Location, Location, Location: How to choose a sustainable place to live or build


The sustainability of one’s home depends as much (if not more) on its location as on how the house is built. If you’re looking to buy land, or to buy (or rent) a house, consider sustainability criteria when comparing the locations of different properties.

aerial mapThe following are some of the key “location efficiency” issues to consider. (Some of them only apply to buying land that you plan to build on.) Try to choose a spot that meets at least some of these criteria:  

Seek a property that... 

  1. ...is located close to your (and your family’s) jobs and schools; close to shops, parks, civic buildings, and other services and amenities your family regularly uses; and close to public transit stops—ideally within walking distance (i.e., less than 1/4 mile, or 1/2-mile max.). Living in close proximity to such things will save you gas, money, and driving time; reduce your stress level and your odds of getting in a car accident; and also reduce traffic and air pollution!
  2. ...has been built on before. It’s best to choose a property that has an existing house or other structures that can be renovated and reused. (If a structure is unsafe or beyond repair and must be demolished, have it deconstructed carefully so that you can recycle, reuse, donate, or sell its salvageable materials; and then rebuild on its original foundation or footprint.)
  3. ...is an infill site (i.e., surrounded by other developed parcels) that is already (or can easily be) hooked up to existing infrastructure for roads, water, wastewater, and utility lines (to reduce the costs, resource waste, and sprawl associated with extending or building new infrastructure)—unless you're planning to live entirely off-grid (with on-site power, water, and wastewater treatment).

 And avoid buying or building on a property that... 

  • ...is within a floodplain zone; on a known earthquake fault; or on coastal land that’s susceptible to erosion or in a tsunami zone;
  • ...is a Greenfield site (i.e., land that has never been developed /built on before);
  • ...contains sensitive habitat, endangered species, wetlands, or prime agricultural land (unless you preserve the key areas for continued agricultural use or conservation, whichever is applicable); or
  • ...consists of steep slopes (often defined as slopes with a grade of 15 degrees or more), which would need to be substantially graded to enable development of the site. The grading and development of steep slopes can cause soil erosion and increased stormwater runoff, which in turn can cause water pollution, flooding, and potentially mudslides.

Living in a sensible and sustainable location has numerous benefits. You can reap significant financial savings (e.g., by reducing the amount of driving you have to do; or by avoiding or minimizing the need to build new infrastructure or to do extensive site grading). Location efficiency can also yield broad, collective benefits for society and our shared environment, such as:

  • reducing sprawl-related automobile dependence, traffic, and air pollution;
  • protecting public health, environmental health, and the climate;
  • conserving natural resources, habitat, and open space; and
  • contributing to the creation of livable, walkable, healthy, and vibrant neighborhoods that enhance your community’s quality of life and local economic opportunities.


8/5/2011 9:31:13 AM

Miriam, I think your article raises some good and often overlooked points for people interested in minimizing their impact on the world around them. It's true that there is more than one way to skin the "sustainable" cat, and for people who (laudably) want to keep their home-development impact to a minimum, your points are good considerations. I hope that people thinking about building will also not fall for the idea that it is possible to build a huge "sustainable" or "green" home. It simply is not. One of the most "sustainable" things people can do when building a new home is to build a small home, energy efficient, and easier to heat and cool and maintain. Paying attention to sun orientaion is a big consideration in that respect. And the others' comments are good, too. How well you can take care of yourself and how supportive the community and environment are in helping you take care of yourself are big factors in, ultimately, how "sustainable" a homeplace will be.

Miriam Landman
7/11/2011 12:54:27 PM

[...continued from below] Of course these environmental criteria also have to be weighed against one’s other preferences, circumstances, and choices, and not all of the suggestions apply to everyone equally. For example, people who work from home (and/or do homeschooling) have less of a need to drive every day, and they may feel comfortable and justified living in more remote locations; people who grow their own food don’t need to drive to a grocery store as regularly, so they might not care about how close they live to one; and people who are creating self-sufficient, off-grid homesteads don’t need to worry about the resources that would be involved in hooking up to municipal infrastructure and such. (Most people—even most Mother Earth News readers—aren’t die-hard homesteaders, though, so I didn’t write this article specifically for the homesteader set.) Everyone has a unique situation. I haven't attempted to provide a comprehensive list of all location selection criteria, nor to tell people where they must live. Please take the guidelines outlined in my post for what they are: a few environmental considerations—intended only to be considered and adapted to your own circumstances if/as they apply. P.S. Thanks to those who added your own criteria and suggestions. (I agree that things like water supply, weather, and neighbors are vitally important!)

Miriam Landman
7/11/2011 12:43:21 PM

Whoa. I didn’t realize this post would be controversial or could elicit disdain... Alas. I do know that I can’t please everyone. To be sure, everyone has his/her own personal, social, political, regional, and bioclimatic preferences, and all of these get factored in (along with financial considerations and constraints) when choosing a location to buy or build a home. I haven’t attempted to address, let alone to dictate, all of those types of individual preferences and criteria. (Some people prefer to live in states with strong gun rights; other people prefer to live in states with strict gun safety laws. To each his own. But that issue isn’t what my post was about.) My post was very specifically addressing a few of the less-commonly-considered criteria related to environmental sustainability, with a focus on “location efficiency,” e.g. minimizing the resources used (or often wasted) to develop, live on, and travel to one’s property. (However, since some readers could have missed that point by skimming through the post, perhaps I should have tried to make the environmental/land use efficiency focus clearer in the post’s title.) [Continued above...]

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