What does it take to build truly sustainable houses – the kind people really want and can afford – and not some greenwashing hype? Most contractor-built houses are not affordable to the masses, so obviously something is amiss. And because buildings account for the largest share of energy use and cause devastating effects to our world, most are not sustainable. Our modern society is so off track that $22 million dollar monstrosity homes are LEED approved and certified by the U.S. Green Building Council, the Florida Green Building Coalition and Energy Star for Homes. How can homes like this be considered sustainable?
So while many buildings are labeled green by their designers, builders, owners and green building organizations, it’s easy to see that many obviously fall far short of the goal. The seriousness of this issue warrants a closer look at how to more accurately define sustainable development and learn how to build safe, affordable homes for ourselves.
The ultimate goal is to do no harm as we try to meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainable development means living within the carrying capacity of the environment. This necessarily means letting go of excess – downsizing to only what’s needed and avoiding unnecessary items.
Building small is the way to go. Why spend all that time and money for something you don’t really need? You can save every step of the way when you build small. Initial building costs are lower, and you’ll save money on heating, cooling and long-term maintenance. And remember, you can always add on later, so think of the first part of the home as the core elements.
The use of local natural materials is a key part of sustainable development. Instead of transporting materials from hundreds or thousands of miles away, it’s far better to use what is at hand. Take note of the minimally processed, low-embodied energy natural building materials that you have locally available: Stone? Clay? Straw? Sand and gravel? Sustainable wood supply? Recycled materials? How were houses built hundreds of years ago in your area? That will give you clues as to appropriate choices.
If you build small and use natural building materials, then most likely you’ll be able to build your own home in a reasonable amount of time for cash. That’s right, you can eliminate the most expensive part of the home when you build your own small, sustainable home – the mortgage. Natural building materials are ideally suited for DIYers on a tight budget. Most are dirt cheap or even free. Anyone can cut and peel wood poles, and gather clay, sand, gravel and other supplies a little at a time. Natural building materials require minimal tools and skills. Think of all the billions of houses built throughout history. Most were simple houses built without electricity, power tools, contractors and architects. All it takes is a little thinking outside the box and you can save a ton of money.
This outlines my solution to our housing problems. Instead of trying to change things beyond our control, create a new reality instead — build a sustainable world one home, one neighborhood at a time.