What is a True Sustainable Home, and Where to Start?
Searching “sustainability” on the web, one of the results that pop up is a definition by the UN World Commission on Environment and Development: “Sustainable development is a development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
In his excellent book, Getting Green Done (which we highly recommend), Auden Schendler tries a more straightforward approach, in which sustainability means “staying in business forever, whatever your business is.” And then further on: “the second you start to think about what it means to stay in business forever, you have to consider a universe of issues.” Finally, he concludes: “In short, to stay in business forever, you have to stop climate change.”
The underlying idea of these definitions is keeping things as they are, and the latter definition also rightly says: to keep things as they are, we need to stop climate change.
While we are fully aligned with the definitions and the needs, we also believe that sustainability should include how to keep going when the going gets tough.
In other words, sustainability should take into consideration the changing environment and the need to adapt to it. It is about stopping climate change as well as dealing with the changes that are already underway.
In this blog post, we look at:
Whether you believe in climate change or not, the reality is that the increase in extreme weather events severely impacts our lives. According to The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), an American scientific agency within the United States Department of Commerce, during 2019, the U.S. experienced a very active year of weather and climate disasters. In total,14 separate billion-dollar disasters impacted the U.S.: three major inland floods, eight severe storms, two tropical cyclones (Dorian and Imelda), and one wildfire event. 2019 also marks the fifth consecutive year (2015-2019) in which ten or more separate billion-dollar disaster events have impacted the U.S.
In 2019, climate disasters caused the displacement of almost a million people in the United States.
In 2020, there were 22 weather/climate disaster events in the United States; each resulted in losses exceeding $1 billion.
A Sustainable Home
A “sustainable home” is such that it is both “eco-friendly/green” as well as “resilient.”
Let’s further explore these two definitions:
If you look up “green building,” the definitions you come across will most likely resemble the definitions of sustainability, as we saw above, it’s the need to design and build homes in an environmentally responsible and resource-efficient manner. The main goal/s of a “green building” is to eliminate negative impacts on the climate and the environment, preserve natural resources, and provide a healthier environment for its occupants.
Achieving these goals is generally done by efficient use of energy, renewable energy, water conservation, the use of non-toxic and recycled materials, and the best sustainable home products. However, some sustainability definitions, especially those in recent years, have begun to include attributes that have to do with adaptation to changing conditions.
Today there are many codes, standards, products, and expertise addressing “green buildings.
The main code adopted by states, counties, and cities in the U.S. is the 2018 IGCC, powered by the ANSI ASHRAE 189.1 standard. This standard is considered to be a baseline. Therefore, you should check your local codes and standards for compliance if you want to go beyond the minimum (see below). Another reason to check your local codes is that some have not adopted the latest versions, and some have developed their own versions.
If you want to go above the baseline, there are voluntary standards that have testing methods for compliance that provide certifications. Here are the notable ones:
ICC 700-2015 National Green Building Standard™ provides guidance for safe and sustainable building practices for residential construction, including both new and renovated single-family to high-rise residential buildings.
The LEED Standard is run by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) and is the most adopted standard worldwide for eco-friendly, green buildings.
The “passive house” is a method that focuses on energy efficiency and hints at resilience. It is run by two institutes, the PHI from Germany (the incumbent) and the PHIUS from the U.S.
Green Globes™ focuses on all types of buildings except residential structures.
BREEAM is run by BRE, a U.K organization, and is mainly adopted in the U.K.
The Living Building Challenge is run by ILFI, a non-profit institute, and probably one of the most challenging standards to achieve. Beyond a rigorous list of materials you can use, the certification is given only after a minimum of 12 months of “continuous occupancy” in the house - which guarantees the house performs to its green promise.
Note: the IGCC collaborates and works with ASHRAE and USGBC to provide a holistic approach to “green,” and so there are many alignment points incorporated in the latest 2018 UGCC release.
The International Code Council (ICC) defines resilience as “The ability to prepare and plan for, absorb, recover from, and more successfully adapt to adverse events.”
When we talk about resilience, we want to make sure we cover two aspects:
The structure itself and its subsystems (HVAC, electricity, water supply, appliances) stay intact during and long after extreme or ongoing events.
The safety and comfort of its occupants are also maintained and intact (air quality, temperature, water quality, and supply).
What are the codes and standards for a “resilient” house, and are they part of “green buildings”? There isn't a simple answer to this question, and we can’t comprehensively cover it in one blog post, but we will try to sum it up and further explore this in the future.
The ICC has multiple codes with resilience practices embedded in them, but no code provides end-to-end resilience covering all environmental and climate risks. Once more, start with the baseline and check your local (state, county and city) mandatory codes.
The IGCC 2018 aims to provide a one-stop-shop for everything green and resilient. However, we reiterate, that if you want to explore and get inspiration about everything resilient, you will need to look a bit further.
Within the ICC, the following specific codes have resilience embedded in them (please note that some of these are relevant only for commercial buildings): IECC® focused on energy efficiency, IPC® for plumbing, IRC® for residential, ICCPC® focused on performance, IPMC® focused on community health and WUI focused on wildfires.
As for standards, these are the key ones to follow when it comes to resilience:
ICC 500-2014: ICC/NSSA Standard for the Design and Construction of Storm Shelters
ICC 600-2014: Standard for Residential Construction in High-Wind Regions
The 2018 International Solar Energy Provisions™ (ISEP™)
CSA B805/ICC 805 – 2018 provides minimum provisions for the collection, storage, and treatment of rainwater and stormwater.
RELi, run by USGBC, is still in pilot mode and is USGBC’s rating system that takes on resilience.
FORTIFIED Home is run by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS).
REDi is run by Arup group and focused on design and preparedness against earthquakes.
Note: there are other hazard-specific focused codes and standards, and at the end of the day, this is a complex and dynamic area best tackled by experts and self-exploration, starting with your local building codes.
SPOTLIGHT - THE BASTION PROJECT
We become motivated and excited to come across stories such as the housing project for war veterans in New Orleans. The Bastion project was designed and built to provide a resilient and inclusive living and working environment for war veterans and their families as well as low-income residents. On top of being a noble venture of affordable housing for people in need, the community was designed and built with resilience in mind.
Bastion resides in proximity to the London Canal in the Gentilly District, where a protective floodwall failed during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Gentilly district endured severe flooding as a result, and so a future-proof construction was required.
Led by OJT, an architecture and urban design practice located in New Orleans, the homes in Bastion were elevated, allowing water to flow through the site. Also, the project included water filtering, storing and reuse, enhanced insulation, high-performance HVAC equipment, and most sustainable materials for building are eco-friendly materials.
You can read the prospectus of the Bastion organization for this project to understand what resilient communities with a vision and hard work can do. For further exploration, check out:
Where To Start?
While adopting a lifestyle that helps mitigate and stop climate change is essential, and should be pursued passionately, it may not show immediate results. Adopting and preparing for extreme weather events can result in tangible, near-term gains for your house, family, and community. Adopting both resilient and green solutions will result in short and long-term positive outcomes.
In addition to the ICC codes and the various standards mentioned above, here is a list of resources to begin building your knowledge-base, gain inspiration and familiarize yourself on climate risks, and proposed solutions for building a resilient home that can better withstand natural disasters. Although a bit outdated, the publications below are easy to read and can help you understand some of the reasoning behind building codes. You can discuss relevant strategies with your architect or contractor.
FEMA, The Federal Emergency Management Agency, is an agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security. Their website provides helpful information on natural hazards and how to be prepared. Here are the key ones:
A bit lengthy, but a good read on how to think, prepare and build in drought-prone zones.
Last but not least, FEMA’s guide to designing and building in earthquake risk zones.
It is important to note that these resources from FEMA, similar to codes and standards, are many times scientific, lengthy, and technical. Nevertheless, we decided to share them as they are quoted by many professionals and considered a solid, authoritative, fact-based, and well-researched source of professional information.
Change doesn't happen overnight, and with any large undertaking, it's best to slice it into small steps. Being aware of the risks and solutions is the first step. Research and data collection to build some knowledge is the next step, and then you can either decide to manage the following steps on your own or get help from an expert.
Becoming aware and carrying out the necessary research will help you in future decision making, asking the right questions when choosing contractors, picking the right materials, negotiating costs, and supervising the execution and results of your projects.
When building or renovating your house, it's essential to ask the following questions:
What are the primary current and future natural risks and hazards in my area? To run this assessment, USGBC (U.S Green Building Council) provides a good checklist here.
What is your climate zone? Hot and Humid? Hot and Dry? Cold and Dry? Your climate zone should further impact your material and design choices.
What are my main priorities and plans in the project (current and future) and do I need to consider natural risks and hazards?
What is my budget?
Do I need a specialist for the project at hand, or can this be a DIY project?
Where and how can I source green and resilient solutions?
What is the ROI (return of investment) of green and resilient solutions over regular solutions? Here is a great reading and illustrations of a resilient home and the ROI.
What are the latest building codes in your area, and are you in compliance?
What are the incentives, initiatives, and knowledge base provided by your state, county, city, and community which you may be able to tap into and leverage?
Does your insurance cover damage from some of those risks? Are there any insurance discounts if you build green or resilient?
A truly sustainable home is both eco-friendly to the environment and resilient to climate and environmental hazards. Home sustainability can be designed and built from the ground up, but existing homes can also be retrofitted to improve their sustainability.
Some codes and standards cover sustainability in the broader sense of both eco-friendly and resilient. While there are indications of initial attempts to combine those two movements, the green and resilient movements, under one roof, there is still a long way to go. Therefore, we recommend working with architects, consultants, and contractors that know how to carry out green and resilient projects to properly meet your objectives and budget.
Although each of us contributes to our home’s sustainability, we now realize that sustainability, green building, and resilience work best when communities share information and combine efforts to make it happen.
KEEP COOL. BUILD RESILIENCE. EAMPACT.