Build to Save Energy

Stop Global Warming With Earth-Friendly, Energy-Efficient Design

The most exciting houses being built today are energy-efficient, sustainable, and thoroughly green. From solar-powered dwellings to homes underground, some of these new houses are entirely "off the grid," generating more power than they actually use. But even if you aren't ready for a radical new house, you can slash your utility bills through energy-efficient remodeling.

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LISI (Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation) by Vienna University of Technology in Austria, First Place winner at the 2013 Solar Decathlon
LISI (Living Inspired by Sustainable Innovation) by Vienna University of Technology in Austria, First Place winner at the 2013 Solar Decathlon. Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Think solar houses are clunky and unattractive? Check out these spiffy solar houses. They are designed and built by college students for the "Solar Decathlon" sponsored by the US Department of Energy. Yes, they're small, but they are 100% powered by renewable sources.

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Placement of the solar panels on the porch roof is unobtrustive.
The historic Spring Lake Inn in New Jersey has photovoltaic panels on the roofs. The historic Spring Lake Inn in New Jersey has photovoltaic panels. Photo © Jackie Craven
If you live in a traditional or historic home, you'll probably hesitate to add high-tech photovoltaic solar panels. But some older homes can be converted to solar without harming their architectural charm. Plus, converting to solar can be surprisingly affordable, thanks to tax rebates and other cost-cutting incentives. Check out the solar installation at the historic Spring Lake Inn in Spring Lake, New Jersey.

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Geodesic Dome
Geodesic Dome. Geodesic Domes are practical and economical. Photo © VisionsofAmerica, Joe Sohm/Getty Images

You might not find one in a traditional neighborhood, but oddly-shaped geodesic domes are among the most energy-efficient, most durable houses you can build. Made with corrugated metal or fiberglass, geodesic domes are so inexpensive that they are used for emergency housing in impovershed countries. And yet, geodesic domes have been adapted to create trendy homes for affluent families.

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Monolithic dome homes in the village of New Ngelepen on Java island, Indonesia
Monolithic dome homes in the village of New Ngelepen on Java island, Indonesia. Monolithic Domes shelter earthquake survivors in Indonesia. Photo © Dimas Ardian/Getty Images
If there is anything stronger than a Geodesic Dome, it would have to be a Monolithic Dome. Constructed of concrete and steel rebar, Monolithic Domes can survive tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, fire, and insects. What's more, the thermal mass of their concrete walls makes Monolithic Domes especially energy-efficient.

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Not all modular homes are energy-efficient, but if you choose carefully, you can purchase a factory-made home that is fine-tuned to minimize power consumption. For example, Katrina Cottages are well-insulated and come complete with Energy Star rated appliances. Plus, using pre-cut factory-made parts reduces environmental impact during the construction process.

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Small houses like this one are easier to heat and cool.
Small houses like this one are easier to heat and cool. Small houses like this one are easier to heat and cool. Photo © the homeowner

Let's face it. Do we really need all the rooms we have? More and more people are scaling down from energy-hogging McMansions and choosing compact, comfortable houses that are less expensive to heat and cool.

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Terrace of a Loreto Bay Village Home, Mexico
Private terraces and courtyards allow the residents of Loreto Bay enjoy the warm climate of Baja California Sur. Homes in Loreto Bay, Mexico are made with compressed earth blocks. Photo © Jackie Craven
Homes made from earth have provided inexpensive, durable, eco-friendly shelter since ancient times. After all, dirt is free and will provide easy, natural insulation. What does an earth house look like? The sky's the limit.

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The Magney House by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Glenn Murcutt captures the northern light.
The Magney House by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Glenn Murcutt captures the northern light. The Magney House by Glenn Murcutt captures the northern light. Photo © Anthony Browell

The most energy-efficient houses function like living things. They are designed to capitalize on the local environment and to respond to the climate. Made from simple materials found locally, these homes blend into the landscape. Ventilation systems open and close like petals and leaves, minimizing the need for air conditioning. For examples of life-like earth-friendly homes, look at the work of Pritzker Prize-winning Australian architect Glenn Murcutt.

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Woman doing demolition and construction at home
Remodel for energy savings. Photo by Jason Todd/The Image Bank Collection/Getty Images
You don't have to build a whole new house to reduce your impact on the environment. Adding insulation, repairing windows, and even hanging thermal drapes can yield surprising savings. Even changing lightbulbs and replacing showerheads will help. But, as you remodel, be mindful of indoor air quality. Consider using eco-friendly paints and cleaning agents.