Sustainable Housing – Whole House Dos and Don’ts

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Conceiving the Project
  3. Architectural Services
  4. Site Selection and Architect Hire
  5. Designing and Planning
  6. Construction Phase
  7. Post Construction
  8. Summary and Beyond Housing and Transportation

Opening Questions

  • Is there a road map to guide decisions about building a sustainable home?
  • What are the things I should be sure to do, or at least consider?
  • What are the things I should avoid, or hope to minimize?
  • Can I achieve operational and livable sustainability?

    What is the first step? How do I get started?

Introduction

Thank you for spending time with this resource; our team hopes you find the information both interesting and useful for your needs. We have offered many tips and best practices throughout the book, and in simple lists as Dos and Don’ts at the end of each topic. We are using this Epilogue to compile all those ideas into one final section, to organize the information sequentially as choices may be encountered, and to add new suggestions to fill in the gaps between the topics of the book. This is a metaphorical road map for those striving to reduce their ecological footprint and live more sustainably, most notably in their housing and transportation needs.

Conceiving the Project

Conceiving the Project Dos;

things to do or at least consider

Conceiving the Project Don’ts;

thing to avoid or minimize

Know that sustainable living is possible with the right (or advantageous) conditions

Do not assume that housing and transport must require fossil fuels in operation

Know that constructing or renovating a home for operational sustainability does not need to cost more; it can cost less!

Do not fail to include the long-term benefits of onsite renewable energy generation, or the long-term cost savings of EV transportation

Inventory current energy and environmental impacts to benchmark and aid planning

Do not fail to log at least one year of data from past or existing housing/transport systems

Learn how local electric utility treats solar PV; specifically, net metering and connect fees

Do not invest too much planning until electric utility provisions for PV solar are known

Begin thinking about indoor space needs and adequate sizes for each room and space

Do not begin planning, or reviewing plans, until adequate space inventory is complete

Begin scouting building lots suitable for onsite solar PV, and possibly passive solar heating

Do not invest too much time before securing a building lot that is advantageous for solar

Ask a broad set of stakeholders for architect and builder references; learn local reputations

Do not delay in learning the reputations of possible professional services in the region

Use this conceiving stage to learn about the stress on Earth’s fragile ecosystems, as well as your personal/family environmental impact

Do not assume that the Earth is sufficiently resilient to sustain life long-term in the face of human-imposing environmental degradation

Use this conceiving stage to become aware of global environmental injustices, especially with regard to climate change and impacts

Do not assume that your actions in one part of the world do not have critical impacts on people (especially the poor) in other places

Forge commitments to take personal actions that lead to more sustainable outcomes

Do not allow the complexities or enormity of the challenges discourage personal action

Architectural Services

Architectural Services Dos;

things to do or at least consider

Architectural Services Don’ts;

thing to avoid or minimize

Having learned reputations of local architects, conduct personal interviews with several

Do not settle on an architect without a careful investigation of their perspective and services

Ask architects about their sustainability goals, interests, and outcomes on previous projects

Do not fail to gain an objective view of each architect’s sustainability commitments/work

Share with potential architects your goals and objectives and take note of their responses

Do not fail to be transparent about your goals and objectives when interviewing architects

Ask architects about serving a quality control function by regular onsite visits throughout

Do not select an architect who is unwilling to do quality control unless there is another plan

Ask architects for builder recommendations based on your sustainability and quality goals

Do not select an architect who has not worked with builders who espouse quality

Site Selection and Architect Hire

Site Selection and Architect Hire Dos;

things to do or at least consider

Site Selection and Architect Hire Don’ts;

thing to avoid or minimize

Review possible building lots with preferred architect and discuss viability to meet goals

Do not settle on lot or architect until you have jointly visited and reviewed for project viability

Review with preferred architect electric utility provisions for PV for each building lot option

Do not move forward with lot or architect unless utility provisions make solar PV viable

Retain architect if you feel comfortable with the person after lot and utility review, and if all are viable for meeting net-zero project goals

Do not retain architectural services if lot and utility provisions are not suitable for project, or if concerns arise in the review process

Negotiate a fixed sum contract with architect of choice, including detailed scope of work; design, plans, selections, engineering, liaison with contractor(s), and quality control method

Do not sign a percentage-of-work contract with the architect (would become a conflict of interest), and do not fail to detail scope of work expectations for architectural services

Designing and Planning

Designing and Planning Dos;

things to do or at least consider

Designing and Planning Don’ts;

thing to avoid or minimize

Provide architect, in writing, with sustainability and quality construction goals for project

Do not rely on oral exchange of information with architect and other project professionals

Prioritize onsite clean and renewable energy generation and design roof as a capture zone

Do not consider solar PV as an afterthought; build it into the design and plan

Begin process of utility approval for solar PV and net meter installation

Do not assume utility approval and net meter installation will be easy or quick

Plan for electricity to be sole energy source

Do not plan to utilize any direct fossil fuels

Provide architect, in writing, with minimum square footage for each room/space of house

Do not fail to start design without minimum adequate spaces per functional area/room

We recommend a wall structure of 2×4 wood stud with exterior insulation, if client is willing to have electrical boxes surface-mounted. Otherwise 2×6 stud wood studs should be selected if recessing electrical boxes

Do not assume thermal envelope upgrades beyond code return on the investment or are better for the environment; most do/are not. Do not assume electrical boxes must be recessed in exterior walls

Specify all lighting fixtures/bulbs will be LED

Do not assume electricians install LED bulbs

Plan for sufficient air exchange to keep indoor CO2 levels below 1000 ppm for human health

Do not fail to consider indoor air quality and related health concerns; plan for ERV or HRV

We recommend a forced-air HVAC system to aid air movement and air-exchange systems

Do not assume air exchange requirements by historical norms; many factors have changed

Consider and decide on window and door selections; consult chapters 5-6 for trade-offs and mismatched elements discussion

Do not fail to understand thermal envelope compromises from windows and doors, or the impact of mismatched elements

Select windows specific to their orientation for best insulating and heat gain performance

Do not select windows that have not been matched to their directional orientation

Work with architect to determine planned materials, systems, finishes, and selections

Do not assume perfect alignment of plans for materials, systems, finishes and selections

Review iterative plans with architect

Do not be absent from evolving plan process

When plans are complete, decide with architect which builder to invite to estimate

Do not assume that the homeowner voice is not important in screening/selecting builder

Review builder estimate with architect and resolve any anomalies or schedule concerns

Do not be passive during this critical stage of refinement of project design and schedule

Together with architect, meet with builder to resolve any issues of scope or cost estimate

Do not absent yourself from processes that may seem beyond comprehension; learn!

If close on scope and cost, negotiate with the builder for a fixed sum contractor’s fee

Do not fail to consider a fee method that can structurally remove big conflicts of interest

Sign builder contract that includes as much detail as can be known at this pre-build stage

Do not fail to take as much pre-contract time to settle and write as much detail as possible

Construction Phase

Construction Phase Dos;

things to do or at least consider

Construction Phase Don’ts;

thing to avoid or minimize

Site clearing for construction should consider year-round local sun angles for solar energy

Do not remove more vegetation (trees) than necessary, unless invasive/non-indigenous

Placement of house within setbacks should consider short and long-term solar shading

Do not fail to consider possible future shading from trees not in the homeowner’s control

Orient house footprint as close as possible, within lot constraints, for max. solar capture

Do not rely on a single compass to set house orientation; use several to ensure precision

Spare no level of detail and quality control on foundation and below-grade walls to achieve effective shield from water/moisture incursion

Do not rush the critical stage of foundation and below-grade walls for long-term structural integrity & avoiding moisture/mold problems

Spare no level of detail and quality control on under slab/floor insulation and slab/floor edge insulation; ensure cracks/gaps spray-foamed

Do not rush the installation of under slab/floor and edge insulation, which becomes hugely consequential, and inaccessible after build

Daily quality control inspections during rise of superstructure to improve lifetime structural integrity, which also impacts energy losses

Do not fail to plan for daily inspections during the rapid-pace erection of the superstructure for quality, integrity, and fixing/connections

Ensure code-required structural integrity; e.g., sufficient members for strength, but no extra due to thermal bridging & energy compromise

Do not assume that more structural heft is better; follow code for compliance and tested strength, but add no more than necessary

Ensure wall sheathing is installed without gaps and fixed appropriately for long-term structural integrity, which impacts energy loss

Do not fail to inspect every piece of wall sheathing for tight fit and effective fixing, as these will affect both structure and energy

Monitor and inspect window and exterior door installations for fit and the ability to effectively seal gaps and cracks around units

Do not fail to inspect every window & exterior door installation for both structural integrity and provision to seal all cracks and gaps

Ensure conduit or chase inside the thermal envelope for wiring related to rooftop solar

Do not fail to provision for solar PV wiring, or compromise the thermal envelope with it

Ensure builder, subcontractors, and quality control inspector know to avoid or minimize utility incursions in the thermal envelope 

Even if stated by plan, do not fail to remind everyone at this stage to keep utilities out of insulation planes to avoid compromises

Where thermal envelope penetrations are necessary (e.g., vents), combine where possible to minimize number, and inspect for sealing of penetrations through envelope

Do not allow more than one plumbing stack vent, or sized larger than min. needed and do not fail to inspect all thermal envelope penetrations for seal through insulation plane

Pull air ventilation exhaust from bathroom(s) to minimize thermal envelope penetrations and recover some energy with an ERV/HRV

Do not vent bath fan exhaust directly outside, as that would add additional week link(s) to thermal envelope and vent conditioned air

We recommend surface-mount electrical boxes to avoid weak links/spots in walls

Do not recess electrical boxes in 2×4 walls, as they displace too much thermal insulation

Strongly consider a whole-house blower door test prior to insulation to identify and seal air leaks in the structural envelope

Do not fail to consider a blower-door test to identify weakness that visual inspections cannot consistently verify

Closely monitor insulation installation, and inspect stages, to ensure optimal coverage, density, and crack-sealing

Do not assume that post-install inspection is sufficient; there should be monitoring of the insulation at critical points during installation

Just prior to drywall installation, closely inspect entire thermal envelope and correct any problems with insulation, seals, or gaps

Do not hang drywall until there is high confidence that there are no compromises in the thermal envelope structure and insulation

Drywall also helps insulate and minimize heat transfer; seal gaps or cracks after hanging

Do not allow drywall finishing until gaps around cut-outs have been spray-foamed

Whenever appliances are selected, consider that the most basic and simplest models use the fewest resources, & offer best financials

Do not assume that upgraded appliances for energy efficiency is the best environmental choice; in fact, that is almost always worse

Install solar PV array when roof is covered, then request net meter install from utility

Do not allow first meter to be standard issue if net meter can be installed at the outset

Continue daily inspections for quality through entire construction phase to improve odds of long life; this minimizes use of resources

Do not let quality control lapse or ebb through the construction project for the sake of resource/materials use and stewardship

Consider a whole-house blower door test at handover to identify and seal air leaks that are most likely around windows and doors

Do not assume that new doors and windows have perfect seals, either with their own elements or where they meet other surfaces

Commend and thank architect, builder, and subcontractors for good design and work, and for quality construction throughout project

Do not fail to recognize the good work of all professionals involved in the project, notably if they followed the plan and performed well

Post Construction

Post Construction Dos;

things to do or at least consider

Post Construction Don’ts;

thing to avoid or minimize

Begin documenting operational energy use immediately after occupancy, as well as solar energy generation from its commissioning

No not assume energy use/gen. performance until they can be measured, documented, and verified against project goals and predictions

Monitor indoor CO2 levels and set timer on ERV/HRV to run no more than necessary, but keep concentrations below 1,000 ppm

Do not fail to monitor, and correct for, any problems with indoor air quality and most notably for high concentrations of CO2

Collect monthly data on energy generation and use for at least one year post-occupancy

Do not fail to collect data on energy use and generation during the first year (or several)

Compare energy use/demand in new house with benchmarked data from previous home

Do not assume with certainty or precision the improvements in energy use from old to new

Perform whole-house inspection at one year (typical warranty) with builder and quality inspector to find & correct any compromises to the structure or thermal envelope

Do not miss the opportunity at the end of the warranty period to identify and correct any compromises or defects; materials may warp or change shape as they dry and cure

Match energy generation (via solar PV) with energy use/demand after one full year (both vary by mo.) to determine net energy impact

Do not allow monthly energy data to overly elate or alarm; use and PV generation are typically counter-cyclical through a full year

If energy use exceeds generation, consider adding to PV array, or finding ways to reduce use/demand to achieve net zero or better

Do not fail to be persistent with the goal of achieving operational energy net zero; it is both possible and less expensive

Share the data with the architect & builder for their continued learning, and with friends and family for their consideration of net zero

Do not miss the opportunity to learn from the experience and teach others who may be in a position to achieve sustainable living/driving

Advocate in both private and public spheres for the elimination of climate emissions from housing and household transportation.

Do not miss the opportunity to use a firsthand experience to inform and influence minds and public policy, or regulation and utility provision

Consider actions and commitments in other areas of life to reduce damaging ecological impact (e.g., travel, food, and consumption)

Do not assume that eliminating climate emissions from housing and transportation achieves sustainability; learn of other impacts

Summary and Beyond Housing and Transportation

We hope this Epilogue provides a succinct reference and roadmap for those striving to build a sustainable home. We know this resource is not complete, as it is surely constrained by our own limited perspectives, experiences, and biases. Additionally, materials and technologies are evolving and adapting to new and dynamic realities in science and markets, suggesting that this list will need ongoing review and revision. Our team will continue to research this field and maintain an updated Epilogue on our companion website. The good news is that we can answer the highest order question of this book with confidence and empirical evidence: yes, it is possible to achieve operational sustainability in housing and transportation. This is not only possible, but also practical, with onsite renewable energy powering both home and household transportation. It is important to acknowledge that resources are consumed in the construction of any home, including for any renewable energy generation equipment; resources are also consumed in the manufacture of electric vehicles. However, the perspective taken here, in targeting primarily consumers in the United States, is that this new paradigm will shift consumers from higher to lower-impacting systems and practices. The great surprise–and fantastic news–from this book, is that this is achievable at the least cost financially, and the least damage to environmental resources.