Sustainable Home Design 101
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
By Bo Poulsen, Licensed Real Estate Salesperson, Brown Harris Stevens Manhattan
Sustainable home design is not as difficult to achieve as you might think. In fact, by making small adjustments to your home design or selection process, you can easily set yourself on a path to reducing your footprint while promoting personal wellness and overall quality of life—regardless of your prior knowledge or experience.
Do Your Research and Keep Up with Repairs
With a little bit of internet sleuthing and awareness, you can easily make your home healthier and more sustainable.
Even big-box retailers like IKEA have gotten on the bandwagon, allowing you to more easily find sustainably made products comparable to traditional items you would buy on all ends of the price spectrum.
A good example is the small sawmill in Pennsylvania where my wife and I purchased our wood flooring. It’s close by and cuts down on transportation cost/pollution, their wood is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC)-certified, and their prices are reasonable. I recommend using natural wood finish products from WOCA, which will not add too much to cost—especially compared to Polyurethane-based products—and look better.
From an energy efficiency standpoint, it’s important to keep up with frequent maintenance in your home—whether that is making sure the lint trap in your dryer is clean, regularly changing your HVAC filters, or checking that you have proper insulation on your windows and doors. These are small things that can have a big impact on your utility bill.
People tend to believe it costs exponentially more to build sustainably and in an energy-efficient manner. While it is true that some materials cost more, steps like adding additional insulation and taping up a building involve only marginal price increases.
Windows and exterior doors are where you see your larger cost differences. However, these are easily offset through smaller heating/cooling systems and utility savings.
Around 99% of investments in the energy efficiency of your home will outperform your S&P or NASDAQ returns.
What is also often missed is that these materials are generally of higher quality and will last decades longer than other building materials. There are also amazing state and federal subsidies to take advantage of.
Occasionally, I get asked the question of whether it is healthy to have an almost airtight house. These types of homes actually run energy exchangers that constantly exchange the air in the house with fresh HEPA-filtered air from the outside, creating a much healthier space for living and sleeping.
From a décor perspective, it’s not just about doing something good for the planet, it’s about your health. Traditional furniture and carpet manufacturing utilizes volatile organic chemicals that emit pollutants for decades. That smell you notice when you unroll a new carpet is not good for you!
Ask the Right Questions to Qualified Professionals
First, I think it’s very important to educate yourself about various materials and processes. Having a knowledgeable broker and/or home inspector on your side when you’re buying a home is a huge plus.
There are plenty of contractors and developers who “greenwash” their buildings or don’t know what they are doing. The gold standards for sustainable homes are certified homes that fall under the Net Zero and Passive House programs, as well as LEED-certified buildings. But, please be aware that “sustainable,” “energy efficient,” and “healthy” do not always go hand-in-hand.
You can have an energy-efficient home that was built with materials that were not healthy or sustainable, and vice versa.
If you find yourself with a home seller or real estate agent who cannot answer simple questions regarding the materials and systems used and why they are sustainable or energy-efficient, it is usually a red flag in terms of the overall quality of the building or home. Do your homework and have knowledgeable consultants on your side.
Helpful Resources to Consider
Reference materials are great for anyone looking to make their home or space more environmentally friendly—and the internet has many to choose from. The U.S. government, for instance, has a great website with links that span large-scale renovations to small steps you can take in the home. I also enjoy reading green lifestyle blogs like In Habitat and Zero Waste Home.
If you want to learn more or need help with finding a sustainable home, don’t hesitate to get in touch.