Sustainable Green Design in Residential Architecture


It is an incredibly dynamic time in the world of sustainable design. Years of research, innovation, and trial and error are starting to make great strides in creating better and more environmentally friendly products and energy efficient methods of heating, cooling and powering our homes.  Unfortunately, for the lay person, there are still more questions than answers about which technologies, designs and services will work best for their specific applications.  Here are some strategies for sorting through the myriad of possibilities out there and finding what will work best for you.

Look Backwards

Mankind has only started producing and employing large quantities of refined energy for the last 300 years or so.  Before that we relied solely on natural energy sources to fulfill our needs.  Many of the design concepts of the pre-industrial world can greatly reduce our energy needs as well as our impact on the environment today.  Some simple examples include:

  1. Placing windows on two sides of a room promotes cross ventilation and allows more natural light to enter throughout the day.
  2. Large overhangs on rooflines block the high summer sun, while allowing the lower winter sun toshine in.
  3. Orienting the building to take the best advantage of natural light, airflow and drainage. Using landscaping or site walls to block prevailing winter winds or summer sunshine.
  4. Use of shutters/ shades to block out unwanted sunshine during the cooling season as well as keeping in heat during the winter months
  5. Using local materials (conserving transport energy) that have a high thermal mass.     
  6. This property allows the material to stay a more consistent temperature despite fluctuations in air  temperature.
  7. Some examples are stone, tile, plaster.  These materials also have the added advantage of being very durable, requiring less maintenance and increased longevity.
  8. Having gutters tie into a cistern or water collection system for irrigation purposes.

Look Forward with Caution

There are new technologies and ideas being brought to market everyday.  Some will prove to be indispensable; some will prove to be unworkable and eventually abandoned.  Before employing a new technology, research its history and track record.  When considering relatively “unproven” technologies, try to fully understand the cost of replacement in case of failure and weigh this against the savings or benefit.  Solar panels can easily be augmented, by bringing in power from the electric grid, if they do not work as intended. Whereas, attempting to incorporate a new “prefabricated” foundation system that promises to save time and money, could have devastating replacement/ refitting cost if it does not perform as promised.  Use the best of the new, while giving some time to certain technologies to prove themselves.  Here are some technologies that have a shown a benefit:

Radiant heating: There is over a 50 year history to this technology, with more and more refinement coming each day.  Some of the major drawbacks (leaking, corrosive effect of hot water running through piping and mechanical systems) have been resolved.  Currently it is one of the most efficient comfortable heating available.  There is certainly a larger upfront cost, but this will be realized in savings in a relatively short timeframe.

Compact fluorescent lighting:  This simple change can cut lighting bills dramatically and the bulbs

last far longer than incandescent.

Super insulation: Spray foam and high efficiency batt insulation greatly reduces heat loss and gain.  

Using 2X6 exterior construction allows for 50% more insulation to be used, plus makes for a far sturdier house.

Geo-thermal and solar energy:  Currently NJ and Federal programs are making this technology affordable to more and more homeowners.

Build smaller

One of the best ways to save energy, resources and the environment is to build as efficiently as possible in terms of size.  Less size means fewer materials, less maintenance, less operating costs, and usually less taxes.  Bigger is not better, better is better.  This puts a premium on refined quality design to make every foot count.  Some strategies for building efficiently are the following:

1.    Make use of all four floors: In New Jersey you are allowed a habitable attic space (about 30% of the floor area below) and finished basements which with proper siting and design can have plenty of natural light and ventilation.

2.     Eliminate rooms you do not use.  If you do not do formal dining or living, do not build the rooms.

Instead design the rooms you use, but keep the flexibly in the plan that if the next owner wanted to use them as a formal dining room or living room they have that option.

3.     Create multi-purpose rooms:  Some rooms are needed but used infrequently, combine the uses.

4.     Plan efficiently to eliminate hallways and wasted space.

Sustainable Green Design in Residential Architecture

Build to last

Building with quality materials, efficient floor plans, and traditional designs will allow the house to be utilized and enjoyed for many generations without high maintenance or replacement costs.  The track houses of the 60-70s are being completely torn down because the materials and designs were of inferior quality and are now beyond “repair”.  This is at a tremendous cost to the environment in terms of new construction materials and the disposal of the torn down structures.   Investing upfront will pay off in the end for everyone.