Redefining Sustainability – SHC001

When we think of sustainability we most often think of “green homes” being sustainable to the environment meaning that it does not degrade the environment through its construction or use.

The definition of sustainability describes the ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level.

Over the years as I have learned more and more about sustainable homes I have discovered that a sustainable home can benefit much more than just the environment by being:

  1. More cost effective to construct.
  2. More cost effective to heat, cool, and operate.
  3. More durable and cost effective to maintain.
  4. More conducive to the health of those who live in it.
  5. More comfortable.
  6. Better able to meet the habits and needs of those who live in it.

While we mostly speak of homes as being sustainable to the environment I propose extending that definition to include the items above to account for how sustainable a home is to it’s owners, occupants, and their finances.

So let’s dive into the aspects of this re-defined sustainability…

(I am only going to provide brief outlines for each of these aspects below and in the future will expand more on each of them in their own episodes)

The Environment

Environmental sustainability is fairly well known and it’s necessity often debated in modern society.

Sustainable homes most often strive to use materials and construction methods that have minimal environmental impact and in some cases provide a net benefit to the environment.

Different areas that are looked at are:

  1. Energy used during construction of homes and production of the construction materials.
  2. Depletion of natural resources such as forests, water, minerals, and stone.
  3. Damage to natural habitats.
  4. Impact on the environment when construction materials are disposed of or recycled at the end of their life.

The environment is often the main point of discussion around sustainable homes and rightly so. We can’t just order a new planet to live on if this one goes bad and expires. We need to ensure we are taking care of the Earth and preserving it not just for the next generation but for the many generations that will follow us in centuries to come.

Construction Cost Effectiveness

When a new home is being designed the potential construction costs are often reviewed to ensure that it will be within the home-owners budget.

Wouldn’t it be disappointing to build your dream home and then having to eat rice and beans for the next 10 years to afford your mortgage payments? Just Sayin’

When construction cost estimates are above the budget of the future home-owner this results in going back to the drawing board and finding areas where costs can be reduced.

Most often this results in losing those granite counter tops or settling for less extravagant plumbing and lighting fixtures. Rooms may also be sacrificed at this stage… so much for that home theatre room I’ve been dreaming about….. not to mention my Man Cave.

One thing that is not often looked into is using more cost effective construction methods or materials.

You may have really wanted to have that nice stucco finish on the outside of your house but if you switch to a cementitious siding (Hardie Board) you can usually save 30% or more on the cost of cladding your home and are still left with a very durable product.

And what about the main structure of your home? There are many options out there besides the most commonly used structure of wood framing on a cast-in-place concrete foundation. It’s worth looking into what other construction methods are available in your area that may be able to cut costs slightly while still providing you with an enjoyable and structurally safe home.

And what about efficiencies in saving materials during construction?

The traditional method of framing a home with dimensional lumber is somewhat wasteful (Especially if the trades are unskilled or unorganized). An alternative method of using the same framing materials known as Advanced Framing can save materials and also reduce energy loss. For more information on advanced framing you can read this article from Green Building Advisor (http://www.greenbuildingadvisor.com/green-basics/energy-efficient-framing-aka-advanced-framing) and this PDF from the National Renewable Energy Library (http://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy01osti/26449.pdf)

By taking steps to consider and reduce construction costs where possible you can make your next home more sustainable to your financial situation.

Heating, Cooling, and Other Operational Costs

Heating and Cooling

I have heard of a term used in Europe which affects many homeowners known as fuel poverty. Due to the poor insulation values and air sealing of many of the century old (or older) homes, many have very high heating bills. In some cases the cost to heat their homes is so high that it results in homeowners having to choose between spending their money to have a comfortably warm home in the winter or to buy food.

Most homes built in the past few decades do not have such high heating costs but it is always good to consider how much heating or cooling your home will cost and what could be done during design and construction to reduce those costs.

When designing and constructing your home, steps can be taken to better insulate and air-seal your home which will result in much lower heating and cooling bills for not much of an additional up-front construction cost.

Another thing to consider is the number, size, and placement of your windows. The sun is a very effective (and free) source of heat. It can be utilized to gain extra heat in the winter but the same extra heat in the summer will result in uncomfortable interior temperatures or very high cooling bills.

By utilizing overhangs and shading devices on the outside of your home, and considering the number and placement of your windows, you can utilize windows to gain extra heat during colder months but not have to suffer from that same additional heat in the summer.

In an existing home it can be quite expensive to change window locations or re-insulate your entire house to reduce your heating and cooling costs. Some lower cost options though that can still make a noticeable difference are adding insulation to certain areas of your home such as your attic or having air sealing completed.

The best place to start with your existing home is to have a home energy evaluation completed. In a home energy evaluation a home energy rater (They sometimes go by different titles) will take a bunch of measurements and assess different aspects of your home to determine it’s energy usage and areas in which it can be improved.

Just google “Home Energy Evaluation” and the name of your province, state, or city to find someone locally that can complete an energy evaluation of your home.

Electricity

When it comes to electricity in sustainable homes most people first think of installing solar electric panels to produce the electricity their home needs and thus nothave to pay for electricity which in north america is often produced through burning fossil fuels.

Solar electric systems are cheaper than they have ever been but are still very expensive and the time it takes for the savings on your electricity bill to pay for the cost of the solar electric system (payback period) can be over 20 years (This does not account for government grants or incentives that may be available in some areas).

The most cost-effective way to reduce your electrical costs is to reduce your electrical requirements by investing in low energy lights and appliances. This is much cheaper than investing in a solar electric system to offset your electrical usage by the same amount.

When designing your home you can also plan the layout of windows and rooms to optimize the amount of sunlight in each part of your home and thus reduce the need for lighting during the day.

Whether you are designing a new home or renovation, or just wanting to make some minor improvements around your home, take some time to evaluate areas in which you can reduce your electricity use.

Water

Unless you have a private well (which comes with its own maintenance costs) most homeowners pay monthly fees for water and sewage based on the amount of water they use each month. Reducing those costs is always a good thing and it is also always good to preserve the limited natural resource of fresh water.

Most of us have heard the strategies of turning off the water while we brush our teeth or having shorter showers. Another way to reduce the water we use is to use low flow faucets and shower heads or other high efficiency plumbing fixtures.

Many people also use rain barrels to collect rainwater to use in watering their gardens. This can be taken further and depending on local regulations you can use rainwater you collect to flush toilets, do laundry, or for other water uses in your home where the water does not need to be drinkable.

If you want to take things even further, greywater (wastewater from showers or other uses in the home that do not make it very dirty) can be used to flush toilets or for irrigation (also depending on local regulations).

However far you want to take things… there are many options to reduce your water use in your homes.

Home Maintenance Costs

When buying an existing home or designing and building a new home many people think only about how the home looks and don’t consider what will be required to maintain their home.

I’m not talking about mowing your lawn or trimming your hedges.

I’m referring to replacing things that wear out or having to repaint your deck, siding, or other components of your home so they keep your home looking great. When it comes to exterior wood components on your home, keeping the paint or stain in good condition is also necessary to prevent root and to extend the life of those components.

While many people may complain about appliances not lasting as long as they used to, when it comes to the interior and exterior finishes of your home modern technologies have allowed for components that will last for decades with minimal maintenance.

So when you buy your next home or complete a major renovation on your current home, pay attention to what materials are being used and what future maintenance will be required.

Occupant Health

Did you ever think that your home could be making you sick….. or that your home could help you be more healthy?

This is not meant to be an alarmist statement.

There are however many potential sources of air contamination within your home.

The primary sources are harmful chemicals within the materials used to construct and furnish your home.

Another possible source of air contamination is mould or organic growth. Most often caused by high interior humidity levels but also possible due to water entry into your home’s structure or other moisture issues, mould can be on visible surfaces or can be hiding, undetected within the walls of your home.

Whether harmful chemicals or mould, once airborne within your home these contaminants can result in prolonged mild sicknesses or more severe health problems.

When it comes to chemicals, there has been a movement for many years now to reduce or eliminate the use of harmful chemicals such as VOC’s from the materials used in homes.

By keeping your interior humidity levels reasonable (especially during cold winter months if you aren’t lucky enough to move away from that season) and maintaining your home to prevent any water entry, or other moisture issues, you can reduce the chance of mould in your home.

While you may make your best effort to reduce the amount of contaminates in your homes there are often still small amounts present.

This is where proper ventilation comes in.

Even when your heating or cooling system is not running there needs to be a method of exhausting the stale indoor air from your home and letting in fresh, clean outdoor air. This can be as simple as opening a window and also often involves mechanical ventilation systems.

By using proper ventilation you can help maintain fresh, clean air within your home and reduce the likelihood of getting sick from your home.

Occupant Comfort

Do you have parts of your home that are always uncomfortably warm or cold?

Would you like to sit next to your large living room window to look out at that winter wonderland but it is too cold next to the window?

There are many factors that affect the temperature of your home but the great thing is that most of them can be dealt with and managed to ensure that each area is at a comfortable temperature.

The two main factors are the placement and quality of your windows and doors and the design and balancing of your heating and cooling system. These can both be managed for minimal extra cost during the design and construction of your home but can be costly to adjust in existing homes.

Windows and Doors

In comparison to the insulation values of your exterior walls, windows and doors are often figurative holes resulting in higher amounts of heat loss or gain (depending on the season) in those locations.

Having higher quality windows and doors installed can greatly reduce the amount of unwanted heat loss or gain.

Another highly effective way to eliminate hot or cold spots is to have the heating and cooling system designed to accommodate for large windows or doors in certain rooms and provide the required additional warm or cold air to those areas.

Balanced Heating and Cooling Systems

Sadly, while it is possible to install a heating or cooling system in a home to provide even heating and cooling throughout, it is often not what happens.

Wouldn’t it be nice if all heating and cooling contractors would spend a bit of time to calculate the heating and cooling needs of specific areas and rooms within a home and install a properly sized and balanced heating and cooling system to prevent any uncomfortably warm or cold areas?

Unfortunately this is not often what happens.

In many of the homes built in North America the heating and cooling contractors will use the square footage of the home to determine the size of the system to be installed and will run a duct to each room (hopefully you will get two in your larger rooms).

Sounds pretty basic and easy eh? It is and that’s what many contractors will do unless they are asked to specifically design the system for each individual home.

Will it cost more to get a properly designed and balanced system installed?

Yes… a bit more. But it’s worth it.

It will often result in a more efficient system and thus lower heating and cooling costs. Additionally you will be more comfortable and able you use every area of your home in every season. And how much is your comfort worth?

Occupant Needs and Habits

Do you have any rooms in your home that you rarely use?

Approximately what percentage of the area of your home do you use on a daily basis? How about on a weekly basis?

When you were searching for your last home did you start by determining how many rooms you would need?

Did you think to just evaluate what activities you did in your home and ensure you had an area for each… not necessarily an entire room for each?

Architect Sarah Susanka blew me away when I heard about her concept of the Not So Big House. It is not necessarily about building smaller homes but instead about designing your home to accommodate uses or activities as opposed to entire rooms.

For example, do you really need a living room/sitting area where you sit around and talk but also have a separate den where you go to watch TV?

What about having a single room and have a cabinet to elegantly hide your TV when it is not in use?

Boom! You just saved an entire room out of the size of a house that you need not to mention a second set of couches. That will definitely cover the cost of the custom cabinetry to hide your TV with money to spare.

I think when possible we should be looking more at how we plan on using our homes and ensure that the homes we are buying or building really meet our needs and our daily habits. This can often result in us having a smaller, less expensive home which would also result in lower costs to operate and maintain our home.

If you want to know more about the concept of the Not So Big House is strongly recommend Sarah’s book by the same name, The Not So Big House (Amazon Affiliate Link). While many of the photos may appear a bit dated the concepts within the book are timeless. I plan on applying these concepts to all of the homes I design in the future.

Conclusion

It may appear that many of the principles above apply only to new homes during construction.

While there are so many things that can be done during design and construction to make a home more sustainable there are also many things that can be done to make existing homes more sustainable.

It is my goal through Sustainable Home Catalyst to provide you with the knowledge you need to make your new or existing home more sustainable.

I hope I have given you a lot to think about as to how your home can be sustainable not only to the environment but also to you and your finances.

If you have found this post valuable and if you know someone who you think would also benefit from it please share it 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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Posted in Sustainable Home Catalyst Podcast.