David Collins12-Minute Read
UPDATED: July 25, 2023
There has never been a better time or a bigger demand for eco-friendly housing than right now. As people become more conscious of how their lifestyle and consumption impact the environment, they’re increasingly reevaluating the environmental footprint of their most important possession — their home.
What they are finding — aside from the fact that they’re not alone — is that there are lots of options today in terms of types of green houses that can be built, home energy systems that reduce or even eliminate a house’s carbon footprint and new or better eco-friendly building materials than ever before.
Eco-friendly houses are a growing, sustainable trend that supports more energy-efficiency and reduces our carbon footprint on Earth. Environmentally conscious built homes better protect the environment and help cut down on utility bills significantly. They can be everything from a traditional house built to meet very high energy efficiency standards to more non-traditional style homes. And with the rise of new construction techniques and a revolution in home architectural design, the demand for this alternative housing is booming in America.
Just one example of a nontraditional type of eco-friendly house is an earth-sheltered home, which is typically built into the side of a hill or berm and has one or more walls covered by earth. Because less of the structure is exposed to the air, an earth-sheltered house requires less energy to heat and cool. It can also be designed to blend in more naturally to the surrounding environment.
There are a number of green certifications that homeowners can look for — or home builders can seek to achieve — that testify to the eco-friendly design of the house.
There are a number of characteristics and features that help make a house eco-friendly. Aside from reducing your home’s environmental footprint, most of these will also help save on energy costs. An eco-friendly house will usually include at least two of the following:
Solar panels gather energy from the sun’s rays and transform it into useful electricity to power some or all of a home’s appliances, lighting and even heat and air conditioning. Home solar systems are expensive to have installed, but the savings on electricity over time eventually pay for it to the point that electric power is virtually free going forward.
Interest in home solar power is rising quickly. A recent study by Rocket SolarSM found that 60% of respondents said they would choose solar energy over all other power sources if given the choice. It’s best to consult a solar power expert on solar power home systems before investing in solar panels.
A natural building material can be defined as something that comes directly from nature with little or no human manipulation aside from its extraction (like logging trees or growing a crop). A material can be considered sustainable if there’s little to no strain on the environment in its production, use or disposal, or if it can be recycled or repurposed. Some of these materials have been used by humans for centuries to build even the simplest dwellings.
Home equipment such as appliances, lighting, hot water heaters, furnaces and air conditioning units can get Energy Star certification from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These products work as well, if not better, than non-certified products. However, they use significantly less energy to function, saving money and reducing power plant emissions.
Installing good quality insulation in floors, walls, ceilings and attics can increase a house’s heating and cooling efficiency, making it more eco-friendly and less expensive to operate. Insulation blocks the transfer of heat, keeping it in during winter and out in summer. As with all building products, some are more efficient than others. Insulation ratings are measured in R-values per inch of thickness. An R-value tells you how well a type of insulation can keep heat from leaving or entering your home. A higher insulation R-value usually means a higher price point as well.
Smart technology devices can help limit energy use in a house by adjusting automatically to times when energy is or is not needed. A smart thermostat, for example, can warm up the house automatically during peak activity or cool it down during sleep time or when no one is at home.
Lights can also be programmed to turn on and off at specific times or even simply dim or turn off when no motion is detected for a certain stretch of time. LED light bulbs have brought enormous gains in energy efficiency for home lighting. LED bulbs are 75% more efficient than conventional incandescent bulbs.
Particularly in parts of the country where the availability of fresh, clean water is a big concern, there are several inexpensive water-saving devices that can conserve this precious resource without affecting your lifestyle in any way. Water saving showerheads and faucet aerators alone can cut down hot water usage in a house by 50%. Other products that can reduce water usage for little cost include a shower timer, toilet tank bag and a rainfall shutoff that interrupts the home irrigation schedule when there’s already been plenty of rainfall.
The typical American suburban home is surrounded by a lush green lawn. Beautiful, yes, and fun for kids to play on, but also very thirsty. Millions of gallons of water each year go into watering these vast grassy spaces. Worse, tons and tons of chemical fertilizers and pesticides are poured on them to keep weeds down.
Natural and sustainable landscaping replaces lawns with native plants that thrive on the amount of rain that normally falls on your land. For extra watering, a rain barrel can capture dozens of gallons of water that normally run right off a roof. A rain barrel fitted with a soaker hose will automatically redistribute all that water throughout the garden.
Eco-friendly houses are not likely to be at the top of a list of popular house styles, but they’re growing in popularity as more people become conscious of reducing their carbon footprint. These houses vary widely in terms of budget as well as practicality to the local climate.
A zero-carbon house is one that gets a very high energy-efficiency rating and emits zero net carbon dioxide during its operation. It does this by utilizing very good insulation and nearly airtight seals on windows and doors. It also operates completely on electricity, which has become cleaner to generate than such fossil fuels as natural gas.
Pre-fab homes are built in a factory under highly controlled conditions that use much less energy than homes that are built on site. There are many types of prefab homes of different sizes and price points, but many are designed and marketed specifically as eco-friendly, utilizing efficient insulation and triple-pane windows.
There are also many types of tiny homes that consume fewer materials and energy to build. These homes are mostly less than 600 square feet and are typically designed with energy efficient materials. Many tiny homes are also built in a factory, which saves energy.
A shipping container home is by its very nature eco-friendly because it literally recycles a steel shipping container and turns it into a home that can stand for decades. Most shipping containers are rectangular structures of either 160 or 320 square feet and can be easily modified into a tiny home. They can also be combined or stacked to create a larger living space.
A relatively new area of architecture is concerned with the design and construction of bioclimatic structures. A bioclimatic home is an energy-efficient and low-cost dwelling that uses the natural environment it is built in, reducing costs of heating, cooling, ventilation and lighting by working with the air, soil, sunlight and materials of the locale.
A passive house achieves maximum energy-efficiency through the use of extremely airtight insulation and seals, triple paned windows and a mechanical ventilation system that recovers the heat from used air and transfers it to the fresh air that’s coming in.
Sometimes called an earth bag dome or a ship, earth dome homes are constructed of bags of natural material — usually clay, soil, sand or pebbles — stacked atop one another and contained within a wire matrix. Because they can be made from materials completely on site, they are often built as off-grid dwellings in remote areas.
While no structure can be 100% airtight, these homes are built with insulation and construction techniques that drastically reduce the rate of air exchange between the indoor and outdoor environments. This reduces draughts and heat loss that occurs when warm air seeps out or cold air seeps in. True airtight structures require mechanical ventilation to ensure a steady supply of fresh air.
Solar-paneled homes radically reduce a house’s carbon footprint by reducing or even eliminating the need for electricity produced in a local power plant. Roof-mounted or pole-mounted solar panels capture the energy of the sun and convert it to electricity that is either directly supplied to the home or is sold to the power grid as a credit.
In a living wall home, one or more interior or exterior walls is a vertical garden with plants, flowers, herbs or vegetables growing in soil or some other organic substrate.
Different from a traditional “stick-built” home that is framed with wood products, a wooden house is built from trees, often ones already growing on the property where the house is to be built. These homes require little insulation and take advantage of the natural thermal properties of wood. There are also wooden houses built of processed timbers that can be pre-cut to fit a design and shipped to the build site.
If you know exactly where you’re looking for eco-friendly housing, you can start by looking at online listings of local real estate agents. Sometimes their search engines allow you to sort for environment-related features such as solar panels. Or, call the agent directly and see if they’re knowledgeable enough on the subject to help you find the perfect house in the area.
If you don’t know exactly where you’re looking for a house, you can focus first on most sustainable cities that already have a reputation for people and policies that promote sustainable living.
Whether you seek a radically modern and eco-friendly house that addresses every environmental concern, or you just want a home that uses less energy to heat and cool, there are multiple mini-steps that can each reduce the environmental footprint of your home. What they all have in common is a commitment to energy efficiency, sustainability, the use of recycled materials and harmony with the natural environment in which the house will stand.
Here are a few things to consider in the design and development of your eco-friendly home:
The path to an eco-friendlier home can be as easy or complex as you want it to be. Whether you seek to build a cutting-edge, zero-carbon home from entirely recycled materials — or you just want to use less fossil-fuel generated energy — the modern homeowner has more options than ever before.
Home buyers, too, can isolate their search for eco-friendly housing with the help of a Verified Partner Agent. By taking steps to use less electricity, take advantage of the heating and cooling properties of nature or build with recycled materials, you can bring your home into a more harmonious balance with the natural world.
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