As "consumers," we are frequently faced with lifestyle decisions that can affect our environment. There are some options in this life that can make a big difference in what the quality of life will be for those who follow us. Following the flow of our culture is difficult to avoid, and unfortunately the flow is not in the right direction for developing a sustainable future.
One of the most momentous choices any of us will make is the type of home we live in. I have created a list of thirteen sustainable architecture principles that can guide you in your housing choices.
Small is beautiful.
The trend lately has been towards huge mansion-style homes. While these may fit the egos of those who buy them, they don't fit with a sustainable lifestyle. Large houses generally use a large amount of energy to heat and cool themselves. This energy generally comes from burning fossil fuels, depleting these resources and emitting greenhouse gases and pollutants into the air.
Also, the bigger the house, the more materials go into its construction; materials that can have their own environmental consequences. A house must be the right size for its occupants and their activities.
My wife and I (and our two dogs) have lived happily on a forty foot bus for the past four years. The key to this is efficient use of space, good organization, and keeping possessions at a manageable level. We are looking forward to spreading something in the passive solar house we are building.
Heat with the sun
Nothing can be more comfortable for the body and mind than living in a good house warmed by the sun. I say "good" because proper design is crucial to the comfort of a home like this. You may have walked into a solar home and feel suffocated by the blazing heat, or perhaps you have shuddered at the lack of it. A good passive solar design will provide enough sunlight in the rooms to be absorbed by the surrounding thermal mass (usually masonry materials), so that heat is returned to the room when the sun goes down. Thermal mass is a kind of "heat battery" that stores heat and absorbs it to prevent the room from getting too hot during the day. Equally important to thermal mass is insulation (like straw bales or crushed volcanic rock) that will keep that heat inside. Thermal mass materials need to be insulated from the outside, otherwise they will bleed that heat back. A rock house can have tons of mass, but it can be uncomfortably cold due to this loss of energy. Therefore, a good solar design will use the right type of materials in the right places, combining thermal dynamics with utilitarian design. There is much more to say about solar design, and there are many good books on the subject.
Keep your mood
As I suggested earlier, a well-designed solar home is warm when you want it and cool when you want it; that is, the temperature tends to stay fairly uniform. A good way to stay calm is to dig in the dirt. If you dig about six feet into the ground, you will find that the temperature there varies only a few degrees throughout the year. While this temperature (approximately 50-55 degrees F.) may be too cold for general living comfort, you can use the stability of the earth's temperature to moderate thermal fluctuations in the house. If you dig a south-facing hillside to build, or berm the north part of the house with dirt, you can take advantage of this. The part of the house that is underground needs to be well insulated, or the earth will continuously absorb the heat from the house.
Let nature cool your food.
In the old days, people depended on pantries and basements to help keep produce and other supplies fresh. Ice boxes gave way to refrigerators, which are obviously much more convenient, but somehow the use of cold pantries and basements also got in the way. This is very bad because these spaces have functions that a refrigerator simply cannot replace. Root cellars can store large quantities of produce from harvest time until next summer. Cold pantries can store some produce, but all kinds of other food and kitchen supplies can also be kept. Cool, dry storage is the best way to preserve most foods. The coolness of the soil can keep a pantry or root cellar with berm cool; night air can also be used to cool a storage room. The convenience and security of having ample supplies at your fingertips is unmatched.
Be energy efficient.
There are many ways to conserve the use of fossil fuels. Using the sun, wind or water to produce electricity is one. If you choose to do this, you will be forced to be careful in how you use your electricity because it is limited. Whether you get your electricity from alternative sources or off the grid, it pays to choose energy efficient appliances. Front-loading clothes washers, for example, use much less electricity, water, and soap than top-loaders. Compact fluorescent lights use about a third of the electricity of standard light bulbs. Many appliances use electricity simply plugged in (known as phantom charging); Make sure to avoid this.
The average person in the United States uses between 100 and 250 gallons of water per day. I know that it is possible to live well with a tenth of that amount. The use of low-water capacity toilets, flow restrictors in shower heads, and faucet aerators is now quite common. The most radical conservation approaches include diverting greywater from bathrooms, laundry, and bathroom sinks to irrigation plants; take rainwater from roofs and paved areas for domestic use and switch to composting toilets. These can be very effective and safe means of conserving water if done carefully to avoid bacterial infestation. Landscaping with drought-tolerant native plants can save a tremendous amount of water.
Use local materials
The use of indigenous local materials offers several benefits. On the one hand, they naturally fit the "feel" of the place. For another, they don't burn as much fossil fuel to transport them, and industry is likely to process them less. An example of building materials found in our corner of Colorado would be rocks, sand, adobe, and slag (crushed volcanic rock).
Use natural materials
Again, naturally occurring materials often "feel" better for living. When you step on an adobe floor, for example, you feel the resilient mother earth beneath your feet. One of the main reasons for choosing natural materials over industrial ones is that the pollution often associated with their manufacture is kept to a minimum. For every ton of portland cement that is made, an equal amount of carbon dioxide is released into the air. And then there is the question of your health; natural materials are much less likely to adversely affect your health.
Save the forests.
Having lived for many years in the Pacific Northwest, I can attest to the terrible degradation of national and private forests. While wood is apparently a renewable resource, we have gone beyond sustainable harvesting and have ruined huge ecosystems. Use wood for decoration. Cull dead trees for structural supports. Use masonry, straw bales, papercraft, cob, adobe, rocks, volcanic rock bags, etc., instead of wood. Unfortunately it's difficult to steer clear of wood to make a roof, so consider making a dome out of stackable materials. Domes are also more energy efficient and use fewer materials for the same space as a box. A conventional straw bale house only reduces the amount of wood used by about 15%!
If the materials already exist, you can also use them, because by doing so you are not promoting the creation of more of them. You can also keep them out of the landfill or prevent them from being transported for further processing. Wood that stays dry does not degrade much, and neither does glass. All kinds of things can be used in a house. We are using old metal wagon wheels to support the window openings in our dirt house.
Built to last
There is an attitude in this disposable society that an old house could be replaced by a new one. Unfortunately, this is often true, due to poor quality construction or poor choice of materials, or lack of maintenance. A well-built home can last for centuries, and it should. Moisture entering a building can lead to ruin, and it is difficult to avoid it, either from the outside or from internal condensation. For this reason, I am in favor of using materials that do not degrade by moisture.
Grow your food
Why don't you ask your house to help you feed yourself? With all that glass facing south, you could also dedicate it to a greenhouse. Herbs and lettuces can be grown throughout the year. What a pleasure!
A basic principle of sustainability is sharing what you have with others. Doing this can reduce the need for unnecessary duplication of facilities. In this way, a group of people can not only have fewer tools or devices or functional areas, but at the same time they can have a greater variety of these facilities available. This benefits both the environment (through less industrial activity) and the individual (providing more options for living).
By Kelly Hart
Established in 2001, GreenHomeBuilding.com is primarily a labor of love. Kelly and the GreenHomeBuilding team of experts have answered thousands of questions for readers over the years and we continue to post up-to-date information on increasingly important sustainable architecture.
Original article (in English)