21 Sustainable Design Tips

Location is the first step in building a sustainable house. These will not always be an option for you but when possible consider the following issues.

Transportation: Where ever possible building a home walking distance from public transportation is going to reduce your impact on our environment. Living in New York City makes this very easy for me, but it will 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.

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. Obviously a larger house will use more materials and require more energy for heating and cooling. Think about your needs and try not to over do it on the size of the house. Remember a smaller house will be more affordable than a larger one. This is the one issue people hate to hear. I am not telling you to build a small house but the reality is smaller houses are more efficient and less wasteful.

Orientation is important for sustainable homes. If you live in a cold climate in the northern hemisphere you can take advantage of the sun. You will want to make your house with more windows facing south. Build a long wall with windows facing south to maximize direct sunlight in the winter. This will help heat your home as well as bring in natural light. You do not want many windows facing West, this will give lots of glare and provide heat in the summer. If you do have west facing windows 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 savings. Deciduous means the tree looses its leaves in winter. The tree will block sunlight in the summer but lose its leaves in the winter allowing the sunlight in during the cold months. 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 on sustainability at low costs.

Did you know that igloos are very energy efficient? An igloo is built in a cold climate with a shape that minimizes surface area. Why does that matter? 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. Don’t think you need to make your house look like an igloo … unless you want to. The idea here is compact is better than spread out. A compact two story house will tend to be more efficient than a one story spread out house. So for example if you want to build a 2,000 square foot house, building 2 stories with 1,000 sf per story is probably going to be more efficient than building 1 story of 2,000 sf.

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 rather than ordering it from across the country. This is a tough one because you may not have as many options. The availability of materials will vary depending 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 Pennsylvanian I recommend getting local kitchen cabinets rather than importing designer European cabinets. Its more green and you might even find better quality products from local small businesses.

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 that you may choose to by recycled.

Countertops made from Recycled Glass
Steel made from recycled metals.
Reclaimed Wood. These can be beautiful. When a contractor demolishes a building or does a renovation they often can reuse old wood products they salvage. 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 will also want to reduce job site waste and make sure the contractor recycles all the job site waste materials during construction.

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. Discuss your options with your design and construction team.

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. Insulation is really important. If your area has energy codes 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. Heating and air conditioning is the largest percentages of energy use and your energy bill. The better insulation you have the less energy you will use.

Air sealing also known as draft stopping goes with insulation. This is one of the lesser know 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 having all that insulation if there is cold air blowing through cracks and crevasses 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 expands and seals 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 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 types of glass and material insulation value also are 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 when using inefficient products. 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 the with poor quality.

We want to use materials that avoid Volatile Organic Compounds or VOCs. Examples can be using low VOC paint or glues in the construction of your new home.

Use materials that can be recycled later and have all ready been recycled. Using local materials is a good start to sustainability. There are lots of sustainable materials in nature for example woods that are renewable and certified. Also use durable materials. If you have to replace something in a few years that is not sustainable.

Use all energy efficient appliances and equipment. As a minimum requirement use energy star rated appliances. As I write this article I am using 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 for those energy star labels. Also your heating, ac units, and water heaters should all be energy star rated.

LED lights are becoming more and more common. All of our clients want LED lights. They are going to reduce your energy cost (they use less power) and you wont need to change the bulbs for many years. They might be a little more costly upfront but think of the savings on electricity and not having to change your bulbs as often.

By the way LED stands for Light Emitting Diode these are the best option for energy efficient lighting.

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 flush rate or the higher 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.

HVAC stands for Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning.

Your Heat and AC will be the largest source of energy consumption in your home. You will want to use an efficient well designed system. Here are a few options that can help.

Programmable Thermostat – This i s a no brainer. Use a thermostat that only kicks in automatically when a certain temperature threshold is passed. It will shut off when the desired temperature is reached. You can program it to shut off at certain times of day like at night or when you are at work.

Zones – I am a big fan of zones. Did you ever live with someone who likes it hot but you like it cool. If you break up 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.

Did you know you can recycle your energy?

Install and 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. And don’t worry it doesn’t actually mix the exhaust air with the new air it just uses the heat.

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 can even be used for drinking if you filter and purify it. The most typical use of rain water collection is for gardening / irrigation. You can use a concrete underground detention tank to store the water with a pump to circulate the water.

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 obviously 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. Also the orientation of the house is important. Make sure a professional determines if your location makes sense.
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 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.

If you opt out of solar hot water another option is 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.

This is my biggest pet peeve. People plant vegetation that does not belong in their climate or land type and then require lots of water and maintenance. Don’t Do That! Green living requires planting the right types of plants in the right locations.

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! I can not emphasize this enough. If you want to build a sustainable house you need to Build To Last. 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 the hurricane. I am not saying don’t build that deck but build it with proper hurricane ties and strapping and use wood that can handle the elements. Build a home suitable to your climate and environmental needs. Build it well. Take care of your home when you are living in it and build your house so it takes care of you. Build To Last. Sustainable house design cannot be achieved without thinking of construction quality and techniques for a long lasting home.

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 you are happy with. Build a home you are proud off.

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