5 Commandments of Sustainable Home Building

Excerpted from the Gaiam Real Goods Solar Living Sourcebook

The principles of ecological or sustainable design are holistic. They ask you to consider efficient energy and resource use at every stage of the home-building process: choosing a site, planning and design, choosing of materials, construction, setting up home systems, landscaping, and even the end of a structure’s life cycle. Almost a century of cheap energy has led to habits of use and patterns of settlement completely divorced from the inherent qualities of the land.

Dan Chiras, author of more than 20 books on sustainable home building including The Natural House, The Solar House, and The New Ecological Home, says following these five rules when building make you part of the solution, not part of the problem:

1.     Practice conservation. Use what you need and use it efficiently. This concept speaks to a number of issues, including building small, using passive solar design, emphasizing energy efficiency, reducing wood use, and using materials with low embodied energy.

2.     Recycle, recycle, recycle. More and more building materials and products are available that are manufactured with recycled or “waste” materials.

3.     Use renewable resources. The more the better. ’Nuff said.

4.     Promote environmental restoration and sustainable resource management. Humans need to take an active role in restoring natural ecosystems that have been devastated by human actions, thereby helping to reinstate the ecological services that ecosystems provide, such as flood control, air purification, water pollution control, oxygen production, and pest control. Reclaiming spoiled land, revegetating building sites with native plant species, facilitating conditions that produce biodiversity—these practices of sensitive stewardship can help to heal the planet, at least in the corner you occupy.

5.     Create homes that are good for people, too. Sustainable design considers the health of the occupants of a house, as well as the health of the larger natural environment. These days it’s easy, and affordable, to use materials, products, and components that are nontoxic. It’s also sensible to design a house to be adaptable and accessible, because needs change with age and over the course of a family’s life cycle.

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