Sustainable home design is a goal that’s long been sought by builders and homeowners alike. Not only does sustainable design make a house less expensive to operate, it can also help reduce carbon emissions and other environmental impacts. It's not trendy, and evolution can be slow, but sustainability is important to help homes continue to be useful and comfortable as climate change accelerates.
Although most people think of sustainable options as only available for new homes, older homes can also be retrofitted with some level of sustainability in mind. They may never reach the level of efficiency and waste reduction that ground-up builds can, but don’t count out older homes when it comes to sustainable design.
There are many different definitions of sustainable design, but they all share similar characteristics. When it comes to real estate, sustainable design means creating efficiencies that persist for the long term on a property.
“At the highest level, sustainable design touches every part of how we, as a species, inhabit our planet. While obviously true, this can be a daunting mental model,” says Tim Gorter, founder and principal architect of Tim Gorter Architect in Santa Barbara, California. “Architects and homeowners will benefit from thinking about sustainability in categorical terms that provide the greatest impact: site strategies, water conservation, energy efficiency, indoor environmental quality and material resource preservation.”
This means considering how different systems and items around a home can be designed to reduce their negative environmental impact, but sustainability isn’t just about improvements of efficiency on paper.
“Sustainable design choices can also improve the aesthetics and functionality of living spaces,” says Boyd Rudy, associate broker at Dwellings Michigan in Plymouth, Michigan. “For example, choosing materials that are locally sourced and recycled can add beauty and character to a home. Practical considerations such as passive solar orientation can also lead to improved heating and cooling performance, reduced energy costs and increased comfort. In short, sustainable design is not only good for the environment – it’s also good for the people who live in these spaces.”
It can seem like a huge undertaking to create a home that’s optimally sustainable, but sometimes the goal is just doing less harm. That can be a good step in the right direction, and one that’s attainable for many homeowners. This generally doesn’t mean drastic changes that cost tens of thousands of dollars, but smaller steps in the right direction.
“Energy efficiency upgrades like better insulation and sealing your windows and doors are a good way to decrease the operating costs of your home,” says John Oppermann, real estate broker and sustainable home consultant with Avenue 8, based in New York City, New York.
“If you can take a holistic approach to create an energy-efficient home by designing the entire home so that it seals in hot air in the winter and cold air in the summer and uses passive elements like the sun to warm the home, then you can go a long way to reduce your heating and cooling costs. Going with what is called a ‘high-performance design’ can sometimes reduce your energy usage for heating and cooling by up to 90 percent,” says Oppermann.
Energy-efficient windows are more expensive than regular windows, and costs range widely. Energy-efficient windows cost between $300 and $1,000, depending on window size and type of glass. For comparison, a regular window costs between $180 and $410. But you'll eventually make up the cost up in energy bill savings – about 12%, depending on where you live, according to Energy Star, a public-private partnership administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to deliver cost-saving energy efficiency solutions that protect the climate and public health and improve air quality.
Other options, like improving your hot water efficiency and covering your windows during the hottest or coldest part of the day can also make a big impact on a tight budget, especially in an older home.
“Low-flow water faucets and shower heads would be excellent examples of cost-effective methods of improving a home both in water consumption and energy efficiency,” says Greg Wolfson, chief technology officer at EcoSmart Solution in Austin, Texas. “Reducing hot water flow means conserving the supply of the hot water tank – which guzzles more energy than most people think. Window treatments can range widely in terms of pricing and to various degrees of impact, but even low-cost window treatments are worthy of notice for any homeowner.”
Changing out incandescent light bulbs for LEDs is an easy choice because it’s virtually painless and saves so much money.
Switching a home over to be powered entirely with solar if you live in an area that experiences difficult winters with a high chance of power outages might not be as obvious of a win for you or future buyers. In addition, solar conversion comes with some initial costs and can be impractical for some homeowners as well as expensive, since they’re custom-designed for a home based on the roof structure, the amount of power the household uses, the direction the roof faces and myriad other factors. However, if a solar system is purchased and not leased, there's an opportunity for that investment to pay off. Electricity costs are ongoing.
Making sustainable choices for your home can run the gamut from very inexpensive, like when you’re using salvaged materials as part of a sustainable remodel, or exceptionally expensive, like fitting your whole home with a solar system. For many homeowners, the question often becomes, “At what point is this upgrade not going to pay for itself?”
Although that answer will vary widely based on your local real estate market and the buyer pool your home appeals to most, experts agree that improving efficiency can improve your bottom line when it comes time to sell.
“Studies have shown that homes with energy-efficient features tend to sell for more than similar homes without these features,” says Rudy. “Solar panels can also add value to a home, as they can reduce or eliminate a homeowner's electric bill. And while some sustainable choices, such as rain barrels, may not have a direct impact on property values, they can still make a home more attractive to potential buyers.”
But it’s also important to remain grounded and put yourself at the center of each sustainability decision you make.
“Not everyone is willing to martyr themselves on the cross of sustainability,” says Gorter. “If a sustainable design decision makes the life of the homeowner more burdensome, many people will not value that choice. To positively impact property values, focus on sustainable design features that put money in the pocket of the homeowner every month and make their life simpler, easier and more comfortable.”
There are never likely to be hot trends in sustainability, because changing out light bulbs and insulating an attic aren’t sexy or fun, but they do create huge ripples that impact the entire world. Starting small with sustainable choices like recycled furniture, reclaimed remodeling materials and low-water gardens in place of lawns can be great ways to think about sustainability that grows from your own home.
“The effort to lower carbon emissions shouldn’t be left to corporations,” says Wolfson. “It can be done as a collective when individuals make single efforts to help by making sustainable choices to improve their homes and properties.”