)

Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), is a comprehensive and complex certification program for green building. Developed in the 1990s by the non-profit US Green Building Council (USGBC), it now guides sustainable construction in more than 160 countries. LEED looks at every component of a building — from site selection and construction techniques to appliances and furnishings — with the goal of making buildings safe, environmentally friendly, and energy efficient.

Sustainability Begins at Home

Although LEED is often associated with prestige buildings like Vancouver’s grass-roofed convention centre or Facebook’s water-efficient headquarters in California, LEED also certifies apartment, condo, and single family home construction. Projects earn points for meeting requirements like careful construction-waste disposal and optional features like rainwater management. The number of points earned determines the level of certification awarded: certified, silver, gold, or platinum.

Read the full article.

Forget Toilet Paper, We Bought a Bidet

Published: Asparagus (PDF)
Summer/Fall 2019
April 30, 2020
628 words

Pandemic-induced shortages inspired our family to go paperless in the bathroom, and we’re not alone.

 

Three weeks into the coronavirus crisis, we were down to our last roll of toilet paper. My British-born wife Susan said, “We’re not going to see paper in the stores. Let’s buy a bidet.” I guess I must have made a face, because her next comment was, “You are so Canadian. Afraid to try anything new”…

Well, now I know better! I learned that “bidet“ is actually a generic term for a variety of devices. As well as standalone porcelain fixtures, it can be applied to: the high-tech Japanese toilet seats that not only wash but also dry you; plastic squirt bottles designed for the same purpose; and hand-held sprayers that attach to your toilet water supply. I also now know that a bidet is not a toilet at all, it’s only used for cleaning yourself. And I’ve learned that after using it you’ll be wet, in need of a handy towel or toilet paper.

Read the full article here.

It’s Too Late For Us To Fight Climate Change. Instead, Here’s How We’ll Spend Our Lives.

Published: Huffington Post
February 16, 2020
700 words

Barry Rueger looking out over the Pacific Ocean on Vancouver Island in Ucluelet, British Columbia. 

(Note to commenters: This column has generated a significant amount of email and feedback. All comments are moderated.  Climate science deniers will simply be deleted and blocked.  Anyone rep[lying with “OK Boomer” will be asked for a 1000 words explaining how they came to that assessment.)

Last year was when the endless bush fires in Australia convinced me and my wife, Susan, that climate change was unstoppable. It’s also when we realized that we likely will avoid seeing the worst of the climate emergency.

At 64 and 74 years of age, my wife and I believe there’s a good chance that we’ll be gone before coastal cities are flooded, the ice caps have melted, and the planet descends into a “Mad Max” dystopia. We would like to think that this isn’t what the future has in store, but the intransigence of almost all governments to actually slow carbon emissions leaves little doubt that things are unlikely to turn around.

One of the things that age gives you is a sense of history, a feeling that you’ve seen patterns repeat and that you can see where things are heading in the near future. Over and over again, we’ve seen corporations and governments ignore the people they should protect in order to line their own pockets. What has changed now is that they’re sacrificing an entire planet instead of a town or a country. I would like to believe that the younger people marching with Greta Thunberg could change that, but honestly I can’t see it happening.

Read more.

North Vancouver’s Mountain Bikers Strive to Shred Sustainably

Published: Asparagus (PDF)
Summer/Fall 2019
July 8, 2019
1040 words

On a Saturday in early March — when sunny weather drew hundreds of people to the mountains in suburban North Vancouver — I made a contribution to the trails I hike every week. I joined seven volunteers from the North Shore Mountain Bike Association (NSMBA) to spend a day rebuilding a forest trail on Mount Seymour. We shouldered shovels, pickaxes, and plastic buckets as we hiked to the snowline partway up Bridle Path, a popular local trail.

Our leader, Penny Deck, wore sturdy work pants and steel-toed boots. Once we’d unloaded our tools, she knelt down and knocked aside hard-packed snow to uncover a cedar ladder bridge. The bridge once kept riders out of rain and stream water flowing around the trail, but years of erosion had left it nearly buried under black mud. Now, hikers and riders splashed through muck in wet weather.
By the day’s end, the bridge was gone. We replaced it with an elevated trail, stone retaining walls, and drainage ditches to carry water away from the path. The day’s work represented a small section of the 226 kilometres of trails in North Vancouver, most of which are maintained by hikers, runners, and mountain bikers who volunteer with NSMBA. Their handiwork has produced some of the world’s highest-ranked mountain bike trails, all while emphasizing social responsibility and environmental sustainability.

(Read the entire article here)