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Myths About Sustainable Homes, Debunked

By Camille LeFevre Home Features Editor
Jun 5, 2020

Recently, while touring a new home by a Minneapolis design-build firm, the adjective "luxury" was used far more frequently than the more intriguing descriptor, "sustainable." The multi-million-dollar, 5,394-square-foot, open plan house had high ceilings; large bedrooms with en suite baths; high-end appliances; in-floor heating; Cambria countertops; other high-end finishes and furnishings; and a three-car garage. However, what truly made it luxurious was the bunker-like basketball half-court in the lower level off the bar and family room. All of which the design-build firm wanted to talk about.

Then, I inquired about what made the home sustainable, given "sustainable" was in the company name - even though the term took second-tier billing. Sustainable strategies used in the house included a high-efficiency HVAC system, LED lightstriple-pane German engineered windows, and low-maintenance, long-lasting Longboard siding. Why not talk those up? Because, said one of the company representations: "When you say 'sustainable' to people, they usually cringe," he said, cringing a little bit himself. "They immediately think 'ugly.'"

Eastridge Home Naikoon Contracting
Eastridge Home. Photo Credit: Naikoon Contracting

Myth #1 Sustainable Homes = Ugly

Busted! Myth #1 about sustainable homes, anyway. Honestly, aren't we over that yet? That "sustainable" means "ugly"? Just scroll through the Rise website and feast your eyes on the delightful, well-planned, well-considered, sustainable homes. They range from adorable and modern tiny houses to net-zero luxury homes. Of course, "ugly" as an aesthetic judgment is pretty subjective. Still, deployed as a blanket statement about a whole category of houses, ignorance about what "sustainable home" means in terms of style remains sorely in need of education.

So, consider Myth #1 about sustainable homes, that "they're ugly," now debunked. Let's move on to five other myths about sustainable homes.

tiny house family
Photo Credit: Macy Miller / MiniMotives

Myth #2 Sustainability = Hippie Tree Huggers

There are plenty of hippie tree huggers among us. But sustainability is about more than reducing energy use and saving the planet; it's also about saving money and improving our health.

"Conventional wisdom suggests that sustainability deals exclusively with environmental concerns," explains Lance Hosey for Green Building Advisor. "Wikipedia, for example, defines a green building as 'environmentally responsible and resource-efficient structures, and I routinely hear from architects, 'My clients aren't tree-huggers.' Yet, the fundamental understanding of sustainability was that it integrates the 'triple bottom line' of social, economic, and environmental value—people, profit, and planet... Sustainability encompasses everything."

In other words, you don't even have to be an environmentalist to want a sustainable home. According to Build Native, a Yahoo! Real Estate study found that 50% of 1,545 adults polled in the U.S. reported that sustainability is a requirement of their dream home. Build Native quotes a McGraw Hill Market market survey report. They stated that green construction in the residential market has jumped from 2 to 17 percent of new homes between 2005 and 2011. That report also reported that 61 percent of homebuyers are willing to pay more for houses with other green features and are energy-efficient. These results show that most Americans would love to live in an environmentally friendly abode when the option is available and financially feasible.

We agree - you don't need to be a "tree hugger" to care about your wallet and your family's health. Nor does this moniker apply to care about our ability to breathe clean air and drink clean water. You need to be human.

saving money

Myth #3 Sustainability is Expensive

Building a more sustainable home can require more expensive building materials, fancy smart technology, and complicated systems than a conventional building. That can be true, but the point is to think long-term. Sustainable homes are planned and designed to save the homeowner money over time. This is because materials won't have to be replaced as often or require maintenance. Plus, the savings on energy and water bills can provide significant paybacks over time.

In other words, a sustainably designed home offers better value when life-cycle costs are taken into consideration. For instance, upgrading to energy-efficient windows might cost more upfront, but the reduced load heating and air conditioning will help offset that cost over time. Also, in many areas, rebates and incentives are provided by utilities, nonprofit organizations, or cities or municipalities to encourage homeowners to install low-flow fixtures, LED lights, solar arrays, and other sustainable materials and systems.

passive design
Photo Credit: Passive Design Solutions

Passive Design Solutions has also addressed myths regarding building Passive homes. They mention that it can be expensive to build a Passive House, but it doesn't have to be. They refer to recent research that it can range from 5 - 45% to upgrade to a new Passive House. Their experience in designing and constructing Passive Houses has lowered this premium almost entirely - to between zero and five percent. And they still achieve the same fantastic energy performance! They end their piece with, "When you add your energy bill to your mortgage costs, a passive house can cost the same or less than a code-built home. The bottom line is: if you can afford to build a new house, you can afford a Passive House."

Venmar ERV Zero Energy Project
Venmar ERV. Photo Credit: Zero Energy Project

Myth #4 Sustainable Homes are Too Air Tight

Traditional homes exhibit severe problems with heat loss. Cold drafts can account for 40 to 50 percent of all heat loss in conventional new homes. Air also leaks through the building assemblies, moving moisture into walls, which causes mold. Conversely, some 20th century "green" homes were, yes, too airtight. While well-intentioned to provide homeowners with a super-insulated house, many builders and architects in the late 20th century designed and built homes so tight, little airflow existed.

airtight sustainable home
Photo Credit: Alliance Green Builders

Traditional builders have argued that houses need to breathe, and they worry about over insulating and the risks of a building being too airtight. Today's sustainable or high-performance homes are super-insulated. They have an HRV or ERV ventilation system that provides continuous fresh air—combining an airtight building skin with an efficient ventilation system results in much healthier indoor air quality.

off grid house
Off Grid Hill House by Helios Design Group

Myth #5 Sustainable Means Off-Grid

Whether a remodel/retrofit or new construction, a sustainable home certainly pulls less on the earth's natural resources and your budget—and that can be accomplished without going off-grid. Sustainably designed and constructed homes may have solar panels to help with energy costs. Or, they may have a reclamation system for some of the water used. They aren't off-grid homes that rely solely on their power and other resources, but those homeowners enjoy lower energy and water bills.

Some homeowners do choose the off-grid option with success. And like the term "sustainable" is synonymous with "ugly," off-grid homes used to conjure up images of rickety structures in the woods. Today, however, more and more people worldwide are taking "off-grid" to the next level. It is becoming synonymous with individual autonomy, economic and energy independence, and a way of giving back to the people and places where they're planting themselves and their new lifestyle.


Myth #6 Sustainable Home Improvement Is a Fad

When it comes to sustainable home improvement practices, it's more of a case of grappling with a new reality. All over North America, there is a movement from traditional fossil fuels into cleaner, more energy-efficient behavior. This shift is evident in policies like the Canadian Greening Government Strategy. A federal government think-tank, Policy Horizons Canada, notes that a new consciousness is developing. The "use of the Internet is creating a new generation of discerning consumers who are using their power to push businesses towards deliberate sustainable options." In other words, a 'trickle-up effect is now taking place, where consumers are disrupting the status quo, and supply will have to meet demand.

When it comes to our homes, that demand is transparency and sustainable, environmentally friendly products and materials. This trickle-up effect is showing up in homebuilding practices all over, like in Vancouver, where the city's leadership launched an initiative to be the country's 'greenest city.' Their action plan includes 'Green Homebuilding Policies.' These policies state that new one- and two-family homes must consist of several sustainable features that will help save resources and money and improve the indoor environment.

Today, more and more people are awakening to this new consciousness as they learn about the benefits of choosing a sustainable route in their home building and improvement adventures. Every day, people are proving that, unlike man-buns, the movement is far more than a fad.

Sustainable Kitchen Murray Lampert Design Build, Remodel
Sustainable Kitchen. Photo Credit: Murray Lampert Design Build, Remodel

There you have it. Six myths about sustainable homes debunked. Now, there's no excuse not to incorporate sustainability into your home remodel or new home design. Far beyond being simply sustainable, the movement toward energy efficiency and health-conscious materials and practices in homebuilding speaks to a change in consciousness - more profound respect for the environment and realization of cost savings. The movement continues to innovate and grow at a relentless pace. 

Are you still holding onto some myths of your own about sustainable design? Would you mind sharing them with us? We'll look into them. We will continue to do our best to separate the "ugly" falsehoods from the "sustainable" truths.

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: 2021-10-16T17:39:24+0000
Camille LeFevre

Article by:

Camille LeFevre

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