The Promise of Sustainable Homes
Designing for the Energy Future
A sustainable home reduces the human footprint on the environment and maximizes energy efficiency. Sustainable housing is a straightforward concept and increasingly appeals to many stakeholders as a smart response to the climate crisis. As housing prices continue to spiral upwards, sustainable home building will be vital to clean energy and energy accessibility.
A brief history of sustainable homes
In the mid-20th century, as the Western love affair with technology and mass production intensified, innovators such as Buckminster Fuller experimented with designs such as the Dymaxion House to combine affordability with sustainability. However, by the 1980s, these experiments (Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti is another example) usually ended up filed under “hippies” along with memories of the 1969 Woodstock Festival and bell bottom jeans.
As environmentalism gave way to neoliberalism in the 1980s, sustainable homes became a niche good available either to the wealthy and/or those who chose to “go off the grid” in search of an alternative lifestyle. The growth of suburbs and the status appeal of ever-larger homes also increased housing’s climate footprint. By the 1990s, deplored the “McMansion” phenomenon, but consumers (encouraged by realtors and advertisers and Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) continued to equate the size of a home with the quality of a home.
Enter the climate crisis
The climate crisis has brought sustainable homes back into focus as a tool for climate mitigation and adaptation. Cement manufacturing accounts for 8 percent of global climate emissions (as compared to approximately 2.8 percent for the global aviation industry). As cement is an ingredient in concrete, and hence found in everything from homes to roads to bridges, the cement industry needs to set (and meet) ambitious targets for decarbonization.
Regulators also need to ensure that industry standards (and possibly tax incentives) encourage the development and use of alternative materials in home designs. While there is no magic bullet on offer, there are viable alternatives for sustainable home building that can be adapted to specific safety requirements, ecosystems, and budgets.
Sustainable home building materials
Innovative start-ups and construction firms are experimenting with a variety of sustainable materials. For example, hempcrete mixes the core of the Cannabis sativa plant with water and lime binder. Hempcrete does not release toxins and absorbs CO2. Though hempcrete is not emissions free (per the production of lime binder), it is a healthier option than concrete.
Traditional materials are also making a comeback as architects and builders draw from a wide variety of cultures and insights to modernize sustainable home design. Bamboo, used in China for at least 7,000 years, is light, strong, and renewable. Rammed earth, another ancient technique, can be an alternative to cement when reinforced with rebar.
New materials are also on the horizon. Though 3-D printing does not yet scale to the demands of national housing stock, companies like Print4D and Mighty Buildings are pushing the boundaries of innovation, affordability, and sustainability. MycoWorks, a company founded by mycologist Phil Ross, plans to revolutionize design via a patented process that turns the root structure of fungi into durable materials.
Finally, indigenous design prioritizes working with nature and taking a long-term view of environmental stewardship. The concept of sustainable homes may be innovative in a contemporary sense, but aboriginal communities developed important insights over thousands of years. Urban design and home design in the United States, Aoteoroa/New Zealand, and Canada increasingly draws from indigenous architecture for inspiration.
- Sustainable homes maximize energy efficiency and improve environmental and health outcomes.
- Climate mitigation and adaptation require a sustainable approach to housing.
- Indigenous architecture is sustainable architecture.
- A sustainable home movement emerged in the 1970s but gave way to rapid growth in single-family suburbs and consumer preference for large homes in the 1980s and 1990s in most Western countries.
- Innovations such as 3-D printing and hempcrete provide promising pathways for 21st century sustainable home construction.