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Can Second Homes Be Sustainable?

By Camille LeFevre Rise Home Features Editor 
Jul 25, 2019

Here in The North—which is how a new generation of Minnesotans are rebranding their geographical location while launching a climate change initiative with environmentalist Will Steger called Keep the North Cold—having a second home is a tradition. It’s called “the cabin.” Second-home buyers searching for the perfect cabin, usually on a lake or river, that can be passed down through the generations, are an active demographic for realtors.

10000 lakes minnesota
Photo Credit: Minnesota Monthly

"In Minnesota, we nurture cabin dreams," writes Edina Magazine. "The land of 10,000 lakes has been churning out cherished memories for generations, and, naturally, many of us want to continue the tradition. According to the National Association of Realtors, 22 percent of the nation's vacation homes are cabins or cottages; these little dwellings surrounded by nature continue to be popular, providing equal doses of nostalgia and escape from our busy, grown-up lives full of stuff."

Having a second home, of course, is inherently not sustainable in the environmental sense. Not only does a second home require financial and economic resources to maintain, but the travel required to reach a second home (whether by plane, train, boat, or automobile) results in greenhouse gas emissions, air pollution, noise, land use, and water pollution. At the same time, however, many small communities rely on the financial resources second home buyers bring to help sustain their livelihoods.

As Dr. Ziene Mottiar, Faculty of Tourism and Food, Dublin Institute of Technology, notes, "there are two seemingly paradoxical aspects to sustainable development, namely conservation and development… Thus it is a matter of preserving, for instance, the wealth of species in a natural area, and at the same time, striving for development in a society to attain the goals of greater welfare for the people. This necessitates the management of 'the process of change in such a manner that it occurs in as benign a way as possible rather than by accident."

In addition, one aspect of sustainability is resource utilization. A home sitting empty is simply wasting resources, whereas one used for people is serving a purpose. Rise wrote about how Airbnb can increase the sustainability of your home because it allows homeowners to rent out their homes or extra rooms that are not being used, thereby providing shelter for more people.

A Look at My Family's Second Home

Acquiring a second home can happen in ways other than purchasing a cabin "Up North." Along with family tradition, matters of the heart and practicality can all play a role in owning and maintaining a second home. For me, all three have come into play.

In the 1960s, my Grandmother moved to Sedona, Arizona, and my family has been going there ever since. When Gram passed, my Dad, Uncle, brother, and I bought Gram's home—a decidedly not fancy but cozy builder house in which we host family reunions, regularly vacation, and rent out on occasion.

second home rental arizona
Casa Dacotah. Photo Courtesy of Camille LeFevre

Thus far, our primary sustainability initiatives have been the absolute basics: turning down or off all systems (heat, hot water, appliances) when the house is unoccupied; incorporating native plantings attractive to pollinators, and encouraging the growth of native grasses; hanging wet laundry outside instead of using the dryer; recycling and composting. Converting to solar is an ongoing discussion.

Soon, perhaps, as I’m considering the snowbird lifestyle soon, maybe even this winter: Meaning, get out of The North for several months for the more temperate climate of the Southwest. How, then, can we—second home buyers and owners of vacation or holiday homes—lessen our environmental impact?

Sustainable Building Strategies

Whether building new or remodeling a second home, sustainable strategies can be easily incorporated to make the home more energy-efficient or even net-zero. That net or carbon zero home might be a tiny cabin in the woods or a contemporary ski chalet in the mountains. Either way, net-zero homes are designed with two main functions in mind.

First, they are almost entirely airtight, meaning super-insulated and with windows placed on the north and south sides to maximize the home’s ability to absorb the sun’s heat in the winter and minimize it in the summer. Ground source heat pumps are often incorporated into these homes to utilize the earth’s relative temperature to heat and cool the home. All of these design choices work together to achieve maximum energy efficiency. Incorporating a solar-powered system to run a completely electric home—as well as your hybrid or electric vehicle—is a wise, sustainable choice.

shipping container cottage
Photo Credit: Living Big in a Tiny House

Innovative options for creating a second home that incorporates sustainability from the get-go include opting for a shipping container cabin, cottage, or sustainable prefab home. Going off-grid ups a home’s sustainability factor to the max. Building or remodeling with recycled materials is innovative and often results in homes with unique materials and styles. Tiny houses keep second-home living compact, sustainable, and affordable. How about incorporating strategies that will help your second home generate income? Renting out your home through Airbnb can help get that home utilization rate up.

However, many second-home buyers seek a legacy home as a vacation retreat for their current family to pass the property on to children and grandchildren. Charles Cunniffe Architects in Colorado designed a sustainable legacy home that was LEED Silver certified. They accomplished their goal by siting the home wisely to maximize passive solar and ventilation and incorporated solar and geothermal and such energy-storage capacities as batteries, generators, and fuel cells.

Charles Cunniffe Architects LEED
Photo Credit: Charles Cunniffe Architects

The architects created a flexible floor plan that accommodates small and larger family groups, so only the spaces that are being utilized have to be heated or cooled. The low-maintenance exterior includes Resysta siding—a composite siding material made out of rice husks, salt, and mineral oil but made to look like wood.

Don’t forget about the site that your second home occupies. Opting for sustainable landscaping and hardscaping, incorporating a green roof, incorporating native plants to feed and shelter the area’s pollinators, reducing water use outdoors, and planting according to—and restoring—the site’s original biome or ecosystem are ways to reduce the environmental impact of owning a second home.

So back to the question: can a second home be sustainable? It’s akin to the question as to whether a home over 6,000 square feet can be sustainable. The answer can be debatable, as “sustainable” is a relative term. While some might argue that second homes or very large homes are a waste of resources, there are many ways to make them much more sustainable than conventionally built homes. After all, buildings serve an essential purpose. If we can start thinking about homes as being restorative—for example, producing more energy than they consume, or absorbing more stormwater runoff than they create, like the Hanson’s home in Minnesota—then the answer is a resounding yes!

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-10-16T18:29:14+0000
Camille LeFevre

Article by:

Camille LeFevre

Camille LeFevre is an architecture and design writer based in the Twin Cities.