Designing sustainable homes has long been a goal of builders and homeowners. Not only does sustainable design make a home cheaper to operate, it can also help reduce carbon emissions and other environmental impacts. It’s not trendy and evolution may be slow, but sustainability is important to help homes continue to be useful and comfortable as climate change accelerates.
Although most people think that sustainable options are only available for new homes, older homes can also be retrofitted with some level of sustainability in mind. They may never achieve the level of efficiency and waste reduction that building from scratch can achieve, but don’t count older homes when it comes to sustainable design.
What is Sustainable Design?
There are many different definitions of sustainable design, but they all share similar characteristics. When it comes to real estate, sustainable design means creating efficiencies that persist over the long term on a property.
“At the highest level, sustainable design touches every aspect of how we as a species inhabit our planet. While obviously true, this can be a daunting mental model,” says Tim Gorter, Founder and Principal Architect of Tim Gorter Architect in Santa Barbara, California. “Architects and owners will benefit from thinking about sustainability in categorical terms that have the greatest impact: site strategies, water conservation, energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality, and preservation of material resources.”
This means considering how different systems and elements around a home can be designed to reduce their negative impact on the environment, but sustainability isn’t just about efficiency improvements on paper.
“Sustainable design choices can also improve the aesthetics and functionality of living spaces,” says Boyd Rudy, associate broker at Dwellings Michigan in Plymouth, Michigan. “For example, choosing locally sourced and recycled materials can add beauty and character to a home. Practical considerations such as passive solar orientation can also lead to improved heating and cooling performance, reduced energy costs and increased comfort. In short, sustainable design is not only good for the environment, it’s also good for the people who live in these spaces.
Sustainable design in small steps
Creating an optimally sustainable home can seem like a daunting task, but sometimes the goal is simply to do less harm. This can be a good step in the right direction, and an achievable step for many homeowners. That usually doesn’t mean drastic changes that cost tens of thousands of dollars, but smaller steps in the right direction.
“Energy efficiency upgrades like better insulation and sealing your windows and doors are a great way to reduce your home’s operating costs,” says John Oppermann, real estate broker and sustainable housing consultant at Avenue 8, based in New York City, New York. . “If you can take a holistic approach to creating an energy-efficient home by designing the whole house to seal in warm air in the winter and cold air in the summer and use passive elements like the sun to warm the house, then you can go a long way in reducing your heating and cooling costs. Adopting what is called “high performance design” can sometimes reduce your energy consumption for heating and cooling by up to 90%.
Other options, like improving your hot water efficiency and covering your windows during the hottest or coldest part of the day, can also have a big impact on a tight budget, especially in an older house.
“Low-flow water faucets and showerheads would be great examples of cost-effective methods to improve a home both in terms of water use and energy efficiency,” says Greg Wolfson, director of technology at EcoSmart Solution in Belvedere Tiburon, California. “Reducing the hot water flow means saving power to the hot water tank, which uses more energy than most people realize. Window treatments can vary widely in price and in varying degrees of impact, but even low cost window treatments are worth noting for any homeowner.
Does sustainability improve property values?
Making sustainable choices for your home can be very inexpensive, such as when using salvaged materials as part of a sustainable renovation, or exceptionally expensive, such as equipping your entire home with a solar system. For many owners, the question often becomes “when won’t this upgrade pay off?” »
While this answer varies greatly depending on your local real estate market and which buyer group your home is most attracted to, experts agree that improving efficiency can improve your bottom line when it comes to selling. .
“Studies have shown that homes with energy-efficient features tend to sell for more than similar homes without those features,” Rudy says. “Solar panels can also add value to a home because they can reduce or eliminate a homeowner’s electricity bill. And while some sustainable choices, such as rain barrels, don’t directly impact property values, they can still make a home more attractive to potential buyers.
But it’s also important to keep your feet on the ground and put yourself at the center of every sustainability decision you make. Replacing incandescent bulbs with LEDs, for example, is an easy choice because it’s virtually painless and saves a lot of money. Changing a home to be fully electric if you live in an area that experiences many harsh winters with a high risk of power outages may not be as obvious to you or future buyers.
“Not everyone is ready to martyr themselves on the cross of sustainability,” says Gorter. “If a sustainable design decision makes the owner’s life more burdensome, a lot of people won’t appreciate that choice. To positively impact property values, focus on sustainable design features that put money in the homeowner’s pocket every month and make their life simpler, easier and more comfortable.
Sustainability is a long-term trend
There are unlikely to be any hot trends when it comes to sustainability, as changing light bulbs and insulating an attic aren’t sexy or fun, but they create huge repercussions that impact the entire world. Starting small with sustainable choices like upcycled furniture, reclaimed home improvement materials, and low-water gardens instead of lawns can be great ways to think about the sustainability growing from your own home.
“The effort to reduce carbon emissions shouldn’t be left to corporations,” says Wolfson. “It can be done as a collective when individuals make unique efforts to help by making sustainable choices to improve their homes and properties.”