Sustainability begins at home. That is, we can’t demand that governments or businesses or our society in general act sustainably until we do ourselves. You can practice sustainability at home by adopting such habits as reducing waste or conserving water. But what is a sustainable home?
The answer depends in part on whether you plan to move or stay where you are. And if you’re moving, the answer depends on whether you’re building a new home or looking for an existing one. Also, living in a house or an apartment imposes different sets of choices.
For new home construction, follow the guidelines of the U.S. Green Building Council. It sponsors LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design). When you apply for LEED certification, your house will have to earn points in various categories:
- minimal environmental impact
- building materials
- energy and water efficiency
- indoor air quality
Basic LEED certification requires at least 40 points. Earning more points earns higher levels of certification: silver, gold, and platinum. If you’re not planning to move, it’s also possible to earn LEED certification for remodeling projects. And, of course, you don’t need to qualify for LEED to make your house more eco-friendly. Knowing the guidelines can help your choices.
Once, people had a choice of living in a city, town, or rural area. City neighborhoods had shopping, schools, parks, churches, and other amenities in walking distance. Many, perhaps most city dwellers also lived within walking distance of their jobs, too. No one had thought of the concept of sustainability yet, but nearly every place anyone lived was in a sustainable location.
Then came the automobile and suburbs.
A suburb isn’t quite the same thing as either a city or a town. Suburban living depends on cars. Jobs, likely as not, remain in the city. Since everyone had cars anyway, suburban planners no longer thought amenities had to be within walking distance of homes. Urban sprawl continued until communities even farther away from the inner city became known as exurbs.
Advantages of living in cities over suburbs and exurbs
A sustainable home needs to be in a sustainable neighborhood. It doesn’t add to urban sprawl.
Too many people fear that city neighborhoods are “bad” neighborhoods. Therefore, with that reasoning, suburban neighborhoods are “safer.” Not necessarily.
Look for a neighborhood that’s walkable, has access to good public transportation, and gives you a short commute. The smaller urban lots are also an advantage for sustainability at home. So they will earn LEED points for location.
In addition, consider finding an ethnically diverse neighborhood—or helping it become one by moving there. It contributes to social sustainability.
Good and bad locations geologically
Nature also dictates sustainable and unsustainable locations. That is, a sustainable home is not built in areas that displace wildlife, damage wetlands, or contribute to stream erosion.
Some locations are spectacularly unsustainable. I’m thinking of parts of the country susceptible to flooding, mudslides, or wildfires. Don’t move into a flood plain or an unstable slope. And forego that house or apartment right on a beach.
Mother nature has ways of discouraging people from living in fragile areas. We can’t avoid natural disasters, but we can avoid obvious places where they’re more likely to destroy our property.
Construction of sustainable homes
Sustainable construction minimizes waste. Use of local materials saves transportation costs over materials that must travel a long way to get to the site. The environmental impact of extracting materials from nature matters. And so sustainable construction looks for ways to use reclaimed wood or bricks, for example. And high-quality materials last longer and need to be replaced less frequently.
Therefore, common materials such as vinyl count against LEED points. Wood must be certified as sustainably harvested. More and more people turn to such ancient materials as adobe or cob as earth-friendly materials for outer walls.
Sustainable building techniques seek to minimize adding to air, water, or soil pollution. They take care not to contribute to excess runoff or creating a heat island.
Your sustainable home will also have good insulation, energy efficient windows, and sustainable materials for floors, cabinets, and inside walls.
Well-insulated construction already guarantees better energy usage than earlier construction techniques. But did you know that placement of trees can dramatically affect energy costs? A tree that sheds leaves shades windows in the summer and lets sunlight shine on them in the winter.
If you’re building a new sustainable house, consider renewable energy sources. Solar panels make an obvious choice. Consider combining them with a wind turbine. In either case, you’ll need an energy storage system.
Ground-source heat pumps take advantage of the relatively stable and mild underground temperatures to move heat into your home in the winter and out in the summer. They can be a good alternative to ordinary heating and air conditioning systems.
Whatever your choices, a sustainable home uses energy efficiently both in construction and once you move in.
Modern building codes require water low-flow fixtures. You can get further savings—and LEED points—by going beyond minimal standards.
If you’re building, consider some kind of greywater collection system. That way, you can reuse water from the washing machine, bathtub, or sink to flush the toilets. You can collect rainwater and use it in the lawn and garden. After all, these uses do not require drinkable water.
Indoor air quality
Sustainable construction does not use paints, varnishes, or carpeting that emits volatile organic compounds. VOCs evaporate at room temperature and get into the air. So people and pets have to breathe them.
Not all VOCs are dangerous, but many of the most common ones irritate your eyes, nose, mouth, throat, and maybe skin. They can trigger allergic reactions, make asthma worse, or even cause cancer.
The best way to avoid the problems they cause is not to let them in the house in the first place. If you rule out all coatings and fabrics that have VOCs, you still have plenty of choices to fit your tastes.
Besides avoiding VOCs, sustainable construction requires careful attention to designing good ventilation.
Does all this sound expensive? When buying a home, consider not only the selling price and mortgage, but also the cost of living there.
- A sustainable home costs less to heat and cool.
- It sits on a manageably small lot, so maintaining the yard takes less effort and costs less.
- It’s in a location where you can walk more and drive less, so you pay less for gasoline.
- With healthier indoor air, you spend less on doctor visits and medicine.
The home that seems more affordable to buy might prove prohibitively expensive to live in in the long run. A sustainable house might cost more up front, but it will cost less in the long run.
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