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Building Matters

Interview With Lloyd Alter

Our "carbon beat" contributing editor gives us his backstory and big-picture perspective

Lloyd Alter. Illustration by Joe Ciardiello.

Lloyd Alter has been an architect, builder, developer, inventor, professor, public speaker, and author. He has a bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Toronto, where he received the Alpha Rho Chi Medal. He was admitted to the Ontario Association of Architects in 1979 and is an adjunct professor of sustainable design at Toronto Metropolitan University. A former builder of prefab housing and a tiny-house pioneer, Alter is a passionate advocate of “radical sufficiency”—the belief that we use too much space, too much land, too much food, too much fuel, and too much money, and that the key to sustainability is simply to use less.

Alter has worked as an architect, developer, and builder in Canada and has lectured on prefab housing at conferences in Austin, Texas; Los Angeles; and San Francisco. He has served as chairman of the Toronto Society of Architects, vice president of the Ontario Association of Architects, and president of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario. Recognitions for Alter’s work include the 2014 USGBC Leadership Award for promotion of green building, the 2015 Mary Millard Award for contribution to architectural preservation, an Ontario Renews Award, and two Toronto Historical Board commendations for architecture and development work.

Since 2005 Alter has been writing for Treehugger about architecture, design, transportation, and planning, and he has contributed to a number of publications including Architectural Record, Azure, Corporate Knights, Greensource, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, and Planet Green. He is the author of Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle and the forthcoming The Story of Upfront Carbon (New Society Publishers, 2021 and 2024). He has been a regular speaker or moderator at international green building conferences in Boston, Munich, New York, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver, and Vienna.

AF: What are some sustainability issues the home-building industry is getting right, and what are some of the things it’s getting wrong?

LA: One of the things that we’re getting right is that people even care about sustainability. I remember years ago all the top architects—like Frank Gehry, for instance—were saying it’s unimportant. Of course, now everybody at least has to pay lip service to it even if they’re not seriously doing it.

I don’t think the building industry has changed all that much. The building industry mostly does what the building code tells it to do. When I look at production housing and all the renovations and custom houses that are being built, the industry still mostly doesn’t care at all. I think that is a failure. We’ve seen certain jurisdictions crank up the code, like British Columbia, but everywhere else it’s the same old stuff. I don’t know if there have been drastic changes in the housing industry; it’s all incremental. And our problem is that we can’t do incremental anymore. We have to change what we’re doing immediately.

I was just reading a fascinating article that says what we have to do right now is put absolute limits on the size of houses. Everybody’s building 4000-sq.-ft. houses. We have to limit everything to 2000 sq. ft. We have to make everything Passive House, right now. We have to ban cars, right now. And all of that is not going to happen. People just aren’t going to accept that. And that’s our biggest problem right now because what we have to do to really beat this problem is a lot more drastic than what we’re doing.

There’s that famous aphorism architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe liked to use: Less is more. I wonder how that might relate to your principle of radical sufficiency. Are we going about things the wrong way?

The reason I’m so on to this whole issue of sufficiency and basically using less stuff is embodied carbon—which is in huge part the upfront carbon emissions that come from making things. When we’re pouring concrete, we’re putting out a big burp of carbon. When we’re making cross-­laminated timber, we’re putting out a big burp of carbon from hauling all the trees out of the forest, gluing them together, and kiln-drying the wood by burning wood chips. That’s still carbon dioxide going out. Everything we’re doing, even if we’re building the most marvelous wood building, still has upfront carbon emissions. When you start looking at that, the answer simply becomes we have to use less stuff.

We must look at what is the sufficient way to do everything. For instance, I live in half the space that I did 10 years ago, because nine years ago, I did a renovation of my house where I basically duplexed it. I now live on the lower level, and it’s great. We have to do more of that. We have to be subdividing houses that are too big, or getting more people into them, and we have to make them closer together. And we have to travel between them with bicycles and e-bikes and cargo bikes and not cars, which is why you hear this worldwide push for the so-called “15-minute city” that everybody’s getting so upset about. But really, it’s just that we should all live close to stores and schools so we don’t have to drive. And that, again, is how I’m living, because I happen to live in a so-called “streetcar suburb” in Toronto that was built in 1913, when the way everybody got around was in streetcars, and we still have most of them.

Are there takeaways from your first book, Living the 1.5 Degree Lifestyle, that speak directly to people involved in the home-building industry?

Yes, there are, because, again, I found out that the single biggest impact on my carbon footprint wasn’t all the little things I did, but just the fact that I was lucky enough to have bought my house in a streetcar suburb. I was lucky enough that my wife didn’t want to sell the house, so instead of moving into an apartment, I converted it into two apartments. And it was actually very easy—with respect to house design and urban planning—to radically cut my carbon footprint.

But my book that’s coming out next spring—I’m just finishing the draft—is called The Story of Upfront Carbon. And it’s all about how we must radically reduce our upfront carbon emissions. And it will speak directly to the issue of how we should design homes—that is, with low-carbon materials like wood and cellulose and wood-fiber insulation and maybe not having concrete foundations at all. The book also addresses how we should get around by designing our communities so that we can use bikes.

I think the real revolution is electric cargo bikes. A study found that 75% of the population of England would be within good distance of proper stores, education, and everything else people need if they had access to a cargo bike. And I suspect it’s pretty much the same in North America when I look at the suburbs here. You could travel by e-bike as easily as you could by car, and there’s room in the roads to put in proper e-bike infrastructure, like separated bike lanes and everything we need to make it comfortable and safe.

We have to change the way that we live. And I know that’s not going to be comfortable. What did Sebastian Gorka say to Americans about the Green New Deal? “They want to take your pickup truck. They want to rebuild your home.” And it’s true—we do. We have to, because if we don’t, we’re going to be in serious trouble.

How does putting the onus of it on individuals make sense as opposed to officials in power taking any real action to curb corporate greed? If every individual on earth fell into line, streamlining their individual carbon footprint, it would still pale in comparison with industrial output.

I don’t agree for two reasons. Look at what happened during the first year of the pandemic—airlines were shut down, people weren’t buying gas and couldn’t drive anywhere. You saw what happened: Half a dozen fracking companies went bankrupt, the airlines and all kinds of other companies had to be rescued. We stopped buying what they were selling. They’re not going to fly empty planes. They’re not going to make gas nobody’s buying. This is a consumption-driven problem, not a production-­driven problem.

Admittedly, corporations help by advertising and getting us interested in buying massive SUVs and pickup trucks and promoting big houses to consume more gas. Absolutely, the consumer mindset and the marketing hype have inculcated us with the desire for bigger and more. But ultimately, it’s us putting our money down to buy what they’re selling that is causing the bulk of the problem.

So no, I don’t buy that it’s all the fault of big corporations. They’re making things that we buy. It’s all marketing, and they convinced us that this is what we want. There are nudges the government can do to push industry and push individuals in the right direction. Government can make a difference.

How would you define individual climate action, and what can people in the home-building industry do to be more climate conscious in their professions?

I think the first thing to do is to build less. Look at all the books from Sarah Susanka and everybody else about efficient planning and using less stuff to build. I also think builders have to build smaller, which I know is hard. They must build simpler. This is something I recently wrote about in this magazine (Building Matters, FHB #316). Every time people add a gable or a bump, it just adds complexity, material, and opportunities to leak.

Remember how we used to build in New England with those simple boxes? It’s very nice looking at the old houses of Nantucket and elsewhere where our very frugal ancestors knew that every detail cost money, and so they didn’t add superfluous ones. They all needed to build boxy two-story buildings because heat rises, they had to shovel the coal themselves, and nobody wanted to have a place that was all that big or difficult to heat because it was real work to do it. Imagine if we were doing the physical work ourselves in that way instead of relying on a fossil fuel. We need to start thinking of our designs in those terms.

What is of greater urgency—how we build new houses today, or how we retrofit existing houses to reduce their carbon footprint?

That’s a very difficult question. We used to say the real issue was saving energy. Now our problem is carbon. For a while I thought, “Well, if you’re living in Seattle (or another part of the country that gets green, clean energy), do you have to work so hard and spend so much money reducing energy consumption in houses?” And that led me to the thinking that maybe electrification and “heat-pumpification” with a bit of insulation is a better approach than trying to retrofit everything to such a high degree because of all the upfront carbon that goes into the retrofit.

A lot of retrofits find it much easier to use foam sprays, and they’re a huge problem—even the reformulated ones—because they’re still made with blowing agents with huge upfront emissions. I worry where the balance is. Windows take forever to pay themselves back in terms of carbon, and yet the first thing everybody does is change all the windows because people really just want to get rid of the wood windows and have less maintenance.

I do believe everything we build new should absolutely be to Passive House standards, and if not, the Pretty Good House gets close to that. I do believe that we have to do everything we can to promote multi­family housing for families. I’ve been in Austria, and I’ve been in Germany, where everybody lives this way, and nobody sits there and says, “Oh, I have to have a single-­family house with a two-car garage.” They’re extremely rare, and it works for everybody there quite well.

In your role as an educator, what have you observed about your students and institutions of higher learning? Are you encouraged, alarmed, or both?

I’m horribly alarmed. The university that I teach at has one sustainable design course—mine—which is optional for third- and fourth-year students. They’re going through three years of design training before anyone even starts talking to them about sustainability or carbon. Schools are 10 years behind the times on all of this.

I remember 10 years ago they were behind the times about energy efficiency, and talking about design sustainability wasn’t even on the radar. Now sustainability is on the radar, and upfront carbon emissions are not on the radar. I’m trying to change what I teach to adapt, but no, I think the education system is completely depressing.

Tell us about what you’ve been working on. You mentioned your forthcoming book, The Story of Upfront Carbon.

The book looks at the fact that we never really understood the importance of upfront carbon. We were so focused on energy conservation, we never considered how much carbon is released while making things. We only recently started factoring that in, which is why more and more people have been getting interested in wood construction. But people are also making dubious and extreme claims about how good wood is. No matter what material we build with, we still have to use as little of it as possible. All of this comes from the viewpoint of radical sufficiency.

I am intrigued by your new Substack serial, The New Manual of the Dwelling, which is drawn from Le Corbusier’s “The Manual of the Dwelling.” Can you share the germination of that project?

The last time there was a health crisis like COVID-19, it started the modern movement, which is what got Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and all the modern architects throwing out overstuffed furniture and developing lightweight, movable furniture with nowhere for germs to hide. It was all a response to tuberculosis. They wanted houses to be like sanitariums. They wanted kitchens and bathrooms to be like hospitals.

Now we’ve had a pandemic, and suddenly people finally care about healthy buildings. It’s terrible that it took a pandemic to do it, but like people have been saying since the 1920s, you need fresh air, you need sunlight, you shouldn’t fill your house up with things you aren’t able to wash and disinfect, you’ve got to be able to air things out, and so forth.

After all, Le Corbusier put a sink in the hall of a house so people would wash their hands upon entering the house. Everybody thought, “Oh, it’s mystical! It’s all about allusions to Jesus washing Peter’s feet!” or this, that, or the other theory. No, it was simple and straightforward: People should wash their hands when they come in the door, so put a sink in the hall.

I have a sink in the hall. Since I designed my first house, I’ve had a sink in the hall because it has to be there to be used. With The New Manual of the Dwelling, the point of these serial essays on home design after COVID-19 is how to survive. COVID-19 isn’t the last thing we’re going to be dealing with, and we should be designing our houses and our buildings accordingly.

Look at the way people are designing. We don’t just need lots of insulation because we want a Passive House to save energy and carbon. We also need it for resilience so that when the power goes out, the house doesn’t cool down overnight. A Passive House will stay warm for a week. This is why we must start thinking about all of these things on many different levels. It’s not just energy costs or carbon; we have to think about how our houses keep us alive.

Do you have any closing thoughts?

I think there are three words that have to be applied to almost everything in our design and daily life: Just use less. Everything has an upfront carbon cost to making it, a cost to operating it, and a cost to maintaining it. The key to getting through everything in this era is what I call radical sufficiency, but that can be simplified into the three words: Just use less.


Aaron Fagan is senior editor for Gear Technology and Power Transmission Engineering magazines.


  1. nickdefabrizio | | #1

    Alter is a fine thinker and his message is important. The adage he ended the interview with: "just use less" is right on, and hard to argue with from an environmental point of view.

    I worry though that this adage highlights the difficult challenge we face as a growth oriented capitalist economy: if we use less "stuff" many of the people who extract, manufacturer, sell and install this "stuff "will make less money. Targeted government policies can help transition some of these people into a new economy, but there will still be many who will find themselves displaced and there will be inevitable economic (and thus, political), upheaval. As we have seen from the great loss of US manufacturing jobs to offshore manufacturers over the last 40 years, this type of great transformation of the economy leaves glaring winners and losers and, if not done right, can weaken our social fabric dramatically.

  2. rockies63 | | #2

    It's ironic that in an era where people have to wake up to the fact that they need to use less of everything, Canada has just announced that it "needs" 3.5 million new homes to be built to keep up with demand. Then you have to factor in all the infrastructure needed for those houses (the land, the oil, natural gas and electricity they will need, etc) and it seems we're moving in exactly the wrong direction.

    I would suggest that In addition to Sarah Susanka's series of books I would also look at some of the building design and energy efficiency guidelines discussed on Corbet Lunsford's Youtube channel Home Performance as well as on Matt Risinger's Youtube channel.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #3


      Canada currently has a housing shortage, and is bringing in almost a half million immigrants a year. Unless we decide not to do that, or everyone starts sharing their accommodation, I don't see how else you provide housing for a growing population except by building it?

      I agree entirely with the arguments Lloyd makes, but I don't think he is advocating leaving people with no housing - rather making sure that we carefully consider if something needs building, and if it does what gets built is appropriate.

  3. rockies63 | | #4

    My concern with the plan is that the Government's solution seems to favor going out onto raw land and building the houses there, along with all the needed infrastructure. This just leads to ever bigger cities and vast new areas to supply with raw materials (not just for building the community but also all the products needed to maintain it).
    What about rebuilding areas that already exist inside cities? Does everyone need a four bedroom/3 bath house? Can that rotting old 3 story walkup apartment building be replaced with a 12 story apartment building? Why does new housing always seem to default to a single, detached home on a suburban lot?
    I think the housing does need to be built, and the population is going to continue to grow, but building endless suburbs doesn't really help solve the problems of climate change or energy self-sufficiency.

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #5


      In the early 80s the federal government basically abdicated responsibility for housing and left it to the provinces. So when we talk about " the Government's solution" we are really referring to the various solutions proposed by the ten provinces and three territories. Depending largely on where they fall on the political spectrum, some do suggest housing developments much as you describe, but others are taking a more reasoned approach.

      How the new housing gets done is exactly where I think Loyd's insights are valuable, but I don't think you can question the necessity of creating more housing units. Right now the scarcity is driving inequality. Those with enough means are fine, and the rest scramble for the scraps. If that's going to be a byproduct of trying to reduce our carbon emissions, and green building policy is going penalize the poor, I'm not sure it's going in the right direction.

    2. Tim_O | | #6

      I see a lot of cities blocking the building of the necessary infrastructure to support more residents. The look of high rise buildings "ruins the city" or the building of duplexes and quads isn't allowed. People acknowledge that we need them, but no one wants one next door I guess. My local city has a green belt, most of the surrounding townships have 5-10acre minimums, furthering the spread. And then there are building restrictions. One of the local townships has a 2 acre minimum, 2,000 sqft minimum, and 50% of the facade must be brick.

      So to answer your questions:
      "Can that rotting old 3 story walkup apartment building be replaced with a 12 story apartment building?" - No, in almost all cases it cannot due to height restrictions.

      "Why does new housing always seem to default to a single, detached home on a suburban lot?" - Zoning ordinances in almost every town/township dictate that

      "What about rebuilding areas that already exist inside cities?" - Cost. It's typically quite a bit more expensive, usually due to all sorts of restrictions. Whether it's a historic neighborhood, or all sorts of city codes.

      "Does everyone need a four bedroom/3 bath house?" - Nope. This one I agree, 100% on the buyer. If you have 2+ kids, then, yeah, probably you want 4bed/3bath or so.

      What a lot of the above comes down to is local municipalities (at least in the US, not sure how things run in the land above) and preferences of the locals. In America, it always seems like it's about "preserving value." Because homes are more viewed as assets and not as... homes.

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #7


        Our province has made a list of cities it feels are blocking densification, and told them if they don't make changes, the province will override their restrictive zoning. Most of the new house builds will be within existing communities.

        1. Tim_O | | #8

          That's good to hear. I have a hard time imagining that happening here in the states. Thankfully, my local city does seem to be changing from a "preservation" mindset.

          1. Expert Member
            MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #9


            Well the flip side is Ontario where the premier used the housing crisis as an excuse to remove large areas of land from the greenbelt for new subdivisions, and appears to have told his developer buddies beforehand, who bought it up and stand to make billions. Humans seem to me to be at best a mixed species.

      2. Andrew_C | | #11

        I've banged on this drum before. One of the major reasons for the zoning favoring large buildings is property taxes. If property taxes are a major source of funds, then you're going to favor large, expensive properties to maximize your funding. The fact that it prices a lot of people out of the market is just a bonus that exclude those that fortune hasn't favored yet. IMO property taxes are a huge driver of sprawl and all the inefficiencies and isolation that come with it. Changing zoning isn't going to happen if it's allowed to be controlled at the local level and property taxes provide a lot of the funding.

        1. AC200 | | #13

          I think zoning is more driven by local politicians bowing to the wishes of their constituents NIBYism. Gross tax receipts can be increases by allowing mutli units and lot severance so that the aggregate taxes are more than for a single unit even a new larger one.

  4. rockies63 | | #10

    Malcolm, what I find the most interesting about the Ontario Greenbelt story is a news report I read that stated that the land wasn't even needed for development.

    The other disappointing thing about all these needed houses is that people only seem to want to build them outside of Toronto or Vancouver.

    As an aside about humans being a mixed species, I always think of a quote from George Carlin: When you think about how stupid the average person is on this planet, how do you feel about the fact that half the population is even stupider than that? LOL

    1. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #12


      Yeah, as Tim said, it's depressing there are so many obstacles to increasing density in cities. All the ones with the best quality of urban life - Athens, Montreal, etc. have high densities. You wonder what people are trying to preserve in the rest?

      I've got no useful answers, so I stick to giving advice on how to built walls and roofs and stuff like that.

    2. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #14


      Good news. Premier Doug Ford climbed down today and reversed his greenbelt landswaps.

      1. AC200 | | #15

        About time, I was thinking it was going to take a criminal prosecution.

        1. Expert Member
          MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #16


          Sounds like the RCMP are still investigating - and the developers who benefited may sue now their sweetheart deal has fallen through.

          1. AC200 | | #17


            I would welcome any attempt by Developers to sue. Let's discuss how you knew to buy those properties just before they were opened up and what were in those envelopes you handed the Housing Minister's Chief of Staff? BTW, what did you talk about at that Vegas massage?

            They should put their heads down, take their losses and move on.

          2. Expert Member
            MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #18


            I think the reporters were just goading Ford with the possibility of a lawsuit. If he is a clean as he professes to be, he should have no worries.

  5. shtrum2 | | #19

    Agreed with Lloyd about architecture not changing much; if you’re concerned about sustainability or energy efficiency, architecture has always followed the money. Which is unfortunate for a profession that prides itself on independent thinking and creativity. As far as increased density, I live in an urban community with loads of duplexes . . . no problem. For communities with codes against them, it’s ludicrous and short-sighted.

    And I miss the curmudgeonly arguments on Treehugger . . . Lloyd gives no ground or quarter. We need more of this.

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