Building a Greener Home

Solar energy, recycled materials, passive heating are all elements of a green house.
Solar energy, recycled materials, passive heating are all elements of a green house. Justin Horrocks / Getty Images

Your Green Home May Already Exist

Sometimes the best new house is an older house. Consider the amount of building materials and fossil fuel saved by buying an existing home rather than building a new one. A good quality older home can be renovated and retrofitted to make it more environmentally friendly, at a lower cost than if you were starting from scratch.

Higher housing density means more efficient utilities and shorter commutes, so consider that living in an urban area may be the greener choice.

Significantly, by choosing an existing home, you are not transforming wild habitat or agricultural land and contributing to further landscape fragmentation.

Small Is Big

A smaller home needs fewer building materials and requires less energy to cool and heat. When planning a new home, make sure to honestly assess your needs, both in terms of the number of rooms needed, and the size of those rooms. Tiny homes, currently very popular on television shows, are attractive and have clear environmental and energetic advantages. While most of us would have a hard time living permanently in these small spaces, they are a kind of laboratory which can provide important lessons about energy efficiency, space use, and general frugality. Your indulgence for these TV shows can provide you with great ideas applicable on a more livable scale.

Build With Sustainable Materials

Today many options exist when selecting environmentally responsible building materials.

The choices are vast, including sustainability-certified wood products (for example, those bearing the Forest Stewardship Council seal), reclaimed or salvaged wood, and insulation made from recycled materials. This page from the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery site is a good place to start.

Another advantage to carefully selecting building materials is better indoor air quality. Many types of carpeting, wall coverings, stains, and paints release volatile organic compounds and other air pollutants. Healthier alternatives exist, like low-VOC paints and hard-wax oil for floors. Given the number of hours you spend in your house every day, minimizing your exposure to these toxic components is very important.

Make it a Passive House

The passive house concept consists in a series of standards aimed at maximizing energy efficiency. The concept is based on design elements that focus on reducing the needs for heating and cooling. According to the Passive House Institute, the design elements include:

  • Extremely effective wall insulation. The outside shell of the structure must include enough insulation materials to provide a very high R-value.
  • Windows need to be made of glass that limits heat transfer, with well insulated frames. In northern climates, this can mean triple-pane windows.
  • Heat recovery through a heat exchanger built in the ventilation system further limits heating needs.
  • The house envelope (walls, windows, and roof) needs to provide a high degree of airtightness. It does not mean the house will feel stuffy, as air change needs will be handled by the ventilation and heat exchanger systems.
  • The orientation of the house and its windows allows for passive solar heating, and for the entry of natural light, limiting further electricity needs. 

Passive house designs make for a home with low energy requirements, high indoor air quality, even and steady indoor temperature, and the ability to remain comfortable during power outages. Typically, the higher construction costs of the materials involved in the building of a passive house are offset by simpler architectural elements and smaller heating, cooling, and electric systems. Furthermore, occupants incur substantially lower energy costs.

Conserve Water

Residents of the United States and Canada have the unfortunate distinction of using the highest amount of water per person, per day. Giving our increasing population, pervasive water pollution, ongoing droughts, and changes brought about by global warming, our water use habits need to change.

Building a new house offers many opportunities to save on water. Low volume bathroom and kitchen fixtures are essential, including low flow, dual flush toilets. The Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense partnership helps you select home equipment to minimize water use, including fixtures (showerheads, toilets, faucets, etc.) but also outdoors irrigation equipment.

Makes Energy Savings Easy

Right from the start, experts recommend integrating renewable energy systems into the design of a new home, whether it is solar panels, residential wind turbines, or micro-hydroelectric generation. If the initial investment is too steep to consider at the time of construction, planning during the design phase for an eventual switch over to renewable energy will save the owner considerable trouble (and money) later.

However, just as important as the source of the energy you use is how much of it you use. A well-designed home should allow you to minimize your energy needs. This can be accomplished by, for example, choosing efficient appliances, installing LED lights, and using programmable thermostats which will provide you with the cooling and heating you need only when someone’s home. And don’t forget the low-tech solutions: a simple clothesline for drying laundry will further cut down on energy needs.

Thoughtfully Landscaped

The work of building an environmentally friendly home continues outside. Landscaping should be done to minimize the house’s impact on the landscape:

  • Manage rainwater. Collect water runoff from the roof into rain barrels, to be used for watering landscaping plants.
  • Minimize impervious surfaces. Make it easier for rainwater to penetrate the soil instead of running off, which allows it to carry nutrients, sediment, and other forms of pollution into nearby waterways. For your driveway and parking areas, choose a permeable material like open-cell pavers or pervious pavers, which will allow water to percolate into the ground underneath.
  • Carefully choose landscaping plant species which require little energy-intensive maintenance like mowing. Favor the selection of native plants with low watering needs. To slow down water runoff, plant water-loving plants near gutter downspouts, if you are not already collecting roof runoff.
  • Small is best: a small yard is easier to maintain and diminishes your home’s impact on the surrounding habitat. Make sure you check with your local code officer for minimum vegetation clearances if you live in an area prone to wildfires.
  • Make your backyard wildlife friendly by providing food, water, and cover for your wilder neighbors.