There are many reasons to want a sustainable home. It can be healthier for you and your family, by keeping your air clean and your environment free of unwanted chemicals. It can save you money by reducing heating, cooling and water costs. And it can reduce your impact on the environment.
If you’re looking to invest in an environmentally friendly, “green,” or sustainable home, you’re in good company. According to USGBC (the U.S. Green Building Council), homes that receive their LEED certification sell faster, and for higher prices, than similar non-LEED homes.
New homes can be built with sustainability in mind, but what do you look for in an existing home to determine its impact on your environment?
One resource is the LEED v4.1 Residential guide, which was launched in 2019 as a streamlined guide for sustainable homes. LEED evaluates homes in eight areas: Location and Transportation, Sustainable Sites, Water Efficiency, Energy and Atmosphere, Materials and Resources, Indoor Environmental Quality, Innovation, and Regional Priority.
Below are a few things to look for when evaluating a home’s sustainability.
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Location matters for a number of reasons. If the home is in a high-density area, it will be part of a more efficient community where people, products and utilities don’t have to travel as far to reach their destination. Access to transportation is important, too; if you can walk, bike or take public transportation, you’ll reduce your carbon footprint over all the years you live in your home.
You can also make sure you’re choosing a neighborhood that was built to have minimal impact on native wildlife. You’ll have more control if you’re building rather than buying an existing home, but remember—selecting a property that has already been developed is greener than developing a new lot.
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When you’re building a home, you can make an effort to select sustainable, renewable, or recycled supplies—bamboo flooring, for example, or reclaimed wood. But once the house is built, the materials are already in use. By purchasing a previously owned home, you prevent the consumption of new lumber, siding, roofing and more.
In an existing home, look for durability. Cheap materials will have to be replaced quickly, generating waste, requiring natural resources, and potentially exposing you to new chemicals. A home that is built to last can stand for over 100 years.
One more factor will greatly affect the impact of your home: its size. Clearly, a smaller house will use less building material and will require less energy to run. Choose the smallest home that is comfortable for your family.
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If you want to reduce costs, look for a lot that offers shade and sun in all the right places. Known as “passive” heating and cooling, the use of shade trees to prevent heat buildup and the proper orientation to make the most of sunshine takes the load off your HVAC system and requires less energy.
You’ll also want to evaluate the lawn. Americans use massive amounts of water each year to keep their grass green and growing—then use additional fuel to cut the grass down to size. You can minimize these expenditures with a smaller lot, hardscaping or drought-resistant plantings that require less water and no mowing.
A properly graded lot will slope away from the house, preventing water damage and the interventions and replacements it requires.
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4. Energy efficiency
Inside the home, energy efficiency is one of the best ways to make sure your house is green and saves you money in the long run. Check the large appliances—furnace, air conditioner, water heater, washer and dryer, refrigerator and others—to see whether they’re labeled as Energy Star products. These certified appliances use less electricity or gas.
Harder to see but just as important, is insulation. A house that keeps the heat out in the summer and the cold out in the winter will make the home more energy efficient. Your inspector can help you evaluate the walls, ceilings, water heater, pipes, ducts and seams to make sure they’re well-insulated.
Windows can be friends or foes. Old, leaky windows will make your appliances work harder to keep the house at the right temperature, and may allow moisture to build up. On the other hand, top-of-the-line modern windows can provide outstanding insulation while allowing the house to fill with natural light, so you don’t have to turn on light fixtures.
If the house is older, it might pay to have the home evaluated for leaks. A bit of caulk or a new window frame could save a lot in extreme weather.
The greenest houses have multi-zone controls for heating and cooling, so you’re not wasting precious energy heating a room you rarely enter or cooling the rec room while you’re upstairs in your bedroom at night. Programmable thermostats, similarly, let you control how much your heating and cooling systems are running.
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5. Water efficiency
Look for low-flow showerheads, faucets, toilets, washing machines and dishwashers to prevent overuse of water in your home. It may be worth replacing older versions in order to save water, especially if you live in an area that is vulnerable to droughts.
Your home inspector can check for leaky pipes, signs of water damage or excess moisture. In some cases, a dehumidifier can help dry out the air and prevent mold and other unhealthy types of buildup.
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6. Air quality
Since you’ll spend so much time in your home, you’ll want to make sure that the air quality is high. Good ventilation brings fresh air into the house and prevents the buildup of pollutants. Air filters, exhaust fans, range hoods and chimneys should all be in good working order.
Look for bonus features, such as radon pumps and exhaust fans in the garage, and avoid products that release VOCs (volatile organic compounds) into the air.
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7. Use it Wisely
A well-designed house can minimize the impact on the environment and reduce the resources required to run it, but much of its sustainability depends on the habits of its occupants. Here are a few tips to make sure you use your home in the greenest way:
- a. Program your thermostat to allow wider swings while the home is empty (just don’t turn off the heat in winter or your pipes may freeze!).
- b. Dress for the season. While you’re home, sleeveless shirts and shorts in the summer make higher ambient temperatures more comfortable, and a cozy sweatshirt in winter can keep you from cranking up the heat.
- c. Use LED lightbulbs and rechargeable batteries where possible.
- d. Adjust the water heater to a lower maximum temperature.
- e. Repair—don’t replace—when possible. But if an appliance has leaks or is very inefficient, replace it with an Energy Star model.
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8. Invest for the Long Run
If you’re serious about making your home as sustainable as possible, consider spending money to make some real upgrades. Geothermal heating and cooling, for example, takes advantage of the consistent temperatures underground to help cool your home in summer and warm it in winter. If you have good sun exposure, solar panels can lessen your impact on the grid.
Try a gray water system that allows you to reuse non-potable water when possible, or look into your community’s water reuse solutions. Use rain barrels to water your gardens.
New smart systems of all kinds use sensors to adjust their use to the actual need.
Conclusion: With some research and careful examination, you can find a home that is gentle on the planet. Start from “good” and work toward “great,” making gradual upgrades and careful replacements as you go. By valuing sustainability, you can make your dwelling healthier, easier on your wallet and even more valuable for resale.
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