Housing that steps more lightly on the Earth

The construction, renovation and operation of houses consume significant earth resources and energy. The amount of construction and demolition waste alone from housing construction activity roughly equals the amount of household trash generated in the Twin Cities metro area.

But these high rates of resource use and waste make possible many opportunities for reducing materials and energy use, saving money, lessening the ecological impact of housing and improving the quality of living spaces.

Homeowners, or homeowners-to-be, have five "design levels" on which they can work to make their housing more green (or, to use other equivalent terms, more ecological, or more sustainable, or higher-performing).

1. Neighborhood level

At the neighborhood level, some people choose to buy or build a house that is "transportation-rich": in a location that allows busing or biking to work, walking to some retail services, and within short drives of frequent destinations.

2. Site level

Other people are more interested in the site level, choosing a house heated extensively by the sun due to its orientation on its lot, well-shaded in summer and wind-protected in winter, and blessed with good gardening space.

3. Design level

The design level of the house itself typically grabs most people's attention. Here there are many opportunities for decreasing the "ecological footprint" of a house, chief among them building or buying a smaller-sized home. With a fixed amount of money to spend in a given neighborhood, a person can, generally speaking, build or buy a larger house of lower-quality design, materials and features, or a smaller house of higher-quality design, materials and features.

Minneapolis architect Sarah Susanka's books The Not So Big House and Creating the Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (see www.notsobighouse.com) explore housing designs that express human values and personalities and favor the intimate quality of flexible spaces over the sheer quantity of space.

4. Component level

At the component level of the house, easy opportunities for increased sustainability abound: energy- and water-efficient appliances, non-toxic cabinets, paints and finishes (to improve indoor air quality), long-lasting and easy cleaning materials and appliances, sustainably harvested woods, recycled-content materials. Here a homeowner can find many "investments" whose payback periods are less than a year, and more expensive investments, such as renewable energy systems, whose payback periods are much longer but whose benefits include decades of free energy and energy security.

5. Operational level

And finally, at the operational level of the house, people can live more sustainably by making many small, simple lifestyle changes. Examples are gardening in ways that prevent the need for toxic pesticides; walking, biking, bussing and carpooling with neighbors more often; composting kitchen scraps; turning off unneeded lights; and preventing expensive and wasteful repairs through attentive maintenance of housing systems.

Three good first steps to take on the road toward more sustainable housing are:

  • Follow your personal passion. Focus on a design level or housing feature that interests you. Whether that's reusing bricks or buying compact fluorescent lights, "just do it."

  • Read a few road maps. See the buildings section at www.nextstep.state.mn.us, and especially the checklists at www.buildinggreen.com/about/whatsgb.html

  • Hire tradespeople with green building experience or interest. With so many emerging options in this area of sustainable building, you may want to spare yourself the research and hire talent to help you on the road toward more sustainable buildings and a more sustainable world.

    Philipp Muessig is a pollution prevention specialist who works on the Sustainable Communities Team at the Minnesota Office of Environmental Assistance.