Sustainable architecture is a growing trend for good reasons. In addition to preserving the environment, it also tends be highly cost-effective and fairly simple. The key is keeping efficiency and the environment in mind from the start.
The Golden Rule
Sustainable homes should be designed with their location in mind. A sustainable home in a warm, dry area calls for different materials than one in a cold and wet region. Fighting against the environment consumes far more resources than working with it, and often results in an uncomfortable home as well.
Nothing will have as large of an impact on a home’s efficiency as its building material. It is normally best to build a home to minimize its energy use, and most of that energy goes into heating and cooling.
There are two ways to control a home’s temperature through the building material. Thermal mass causes the building to absorb and release heat over time. That means that a home with high thermal mass will tend to have the same average temperature as the environment around it for the day. Insulation blocks the transfer of heat, so it makes internal heating and cooling more effective.
To decide between the two, check the average daily temperature for the building site at each part of the year. If the average is comfortable, opt for a material with high thermal mass. Compressed earth, adobe, earth cover over traditional walls, and coated straw bales are all effective. If the average temperature is too hot or cold to be comfortable, opt for insulation. Use local wood or another convenient material, and apply recycled insulation to it. Be sure to choose insulated windows and door as well.
Passive Solar Power
It is fairly easy to take advantage of passive solar power in most environments, and it will cut down on energy uses. Passive solar uses heat from the sun directly, without turning it into electricity. That makes it more efficient than solar panels, and it usually takes less infrastructure to support it. To heat a home with passive power, make sure that there are windows facing in whichever directions get plenty of direct sunlight on the site. That will usually be whichever side faces the equator, but hills or other obstructions can change that in some locations.
Painting the house a dark color will also help. If the building needs to stay cool instead, make sure that few windows face the sun and that it gets painted a light color. Solar water heaters are also a great choice. They are essentially a series of dark tubes that are exposed to sunlight. The water passes through the tubes and gets warm while it sits in them. They use much less power than traditional water heaters and often provide more hot water. Installing them can be complicated, so it’s best to get an expert to handle it.
Choosing the right materials and using passive power will greatly reduce a home’s energy consumption, but that is no reason to avoid efficient appliances. The easiest way to pick them is to make sure that every appliance has the Energy Star stamp on it.
Water efficiency is also vital. Efficient shower heads are the most important tool in this area, since they cut cut water usage during a shower by more than twenty percent. Efficient faucets and toilets will have a smaller impact, but they are still important additions. These improvements tend to cost a little more to install, but they do lower bills over time, so they are profitable in the long run.
People who are willing to do a little more work can switch over to alternative appliances, such as manual clothes washing systems and composting toilets. These cut water and power usage down to the lowest possible level, but they do take a few minutes of effort to use. Most people will only spend an extra ten to twenty minutes a day on using them, so it can be worth it in some situations.
Homes that use the previous techniques will consume very little power. It’s perfectly acceptable to get that power from the grid, and that will be the best options in areas that don’t have easy access to renewable energy on site. On the other hand, generating power in the home is generally better than buying it from the grid.
Most homes can generate some solar power, and it is often cost-effective for people who can take advantage of tax breaks when installing it. People in sunny areas should certainly use it. People who have consistent wind might want to use a small turbine, but that will usually be a big investment. Micro hydroelectric systems are the best option for people with running water on their property, but most people don’t have that option. Regardless of the site, builders should weigh the cost against the benefits before they install any power generation.
Gardening and Landscaping
Landscaping consumes a huge amount of water and power, but sustainable methods can turn the landscape into a net gain for the home and the environment. Landscapers should strive to use native species whenever they can. They need less care than foreign species in most cases. Grass is the most extreme example. It can grow in dry environments, but doing so wastes a huge amount of water to keep it healthy. Xeriscaping, which uses succulents and other low-water plants, is much healthier in dry areas.
When possible, it’s best to grow species that produce food. Dwarf fruit and nut trees are great for balancing high productivity with low care. Prickly pears and other rarer plants can also be useful in their native environments. Growing food at home means that less power is wasted transporting it to the store, which is good for the environment.
Putting It Together
The core principles of green design are simple. Take the environment into account, minimize the consumption of resources, and it’s hard to go wrong. The details can be complicated, but a little bit of research or professional help will ensure that those complex problems turn into opportunities for improvement.