A sustainable house is a home that has the least possible negative impact on our environment. This means energy efficiency, avoiding environmental toxins, and using materials and resources in a responsible manner while having a positive physical and psychological impact on its inhabitants.
What we build matters, and so does how we build 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. Building sustainable homes not only saves you money in the long run, but also reduces your impact on the environment. Now, let’s go over some ideas on how to build a sustainable house!
21 Ideas For Building a Sustainable Home:
- Local Materials
- Recycled Materials
- Air Sealing
- Windows & Doors Selection
- Sustainable Materials
- Energy Star Appliances
- LED Lighting
- Water Conserving Fixtures
- Efficient HVAC
- Recycle Your Energy
- Rain Water Collection
- Renewable Energy
- Solar Hot Water
- Intelligent Planting
- Build To Last
- Build Something You Love
Location For A Sustainable Home Design
Choosing a location is the first step in building a sustainable house. When possible, consider the following issues.
Transportation: Building a home within walking distance of public transportation is going to 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 impact on the environment.
Sensitive or Hazardous Sites: Try to avoid hazardous areas like flood zones. If you build in a hazardous site, make sure the home is designed to withstand the hazard. You know what isn’t green? Building your house twice. 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
Not everyone interested in sustainable house design is going to go down this route, but smaller houses are far more efficient. Building a smaller house is going to reduce your material use and energy needs. A larger house will obviously 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. This will help heat your home, as well as bring in natural light. You do not want too many windows facing west, as this will give lots of glare and provide heat in the summer. If you do have windows facing west, you can plant a large tree to block some of that 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 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 be blocked by the overhang. These types of 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 house that is very wide and spread out is going to have more heat loss and less efficiency than a house that is compact. Building taller can be more efficient than building wider. 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 actually make your home resemble an igloo (unless you want to)! The idea here 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, building two stories with 1,000 sq ft per story is most likely going to 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 wood that is locally milled than to order it from across the country. This is a tough one, though, because you may not have as many options based on your location. The availability of materials will vary depending on where you choose to 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. If you live in Pennsylvania, I recommend getting local kitchen cabinets rather than importing designer European cabinets. It is significantly greener, and you might even find better quality products from local small businesses.
Recycled Materials For Sustainable House Construction
Recycling is very important. This will have to be balanced with availability. Depending where you are, the materials that are easily available will vary. There are all sorts of materials that 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. This can be beautiful! When a contractor demolishes a building or does a renovation, 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. Bricks, stones, and pavers can also be reclaimed and reused.
- Reuse soils from the excavation for new landscaping.
- Roof shingles can have recycled content.
- Plastic Products with recycled content.
- Drywall materials that were recycled.
Just about any product in your new home could come from recycled materials.
You can also reduce job site waste by making sure the contractor recycles the waste materials during construction.
Insulation Is Essential for Sustainable Homes
Insulation is a big one. Check out another article we wrote on spray insulation for new homes. 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 make sure that 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 make sure to review all the options with our clients. I find it is helpful to outline the importance of insulation and the different options available.
The most important thing is to insulate your home to keep the hot air out during the summer and keep the warm air in during the winter. New Home Insulation is really important. If your area has energy codes, you need to make sure 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 is the largest percentage of energy use and 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 with insulation. This is one of the lesser known energy efficient home design ideas, and one that people often forget about. Air 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 is blowing through cracks and crevices in your walls?
There needs to be sealing at all the openings and penetrations through your roofs and walls. This includes windows, doors, vents, electrical conduit, and any other holes and penetrations. These all need sufficient sealing through caulking or other methods. We often recommend closed cell spray foam insulation. It not only insulates but also expands to seal up openings, small holes, and cracks in the construction. This 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 is an air pressure test that determines if your house is leaking air and at what rate.
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 so as to seal the opening. The type of glass and material insulation value are also very important. Windows and doors are expensive, but you want to make sure they are not going to 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.
Double pane windows are a minimum standard as far as I am concerned, but triple pane is better.
Sustainable House Materials
We want to use materials that avoid Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs. Examples include using low VOC paint or glues in the construction of 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 lots of sustainable materials in nature, for example 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. I am writing this article on an Energy Star rated computer monitor. Did you know you can get an Energy Star TV? Your kitchen appliances can use a good amount of energy, so look out for those Energy Star labels. Your heating, AC units, and water heaters should all be Energy Star rated.
LED Lighting For Energy Efficient Home Design
LED lights are becoming more and more common as an energy efficient home design feature. In our projects they are standard. All of our clients want LED lights. They are going to reduce your energy cost (they use less power) and you will not need to change the bulbs for many years. 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 not the same as they used to be. They make dual flush toilets where you can choose a lower or higher flush rate as needed. 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 the largest source of energy consumption in your home. You will want to use an efficient and well-designed system. HVAC is a huge portion of your energy consumption and, therefore, product and system selection is critical for energy efficient home design. Here are a few options that can help:
Smart Thermostat: One of 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? If you break the house into zones, you can 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. To learn more about ductless mini splits and their energy saving advantages, look at the Department Of Energy mini splits energy saving information.
Check out another post we have explaining What Ductless Mini Splits are.
Recycle Your Energy With An ERV
Did you know you can recycle your energy?
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 actually mix the exhaust air with the new air! It just uses the heat from the exhaust.
Rain Water Collection
Why let all that rain water go to waste? Install roof gutters and downspouts that direct the water to a tank for reuse. This water can be used to flush your toilets or water the garden. Rain water (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 / irrigation. 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. Power source is very important when designing a sustainable house. Here are a couple options.
- Photovoltaic Panels: Install Photovoltaic or Solar Panels to generate energy from the Sun. These store power in batteries so you can have electricity at night as well. Large trees blocking the sun may cause a problem for solar panels. The orientation of the house is also important. Make sure a professional determines if your location makes sense. In certain areas surplus energy can be sold back to your local energy source.
- 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 be frozen 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. Active system uses pumps, and passive system does not. This will reduce your energy expense and is a great feature for energy efficient house designs.
If you opt out of solar hot water, another option is to use tankless water heaters or instant hot water. These use less energy and they heat up instantly, so you do not need to let the water run until it gets hot when you get in the shower.
Intelligent Planting for a Sustainable House
This is my biggest pet peeve. People plant vegetation that does not belong in their climate or land type, which then require lots of water and maintenance. Don’t do that! Green living requires planting the right types 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 rain water 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. 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
The most sustainable thing one can do in construction is build something you love. Build a home that you will love, build a home that your children will love. When people love their homes, they take care of them and they don’t change them. Do not build a new home just to renovate your kitchen in five years. Build a home with which you are happy. Build a home of which you are proud.
It’s your home! Build a house that makes you happy.
Don’t forget, 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.
Bonus Sustainability Tip: Passive House
You should also consider 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. In this article we reviewed some basic ideas for building a sustainable house. This post does not assume to cover every possible issue or condition, but rather to provide a general overview of the topic.
Thank You for reading our blog post about Sustainable Home Design Ideas
I hope this article helps you understand a little more about how to build a sustainable home. Please contact us directly if you want to speak with an architect about a specific project.
- Department Of Energy, Energy Data Facts
- Passive House Institute
- BPA.Gov Pilot Program for Nest Learning Thermostats
- Department Of Energy Air sealing
- Department Of Energy Mini Splits
- Baltu Yorkos P.E. Yorkos Engineering
- Energy Star
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 15 years where he has designed renovations and new developments of various building types.