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starter guide to a sustainable home

Sustainable Home: The Ultimate Starter Guide

By Wayne Groszko Rise Renewable Energy Expert
Jun 23, 2017

Do you want to live more sustainably? Your own home can be a great place to start. With thoughtful choices and some guidance, you can reduce your environmental footprint and save money. Where you choose to live makes a big difference in your overall impact and cost. If your location is already set, then you work with it. If you choose a new location, here are some things to consider to make your home earth-friendly.

Is It More Sustainable to Live In a City or Rural?

A place in the country has great appeal, especially with children so that they can run around in nature. Having land allows you to plant a garden and grow some of your food if you are into that. Gardening increases your quality of life and reduces the environmental impact of shipping in food.

Garden Solar Home

The disadvantage of country living is the distance and access to services. Your travel time, footprint, and cost will be larger because the places you need to go will be farther away, and public transit is unlikely to be available.

Living in an urban area like a city or even a small town brings you closer access to services and people, reducing your travel time, cost, and risk of isolation. If you live in a place where at least some of your essential daily destinations – work, school, friends, sports, library, medical care, etc. -  are close enough to bike or walk, you’ll have a smaller travel footprint and cost. If you have kids, they may learn independence earlier to reach their favorite places by walking or bicycling, meaning you don’t have to drive them around as much. You might even be able to have one less car in your family, saving you many thousands of dollars per year.

Is It Better to Have a Small House or a Big House?

How much space do you want? Everything from a vast mansion to a tiny house may be touted as sustainable, but what is the best choice for you? Generally, the less built space per person, the lower the environmental impact (and cost) per person will be. This is one reason the tiny house movement has such popularity today.

The key words here are 'per person.' If you took a hundred tiny houses and stuck them together, you would have an apartment building. The apartment building would win for sustainability because being clustered together saves on exterior finished wall space, mechanical systems, heating energy, and land.

Orange House

Does Detached vs. Shared Living Impact Home Sustainability?

As the apartment building example shows, sharing walls, like duplexes, townhouses, condos, or apartments, reduces impact and cost. If designed for social interaction, shared spaces like gardens or workshops can increase happiness and social resilience. These areas encourage people to get to know each other and call on each other for help. Borrowing tools or some eggs from each other is a real sign of a healthy community. Many apartment buildings don't foster this kind of networking simply because they don't often have inspiring natural social spaces. Developers of co-housing communities like Vancouver Co-housing are fixing that by including beautiful common areas in their developments.


You can create a do-it-yourself shared community by going in together with friends or family members to buy a duplex, triplex, or fourplex to live in. People who have done this are often amazed at how much they've improved their lives, saved time and money. Just the time saved through shared arrangements for child care and yard maintenance alone makes it more than worthwhile. And little bonuses can add up, like only having to pay for one internet connection.

Is It Better to Renovate or Build a New Home?

Using an existing building, you can preserve the current built environment and prevent tons of building material from becoming waste. On the other hand, creating a new building allows you to design for energy efficiency more easily.

A term worth knowing is 'embodied energy.' That's all the energy it took to make the building materials that are in your home. Embodied energy has a cost, both to your pocketbook and the environment.

Using an existing building saves boatloads of embodied energy. On the flip side, operational energy, which is the energy it takes to heat, cool, and run the home, adds up to more than the embodied energy over the long lifetime of a building. Good energy performance is essential. Using an existing building and giving it a significant renovation and insulation upgrade can be the best environmental choice from an ecological perspective.

Solar Energy Access

Whether you're renovating or building new, access to sunlight at your site gives you a significant advantage in the country or the city. In cold-climate places in the northern hemisphere, like northern Europe, Canada, and the northern United States, an ideal location for a solar home would be a gradual south-facing slope with a clearing south of the house and trees to the north (to protect from wind). In the southern hemisphere, switch the directions. If you don't have an ideal site, you can work with what you have; you'll need more insulation.

How Design Impacts Sustainability

Some basic principles of solar home design go a long way to making a home more sustainable from an energy and climate change perspective. The two most essential principles are:

What Is the Best Direction to Build a House?

Solar home design is like making your whole house into a winter solar collector. Face one side of the building in the direction that gets the most sun in winter - south if you are in the northern hemisphere or north if you are in the southern hemisphere. Place most of the window area on that sunny side to gain winter heating energy from the sun. Have only a modest area of windows facing east and west, because windows in these directions, especially the west, can cause overheating in summer. And put as few windows as possible on the shady side, because those only lose heat in winter.

Naugler House
Image Courtesy of Wayne Groszko and Southern Exposure Construction

We can't stress enough the value of thick, effective insulation. Insulation is the best deal on the block. It's there, quietly doing its job, with little or no maintenance for the life of the building.

Floor Plan
Image Courtesy of Garth Hood, Thoughtful Dwellings

How thick? It depends on your climate. A Passive House energy professional can help figure that out. But in a cold winter climate, we're talking 16 or more inches of insulation in the walls in many super-efficient homes. Thick attic insulation, triple-glazed windows, and airtight construction are all essential details. What you spend on construction is more than repaid by savings on the heating and long-term fuel costs.

The principles of solar home design are explained in this excellent guide - the Canadian Solar Home Design Manual.

Select Safe and High-Performance Building Materials

A wide variety of materials are used to make a house, like the structure (wood, steel, etc.), the building envelope (windows, insulation, siding, etc.), interior finishes (flooring, trim, cabinets, etc.), and the foundation. The materials affect indoor air quality, durability, and environmental footprint.

sustainable home materials

Choosing healthy materials is a matter of asking the right questions:

  • Where does it come from?
  • What is it made of?
  • Are the components healthy and environmentally sound?
  • How much energy does it take to make it?
  • How long will it last?
  • Is it free of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that could off-gas and harm indoor air quality?
  • What happens to the material after its useful life?
  • Can it be returned to the earth or recycled into a new and useful product?

The answers to these questions vary, and sometimes you need to make a judgment call. For example, consider three types of siding: brick, wood, and vinyl. Brick may have the highest embodied energy (it takes lots of energy to make), but it should also last longer than wood or vinyl. Meanwhile, wood is a positive because it can be made from local, renewable resources and low energy. Still, it won't last as long and may need to be painted several times during its life cycle. You make the most informed choice based on your values and preferences and ask lots of questions.

Why Sustainable Energy Is Important

You use it to heat and cool your house, run all its systems and appliances, and travel to and from home. It can add up to be your highest cost and environmental impact over time. You can dramatically cut your expenses and ecological footprint by reducing that energy burden and supplying the energy from clean, renewable sources.

solar panel house

Making sustainable energy choices contributes to slowing down climate change. You can do that by switching from fossil fuels – oil, gasoline, natural gas, and propane - to energy efficiency and renewable energy. The best part is, the fossil fuels you don't use are the ones you don't have to pay for.

Coal is also a fossil fuel, and though not many people burn coal at home nowadays, it is still used in some places to generate electricity in coal-fired power plants. You can reduce overall coal consumption and greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere by reducing the amount of coal-fired electricity you use.

From an environmental perspective, the top five energy sources are:

  1. The energy you don't use! – Save energy with good design, conservation, and efficiency.
  2. Solar energy – Passive solar energy, solar thermal energysolar electricity.
  3. Wind energy – But wind energy is easier to do at a larger scale than a single home. If you want to use wind energy, you are better off buying shares in a wind farm or choosing a 'green electricity provider.
  4. Water power (hydroelectricity) – Hydroelectricity can be purchased from electric utilities. Few homes have water power available on-site because you need a stream that falls through a steep slope and permission to divert water from the stream.
  5. Wood and other biomass – Within the limits of sustainable harvesting in your area, wood can be an excellent sustainable heat source, especially if you know a local supplier. Due to air pollution regulations, you need to check whether wood stoves are allowed in urban areas or densely populated valleys. Wood pellet stoves have lower emissions of particles into the air than logwood stoves.

What is Water Sustainability?

Water is essential to our lives; we use it for cooking, drinking, and washing. Reducing water consumption reduces the energy and chemicals required for water and wastewater treatment, transportation through the distribution network, and water heating for showers and dishwashing. Reduction in water consumption could also avoid the expense of building new water supply systems as our cities become more densely populated.

If you live in the country and have good, plentiful well water, then conserving water may be less of a priority. But conserving hot water is still a good deal because heating water takes a lot of energy due to its high heat capacity.

It is easier than ever to reduce water consumption by using low-flow faucet aerators and showerheads and Energy Star dishwashers and clothes washers. You can also adjust how much water you use day-to-day by taking shorter showers or not filling the sink when washing dishes.

rain garden

Also, consider the natural water cycle on your property. Rainwater runs quickly off hard surfaces like roof shingles and asphalt driveways and can cause stormwater collection systems to overflow. You can reduce these impacts and make use of the water with rainwater harvesting systems and rain gardens.

What Is the Importance of Air Quality?

As we improve our homes to become more energy-efficient, we introduce new building materials and make our homes more airtight. To maintain a positive atmosphere for good health, we must pay attention to indoor air quality. You don't want to subject yourself or your family to mold/mildew in damp basements or humid houses or chemicals associated with new furniture, cabinetry, wall finishes, or carpets.

The best first step is to prevent indoor air pollution. This is done by carefully designing the building as a system, so moisture does not condense in places to promote mold growth and choose healthy materials. Low or no-VOC paints and finishes, and surfaces like wood or tile that are easy to clean, are helpful for better air quality.

In an airtight home, even with well-chosen materials, the ventilation system is essential. The most common supply of fresh air is a heat recovery ventilator (HRV) or energy-recovery ventilator (ERV). HRVs or ERVs serve the same function: to provide fresh air while saving energy.

In older homes with high humidity and the risk of mold, a dehumidifier can help control moisture problems. It's always better, if possible, to prevent moisture entry or increase ventilation than to run a dehumidifier because they take a lot of energy to run.

sustainable white kitchen


When selecting, building, or renovating a home, you have a lot of choices to make - about location, design, materials, energy systems, finishes, and many other elements. You can treat those choices as an opportunity to make your home an expression of your values. Choosing environmentally sound designs and products feels good and saves you money in the long run.

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: 2021-10-16T17:46:06+0000
Wayne Groszko

Article by:

Wayne Groszko

Wayne Groszko is a consultant, researcher, and teacher in Energy Sustainability with 13 years of experience. He has taught at Dalhousie University and the Nova Scotia Community College, in the Faculties of Engineering, Environmental Science, and Energy Sustainability Engineering Technology. Wayne is also President of the Community Energy Cooperative of New Brunswick, and has worked as Renewable Energy Coordinator with the Ecology Action Centre in Nova Scotia. He holds a B.Sc. (Hon.) from the University of Calgary, and a Ph.D. from Dalhousie University.