Whether you plan to go all out and build a passive or zero energy home, or simply desire a dwelling that’s at least a little more sustainable than your last one, there are many components that go into the design and build processes in order to achieve this. If you have an efficient design, but not efficient material (or vise versa) you will hinder these capabilities of your home.
During the design process, you’ll want to consider the orientation of your home, as well as the climate and surrounding landscape of the lot that it will be sitting on. A home with many south-facing windows that are unobstructed from shade during the winter months (or whatever time of year you would need to heat your home the most) is optimal for passive solar. Passive Solar reduces the need for mechanical heating and cooling in your home because of thermal mass. During the day, sunlight shines through the windows and is absorbed through the floors and walls (the higher the thermal mass of these, the better they’ll be at storing heat. Masonry, brick and concrete are all prime examples of this) and then at night the heat is released back into the house. Ideally, the house would have shutters or awnings positioned to alleviate the heat from the sun during the summer. Other design factors that come into play here are the size and layout of the house. As a general rule, smaller houses will be more efficient than larger ones, and a more open floor plan helps to evenly distribute temperatures.
But it isn’t just the floorplan that comes into play when designing a sustainable home – so do the building methods and materials you use. Thermal mass doesn’t mean much if your home isn’t airtight, which is determined by the quality of the doors, windows and insulation you choose. For insulation, we’ll always recommend building with ICF, as it reduces the need for additional insulation almost entirely (apart from in the attic) and retains heat well. As we’ve described in the past, this is much like how a Styrofoam cup keeps your hot chocolate warm in the winter, only much more efficiently because of the thickness and the additional use of concrete. The system you’re following (Passivhaus, Net-Zero, etc.) will determine how airtight your home will need to be.
As for materials, a great option is to utilize reclaimed materials during construction. Not only does the use of reclaimed materials lessen the impact of construction on the environment and help to keep said materials from going to the landfill, it’s also a great alternative when lumber costs skyrocket due to shortages. Materials can be retrieved from demo or remodeling projects*, as well as from businesses or organizations that specialize in collecting and selling reclaimed materials. Talk to your builder at the start of the build process to see if the use of reclaimed materials is something they can accommodate.
*It should go without saying but never just take materials from a site without permission even if it looks like scrap, you never know what is or isn’t still in use and all you’ll get is a pissed off construction crew.
The next most important bit for your sustainable home is getting the right installations. At this point in the process, you might be tempted to downgrade to cheaper appliances in order to save some money, but this will actually be more expensive for you in the long run. Its better to go with quality appliances, preferably ones with the Energy Star label or equivalent, because these are the appliances that are more energy efficient to use.