Sustainable Housing

What if we could cut climate emissions in half without sacrificing living standards? New research and analysis unveils new understanding about the ecological impact of the American household, leading to counter-conventional recommendations that are both surprising and enormously consequential. Notably, this novel research design demonstrates that climate-neutral housing and private transportation are not only achievable today, but are actually less costly in both dollars and natural resources. These findings emerged from applying the tools and analysis of finance and economics to the building industry, and they reveal a new paradigm, in housing and energy that will lead to dramatic reduction in ecological harm. Most consequentially, this book provides an argument and a roadmap for immediate and widespread implementation of a new set of practices that will slash the American climate footprint in half and democratize access to sustainable living.

Roughly 25% of  American climate emissions come from household operations, and a further 25% from private transportation. Onsite solar photovoltaic systems sized to power both home and auto cuts the American climate footprint in half.

Onsite Solar PV is less costly than utility energy for most American homes, and factoring renewable energy leads to least costly construction methods. Further, electric vehicles powered by home-produced solar energy are less costly than oil-based altenatives.  

Residential solar is not complicated on most installations, and factoring renewable energy allows for the simple home construction methods. Electric vehicles are now available in many styles and sizes, and from a number of manufacturers.

Professor James Leaman teamed with an architect and a residential builder to investigate these questions and apply new tools and lenses for a fresh and novel analysis. This work is chronicled in a text seeking publication, portions of which may be previewed below:

Is sustainable housing possible?

Yes, but in surprising ways and with new findings that are conclusive, consequential, and that will change the direction of how homes are designed, built, and renovated. In very broad terms, this section introduces the notion that the residential sector can indeed eliminate climate emissions from household energy and private transportation, with less cost and less embodied energy in construction and manufacture. These surprising findings inform choices that differ from conventional wisdom in the building industry. A new typology is coined to classify homes into three categories according to their suitability for onsite solar PV installation, and this classification is critical to energy and thermal envelope choices.

Access the abridged chapter online here!

Download the PDF to the Introduction here and Chapter 1, Big Picture: Broad and Surprising Findings, here

Why sustainable housing matters

This chapter connects humanity’s global ecological challenges with the impact and choices of the American housing industry. It makes the claim that actions to reduce climate change and resource use are both critical and urgent, which adds weight to the importance of the study, book, and message. An important element in this section is a review of consumer behavior that favors solutions that do not require personal sacrifice, and that makes the recommendations of this book all the more inviting, and viable. The science of climate change is introduced, but only enough to add clarity and context to sustainable living; an Appendix provides more expansive review on scientific data and arguments on climate change.

Access the abridged chapter online here!

Download the PDF to Chapter 2, Sustainable Housing: Why It Matters, here.

Solar PV onsite: table-turner

This chapter proves the surprising reality that installing rooftop solar is less expensive than not installing solar, when costs and benefits are accounted for over system life and compared with electric utility rates across the country. The large initial cost of solar installation against a steady long-term stream of benefits is difficult for most homeowners to evaluate, so the chapter also offers new tools and framing to simplify understanding of the true costs and benefits. Return on residential solar investment is provided for six specific U.S. cities/regions, which demonstrates better returns than many investors hope to achieve (on average) in the stock market. Net metering is critical for the economics of solar, and this chapter begins to address utility and regulatory factors. 

Access the abridged chapter online here!

Download the PDF to Chapter 3, Solar PV Onsite: Table-Turner, here.

Solar requirements: site, orientation, design

Having just proven the merits of solar energy, this chapter addresses the specific requirements for optimal return on investment, including site features, orientation, design, and the regulatory environment. While the previous topic largely addresses photovoltaic (active) solar technologies, this chapter adds passive solar as a possible compliment and comparison for ranking priorities. This chapter also details electric utility provision and connections policies and the dynamic of solar capture in relatively dense housing developments, and this leads to recommendations for policy makers, zoning officials, land developers, community associations, engineers, and architects. Clean renewable energy generated on site is also placed within the context of evolving energy mix portfolios in commercial power generation, with assessment and relevance for distributed solar now and in the future.

Access the abridged chapter online here!

Download the PDF to Chapter 4, Solar Requirements: Site, Orientation and Design, here.

Building envelope systems

When energy is generated onsite from a clean and renewable source, that changes most of the assumptions and metrics that still drive decisions around energy-efficient design, materials, building systems, and equipment. This chapter begins evaluating these choices specific to the thermal envelope, with analysis on the efficacy and cost-benefit while scaling up. That leads to comparison of operational energy benefits to embodied energy costs for both solar PV and the thermal envelope. The surprising results are counter-intuitive, yet fantastic news for reducing both material use and carbon emissions. The new set of best practices that emerge in this chapter also place building and renovation choices newly within prevailing appraisal, lending, and resale markets, making sustainable living available to all.

Access the abridged chapter online here!

Download the PDF to Chapter 5, Building Envelope Systems, here.

Envelope misconceptions and implications

This chapter continues the analysis of the thermal envelope, adding the concepts of diminishing returns and opportunity costs to help readers understand why so many misconceptions persist in the industry. That critique of the consumer is not unique, but we demonstrate how that leads to poor and unfortunate decisions when applied to design and construction choices. Adding comprehensive financial analysis to diminishing returns and opportunity costs reveal clear best practices that favor choices that typically use the fewest natural resources, emit the fewest harmful emissions in operation, and are the least costly to the homeowner. A case study project and a sampling of homes confirm the conclusions with hard data in lived, operational environments. A set of thermal images of weak links in the envelope further bolster the new set of assumptions that should drive more sustainable choices the industry.

Access the abridged chapter online here!

Download the PDF to Chapter 6, Envelope Misconceptions and Implications, here.

Energy systems

This chapter includes a fresh review of home energy systems, in light of new understandings of thermal envelopes and onsite solar energy. Once again a new set of best practices emerge on equipment (appliances and heating, ventilation and air conditioning) that run counter to common thinking in the industry, but that lead to more sustainable and less costly choices. This research also uncovered a new health concern about CO2 concentrations inside homes, and this chapter breaks new ground on addressing the issue effectively, while balancing human health with the energy required to ventilate indoor spaces. This chapter also evaluates energy storage and the viability, practicality, and cost of sizing residential solar to also power household transportation.

Access the abridged chapter online here!

Download the PDF to Chapter 7, Energy Systems, here.

Ideal sustainable homes and building practices

Having articulated new understandings in previous chapters, leading to new models, methods, systems, and solutions, this chapter confirms that sustainable living is both possible and practical in affluent societies. Even so, there is a range of possible outcomes that span from sustainable and more costly, to sustainable and least costly, and this chapter offers a blueprint for an ideal sustainable home. Additionally, homeowners will find value in a section on ideal building practices, including assessment on the value of architectural services, and methods for contracting with a builder and other professional services.

Access the abridged chapter online here!

Download the PDF to Chapter 8, Ideal Sustainable Homes and Building Practices, here.

Conclusions and a look to the future

This chapter assesses the significance of the new research and understandings that emerge from this project and considers how dramatically it will reshape the industry and our common future. The implications of this message are explored, along with ideas for how different stakeholders may react and respond. This concluding chapter also envisions the transition that will occur from the new knowledge of this text and offers recommendations for how public policy could help incentivize rapid deployment of the new ideas. Finally, a number of predictions about the future are examined, including how new information could alter the conclusions of this book. The chapter ends by identifying gaps in the research and literature, both from this study and the industry, with recommendations for new projects.

Access the abridged chapter online here!

Download the PDF to Chapter 9, Conclusions and a Look to the Future, here

Dos and Don’ts of sustainable housing

Each chapter includes a list of dos and don’ts related to the topic, and this final chapter is utilized to compile all those ideas into one final section and organized sequentially by the choices most likely to be encountered when designing and building a new home. This chapter also adds new suggestions to fill gaps between the topics of the book. This provides a metaphorical roadmap for those striving to reduce their ecological footprint and live more sustainably, most notably in their housing and transportation needs. This chapter also confidently answers the highest order question of this book: that it is indeed possible to achieve operational sustainability in housing and transportation, and here is a roadmap to take you there.

Access the abridged chapter online here!

Download the PDF to the Epilogue, Dos and Don’ts, here.