Is your home environmentally friendly?

new england style house

Whether you are planning to build a new house or are contemplating remodeling an older one, there are lots of options out there that will help to ensure your home is environmentally-friendly.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are practices throughout the world, including the U.S., where environmentally-friendly practices including passive solar design and the use of renewable materials have been used for centuries. However, it is only in the past three decades that formal initiatives and programs have been playing an active role in ensuring that building design and construction is sustainable and environmentally friendly.

Today there are hundreds of standards, ratings, and certification programs that encourage us to ensure our homes are environmentally friendly.

Understanding the Concept of Environmentally-Friendly Houses

In essence, the aim of environmentally-friendly building or construction is to ensure that the structures we build are safe and don’t impact negatively on the environment or on the health of those who live or work in them.

Protecting the environment involves preventing pollution and the creation of hazardous waste, as well as any form of environmental degradation that might be caused by the:

  • Production of building materials
  • Construction process
  • Used of energy during building and once the building is occupied
  • Disposal of construction waste immediately after construction and at the end of the lifecycle of the building

To be environmentally-friendly, it is also essential to use every possible resource efficiently, particularly those that are not renewable, like fossil fuels, natural gas, and even types of wood that takes a long time to regenerate and grow.

While these concepts are great for both new construction and renovations, the opportunities are undoubtedly better for new homes.

Important elements include:

  • Selection of the best possible site
  • Size and shape
  • Roof designs and types
  • Building materials
  • Insulation
  • Energy used during construction
  • Energy-efficiency long-term
  • Water conservation

While you, as a homeowner, should have a good basic understanding of environmentally-friendly concepts, you may need to rely on some specialist input from designers, architects, and possibly a company that provides mechanical engineering services in Chicago, New York, or whichever city you live in or are close to.

Selection of the Best Site

While it isn’t always possible to choose an ideal site, if you have the option to buy a south-facing site in the northern hemisphere or north-facing site in the southern hemisphere, that’s a very good start! This makes it that much easier to reduce energy bills, ensure good lighting, and generally ensure that you get maximum protection from the elements.

Of course, certain local factors including climate will also have an impact. Hills, any slopes (including their direction), and established trees and bushes will also make a difference. The positioning of windows on-plan will also make a difference. A designer will help you exploit all these factors and make the best of them.

Size and Shape Matters

Traditionally houses are rectangular or they comprise of rectangular, box-like sections. That said, houses come in a multitude of different shapes, including round shapes that are considered ideal for areas that are prone to cyclones and hurricanes.

Size is generally related to wealth and lifestyle, and many houses are simply as big as the person building them can afford.

However, in recent years, it has become evident that the smaller the house, the more environmentally-friendly and economically-viable it can potentially be. Apart from anything else, the smaller the house, the fewer materials will be needed to build it and the less energy will be required to operate it long-term. Similarly, smaller rooms are more energy-efficient than large open spaces, though good insulation design and double or triple pane glass windows will add to energy-efficiency.

Roof Type and Design

The roof can have an amazing influence on the micro-climate of a house, particularly a green roof that provides planted areas on top. Cool in hot weather conditions and warm when it is cold, a green roof incorporates a damp-proof membrane and various drainage layers. Excellent for improved insulation, a green roof will reduce energy costs.

The actual roof covering also makes a big impact, with recycled materials helping to reduce waste and cost. Wood shingles are a traditional, environmentally-friendly option that is also relatively inexpensive.

Eco-Friendly Building Materials

You will often read about specific materials that are considered eco-friendly including bamboo, some types of fast-growing wood, and a wide range of recycled materials. But there are other factors that must be taken into account. For instance, for wood to be sustainable, it must be grown and harvested under strict enforceable conditions that avoid deforestation. When materials like bricks and glass undergo production processes, these must be sustainable, and not energy-intensive or polluting.

Elements that must also be considered include carbon emissions during manufacture and the costs of transportation during manufacture, to get to site, and to remove once the lifecycle of the building is complete and the structure is demolished.

Paints, wood preservatives and so on should also be eco-friendly.

Insulation

Energy usage is a huge factor and good insulation is the best way to achieve energy efficiency, particularly in existing buildings. Today, a good energy-efficient design will comprise a thermal envelope that doesn’t allow energy to escape. This involves insulating walls, the roof and ceilings, floors, basement, doors and windows, and every other element of the house.

Good insulation not only keeps the heat in, it also keeps heat out when the weather (and/or climatic conditions) is hot.

Energy-Efficiency

To be effectively energy-efficient, energy usage needs to be carefully overseen from the planning phase, through construction, throughout the use of the building, and even during breakdown if the building is scrapped.

Just because your house is going to be tiny and energy-efficient once complete, if huge fossil-fuel gobbling machines and labor-intensive methods are used for construction, the project will be starting off on the wrong foot entirely. Think about this carefully, because the construction process is generally hugely resource-intensive. See if builders can use methods that are less technology-intensive and machinery that uses less fossil-fuel-based energy.

Of course, the use of energy and water (see below) will continue throughout the lifecycle of the building, while it is occupied and when, and if, it is demolished.

In terms of house design, energy-efficiency will be improved by:

  • Passive solar design that minimizes energy use by harnessing energy from the sun and retaining it in the materials that form the thermal mass of the house for use when needed.
  • Alternative energy sources including solar energy, solar thermal technology for heating, wind energy, and geothermal systems for heating and cooling.
  • Eco-friendly light bulbs save an enormous amount of energy, particularly compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) bulbs that last up to 10 times longer than old-fashioned incandescent bulbs.
  • Eco-friendly appliances, including those certified by Energy Star.
  • Sensitive use of light and heating that, for instance, limits use to specific rooms.

Water Conservation

There are many ways of saving water in an environmentally-friendly home, from the use of low-flow toilets and showers to the installation of rainwater harvesting systems that collect rain from roofs and via gutters and downpipes. Just be sure that there aren’t restrictions in the state or area where you live, and if there are restrictions, what these are.

Whether you use some sort of mechanical engineering services or implement your own simple steps to make your home more environmentally-friendly than it currently is, you will benefit financially, health-wise, and reduce your ecological footprint.

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About the Author: James Watt

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