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Many people who want to build an eco-friendly house, or renovate an old house to make it eco-friendly, are put off by the expectation that they will be faced with higher costs. It doesn’t matter where you live in the world, this perception is a global one, and it is very real.
But as the global commitment to make all buildings, including our homes, carbon-neutral increases momentum, sustainability is becoming increasingly affordable for everyone.
What this means is that we are finding it easier and considerably more affordable to reduce our carbon footprint using natural resources like sunlight, solar power, wind, and even the earth itself.
Building Costs of Eco-Friendly Homes
It is commonly stated that sustainable or passive houses cost, on average, 10% more than regular houses that don’t incorporate renewable energy.
If an eco-friendly house does cost more to build than a traditional one, it is usually because some of the elements (like insulation) and heating, cooling, and ventilation systems required to achieve true sustainability are more expensive. Sometimes availability is limited too. It depends largely on where you live in the world and how the house is designed. But this isn’t always the case.
For instance, if a heating system with a small mini-split heat pump plus electric baseboards for backup is used, it could cost a quarter of a regular heating system that doesn’t rely on renewable energy. This is because the heating load using a low-cost mini-split heat pump without ducts is simpler and much less expensive than boiler systems or furnaces.
Of course, sustainable or passive buildings must be professionally designed to maximize the potential eco-friendly features and systems offer. Usually, an architect or designer will work hand-in-hand with an engineer specializing in your area, for instance, someone from a company offering heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning (HVAC) or mechanical engineering services in Chicago.
But even if the house costs a little more to build, if it is designed using eco-friendly principles, it will save you money long term.
Eco-Friendly Features & Systems Save Money
There are three main features of green or passive, sustainable buildings:
- They are resource-efficient and integrate renewable energy sources when it comes to generating energy.
- Their operating expenses are low because of the above and because of intelligent waste and water management.
- They offer both visual and thermal comfort – and better health. This includes consistent temperatures and provision of higher air quality.
This is important because often houses are marketed as eco-friendly for completely the wrong reasons. An example is a claim that green lawns are eco-friendly – but nothing could be further from the truth. When it comes to gardens and backyards, the plants need to be environmentally sustainable, and unless the “lawn” is a native species grass, it certainly isn’t eco-friendly.
In broad terms, eco-friendly houses have a low impact on the environment. They are well insulated so that they stay cool in summer and warm in winter, and air quality is good.
Eco-friendly homes can reduce energy consumption by anything from 30% to 50% and water consumption by up to 70%. HVAC, lighting, electrical, and water-heating systems are key. This means that costs are reduced, sometimes radically.
So what do you do? For starters:
- Use environmentally friendly materials to build or renovate your house. These include recycled materials, many prefabricated products, and anything that hasn’t impacted the planet during production. For example, if you are building with wood, make sure the lumber comes from forests that are growing faster than they are being harvested. The Forest Stewardship Council manages certification of forests in an attempt to stop deforestation.
- Ensure that insulation is maximized. Ideally, this will be done when the house is built, but even a renovation can add thermal mass for insulation so that the walls and roof of the house radiate less heat into the interior. Some insulation materials are more eco-friendly than others including sheep’s wool, rigid polystyrene, and spray foam, so don’t simply opt for what people recommend as “the best” insulation. Effective insulation will result in the reduced need to heat your home in winter and cool it in summer, which all results in monetary savings.
- Maximize energy performance for all appliances and systems that use electricity. This includes lighting, space and water heating, refrigeration and air conditioning, as well as operation of electronics and appliances. It is always best to use appliances that have Energy Star certification. They really do cost less to run.
- Maximize water efficiency with plumbing fixtures and fittings as well as by installing plumbing for gray water and implementing water harvesting strategies. WaterSense certified items meet the Government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) criteria that prove they are 20% more efficient without their performance being compromised.
- Install systems that will produce renewable energy, including solar panels and heat pumps.
- Ensure that all HVAC systems are designed to ensure the thermal envelope of the house remains tightly sealed.
While there are some steps homeowners can take without professional help it is essential to get professionals involved at the right time. Architects will be needed to draw house plans and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) or HVAC engineers for most systems that are designed to save energy, water and so on. For this reason, you will need to contact companies that offer engineering solutions in Chicago, New York, London, Toronto, Paris, or wherever you are building or renovating your eco-friendly house. Yes, you will have to pay their bills, but ultimately they will help you save substantially.
This is a guest post. Occasionally, we will accept guest posts from authors who we feel have a topic you may be interested in.
Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of New York Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of more than 30 mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City, and has led numerous projects in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland, and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia. He specializes in sustainable building technology and is a member of the U.S. Green Building Council.