Why Environmentally-Friendly Home Design Matters
Solar power and wind turbines both help to make energy considerable more sustainable and efficient.
Environmentally-friendly homes are designed and built using technology and materials that reduce the carbon footprint of the building and lower its energy needs. This improves the quality of the air in the home making it more healthy, and generally more comfortable to live in. It also reduces costs, particularly those related to energy and water conservation.
While there is no single model that determines how an environmentally-friendly home should be designed and built, there are certain concepts that need to be incorporated to ensure it really does have a low impact on the environment. These include optimum insulation and the best possible use of natural sunlight, as well as resource, water, and energy efficiency.
Environmentally-Friendly Home Design Concepts
Important concepts incorporated in the design of environmentally-friendly homes include:
- Orientation Generally, houses should face the sun. So, in the northern hemisphere, it’s best to have a house that faces south, and in the southern hemisphere, it should face north. However, the prevailing winds also impact on the best orientation for a house, and architects, engineers, and other experienced professionals will help to make the right choices in terms of the best possible orientation. So, for instance, if you live in Illinois, you might find a company that offers engineering solutions in Chicago, Springfield, or Kaskaskia to help you.
- Insulation Thermal insulation reduces heat transfer, which is the transfer of thermal energy between objects that have different temperatures. It is achieved with methods or processes that have been engineered for purpose, and it reflects rather than absorbs heat. Good insulation will maintain acceptable temperatures in buildings, by efficient heating and cooling and by ensuring that the thermal mass (commonly brick, stone, and concrete) stores the heat during the day and lets it out as the house cools down at night.
- The Solar Influence Although not always possible, the “best” orientation will help designers take advantage of passive solar gain, by including more windows (and glass) on the back or front of the house.
- Solar Gain High-performance windows are designed to draw as much heat and light in as possible. Because of the well-insulated thermal envelope, the heat cannot escape through doors and windows, and it is retained in the shell of the building for future use.
- Solar Systems Energy and heat from the sun are free. To claim our active solar benefits, all we have to do is install solar systems in the form of solar panels that generate electricity or heat water. The reality is that as the efficiency of solar systems improves, prices continue to decrease, allowing an increasing number of people the opportunity to include them in their homes.
- Energy Efficiency Scrapping fossil fuels and using alternative forms of energy improves the energy-efficiency of any building. While the most popular form of efficient energy is solar power, wind power also has an important role to play. Even simpler ways to make a home energy efficient are to use appliances that use less energy and emit fewer pollutants, like those certified by Energy Star, and to install and use energy-efficient lighting and energy-saving light-emitting diodes (LEDs).
- Water Efficiency One of the easiest ways to improve water efficiency is to simply use low-flow showerheads and appliances that are designed to save water. Another way is to harvest rainwater and channeling it into rain barrels for use in the garden as well as for flushing toilets, washing cars, operating dishwashers and washing machines, and even filling and refilling ponds and pools. If filtered and purified, it can also be used for drinking water and for other potable uses.
- HVAC Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) isn’t necessarily environmentally-friendly, but it can be. One of the issues HVAC can address is the fact that we generate heat simply by living in our homes, cooking, using lights, washing and so on. Heat recovery ventilation systems collect heat and extract the moist, warm air from kitchens, bathrooms, laundries, and so on, and vent it outside, at the same time collecting fresh air and distributing to our living spaces and various rooms. Often filters are fitted to air intake pipes, providing a barrier for pollution and irritants including dust and pollen. An HVAC engineer will be able to advise.
- Sustainable Materials Eco-friendly, sustainable materials provide benefits without harming the environment at any stage over their lifecycle, from the extraction of the raw materials required to manufacture them to their final disposal when they are no longer needed. Sustainable materials are also free from toxins, including the harmful by-products of the petroleum industry. But it’s not only the materials themselves that we need to worry about, it is also the embodied energy required during the production and transportation of these materials.
Sustainable materials include:
- Wood Trees produce oxygen, absorb carbon dioxide, and use energy from the sun. Timber from trees can be sourced locally, anywhere in the world.
Ideally, timber should be certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or a similar organization to have the least possible negative impact on surrounding areas when trees are felled. Additionally, new seedlings should be planted so that they “replace” the trees that will be cut down for the construction industry.
Some species are more sustainable than others, depending largely on where the wood is sourced. For instance, both oak and maple are sustainable species found in North America. Pine is sustainable in many parts of the world because it grows so fast. Regeneration of exotic woods like teak and rosewood is considerably slower, as a result, there is not much FSC-certified exotic wood on the market.
- Bamboo A popular eco-friendly alternative to wood for many uses, including flooring and fencing, bamboo grows incredibly quickly and regenerates much more quickly than even the fastest-growing wood.
- Brick Made from abundant natural materials, clay brick is 100% recyclable and therefore sustainable. Cement bricks are also sustainable because cement is a natural material. However, the manufacture of both is not totally sustainable because there is considerable industrial waste involved as well as the risk of water pollution.
- Recycled Materials Wood reclaimed from old structures, and then recycled, is sustainable, so too are other materials including steel, slates and roof tiles, bricks, and even some plastic materials.
- Eco-Friendly Products Harsh chemicals and toxic products should be avoided at all costs, particularly when it comes to paints and wood coatings. Always check the products you plan to use before you buy.
So why does environmentally-friendly home design matter to you and me?
Benefits of Environmentally-Friendly Home Design
Good insulation is at the heart of any good, environmentally-friendly home design. Essentially, it provides temperatures throughout the living space that are relatively uniform all year round, ensuring the house is warm in winter and cool in summer. This makes environmentally-friendly home designs more comfortable to live in.
Together with passive and active solar gain, insulation, heat recovery systems, and a well-designed thermal envelope, an eco-friendly design can result in a zero energy building that generates enough of its own energy to nullify the need to pump heat from a central heating system.
Another fantastic benefit of environmentally-friendly home design is that it is essentially healthy and eliminates many potential health hazards. For instance, heat recovery systems eliminate damp and the mold that so often comes with damp conditions. Well-designed ventilation systems also ensure that the air we breathe indoors is a very high quality. Air intake filters get rid of dust and other pollutants and vent them via filters and dust collection bags to the outdoors, ensuring that not even microscopic particles of dust remain inside.
Ultimately, because environmentally-friendly homes are energy- and water-efficient, they cost less to operate, so you save money. This makes them a good real estate investment too because the ROI is considerably higher than that realized when selling homes that are not eco-friendly.
Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.