A sustainable house is a home that has the least possible negative impact on our environment. Sustainability means energy efficiency, avoiding environmental toxins, and responsibly using materials and resources while having a positive physical and psychological effect on its inhabitants.
What we build matters, and so does how we make it. Building with sustainability in mind should be standard for a twenty-first-century home. In this article, we will outline 21 tips for a sustainable house design.
I am Jorge Fontan, an architect in New York and owner of Fontan Architecture, an architecture firm in NYC.
Ideas For Building a Sustainable Home
Location For A Sustainable Home Design
Choosing a location is the first step in building a sustainable home. When possible, consider the following issues.
Transportation: Building a home within walking distance of public transportation will reduce your impact on our environment. Living in New York City makes this very easy for me, but it may not always be an option for you.
Infrastructure: The availability of utilities and infrastructure will vary. If you can use existing infrastructure, you are off to a good start in reducing your environmental impact.
Sensitive or Hazardous Sites: Try to avoid hazardous areas like flood zones. If you build in a high-risk zone, ensure the home is designed to withstand the hazard. Do you know what isn’t green? Building your house twice is not sustainable. To learn more about building in high-risk areas, check out another post we wrote on Flood Proof House Design Ideas.
Size; Smaller Houses Are More Efficient
Only some people interested in sustainable house design will go down this route, but smaller houses are far more efficient. Building a smaller home will reduce your material use and energy needs. A larger space will use more materials and require more energy for heating and cooling. Think about your needs and try not to go overboard with the size of your house. Smaller houses are inherently more efficient and less wasteful.
Orientation of Your House for Natural Light and Heat
Orientation is important for sustainable homes. If you live in a cold climate in the Northern Hemisphere, you can take advantage of the sun by having more windows facing south. If you build a long wall with windows facing south, you maximize direct sunlight in the winter. The sun will help heat your home and bring in natural light. You want to avoid too many windows facing west, which will give lots of glare and provide heat in the summer. If you have windows facing west, you can plant a large tree to block some uncomfortable sunlight.
You can plant a deciduous tree in front of your south-facing windows for more energy saving. Deciduous means the tree loses its leaves in winter. The tree will block sunlight in the summer but lose its leaves and allow the sunlight in during the winter. This cycle will help reduce your heating usage. Another trick is sun shades or a roof overhang. The sun is higher in the summer than in the winter so a roof overhang can block the sun in the summer. In the winter, the sun will be at a lower angle and not blocked by the overhang. These passive design features can make a big difference in sustainability at low costs.
Layout Affects Energy Use in a Home
Did you know that igloos are very energy-efficient house designs? An igloo is built in a cold climate with a shape that minimizes surface area. The reduced surface area reduces interior heat loss.
Building a very wide and spread out house will have more heat loss and less efficiency than a compact house. Building taller can be more efficient than building wider in some cases. A cube or a sphere are very efficient shapes. There will always be trade-offs in sustainable house design. However, you don’t have to make your home resemble an igloo (unless you want to)! The idea is that a compact design is better than a spread-out one. A compact two-story house will tend to be more efficient than a one-story spread-out house. For example, if you want to build a 2,000-square-foot house, making two stories with 1,000 sq ft per story will most likely be more efficient than building one story of 2,000 sq ft.
Use Local Materials for a Sustainable House
Using local materials in your new sustainable house will reduce the need for shipping. It’s more green to buy locally milled wood than to order it from across the country. However, this is tough because you may have fewer options based on your location. The availability of materials will vary depending on where you build your house.
If there is a local stone quarry, why not use their stone for your patio? See what locally-made materials and products you have available. I recommend getting local kitchen cabinets rather than importing European designer cabinets if you live in Pennsylvania. It is significantly greener, and you can find better quality products from local small businesses.
Recycled Materials For Sustainable House Construction
Recycling is very important, but it will have to be balanced with availability. Depending on where you are, the easily available materials will vary. All sorts of materials are recycled, reclaimed, and reused. Here is a list of some materials made of recycled products that you may choose when building your sustainable house:
- Countertops made from Recycled Glass
- Steel made from recycled metals.
- Reclaimed Wood. These woods can be beautiful! When contractors demolish or renovate a building, they can often reuse the old wood products they salvage for other projects. There are lumber yards that specialize in purchasing and selling reclaimed wood.
- Reclaimed Bricks and other masonry can be a good option for your home. Bricks, stones, and pavers can also be recycled and reused.
- Reuse soils from the excavation for new landscaping.
- Roof shingles can have recycled content.
- Drywall materials that were recycled.
Many products in your new home could come from recycled materials.
You can also reduce job site waste by ensuring the contractor recycles the waste materials during construction.
Insulation Is Essential for Sustainable Homes
Insulation is a big one. First things first: vocabulary. R-value is a term we use to rate the insulation value of a material. R-value = Resistance. The higher the R-value, the more insulation. You want to ensure your home has a sufficient R-value for your climate. There are lots of different insulation types and techniques. When we design a house, we review all the options with our clients. I find it helpful to outline the importance of insulation and the options available.
If your area has energy codes, you need to meet at least the minimum standards for insulation. At our firm, we typically surpass the code insulation standards when building a green or sustainable home. Good insulation is one of the most important energy-efficient house ideas to implement. Heating and air conditioning are the largest percentage of energy use on your energy bill. The better insulation you have, the less energy you will use.
Air Sealing for Energy Efficient Home Design
Air sealing, also known as draft stopping, goes along with insulation. Air sealing is one of the lesser-known energy-efficient home design ideas and one that people often forget about. Proper sealing prevents air from leaking through your house. You want to make sure your house isn’t leaking conditioned air. What is the point of all that insulation if cold air blows through cracks and crevices in your walls?
There must be sealing at all the openings and penetrations through your roofs and walls. Air sealing is necessary around windows, doors, vents, electrical conduits, and other holes or penetrations. These all need sufficient sealing through caulking or other methods. We often recommend closed-cell spray foam insulation. It insulates and expands to seal openings, small holes, and cracks in the construction. Air sealing is one aspect that relies heavily on quality construction. Using good construction contractors is essential for building sustainable homes.
You can test a house’s air sealing with a blower door test. This air pressure test determines if your home is leaking air and at what rate.
See the photo below of a blower door test on a house we built.
Window and Door Selection For Energy Reduction
You have to use efficient windows and doors. They need to have proper weather stripping to keep out the elements. They need to close tight to seal the opening. The type of glass and material insulation value is also essential. Windows and doors are expensive, but you want to make sure they will not cost you more in the long run through inefficiency. Windows and doors are also a weak point for air leakage. Make sure you have proper air sealing around these areas. You don’t want to buy good windows and install them with poor quality.
Sustainable House Materials
We want to use materials that avoid Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs. Examples include using low-VOC paint or glue in constructing your new home.
Use materials that can be recycled later or have already been recycled. Using local materials is a good start to sustainability. There are many sustainable materials in nature, such as wood, that are renewable and certified. You should also make sure that the materials you choose are durable! It is not sustainable to replace materials every few years.
Energy Star Appliances & Equipment
Using energy-efficient appliances and equipment is the easiest of these energy-efficient home ideas to achieve. As a minimum requirement, use Energy Star-rated appliances.
Your kitchen appliances can use a lot of energy, so look out for those Energy Star labels.
LED Lighting For Energy Efficient Home Design
LED lights are becoming increasingly common as an energy-efficient home design feature. In our projects, they are standard. All of our clients want LED lights. They will reduce your energy cost by using less power. You will not need to change the bulbs for many years, as they are long-lasting. They might be a little more costly upfront, but think of the savings on electricity and less frequent changing of the bulbs! Energy-efficient lighting is an easy addition to a sustainable house.
By the way, LED stands for Light Emitting Diode: these are the best option for energy-efficient lighting and energy-efficient house designs.
Water Conserving Plumbing Fixtures
Toilets and other plumbing fixtures are different from what they used to be. They make dual flush toilets where you can choose a lower or higher flush rate. All your plumbing fixtures can have reduced or Low-flow water usage, including faucets and shower heads. These fixtures are becoming very popular. You will have no trouble finding plumbing fixtures that use water at lower flow rates. There is no need to be wasteful.
Efficient HVAC Design for a Sustainable House
HVAC stands for Heating, Ventilation & Air Conditioning.
Your Heat and AC will typically be your home’s largest energy consumption source. You will want to use an efficient and well-designed system. HVAC is a huge portion of your energy consumption; therefore, product and system selection is critical for energy-efficient home design. Here are a few options that can help:
Smart Thermostat: One of the easiest Sustainable Home tips to implement is using smart thermostats. A smart thermostat can reduce your energy consumption by learning your patterns and optimizing around your comfort level.
Zones: I am a big fan of zones. Did you ever live with someone who likes it hot when you want it cooler? Breaking the house into zones allows you to set independent temperatures by room. Also, you do not need to run the HVAC in rooms that are not often used, like the basement or laundry room.
Efficient Equipment: However you design the system, make sure the equipment is energy efficient and properly installed.
Mini-split units: Mini-split heating and air conditioning units are incredibly popular right now because of their efficiency and ability to control a home in separate zones. These systems have a condenser outside the house and at least 1 unit in each room inside the house.
Energy Efficient Mini SplitCheck out another post we have explaining What Ductless Mini Splits are.
Install an ERV or Energy Recovery Ventilator. If you have exhaust fans and ducts in your home, for example, in your bathroom, the ERV can use the heat from the exhaust to preheat or precool the air being brought into your home. Preheat the air in the winter or precool the air in the summer with an ERV to reduce energy usage on your HVAC. Don’t worry: it doesn’t mix the exhaust with the new air! It just uses the heat from the exhaust.
Rain Water Collection
Why let all that rainwater go to waste? Install roof gutters and downspouts that direct the water to a tank for reuse. This water can flush your toilets or water the garden. Rainwater (depending on your area) can even be used for drinking if you filter and purify it. The most typical use of rainwater collection is for gardening or irrigation.
There are many types of systems for rainwater reuse. You can use a concrete underground detention tank to store the water with a pump to circulate the water. Sustainable homes need a smart manner of dealing with water.
Renewable Energy for Sustainable Homes
Renewable energy is a hot topic these days for sustainability. The power source is essential when designing a sustainable house. Here are a couple of options.
- Photovoltaic Panels: Install Photovoltaic or Solar Panels to generate energy from the Sun. These store power in batteries so you can also have electricity at night. Large trees blocking the Sun may cause a problem for solar panels. The orientation of the house is important. Make sure a professional determines if your location makes sense. Surplus energy can be sold back to your local energy source in certain areas.
- Windmills: Consider installing a small windmill if appropriate. See if your local energy source has wind power or other renewables available.
- Geothermal Heat: Although the ground can freeze in the winter, the soil deep below is warm. Use the Earth’s heat to heat your home!
Solar Hot Water or Tankless Hot Water
Solar hot water is a system for heating water using the Sun. It can be installed on your roof and can heat your water. There are two basic types of solar water heating. An active system uses pumps, and a passive system does not. These systems will reduce energy expenses and are a great feature for energy-efficient house designs.
If you opt out of solar hot water, another option is to use tankless water heaters. I will admit that people’s opinions on these vary. Not everyone is happy with this type of water heater.
Intelligent Planting for a Sustainable House
Sometimes people plant vegetation that does not belong in their climate or land type, requiring lots of water and maintenance. Don’t do that! Green living requires planting the right kinds of plants in the right locations. Sustainable homes need sustainable landscapes and planting. You want to minimize maintenance and use of water.
Smart Planting: Use plant species that are native to your area or that are known to thrive in your climate. Make sure these plants can survive with minimal maintenance and watering.
Vegetable Garden: Try planting a vegetable garden. Growing your own organic food is very sustainable and can be a fun hobby. Make sure to plant fruits and vegetables that will thrive in your location. Use the rainwater you collect from your roof drainage to water your garden.
Build To Last For Sustainable Homes
Build To Last! I can not emphasize this enough. If you want to build a sustainable house, you need to build it to last. Durability is essential for sustainable homes. If your house constantly needs repairs, that is not sustainable. If your roof needs to be redone every 6 years, that is not sustainable. Build your home to last! The craftsmanship should be such that it will survive time and hardship. Build with materials that require little maintenance. Build with intelligence. If you are in an area prone to hurricanes and you build a deck with recycled wood, it is not sustainable if the deck gets torn down in a hurricane. I am not saying not to build the deck, but build it with proper hurricane ties and strapping and use wood that can handle the elements. We rebuilt several houses in NY after Sandy, but we built concrete houses so that they could withstand the next one. Build a home suitable to your climate and environmental needs and build it well.
Take care of your home when you are living in it and build your house so it takes care of you. A sustainable house design cannot be achieved without thinking of construction quality and techniques for a long-lasting home. Using durable materials and construction techniques is essential.
Build Something You Love
Building something you love is the most sustainable thing one can do in construction. Build a home that you will love. Build a home that your children will love. When people love their homes, they care for them and don’t change them. Do not build a new home to renovate your kitchen in five years. Build a house with which you are happy. Build a home of which you are proud.
It’s your home! Build a house that makes you happy.
Remember, build a home that has as small an impact on our planet as possible. Build a sustainable house by starting with the right sustainable house design plan. Sustainable homes benefit our environment and their owners.
Passive House Design
It would help if you also considered looking into Passive House Design for sustainability and energy efficiency. The diagram below illustrates some basic concepts of Passive House. If you want to learn more, you can see another post we wrote explaining the Five Key Principles of Passive House Design.
As an architect, I study home design and sustainability, but these are extensive topics. These are just a few options for a sustainable home; not all will work for everyone.
Thank You for reading our blog post about Sustainable Home Design Ideas
I hope this article helps you understand how to build a sustainable home. Please get in touch with us at Fontan Architecture directly to speak with an architect about a specific project.
This post was written by Jorge Fontan AIA a Registered Architect and owner of New York City architecture firm Fontan Architecture. Jorge Fontan has earned 3 degrees in the study of architecture including two degrees from the City University of New York and a Masters Degree in Advanced Architectural Design from Columbia University. Jorge has a background in construction and has been practicing architecture for 20 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.