Sustainable Home Architecture Options

Sustainable housing provides benefits in terms of the environment, energy consumption, and utility costs.

House window with worn down cedar shake roof shingles

Green homes offer advantages to the community because it causes fewer carbon emissions, thereby reducing air pollution. Also, these houses do not cause undue strain on the local power grid because they operate efficiently. 

In addition to reducing energy costs for the homeowner, sustainable homes often present extra perks such as improved indoor air quality, a higher level of comfort, and, in some cases, increased property value. 

Individual homeowners can enjoy these benefits, but the same positives can also help landlords lower operations costs and make a rental property more attractive to people seeking an environmentally friendly place to live. 

Here is a closer look at the options for sustainable residential architecture.

Cargotecture

Cargotecture is the use of shipping containers as dwellings. These 20- and 40-foot boxes have long been a temporary housing option in oil fields and the armed forces. Over the past few decades, architects have started taking advantage of containers’ structural reliability and customizability to make more-permanent homes. 

What are the pros and cons of cargotecture?

Pros

  • They use recycled cargo containers, so they do not need as many building materials and are more environmentally friendly. 
  • Because the structure is already in place, building a cargo home is quick compared to a traditional house. 
  • They are incredibly sturdy and safe. 
  • Many designs are modular, which means you can add or subtract elements easily. 

Cons

  • Cargo container homes may not meet local building and zoning requirements. 
  • You need to take extra steps to connect to utility systems. 
  • You may be limited in terms of size and layout. 

Modern cargotecture usually involves stacking and joining multiple shipping containers together. This trend allows owners to get the size and layout of a traditional home while also enjoying the advantages of building with containers. 

Cargotecture has made its way into the commercial property market. For example, in Amsterdam, a student housing development called Keetwonnen consists of a stack of modified containers that serve as apartments. 

Prefabricated Homes

Prefabricated homes are houses that get built in a factory setting and shipped to the buyer’s location. There are different types of prefabricated homes. 

  • Modular homes consist of different segments. Each component can join with others to create a complete house. When assembling, you can add or subtract these components as needed. 
  • Shipping container homes are houses made with 20- or 40-foot shipping containers. Some of these houses are modular and include two or more containers joined together.
  • Kit homes have parts assembled in a factory. The pieces make up a kit, which gets shipped to the construction site and put together. With these homes, you do not have to worry about wasting excess materials. 
  • Panel homes consist of exterior and frame components. These panels come from a factory, but all interior work occurs onsite. 

There are distinct advantages and disadvantages to prefabricated homes. 

Pros

  • Prefab homes limit waste because builders follow a pre-set pattern in a controlled environment. This is good for the environment and your wallet. 
  • Construction time is quicker than for a traditional home. 
  • Because of the factory setting, limited waste, and quick onsite construction, prefab homes are cheaper than traditional peers. 
  • Prefabs are usually energy-efficient because the components get joined together in an airtight way. 

Cons

  • Though these homes are cheaper, you have to pay to transport them to the building site. Also, you may have to pay extra to have utilities hooked up to your home.
  • Design options are limited to the products offered by a builder. 
  • The cost of a prefab home does not include the land, which you need to purchase separately. 

Tiny Homes

Tiny homes are extremely small houses. Almost all are less than 500 square feet, and some are significantly smaller than that. Because of their modest size, these homes are cheaper to build, and utility costs are very low. 

The common denominator for all tiny homes is their diminutive stature. These houses come in many different styles. Some resemble traditional dwellings or log cabins, while others are portable and stand on wheels. 

Pros

  • A tiny home can generate 14 times less carbon than a typical home. These houses produce minimal pollution. 
  • Tiny houses are cheaper than traditional homes and can make house ownership a reality for people who would otherwise have to rent. 
  • Tiny homes are often portable, so you are not confined to one place. 

Cons

  • The interior area is extremely limited. Tiny homes present challenges for families and those in need of space for storage. 
  • You need to purchase or rent the land. Though tiny homes are cheap, you need to have a place to put them. This cost is in addition to the price of the house itself.  
  • You may need to take extra steps, such as pouring a foundation or hooking the home up to utilities. 

Earthships

Earthships are off-the-grid homes that maximize environmental friendliness and minimize reliance on outside services. The structures use passive solar heating and ventilation instead of automated climate control systems, and they include systems that make activities such as recycling and composting extremely easy. 

Earthships also often have self-contained sewage treatment and water collection systems. 

Pros

  • Passive solar heating, self-contained sewage treatment, and other features limit the cost of utilities. 
  • The simple design of these structures can make them cheap to build and maintain. 
  • Because they use recycled, repurposed, or sustainable materials, Earthships are very eco-friendly. 

Cons

  • You may need to pay architects and engineers to design customized systems to meet your needs. Earthships may not be the cheapest option on the market. 
  • You may need to install backup systems to kick in when passive systems are not providing the ideal temperature. 
  • These homes are difficult to resell, so they do not offer the same type of investment opportunity as traditional homes. 

Passivhaus

Passivhaus (German for “passive house”) is a building designed to use as little energy as possible. Institutions in different parts of the world create different standards for passive houses, with the most important being the Passivhaus standards from Germany.  

A passive house could, for example, use a metal roof to reflect sunlight and reduce passive heating. 

In most cases, a Passivhaus uses window treatments, blinds, ventilation, skylights, and other design features to regulate interior climates without using minimal outside energy. You could gain some of the benefits of a passive house by replacing your roof or windows.  

Pros

  • Passivhaus designs minimize utility costs. 
  • Since you do not need much energy to heat or cool the home, passive houses are very environmentally-friendly.
  • The standard includes a comfort requirement. A true Passivhaus will remain comfortable year-round. 

Cons

  • Including design elements that allow for passive heating and cooling can be expensive. 
  • A Passivhaus design may not account for very cold or hot days. 
  • A Passivhaus may not be possible in certain parts of the world or specific locations depending on climate and shade or sunlight on any given property. 

Green Roofs and Living Walls

Green roofs and living walls consist of standard building elements covered with plant life. Green roofs are exterior features, and while green walls can be outside, they are usually interior features. 

These installations can reduce energy costs, provide natural air purification, increase humidity in dry environments, and brighten interior spaces. Some architects may also include these elements for aesthetic reasons. 

Prominent examples of green roofs include the Chicago City Hall and Vancouver Convention Centre, and green walls are prevalent in some parts of the world, such as Taipei, Taiwan. However, these features are also possible at a smaller scale in residential homes. 

A green roof requires a sturdy roof structure. You will need to have a roofing professional inspect your home to ensure that it can withstand the weight of soil and plants. You’ll need to make repairs if necessary. 

You can create a green roof relatively easily by installing rows of growing trays and planting hardy species like sedum. 

A green wall can be as simple as building a structure to hold plant life and placing it next to an interior wall. You can use creeping plants, such as ivy so that the installation requires less soil.

Compact Design

Compact designs are often better in terms of energy efficiency because it is cheaper to heat, cool, and light smaller areas. Smaller homes often require less maintenance because there are fewer installations to fix and less area to clean. 

These designs are green because they limit energy consumption, but they are also green because they require less material when built. You can make modular homes more compact or build walls or barriers in existing homes to divide existing rooms rather than adding new ones. 

Sustainable Housing Materials

In many cases, the best and most practical sustainable home option is simply to make a traditional home using sustainable materials. You will need to discuss the use of specific materials with a contractor or roofer before starting construction. 

What are the best sustainable materials?

  • Bamboo is very sustainable because it grows quickly. It is strong, durable, and flexible, and ideal for use in flooring, walls, and interior trim. 
  • Timber can be sustainably harvested and used both on the interior and exterior. Reclaimed or recycled timber can work for non-load-bearing interior elements. 
  • Adobe, cob, and mudbrick are historic building materials that are still useful today, though they typically need reinforcement to serve as exterior walls for dwellings. 
  • Recycled metals can serve as structural components of a home. Recycled steel, for example, can work as beams in a home.