Save the Planet in Style: Your Guide to Sustainable Home Design
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- 10 min read
Allaire Conte Contributing AuthorCloseAllaire Conte Contributing Author
Allaire Conte is a writer with a passion for real estate, technology, and nature. She holds her MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University and is based in Brooklyn.
At HomeLight, our vision is a world where every real estate transaction is simple, certain, and satisfying. Therefore, we promote strict editorial integrity in each of our posts.
A 2020 study by PEW Research Center found that 63% of Americans believe that climate change affects their local communities. If you’re among eco-minded homeowners, you should know that investing in sustainable home design is one of the most powerful ways to reduce your environmental footprint.
“Green building isn’t just chic — the benefits reach into every aspect of our lives,” shares Cassy Aoyagi, board member of the Los Angeles Chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC-LA) and president of FormLA Landscaping.
“The same building strategies that protect the environment improve our physical and mental health. They make us more resilient to challenges like the pandemic. They can decrease our risk to ‘natural’ disasters like wildfire, flooding, and mudslides, as well as our energy and water bills.”
Ready to improve your home’s sustainability? Here are 12 ways to create a greener, healthier living space.
1. Build with sustainable wood
Sustainable wood might sound like an oxymoron to those of us who remember the Save the Rainforest campaigns of the late 1980s and early 1990s. However, wood sourced from sustainably managed forests is better for the environment than materials like cement and steel.
Cement and steel account for 38% of carbon emissions in the manufacturing industry. Since the manufacturing industry is responsible for more human-caused emissions than any other sector, disrupting it has the potential to slow down climate change. The challenge, though, comes in finding a viable alternative.
Enter mass timber; a term broadly used to describe wood products engineered to match the structural capabilities of concrete and steel. This material performs well in fire, expedites construction times by up to 25%, and withstands impact from earthquakes exceptionally well.
But what about cutting down our forests? The beauty of mass timber is its engineered character. Manufacturers can use dead or dying timber to create it, effectively preventing forest fires by removing these dried trees. So long as long as you’re using ethically farmed mass timber, this sustainable option is a no-brainer.
2. Look for GREENGUARD Certification or CRI Green Label Plus Certification
The EPA has found that Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are two to five times higher in indoor environments than outdoors since many household items leak toxic chemicals like formaldehyde into the air. In a high enough concentration and with a long enough exposure, these chemicals pose significant health risks, namely respiratory illness.
This risk is substantial considering that many Americans are spending more time at home with the increase of remote work. Not to mention that those who are most vulnerable to the health consequences of VOC exposure (like those lung disease) spend disproportionately more time indoors.
Thankfully, organizations have emerged to help test and promote products that don’t emit VOCs. Underwriter Laboratories (UL), a global safety standard organization, created the Greenguard Certification to help consumers identify products “scientifically proven to meet some of the world’s most rigorous third-party chemical emissions standards, helping to reduce indoor air pollution and the risk of chemical exposure.”
Likewise, The Carpet and Rug Institute’s Green Label Plus Certification identifies adhesives, carpets, rugs, and cushions that have met stringent criteria for low emissions. An independent laboratory must test and certify a product for it to bear the CRI Green Label Plus logo.
It’s particularly crucial to select a carpet with this label since carpets are notorious for off-gassing toxic VOCs: first, flooding a home after installation, and then slowly leaching chemicals into the air for years to come. You can easily find Green Label Plus certified products in the Carpet and Rug Institute’s database.
3. Orientate your house for natural light and heat
The electricity that powers our buildings (both residential and commercial) accounts for 55% of global electricity consumption. To make a meaningful dent in this massive chunk of consumption, think beyond good habits like turning the lights off and cutting back on heater use. Modify your home to optimize light and thermoregulation.
Strategically placed windows keep your home warmer (or cooler) during the day and reduce your need to run the HVAC. For instance, southern-facing windows allow more natural light into your home, so you don’t need to keep as many lights on in the daytime.
Where you live — the unique climate and topography — influences the most efficient window placement. Though there are a few basic principles:
- Maximize southern-facing windows and doors to get the longest sun exposure.
- Limit western-facing windows to avoid excessive heat.
- Add more northern-facing windows for even natural lighting that lasts most of the day.
Some additional bonuses? The UV rays in sunshine act as an antiseptic, and all that natural light can increase serotonin and endorphin levels.
4. Adorn walls with recycled glass tiles
Carbon dioxide emissions from ceramic tile production emit a whopping 180,000 metric tons a year. While this number pales in comparison to emissions from the likes of cement or steel, it’s significant enough to second guess that glass backsplash on your Pinterest board.
But thankfully you don’t have to sacrifice style for sustainability: Recycled glass tiles offer a chic and eco-friendly solution. The tiles are made through a traditional glass recycling process. Manufacturers melt down glass refuse (like recycled bottles), then dye and reform the glass into sheets that they cut into glass tiles.
Recycled glass tiles are available in an endless array of colors, shapes, and sizes. You don’t even have to commit to the glassy look since there are ceramic and marble imitations like these Calcutta lookalikes.
Bonus: Consider terrazzo for floors or countertops. This versatile recycled glass material is a favorite in LEED-certified buildings. Terrazzo was a favorite of Art Deco designers in the movement’s heyday in the 1920s. Today, this design fad is making a roaring comeback a century later.
5. Cozy up to eco-friendly insulation like denim or Thermacork
The very color green summons to mind the eco-adage: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Try as we might, it’s rare that we’re able to act on all three at once. But choosing sustainable insulation is an easy way to check off all three R’s of sustainability.
Properly insulating your house can significantly reduce the amount of energy needed to control indoor temperature. Though insulation is a fairly simple upgrade, it makes a huge impact since over half of all energy use in American households is dedicated to heating and cooling needs. With a properly insulated home, you’ll not only lower your energy bills but also feel more comfortable indoors with fewer temperature fluctuations throughout the day.
You can double the positive impacts of insulating your home by choosing insulation made of reused or recycled materials, like denim or Thermacork. You read that right: denim — the same stuff your 501’s are made out of. In fact, the denim in your jeans and in your walls may have come from the same place. Denim insulation is typically made from the unused or leftover swaths from clothes manufacturers.
You’ll have to pay just under double the cost of fiberglass insulation for this environmentally friendly option at about $1.10 per square foot as compared to about $0.60 per square foot. But the price may be worth it when you consider you’re tripling your positive environmental impact by reducing, reusing, and recycling all at once!
And if you really want to reduce your carbon footprint, consider the carbon negative option of Thermacork for $3.50 per square foot. Thermacork is sustainable since it’s made from the leftover cork sheets used to make wine corks, which utilize only about 30% of the product. Thermacork manufacturers heat these sheets, expanding the material and activating a natural binder in the cork to create a cohesive material, and then slice the sheets into insulation boards.
Another benefit: Cork manufacturers can harvest the bark from mature oak trees without cutting the trees down. That means that the trees can continue to pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, compounding the reduction in greenhouse gases.
Whichever eco-friendly insulation you choose, you’re also doing an important part to reduce dependence on less environmentally friendly options. For example, the popular insulation material, fiberglass, can produce toxic air emissions during production, including styrene, a chemical that can cause damage to the central nervous system. The chemicals used in fiberglass fabrication can also react with the air to form smog, a form of ground-level ozone, which causes a number of respiratory effects.
6. Invest in double pane windows
Windows are responsible for 25% to 30% of all residential heating and cooling energy use because of heat gain or loss through these permeable features. If you have single-pane or leaky windows, you’re likely using significantly more energy to regulate indoor temperature.
While replacing windows is a more expensive sustainable home upgrade, this project offers a tangible return on investment. High-efficiency windows can save you up to $583 a year on energy costs, add over $9,000 to your home value at resale, and reduce your home’s carbon dioxide emissions by over 6,000 pounds by cutting back on a home’s energy use.
When shopping for these upgrades, look for the Energy Star label. Energy Star is a government-regulated label for products that meet the strictest standards of energy efficiency. The best part? Energy Star window labels also help you determine the model that is best suited for your climate.
7. Upgrade to an insulated garage door
Many garage doors lack proper insulation, allowing outside air to enter your home. In a three or four season climate, this permeability means big energy losses for your home. If your garage door lets air in, replace it with an insulated model to instantly boost your home’s energy efficiency.
When shopping for an insulated garage door, look at the R-Value. This is the measure of thermal efficiency – the higher the value, the more protection it offers. An R-value of about 7 to 9 is adequate for most attached garages, though you’ll want an R-value of 10 or above if your garage is connected to your HVAC system. According to Energy Star, properly sealing your home’s thermal boundaries – walls, windows, and garage included – can save you $200 annually, or up to 10% on total energy bills.
8. Consider adding solar panels
Can you imagine passively generating power, reducing energy bills, and even selling back the power you produce to the grid? Though it might seem too good to be true, these are all benefits of going solar. But that’s not all! According to the U.S. Green Building Council, solar energy is environmentally friendly in two other key ways:
- Solar energy reduces greenhouse gas emissions by divesting from dirty power producers. Just how dirty are traditional sources of electricity? Carbon dioxide emissions from electricity production account for about one-third of all emissions in the United States.
- Solar power doesn’t strain the water supply. Electric power plants use a shocking amount of water. One study of global water consumption by electric power plants found that they use more than three trillion gallons of water every year. For reference, that’s the equivalent of about one-tenth of all the water in Lake Tahoe every year.
Beyond making sustainable gains, solar panels can increase your home value by as much as 4%. Just note that this is only true for owned solar panels — leased solar panels don’t add value to your home since they don’t belong to you and aren’t considered real property.
Pro tip: 2021 is a great year to add this project to your Green Home To-Do List. All owned solar systems (whether bought with cash or through financing) installed before December 31st, 2021, are eligible to claim a 22% tax credit.
9. Add a solar hot water or tankless water heater
Look no further than your faucet to reduce your energy use: converting your hot water heating to a solar and tankless system offers unbeatable savings. Tankless hot water heaters heat water as needed instead of in large batches like traditional water heaters. This process leads to less energy wasted on hot water that is never used, plus lower energy bills — this amounts to saving the average household $115 per month. That being said, the energy savings of solar water heaters are unmatched: The Department of Energy estimates that a solar water heater can cut energy costs by 50%.
These water heaters are more expensive than traditional models, though. For tankless systems, prices vary depending on the type (i.e., natural gas, propane, or electric) and equipment needs (i.e., vent kits, gas connectors, insulation, etc.) for your home, but units typically cost between $500 to $1,500., Installation costs an additional $1,000 or more, with the national average coming in at a little over $2,100.
The high price tag is for a good reason. Any hot water heater installation is a highly technical and dangerous process that requires the skills of a plumber, carpenter, and electrician; converting a home from a traditional water heater to a tankless one makes the process even more difficult. An improperly installed tankless water heater can lead to an explosion, gas leak, or fire. Many counties even require that this home improvement project is handled by a professional, so check your local code before you attempt to DIY.
Solar water heaters retail at a similar price point. Expect to pay anywhere from $1,000 to $4,000 for a unit, and an additional $1,000 to $3,000 for installation. Active systems — which maintain a constant flow of hot water — are on the more expensive end of this range, while passive systems — which simply heat water supply with available sunlight — are on the cheaper side. Manufacturers also recommend that you have a backup system in case of extended cloudy weather.
10. Avoid materials with toxic chemicals like formaldehyde
Avoiding toxic chemicals sounds like a no-brainer, but it can be more difficult than you realize. Toxic chemicals are all around us: in the products we use to clean, in our furniture, and even in the paint on our walls. The ubiquity of these substances is exactly what makes them so dangerous. Don’t get caught unsuspecting and look out for these common toxins on product labels:
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs)
VOCs are a group of chemicals found in flooring, composite wood products, adhesives, and a variety of other common household products. As mentioned earlier, VOCs “off-gas” or emit toxic chemicals into the air we breathe. Breathing in VOCs can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat, difficulty breathing, even damage to the central nervous system.
Reduce your exposure by airing out your home for several days after installing anything that uses materials with VOCs. You should also store unused chemicals in a well-ventilated part of your house, like a garage.
This chemical is a common preservative found in manufactured woods that scientists have linked to cancer. To reduce your exposure, look for wood products that use the more eco-friendly and formaldehyde-free phenol resin.
This group of chemicals is most commonly found in plastic items and vinyl flooring. More studies are needed to understand the extent of the impact that phthalates have on humans. However, the Center for Disease Control reports that phthalates have affected the reproductive system of laboratory animals. These chemicals can be harder to spot in household materials, but the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act requires that they are listed on any consumer commodities. You can avoid purchasing flooring with phthalates with natural options like wood or stone.
Most plastics contain petroleum, which still carries the environmental impacts and implications of oil drilling and production. While plastic (and thereby petroleum) is hard to avoid outright, begin reducing your consumption by looking for latex-based paints, products made with soy or beeswax, and natural building materials.
Polyfluorinated Compounds (PFCs)
Like VOCs and phthalates, PFCs are a group of chemicals commonly used as a finish to make building materials more stain, water, and grease resistant. Animal studies have suggested that PFCs reduce immune function and can even cause developmental difficulties; however, more studies are needed to understand their full impact on humans. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences says that we consume PFCs through using products containing them or simply breathing in air that does. As with the other toxic chemicals listed here, the best way to avoid PFCs is simply to look for them on the ingredients in common household items.
11. Embrace sustainable landscape design
When it comes to a sustainable home, your yard is yet another important place to upgrade with eco-friendly features. Aoyagi, who has enjoyed a long career in sustainable design and landscaping, says, “We’re now looking beyond buildings to our landscapes and neighborhoods where we can, once again, exponentially improve the resilience of our clients and our communities.”
Increasing resilience is particularly important when it comes to water savings. The average bermudagrass lawn requires 500 gallons of water per year. This might not be a problem in a damp climate like the Pacific Northwest, but in the arid sunbelt, where major cities like Phoenix average only eight inches per year, those 500 gallons deplete water resources fast. Not only can this strain the water supply, but it also costs homeowners in the Valley of the Sun extra to water in peak seasons when lawns need it most.
To cut down on water usage and ensure you don’t end up with a brown lawn in the heat of the summer, Aoyagi recommends prioritizing native plants for your outdoor space. These species will be more naturally adapted to the environment of your home, and therefore, require less water and fertilization. Native species also require less upkeep and, if planted strategically, can often survive off the natural rainfall alone. They may even have a restorative effect on the environment by providing shelter for wildlife local to your area.
12. Beware of “greenwashing”
As the name suggests, greenwashing is the process by which companies convey false or misleading information about a product to present it as more environmentally friendly. Follow these three tips to ensure your sustainable upgrades are the real deal:
- Read the labels: If a product or material claims to be made of recycled materials, see just how much of it is made from these sources. It may be less than you think. For example, check out this 100% recycled rug from West Elm compared to this one from Wayfair, which is simply listed as “recycled.”
- Check for certification, like Greenguard, Energysaver, and LEED: Products with these labels meet rigorous standards put out by environmental agencies dedicated to bringing sustainability to the construction industry.
- Partner with an eco-expert in your area: Going green can feel intimidating, but the help of a sustainable designer can make your green transition seamless. Lean on these pros to make the science work for you and harness the green potential of your home.
Sustainable home design makes for a happier, healthier world
If you’re considering going green in your home build or renovation, it’s likely not just about the numbers for you. (Although, it does help that sustainable homes sell for higher prices than their counterparts.) Eco-conscious building choices ensure a safer, cost-effective, and stylish home while codifying your commitment to the planet. Don’t be intimidated by the entirely self-sustaining designs of Earthships — sustainable home design begins with your commitment to keep the planet in mind, one eco-friendly upgrade at a time.
Header Image Source: (Vivint Solar / Unsplash)