The Basics of Environmentally Sustainable Homes.

In this post we will be discussing these questions:

  • What makes homes or the materials used in them damaging to the environment?
  • How you can know if materials used in your home are environmentally friendly?
  • How can you reduce energy use in your home?
  • How can you make your home more environmentally friendly?

How Can Your Home be Damaging to the Environment?

There are many ways that your home can be damaging to the environment and I will discuss a few of the major ones here:

  1. Energy Use
  2. Depletion of Natural Resources
  3. Damage to Natural Habitats

1. Energy Use

One of the main ways (and sometimes the largest contributor) to your home being damaging to the environment is through energy consumption.

In many parts of North America… or the world for that matter, energy is produced by burning fossil fuels which create emissions and deplete nonrenewable resources.

If we are able to use less energy than we reduce the amount of pollution going into the atmosphere from producing that electricity.

When you are thinking about how much energy you are using or trying to save in your home it is useful to know that saving a little bit of energy in your home results in saving a lot of energy at the production source. This comparison is known as source vs. site energy.

Source vs. Site Energy

Lots of energy is lost as electricity is transmitted from the power plant to your home.
Photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash

Source Energy = Energy going into electricity production at power plants or whatever source is putting it onto the power grid.

Energy is then lost through:

  • Heat losses in combustion (For sources such as coal or natural gas)
  • Traveling long distances through power lines.
  • Every time the voltage gets stepped up or down through a transformer.

Site Energy = Energy consumed at your home that you pay for and use.

Having a knowledge of source vs. site energy can help you feel a little bit better about the small wins you are making in reducing your electricity usage.

Electricity used to light up a room or brew your coffee isn’t the only way that energy is used in your home though. Your home’s energy use actually starts long before you move in.

How does your home use energy?

Energy is used and carbon emissions result from harvesting/manufacturing materials used in your home

Energy from gas, electricity, or other sources is used during the life of your home to heat your home, your water, and power appliances

Finally, energy is used to recycle or dispose of old materials when they have reached the end of their useful life. This applies to items and appliances within your home and your home itself.

While it is great to save energy, energy use is not the only way that your home can be harmful to the environment. Many natural resources are used in homes and some of these cannot easily be replenished.

2. Depletion of natural resources

Think for a minute about what materials are in your home? Are they renewable?

The most common materials in your home are:

  • Concrete
  • Wood
  • Glass
  • Metals
  • Plastics
  • Paints

Of this list, wood is the only renewable one…. When forests are managed well.

The other items take a lot to produce and use a lot of natural resources that cannot be replenished.

Glass, Metals, plastics, and concrete (to an extent) have a bit of a saving grace in that they can be recycled to help reduce further natural resource depletion.

Depletion of natural resources is also one of the ways that your home can be damaging to natural habitats.

3. Damage to natural habitats

Habitats are affected in several ways through the construction and use of your home:

  1. The destruction of habitats where you build your home.
  2. Habitats destroyed by construction materials being harvested
  3. Emission pollution from material and product manufacturing processes can be bad for habitats and the world in general.
  4. Habits can be damaged and polluted by harmful construction waste.

Whether it be through energy use, depletion of natural resources, or damage to natural habitats, your home can affect the environment negatively in many ways. Thankfully, by taking some thought you can have an impact in reducing your homes adverse effect on the environment. One way of doing this is by selecting environmentally friendly materials.

How Can You Determine if a Material is Environmentally Friendly?

When you are designing  new home or planning for a major renovation there are many materials to consider and evaluate as to what will work best.

But how do you determine what materials are the most environmentally friendly?

First consider the source of the material:

  • Is it sustainable?
  • Does it destroy natural habitats?

One way to determine if wood products are sourced to be as environmentally friendly as possible is to look for a Forest Stewardship Council certification. This ensures sustainable forest harvesting practices.

Next, consider how much energy goes into the material through its entire life extending from harvesting and manufacturing through the useful life of the material and finally to disposal or re-purposing of the material.

This can be found through a Life Cycle Assessment 

Life Cycle Assessments

Life Cycle Assesments are completed for many products and materials to determine the amount of energy that goes into a product through its entire life from cradle to grave.

Materials go through many stages from beginning as raw materials to finally being disposed of or recycled. Energy is required for many of these stages.

A life cycle assessments gives really good insight into the amount of energy a product uses before and after it serves you in your home as well as how much it may use (or allow you to save) while it is in your home.

When looking into the energy that goes into a material there are two terms that you will often come across:

  • Embodied energy – Energy that goes into manufacturing and getting the material into your home.
  • Usage Energy – Energy consumed by a product during its use. In terms of homes this may also consider the amount of energy it may allow you to save.

Some products take much more energy to produce than other, less processed products.

This means you may end up deciding between an energy intense product or an alternate less processed product that may also have a lower life cycle energy use but also has a more negative impact on natural resources than the energy intense product.

Sometimes you need to decide between different environmental priorities. Do what you are comfortable with.

Other things to consider when determining if a material is environmentally friendly:

  • Are there harmful chemicals such as formaldehyde in the material?
  • Is it designed to minimize waste during manufacturing and construction?
  • Is the waste recyclable?

How Can You Reduce Energy Use In Your Home?

One of the easiest ways to reduce your home’s impact on the environment is through reducing the energy use in your home. This can be done easily during the design and construction of your home but there are still many things that you can do to reduce the energy use in an existing home.

 There are 3 basic strategies that can be used in the design of your home to reduce energy:

  1. Consider adding extra insulation and reducing the number of windows and doors to minimize your energy loss.
  2. Place windows strategically to minimize heat loss and maximize heat gain or the opposite depending on the season and climate.
  3. Place windows to maximize natural light in your home and reduce your need for electrical lighting.

The way windows and doors are used in the design of your home can have a huge impact of the energy use and comfort in your home particularly in very warm and very cold climates.

Most large volume home builders (which are responsible for most of the homes built in North America over the past few decades) are getting this all wrong though!

They are not designing the layout of their homes for their orientation. This is resulting in window layouts that are compromising the comfort and energy efficiency of these homes by making these mistakes:

  • Large windows on the north which will lose tons of heat in the winter in cold climates.
  • Large windows without summer shading on the south resulting in hot rooms in the summer in both warm and cold climates.

These builders have many sets of house plans that they build over and over again with only minor tweaks at the request of home buyers.

The standard process for building these homes is to have the buyer pick a plan and then pick a plot and then build the home. No thought is given to the home’s orientation and solar heat loss or gain.

So the next time you are speaking with a home builder…

Ask them if they can design house plans that are maximized for certain orientations.

For Example:

  • If your plot faces a north street with a south yard, have a design maximized for that with fewer strategically placed windows on the north and more windows with shading for the summer on the south.
  • If the plot faces east to west don’t have the eating area in front of  large west windows that will blast the occupants with the hot evening sun during dinner.

Whether they design specific plans for each orientation or have different versions of the same plan depending on the plot orientation… it can be done and they should start doing it. It’s not that hard and it can make a huge difference to energy usage and occupant comfort.

If you are a builder or know of one that has sets of house plans optimized for orientation, leave a comment at the bottom of this post and tell me about it.

I have not seen this being done except for a few custom homes. This should be done everywhere!

So back to our scheduled programming of reducing your home’s energy use…..

Additional options that can be considered to reduce the energy use of your home are renewable sources of heat or electricity. It is much more cost effective though to first look at how you can reduce the energy your home will need.

Window and door placement and installing renewable energy sources are great options to reduce energy use in new home or if you want to spend a lot of money on an existing home but what can be done in existing homes?

Saving Energy in Existing Homes

Window placement and designing your home for it’s specific orientation are great to take into account when you are building a new home or doing a major renovations. But what about things you can do with your existing home to reduce energy usage?

Consider replacing your existing lighting or appliances.

Look at what you use the most and see how you can improve it. For example, it is not worth the cost to replace an old light bulb that you only use for a few hours each year. Look at replacing the lights that you use for several hours each day.

To evaluate how cost effective replacing lights will be, take into consideration the cost savings indicated on the packaging but keep in mind how those calculations are made:

Energy savings calculations on LED light bulb packages usually account for the bulb being used for 3 hours each day at $0.12 per kWh and often also account for the cost of replacing the comparison incandescent bulb over the life of the LED bulb.

Using a programmable thermostat or adjusting your current thermostat to reduce your heating or cooling loads at night or when no one is home is also a great way to save energy.

There are many more simple solutions to save energy in your existing home but I am saving them for my next post… I can’t use them all up now.

How Can You Make Your Home More Environmentally Friendly?

So what are some things you can do to make your home more environmentally friendly?

  1. Use sustainable materials that have:
    • low embodied energy
    • no harmful contents
    • Minimal and recyclable waste
  2. Design your home to use standard material sizes to reduce waste (4’ x 8’ for plywood or drywall)
  3. Consider a manufactured home built in a factory which has fewer waste materials from construction. Some building systems are available which are fabricated in a factory to be assembled on site with minimal factory waste and no site waste.
  4. Lower your energy use:
    • If you are designing a new home or major renovation, look for ways to reduce your energy requirements.
    • Spending a bit more on insulation and energy efficiency during the construction of your home is often much more cost effective than to attempt to improve the energy efficiency of an existing home.
    • Consider renewable sources of heat or electricity but first look at how you can reduce the energy you will need as this will be much more cost effective.
    • In an existing home look at the things that you use the most, and the largest energy consumers in your home. Determine ways to make those things more efficient.
    • Stay tuned for my next post where we will discuss many simple and cheap ways that you can improve the energy efficiency of your home.


I hope you have enjoyed this post and it has given you ideas as to how you can make your home more environmentally sustainable.

If you have found this information valuable and if you know someone who you think would also benefit from it please share this post with them.

Thank you so much for your time today and until next time… go do something to make your home a little more sustainable.

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