Sustainable Homes Are More Affordable Than Ever Before
By Michael Tobias
It is a well-known fact that buildings generate substantial impacts on the environment and natural resources. In fact, in the U.S. as much as 40% of the energy consumed is associated with buildings of some sort, including single- and multi-family homes. This is one of the pressing reasons we need to do our utmost to ensure that our homes are sustainable.
Sustainable homes are eco-friendly and energy-efficient. Designed and constructed to ensure they will be durable for a very long time, they embrace fundamental principles of sustainability that result in lower energy bills and fewer problems that are related to moisture. Yes, they do cost a bit more than the standard homes we have built and lived in for centuries, but only as much as 10% more. And, the fact is that even if up-front costs of construction and installation of the systems necessary to make our homes eco-friendly are a little higher, sustainable homes are guaranteed to be affordable in the future.
Affordable Sustainable Housing
It is generally accepted worldwide that sustainable housing has enormous environmental benefits as well as providing consumers (both owners and inhabitants) with direct value in monetary terms. For instance:
- Operating costs are reduced.
- Energy costs can easily be reduced by as much as 30%.
- Utility bills can be reduced by using existing technologies and employing good management practices.
- Homes are more comfortable because design is improved and they are energy efficient.
- They are more healthy because less toxic (ideally no toxic) materials are used.
- Ventilation systems are much better, improving the quality of air inside the home.
This benefits everyone, but there is also increasing evidence that the combination of sustainability and affordability is working well for low- to medium-income families as well as first-time buyers.
In the U.S., several “green” home building programs are targeted specifically at affordable homes. The Enterprise Foundation’s Green Communities project has already spent millions of dollars training and providing technical support that encourages and enables developers to go green in a manner that is cost-effective.
There are many more initiatives like this in the U.S. and other parts of the world, but the challenges are to educate consumers and take steps that will make existing homes more sustainable so that maintenance and running costs become cheaper.
Rules & Regulations
There are many ways to improve energy efficiency in homes and save costs, but the most obvious and common ways are to maximize insulation and to install solar water heating. Building smaller homes and using energy-efficient appliances also has a major impact.
Since a great many consumers don’t recognize the importance of improving sustainability, many countries globally have introduced codes, building standards, and rating schemes, some of which have proved to be more effective than others.
Encouraging, if not forcing housing developers and building designers to consider sustainability in the design stages results in more effective sustainable solutions that benefit both the environment and those who will live in the house. Incorporating these measures right from the start also has a positive impact on costs, potentially reducing them substantially.
In all countries there are national building regulations of some sort, often with more specific regional or local codes for states and/or cities. Some states and cities have introduced their own legislation to accelerate sustainability.
In California, for example, the Renewables Portfolio Standard (RPS), established in 2002, governs electricity retail sales and requires all the state’s electricity to come from renewable, carbon-free resources by 2045. By the end of 2030, 50% must come from renewable sources.
Chicago introduced energy benchmarking in 2014 and a new ENERGY STAR energy-rating system in 2019. The goal is to unlock opportunities for energy and cost savings. Additionally, ENERGY STAR Portfolio Manager is used to track water use in city-owned buildings, although this is not mandatory. A major benefit is that highly rated buildings are easier to lease and sell.
Chicago residential properties are subject to heat disclosure requirements so that prospective tenants know whether they will be personally responsible for paying the utility company for gas and/or electric heat. Full disclosure of heat used for the previous 12 months must be supplied to prospective purchasers.
New York City has a voluntary carbon challenge program that aims to reduce greenhouse gases emitted from buildings, and it aims to ensure that the electric grid serving the City will be 70-80% renewable as soon as possible.
Of course, there are many similarities in building codes and regulations when it comes to sustainability, particularly in terms of aiming for net-zero status. But climatic conditions and other local issues are also taken into account.
How to Improve the Sustainability of Homes
As mentioned above, the sustainability of homes is not only about energy-efficiency. Water efficiency is also important. Also, it is a recognized fact that to simply comply with building codes and so on is not enough. Rather, designers and builders, as well as other professionals including architects and those who provide engineering solutions in Chicago, New York, or in Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco or any other Californian city, need to be proactive.
Some of the simplest ways to improve the sustainability of new homes include:
- Orienting the position of the house to take advantage of passive sun control. That’s the job of the designer or architect.
- Thorough insulation of ceilings, walls, floors, and basements. This is the only way to produce a thermal “envelope” that will keep you cool in summer and warm in winter without having to resort to constant mechanical heating and cooling, especially systems that use fossil fuels.
- Installation of photovoltaic solar panels that convert free sunlight into electricity, and solar systems that heat water.
- Installation of energy-efficient lighting, especially bulbs.
- Use of low-flush toilets and showerheads that use less water.
- Rainwater harvesting and gray-water plumbing for non-potable indoor and agricultural (garden) use. A company offering plumbing engineering services in Chicago or other cities can help here.
- Implementation of recycling strategies including composting of waste foodstuffs, use of secondhand materials, and active recycling of household metal (tin cans, bottles, and so on), hard and soft plastic (containers and packaging), and paper, including cardboard.
Ultimately, to be both sustainable and affordable, housing has to meet many different goals. For instance, it must be designed so that the value of its energy-efficient performance outweighs initial financial costs. Critical issues include:
- Air quality for health, which directly affects the design of air conditioning, heating, and ventilation systems.
- High durability and low maintenance, which relates to the construction systems used, and materials selected. They need to last a very long time but with the least possible impact on the environment.
- Design, which adds value financially and aesthetically.
Buying a home is usually the biggest investment any individual will make, but it is not just a one-off capital cost. Rather, the financial demands of owning a home (or renting one) fluctuate over a period of time. For this reason, it is important to consider running costs of operating and maintaining the home over time. Certainly, if the property is sustainable energy and water costs will be less.
Unfortunately, most banks and other financial institutions willing to finance homes are still mostly focused on first costs rather than encouraging customers to ensure their homes are sustainable over time. There are, though, some that offer preferential mortgage rates for sustainable homes.
The irony is that preferential home loans and mortgages should be a major driver in terms of influencing people’s choices. Hopefully though, as people start to recognize the long-term affordability of owning a sustainable home, things will change more rapidly.
Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.