A passive house is a sustainable home design that uses as little energy for heating, cooling, and lighting as possible. Source: Phius
Sustainable home design is a broad term for the various ways that architects and homeowners make houses more energy efficient and environmentally friendly. This can be achieved by using sustainable building materials, powering a home with clean energy, or automating a home so it runs more efficiently.
And while there are plenty of new eco-friendly homes on the market, you don’t have to buy a new house to have a sustainable living space. You can retrofit your current home for greater efficiency to reduce consumption, save on your energy bills, and combat climate change.
Whether you’re in the market for a new sustainable home or you’re looking for ways to make an old house more energy efficient, we can help. Read on to find different sustainable home designs and learn how to make your home more eco-friendly.
On this page
- What are the benefits of a sustainable home?
- Seven ways to make your home’s design more sustainable
- Five sustainable home designs to watch out for
- Is sustainable living right for you?
What are the benefits of a sustainable home?
Your home likely causes 70% more CO2 emissions than your car, and powering the average US household puts roughly 17,320 lbs. of CO2 into the atmosphere each year. Additionally, most US households use over 300 gallons of water a day. In terms of money, the average household spends almost $2,000 on energy and $1,000 on water every year.
What’s really troubling about these numbers is that a lot of the power and water we use—and pay for—gets wasted. The average US citizen wastes about 30 gallons of water every day, and while it’s difficult to know exactly how much electricity the average person wastes, we do know that over 60% of the energy stored in fossil fuels is wasted during electricity production.
All of this means that buying an efficient home or making the home you already live in more sustainable are some of the best ways you as an individual can actually fight climate change. As a bonus, ensuring your home wastes as little energy as possible means you’ll save heaps of money on your utility bills.
Seven ways to make your home’s design more sustainable
Newly-built sustainable homes have a few advantages over old homes retrofitted for sustainability. For example, sustainability-minded architects will often position a new home’s windows to permit more sunlight during the winter, meaning the owner will pay less for heating and lighting since they’ll enjoy a lot of natural light and warmth.
Similarly, if your home was built several decades ago, it probably wasn’t constructed from materials that meet today’s green building codes. These codes require builders to responsibly source materials like wood and water for concrete.
Despite factors like these that you have no control over, it’s still possible to make your home’s design much more sustainable, even if you can’t build it from scratch. Here’s how:
Do an energy audit of your home
Before you start reworking your home, you should find out how energy efficient it already is. Otherwise, you might spend money fixing problems your home doesn’t aYou’llciency, you’ll need to conduct a to assess your home's efficiencyn energy audit. This will tell you exactly how much energy you waste at home and how you waste it.
You can do your energy audit yourself, but it requires a lot of know-how and equipment, so it’s best left to professionals. Audits aren’t free, though. Prices vary depending on a home’s square feet, but they usually cost between $145 and $420. For especially large homes, they can cost over $1,000.
During your audit, a technician will come to your home to check for air leaks, assess your home’s insulation, and measure the energy consumption of your appliances. Afterward, they’ll send you a report that tells you exactly what to change to make your home more sustainable.
Some of the most common recommendations auditors make include replacing windows, sealing up doorways, fortifying insulation, and updating appliances.
Install solar panels
Renewable energy is one of the best tools we have to fight climate change, so it’s a hallmark of sustainable building design. If you want to get serious about green living, go solar to reduce your home’s reliance on the power grid.
The exact price for solar installation varies depending on home size, but it costs $18,000 on average to outfit your home with a solar system. And while your solar panels can save you as much as $28,000 on your energy bills over 20 years, this is obviously a long-term investment. Don’t expect your solar panels to pay for themselves quickly.
That said, installing solar panels comes with a hefty tax credit which can help you make your money back quicker. In fact, the recent Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) makes now an excellent time to get solar panels. The IRA increased the solar tax credit from 26% to 30% of qualified installation costs, and it extends this benefit out through 2033 when the credit will drop back down to 26%.
Get energy-efficient appliances
Your household appliances impact your energy use more than you probably expect, so you should swap out old electronics for high-performance replacements as part of your home’s retrofit. Not only will this make your home more eco-friendly, but it will also help you save on your electricity, gas, and water bills.
To get the most energy savings without sinking hours into tedious research, look for Energy Star labels on new appliances. Energy Star-certified appliances are much more efficient than other models—sometimes as much as 20% more efficient!
To quickly find Energy Star-certified refrigerators, air conditioners, furnaces, and more, check out our list of the most energy-efficient appliances.
Install WaterSense fixtures
Energy efficiency is only one part of sustainable home design. Water efficiency is another key factor. When you’re updating an old home for greater efficiency, replacing old, leaky water fixtures should be an important part of your design process.
Even if your faucets and showerheads don’t leak, they probably pump out more water than is necessary. Luckily, there’s an organization—similar to Energy Star—that certifies efficient water fixtures: WaterSense. Faucets, toilets, and showerheads with WaterSense labels are 20% more water efficient than unlabeled products.
When you’re looking for replacement fixtures to outfit your bathrooms and kitchen, opt for products with WaterSense labels on their tags to ensure you get the best of the best.
Remodel with sustainable building materials
If your home is several decades old, it probably wasn’t built with sustainably-sourced materials. There’s not much you can do about that. However, if you want to change something about your home’s construction or interior design, you should do so using sustainable materials.
When you meet with your contractor to discuss your remodel, talk to them about building with LEED-rated materials. LEED is a rating system introduced by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) to help contractors and consumers find eco-friendly construction materials for home building.
LEED-certified materials are often reclaimed postconsumer products you can reuse in your home design. They are also free of toxins like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which are harmful to you and the environment.
Whether you’re looking to beef up your home’s insulation, replace carpet with hardwood, or add an extension to your kitchen, use LEED-rated materials to promote healthy indoor air and minimize your environmental impact.
Automate your home with smart technology
Chances are that when you waste water, gas, and electricity at home, you do so without even thinking about it. It’s hard to carefully monitor your consumption at all times, and it’s even harder if you live with family. This makes home automation your best friend.
Automation technology like programmable thermostats, soil sensors in dishwashers, and motion-sensing lights can all ensure your appliances aren’t on when they don’t need to be. And the best part is that a lot of smart tech can be controlled with your smartphone or a voice-activated AI assistant. Bid farewell to the years of climbing out of bed at midnight to ensure your lights are off.
Fully automating your home costs between $2,000 and $7,000 on average, so home automation should probably be a gradual project. And, as with installing solar panels, it should be considered a long-term investment since the resulting energy savings probably won’t cover the upfront costs for several years.
Use native plants in your yard instead of grass
Sustainable house design doesn’t stop at your front door. Your yard should also be designed to reduce water usage if you’re intent on making your whole home as sustainable as possible. Enter xeriscaping, a type of landscaping that eliminates the need for sprinklers.
Xeriscaping means swapping out grass and other thirsty vegetation in favor of plants that are native to your area. The idea is that plants that naturally thrive in your region will flourish with the amount of rain you get, so you don’t need to water them. Xeriscaping also involves irrigation techniques that conserve water.
Hiring professionals to xeriscape your yard can be pretty expensive, though. On average, it costs roughly $17,000 to fully xeriscape a yard, though it can cost less for small yards and gardens. On the plus side, xeriscaped yards usually require a lot less maintenance than traditional yards. No more paying the neighbor kid to mow your lawn.
Five sustainable home designs to watch out for
Trying to find a new sustainable home instead of updating your current residence? Look over these popular sustainable house designs to find one that feels like home.
A passive house built to generate all the energy it needs to stay cozy and well-lit in every season. Image source: BPC Green Builders
Passive houses are constructed to waste as little energy as possible on heating, cooling, and lighting. Architects accomplish this by using state-of-the-art insulation, windows, doors, and mechanical ventilation to prevent heat transfer and keep air circulating inside the home without permitting any outside air or moisture. Passive houses are also designed to use the sun’s rays to keep warm and well-lit in winter without overheating in summer.
Additionally, some passive homes are powered by clean energy sources to produce as much energy as they use. The goal of this home design is net zero energy consumption.
A 170-square-foot tiny home that features a bedroom, bathroom, and shower. Image source: Home Depot
Tiny homes are exactly what they sound like: minuscule houses. More specifically, they’re houses smaller than 600 square feet. And while tiny homes typically cost more per square foot than traditionally-sized homes, you’ll usually still pay less for one at the end of the day.
And with proper insulation and temperature control, a tiny home can be sustainable since it has less space to heat, cool, and light. Of course, since tiny homes are about the size of studio apartments, they don’t make great family homes.
An elegantly-designed prefab home. Some manufacturers allow you to personalize their prefab models so you can get the custom home of your dreams. Image source: Dvele
Prefab—short for prefabricated—homes are houses that are manufactured in a factory before they’re delivered to the home site. Prefabricated homes are often pretty small so they can be shipped. In fact, many tiny homes are also prefab homes.
However, some prefab homes feature modular designs that arrive in several pieces for assembly. This allows these models to be much bigger than tiny homes.
In addition to the same things that make tiny homes sustainable—like less space to heat and cool—prefab homes are built more quickly and efficiently than homes that weren’t constructed in a factory beforehand.
Recycled shipping container homes
Shipping container homes come in many shapes and sizes, and they can be much more glam and chic than the name might suggest. Image source: Kubed Living
If you want to ensure your home is made from recycled materials, then a shipping container home is perfect for you. These homes are built around upcycled shipping containers that have been transformed into livable spaces.
The best part is that you don’t have to compromise on your comfort or well-being to live in a shipping container home. They’re outfitted with all the same features as a typical home, including HVAC systems, insulation, separated rooms, plumbing, and electricity.
You don’t even have to compromise on space! Some container homes are made from several stacked or interconnected containers, making them functional family homes.
An Earthship constructed from reclaimed materials in New Mexico. Image source: Earthship Biotecture
If you want to go completely off the grid and you have the money to make it happen, then an Earthship might be the perfect sustainable home design for you. These unique homes are constructed from either all-natural or reclaimed materials, and they’re designed to function completely independent of power and water grids.
Earthships stay warm using sunlight, light up using solar or wind energy, and use rain and groundwater for toilets, showers, and faucets. Some even feature greenhouses where you can grow your own food. This makes Earthships completely self-sustaining and second-to-none in terms of eco-friendliness.
There are two downsides to this highly sustainable home design, though. First, Earthships require a significant lifestyle change if you’re used to living in a traditional house. And second, they’re kind of rare and relatively expensive.
Is sustainable living right for you?
Living sustainably doesn’t have to mean moving to a crude log cabin in the forest. With a sustainable home design or a good retrofit, you can enjoy all the comforts of a modern home while still minimizing your carbon footprint and saving tons of money on your utilities.