It seems as though the more we examine our day-to-day actions, the clearer the extent of our environmental damage becomes. Almost every aspect of the way we live our lives has the potential to have a destructive influence. This is why it is so important that we take time to understand how we can more effectively coexist with the ecosystem. Sustainability sits at the heart of this idea.
Many of us are making changes to the ways we work, eat, and travel to have more positive influences on our planet. One of the key ways we can make a long-term difference is in our approach to construction. Whether building a new home is a professional or personal project, there are adjustments we can make in design, materials, and internal systems. These can both minimize the initial use of resources, and make the building itself a more environmentally friendly home to live in. Studies have even found that green buildings can be instrumental in minimizing pollution’s effect on mortality rates and thus reduce pressure on public health services.
So, what do these sustainable construction elements look like? How does the way we design and build our homes have a tangible effect on our planet? The truth is, there are a lot of areas we can improve on. But we’re going to take a closer look at a few key areas of focus when it comes to sustainable construction.
Our homes are the primary culprits of excessive energy consumption. This is not only important from a general sustainability and cost-saving perspective. One recent study has reported that residential energy consumption is responsible for around 20% of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Therefore those constructing new homes must take measures that both improve energy efficiency and utilize less harmful forms of energy production.
Some key approaches in this area include:
- This is one of the primary areas construction professionals focus on when building energy-efficient homes. Taking the time, and a little investment to obtain insulation materials and apply them from the outset of construction can make a huge difference to home sustainability. This is because an airtight home prevents thermal bridging, which is heat escaping through the walls. However, using a large quantity of insulating material isn’t especially sustainable. It’s best to obtain insulation with high levels of thermal heat resistance — known as an R-rating — but lower quantities.
- Solar Panels. Choosing to go solar at the construction stage is a more sustainable approach for a variety of reasons. The most obvious is the ultimate reduction in fossil fuel usage. However, it also reduces unnecessary utilization of construction materials, and the resources used to manufacture them — panels can be arranged to effectively replace these areas of the building. For those on a budget, installing solar panels as part of initial construction can reduce costs in other areas such as roofing materials, and solar water heating installation.
- Heating and Cooling. One of the areas of most energy expenditure in American homes is heating and cooling. Aside from the aforementioned insulation, choosing the right heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) approach can have a huge impact on how sustainable a home is. This involves understanding what system is most appropriate for the size and shape of the space being constructed. A geothermal heat pump system may well be the most efficient option in colder climates and larger constructions. However, in small to medium spaces, mini-split heating and cooling appliances are less of a drain on energy, and only need to be utilized for short periods to heat or cool individual rooms.
The real estate industry is finding that there’s a growing demand for homes with sustainable features. However, we should take the approach that sustainability should be a consideration from the outset. It’s not just an additional feature, but an integral part of the home itself. Material choices play an important role here.
From the perspective of the body of the building, concrete continues to be a popular choice. However, it is also one of the least sustainable materials — its production is responsible for around 8% of greenhouse gas emissions. Alternatives are becoming increasingly accessible. Ferrock, for example, is an iron-based compound that incorporates recycled waste materials, resulting in it being a carbon-negative construction option. Even in circumstances where a concrete outer shell is needed, its use can still be reduced. Tightly packed straw bales can allow for thinner concrete outer walls and even minimal use of plaster and gypsum on the inside of the home.
Material considerations are integral to making how we live with the building more sustainable, too. Thermal mass — a material’s ability to absorb and retain heat — is particularly important for walls and foundations. Understanding these properties help us to make intelligent choices about the most sustainable material for the location of the building. High thermal mass elements like brick and stone allow for those homes in cooler climates to absorb more heat from the sun and spread it throughout the home. While low thermal mass items such as steel and wood can be more appropriate for high-temperature areas where coolness needs to be maintained. This is conducive to long term sustainability, as it is more reliant upon the renewable properties of the natural environment rather than putting pressure on temperature controls that consume large amounts of energy and emit waste.
The design of the building itself can have an impact on its sustainability. Architects are increasingly expected to devise solutions that support environmentally friendly construction, enable sustainable occupation, and reduce the negative impact on the spaces these homes inhabit.
One such approach is vertical design. In the U.S., we have vast geography to enjoy, and as such we have developed a tradition of creating large, sprawling homes that extend outward. However, with populations on the rise, particularly in cities, this isn’t a sustainable approach. Increased demand for space means that architects are straying away from looking outward, and looking upward instead. Homes with more floors also have the benefit of being more energy efficient; they have fewer exposed walls, and heat rising from the bottom of the home helps to heat the whole house.
Architects are also considering how to cut down on unnecessary material expenditure and construction emissions. A popular solution to this is learning how we can adapt what already exists. Cargotecture uses old shipping containers as the basis for construction. This provides a modular approach to architectural design, giving scope for tailoring, and even later additions. It also tends to have a shorter construction process, reducing waste during building. That said, the tiny home movement has also become a popular choice to minimize the use of construction materials. These houses, generally less than 500 square feet, also limit their impact on the environment. As detailed in the linked resource, they also tend to produce 14 times less carbon than the average home.
We have a responsibility to consider how all elements of our lives can be made more sustainable. As such, whenever we build a new home we must put time into making choices that minimize our negative impact on the planet in both the short and long term. The materials, energy systems, and architectural styles that are conducive to sustainability are becoming more accessible. We, therefore, have fewer excuses not to make our environmental and social responsibilities forefront in our construction decisions.