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How to Build a Sustainable Home

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Mar 20, 2021

Between 2010 and 2019, the US reported around 6.8 million single-family housing starts. As the building stock ages and the population grows, new homes will continue to be in high demand. On a global scale, the World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that we will need to build two billion new homes over the next eighty years. This construction will be necessary to keep up with humanity's growing housing needs. How exactly we will sustainably source the raw materials for those 2 billion new homes is undoubtedly be a reason for concern.

Let's start with the bad news. A recent report by The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) finds that the global raw material consumption will almost double by 2060 as the world's economy expands and living standards rise and that this increased raw material use will place twice the pressure on the environment. Doubling the pressure on the world's remaining natural resources is certainly not an excellent strategy to help us deal with the myriad of ecological crises that we face. Much of that raw material consumption goes towards our built environment - and this includes the billions of new homes that the world will construct in the coming decades.

What does this mean for us? Do we have to choose between destroying more of the natural world in our quest for additional raw materials and leaving millions of people worldwide without adequate shelter? If we continue to build massive, 3,500 square foot homes, then yes, the construction of billions of homes will most likely have a formidable ecological impact in the coming years.

However, the sustainable building industry is continuing to find ways to build homes that not only reduce their impact on their natural world but can even become a regenerative part of the landscape. Do you want a healthier home for you and your family, looking for operational efficiency that won't cost you hundreds of dollars each month in utility bills, or want to take practical steps to help reduce your household carbon footprint? This short article takes a look at some of the leading sustainable building strategies for new home construction.

Frigidaire Induction Cooktop
Induction Cooktop. Photo Credit: Frigidaire

What Are Some Sustainable Home Building Strategies for a Healthy Home?

The air in our homes is often up to 100 times more contaminated than the outside air. Because we spend so much time inside our homes, finding ways to improve our indoor air quality should be a priority for every homeowner. You can read Rise's complete guide to improving indoor air quality here. For new home construction, however, there are a few choices that you can make at the outset that will help to ensure healthier interior air. Strategies to ensure optimum indoor air quality generally center around two main strategies: eliminating individual sources of pollution and emissions reductions. You can reduce these sources and emissions through the following strategies, which we will expand on below:

  • all-electric homes
  • a balanced ventilation system, and 
  • designing for natural ventilation.

Are All-Electric Homes More Sustainable?

Natural gas continues to be the most popular heating option for the majority of homes. Millions of households also rely on natural gas for their cooking needs. According to the Rocky Mountain Institute, around 70 million American families and businesses burn natural gas, oil, or propane for heating. This choice generates 560 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions a year, which amounts to one-tenth of the nation's total emissions. Relying on natural gas for your heating or cooking needs not only increases your carbon footprint but also ensures that your home won't be able to achieve net-zero energy status.

Another critical factor is that natural gas use in the home can produce dangerous indoor air contaminants such as particulate matter (PM2.5), a hazardous air pollutant. Studies have found that gas stoves create about twice as much PM2.5 as electric stoves. Add to this, when gas stoves and furnaces malfunction, there is a risk of releasing nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and other dangerous air contaminants into the air. Switching from gas to electricity for your home's heating, cooling, and power can be a costly retrofit. For this reason, new homeowners who want to optimize their indoor air quality should opt for an all-electric home.

Air Filter

Why Is It Important to Have Good Ventilation in the Home?

The HVAC equipment you choose for your home will not only keep your house at a comfortable temperature throughout the year but will also play an important role in ensuring good quality indoor air. A balanced ventilation system should incorporate an air filter with a high MERV filtration rating (minimum efficiency reporting value). This choice will ensure that contaminants are trapped before entering your home and help avoid pressure imbalances in your home.

Open Window

Design for Natural ventilation Possibilities

New home construction should focus on strategies that allow for natural ventilation possibilities. An airtight building envelope is unquestionably an essential aspect of an energy-efficient home. But, proper home orientation and design can enable homeowners to take advantage of natural ventilation during certain times of the year. Fresh outdoor air is often the best (and cheapest) strategy to improve the air inside our homes.

Maison Passives
Photo Credit: Maison Passives

Are Energy Costs Expected to Increase?

According to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), energy prices are expected to rise considerably in the short term. A report released in March of 2021 finds that the average residential electricity prices are expected to increase from $13.01 per kWh in 2019 to $13.61 by 2022. The same trend holds for other energy sources as natural gas should rise from $2.88 per million BTU in 2019 to $3.50 for the same amount of gas in 2022. As fossil fuels become increasingly scarce and expensive, homeowners should expect volatile energy and electricity prices to continue to rise.

Anderson A-Series Door ENERGY STAR Windows
Anderson A-Series Door with ENERGY STAR Windows. Photo Credit: Anderson

What Are Some Sustainable Home Building Strategies for Energy and Utility Savings?

Homeowners can implement many new home construction strategies to combat these rising costs and ensure long-term energy savings and resiliency. Some of these include:

  • Decide if you want to achieve a building certification like LEED, Passive House, or ENERGY STAR to help guide you in your design and building process.
  • Insulate, insulate, insulate: Check out our insulation guide and learn more about innovative products like insulated studs.
  • Install high-quality, efficient windows: ENERGY STAR, Triple Pane, or even Quad - what to choose? Explore our many articles on these topics to learn more.
  • Investing in Renewable Energy and building a Rainwater Catchment System and Cistern - we will dive further into these topics below.
Valley Unique Electric INC
Photo Credit: Valley Unique Electric INC

Is Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Natural Gas?

Residential renewable energy options continue to become increasingly cost-competitive compared to fossil fuel sources of electricity. Solar energy, for example, dropped from $378 per installed megawatt-hour in 2010 to $68 per megawatt-hour in 2019, and prices continue to flatten. With solar energy now cheaper than coal (and even natural gas in some regions), there has never been a better time to invest in your solar PV system. Energy Sage estimates that 20-year savings on an average residential solar panel system amount to anywhere from $17,000 to $35,000, depending on the state where you live. The federal solar tax credit is still available this year, allowing homeowners to deduct 21 percent of a residential solar PV system cost. For homeowners who don't have the $10,000 to $30,000 needed for a solar PV (or other types of renewable energy) system, check out these Rise articles on financing energy efficiency upgrades for your home and solar financing and leasing options.


Rainwater Catchment Systems and Cisterns

The vast majority of us trust that every time we turn on a faucet in our homes, safe and abundant freshwater will be available. However, water scarcity is a serious problem that could affect households across the nation and the world. Investing in a rainwater catchment or harvesting system and a household cistern is a foundational element of resilient home design

New home construction that incorporates rainwater catchment and storage options can also save money in the long term. In the US, the average water bill amounts to $72.93 a month for a family of four that uses 100 gallons of water per day per person. Even without factoring in the expected rising cost of potable water due to scarcity and increased energy prices for pumping, a rainwater catchment system should pay for itself in well under a decade. When constructed properly, these systems can last a lifetime, ensuring a free, autonomous water source for your home.

What Are Some Sustainable Home Building Strategies to Lower Your Environmental Footprint?

Many homeowners will also want to design new home construction that minimizes the overall environmental impact. However, it is essential to state that the embodied energy footprint that comes with new home construction tends to "outweigh" the operational efficiency advantages of new home construction. Some estimates find that the increased energy efficiency of new home construction might take upwards of 80 years to offset the emissions and environmental impact of sourcing materials for a new house. Thus, retrofits and renovations of existing building stock tend to be more environmentally friendly options. However, that said, there are ways to reduce the embodied energy footprint of new home construction, which we will outline below.


Local and Recycled Building Materials

The best way to lower your home's embodied energy footprint is to search for local and recycled building materials. Local building materials don't need to be shipped worldwide, and homeowners can search for companies and manufacturers that invest in regenerative practices. Recycled building materials essentially have a negative embodied energy footprint. They prolong the lifespan of materials that would otherwise end up in landfills across the country, often leading to excessive methane emissions.

Earthen Construction Techniques

Earthen construction techniques such as cob, wattle and daub, straw bale homes, and rammed earth are other innovative alternatives for homeowners looking for the most environmentally friendly new home construction techniques. You can often find the raw material for these types of homes directly on the building site. You can use earthen building techniques for walls, natural floors, and interior plasters. Not only are these techniques beautiful, functional, and healthy, but they can also act as a thermal mass to help improve the energy efficiency of your home.

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: 2021-07-10T04:07:11+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.