Designing Your Sustainable Home: 10 Things Every Eco-Home Should Have

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These simple guiding principles can help make your home green, energy efficient and comfortable.

1. Plenty of Daylight

South-facing windows provide natural daylight, and the sun’s rays help keep rooms warmer in winter. If you want more light, add insulated windows to the home’s south side-unless you live in the desert or an extremely hot climate, where more windows could present heat problems. Shading windows in summer protects against overheating.

2. Air Circulation

Indoor air quality is an essential component of any healthy home. To keep your air clean, choose cleaning products without toxic chemicals and paints and wood finishes that are natural and contain few or no volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Use a whole-house, integrated air-filtration system with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter. Use only low-toxic adhesives and plastic-free grout when installing tile. Make sure the kitchen range hood vents outside (not into attics or eaves).

3. Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Light bulbs get a big workout. If you can do just one thing to be more energy efficient, replace old incandescents with compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs). Installing one CFL saves $15 annually, according to the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit energy research group. Multiply that by the number of lamps and fixtures in your home, and watch the savings add up. Some people also prefer light emitting diodes (LEDs), which can be more expensive but use very little energy.

4. Energy-Conserving Building Envelope

Most houses leak air. Holes and gaps in the wall, roof, foundation, doors and windows allow air loss, which results in winter heat loss and summer heat gain. Tight construction, good insulation and high-performance windows are key. “Weather stripping and caulking in existing homes can reduce your energy bill 10 to 25 percent,” says David Johnston, president of What’s Working, a green building consultancy. “Energy prices will escalate over the next few years, and insulation is the least expensive insurance policy you can buy.”

5. Indoor-Outdoor Connection

Doors that open onto an inviting patio can extend your living space to the outdoors. During summer, create shade with a retractable awning, an umbrella or trees. “Look at the gifts and challenges that nature gives you in your own microclimate,” architect and Natural Home columnist Carol Venolia says. “Working with nature is simple, but we lost touch with that ability when we became dependent on fossil fuel to heat and cool our homes.”

6. Water Conservation

Low-flow plumbing fixtures keep money from going down the drain and save substantial amounts of water. Low-flow toilets only use 1.6 gallons of water per flush (older models average 5 gpf); low-flow showerheads use 2.5 gallons per minute or less (conventional models use 5 to 8 gpm); and low-flow faucet aerators cut water usage to as low as 1 gallon per minute.

7. Sustainable Landscaping

Rain gardens, ponds, birdbaths and streams are good for the environment, friendly to the animal world, and soothing and relaxing for us. Native and drought-resistant plants require less water and maintenance. Organic gardening, which uses natural fertilizers and pest-control techniques and eschews harsh chemicals, is friendly to both the earth and people.

8. Energy-Efficient Appliances

Buying energy- and water-saving appliances lets you “do well by doing good.” You save money on the electric bill and help the environment. Check out Energy Star labels on kitchen, laundry and bath appliances and fixtures. This year, the Department of Energy will be updating energy-efficiency standards for all appliances, so watch for even more efficient products to come onto the market.

9. Renewable Energy

Solar, wind, water and geothermal are all renewable forms of energy. Although installing solar panels or a wind generator is a fabulous goal, it may not be attainable immediately if you have budget constraints. A great right-now solution is to buy wind-generated or other renewable power from your local utility-it may be as simple as marking a little box on your energy bill to sign up. In many areas, it’s not much more expensive than conventional energy. Also take a look at solar water heaters, which can pay for themselves quickly by reducing energy bills. For information on financial incentives for installing renewable-energy systems, check the Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency.

10. Location, Location, Location

Living close to shopping, recreation and your workplace reduces your car dependence. “It’s hard to justify a home in the middle of nowhere as a green home,” says Brian Dunbar, executive director of the Institute for the Built Environment at Colorado State University. “It matters if you have to get in your car and drive everywhere.”