The role of the construction industry in combating climate change is a relatively new consideration, but one that is gaining prominence on sustainability agendas at a global scale. At the recent U.N. Climate Change Conference, the program included a day dedicated to buildings and cities, as well as the Build Better Now virtual pavilion, showcasing 17 sustainable projects.
In advance of COP26, the Royal Institute of British Architects and Architects Declare hosted a Built Environment Summit, prompting a collective call to the built environment sector to embed, replicate and scale up sustainable best practice designs. Similar to local recycling efforts, individual home owners, contractors and developers each have a role to play in reducing carbon emissions at the residential scale. Here are five project examples that illustrate how you can build single-family housing sustainably and with style.
Urban eco-home infill
Non-profit development firm Midtown Detroit, Inc. has traditionally focused on historic preservation. However, their Detroit Eco Homes project presented the perfect opportunity to bring sustainable single-family housing to Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood.
To accommodate the relatively small lot sizes (some as narrow as 35-feet wide), the eco-homes range in size from 1,400 to 1,800 square feet, with multilevel, two and three-bedroom models.
They were designed with sloped gable roof systems and porches in the front and backyard to encourage social interaction and harmonize with the surrounding Victorian aesthetic. The mix of cedar and fiber siding across the homes’ facades gives a contemporary yet complementary look to the neighborhood.
What differentiates these homes, however, is their sustainable footprint. Each house is designed to meet net-zero requirements — an achievement that architects SmithGroup clarify can only prove true once the homes are occupied.
Green features, however, are in place, including solar panels on the roof, low-VOC paint, low-flow toilets and energy-efficient appliances.
In addition to light-frame wood construction that sequesters carbon, the home also includes a tight envelope and heavy insulation (two-by-six framing was used for the walls to create greater depth for extra insulation). Rainwater barrels and rain gardens also help with stormwater management.
“We’re always thinking about how we can implement innovative strategies at a neighborhood level,” said Sue Mosey, Midtown Detroit’s executive director. “This project was about appealing to single-family residents while also showcasing our commitment to sustainability.”
Hudson Valley passive house
Inspired by the history of early immigrant farmers in Ancram, New York, this mid-19th century barn was saved from collapse and renovated into Fox Hall, a passive house built by award-winning architecture firm BarlisWedlick. The adaptive reuse project has found new life as a strikingly modern and sustainable studio apartment, garage and guest house.
“[The client] really cared about being as off-the-grid as possible, about having net-zero solar and really healthy interior air quality. That meant we could push the design to focus on it being as passive as possible,” explained BarlisWedlick’s Cofounder and Principal Architect Alan Barlis.
Constructed using structural insulated Vermont timber frame panels and clad in traditional Japanese shou sugi ban charred cedar, the 1,800-square-foot home is built partially into the earth for added insulation.
The exterior simultaneously welcomes and rebuts environmental factors, including sunlight-conducting black siding and INTUS windows oriented to maximize solar gain. Forty-eight solar panels on the barn’s roof collect and store electricity in a battery back-up panel.
The garage portion of the structure is a green roof covered in insulating native plants, while the natural swimming pool — the first in New York State — utilizes water gardens for its necessary filtration. Connected to the main house via a wooden foot bridge is the three-story, cedar-framed tower that features a sauna, second-level dining area and third level with a swing. The barn also includes an electric vehicle charging station.
The studio’s airy interior features an open living room/bedroom space that can be divided by a hand-cranked wall that rises from within the master suite’s elevated platform. Timber beams above the kitchen island are finished with LifeTime Wood Treatment, a stain made from plant extracts and minerals.
A wood-burning stove heats the space, complemented by a state-of-the-art PowerWise energy monitoring system that allows homeowners to adjust operations for optimum energy usage and climate control.
Modern, efficient ranch
Nestled in a secluded and idyllic oasis among the rolling hills of West Marin, California, this modern ranch home was designed by Turnbull Griffin Haesloop. The firm is renowned for the sustainable, site-responsive design of houses as well as wineries, churches, libraries and independent schools.
West Marin Ranch is framed in Western red cedar with a corrugated zinc roof, giving the new construction a weathered farmhouse motif. The cluster of buildings shapes a courtyard that shields the strong winds and creates a warm, sunny spot for the plunge pool and hot tub.
Inside the main house, a large living/dining/kitchen space allows 16 people to gather. Interior design studio Lotus Bleu incorporated unexpected materials to accompany the rustic locale, including tactile cerused oak finishes, glazed and crackled lava stone tabletops and furniture customized from wood collected on the property during the renovation.
The home is designed to be net-zero with a remote photovoltaic array providing power. Additional sustainable features include high R-value insulation, reclaimed wood floors and zoned radiant heat with passive cooling. Stainless steel sunshades protect the windows from solar heat gain, and a rainwater capture system is used for toilet flushing.
Turnbull Griffin Haesloop has always tried to use passive solar principles and eco-friendly materials. Today, many residential and institutional clients also are requesting more active green elements such as solar panels, geothermal heating and cooling and rainwater collection.
“Sustainable design is another layer of reading the site,” said Eric Haesloop, partner of Turnbull Griffin Haesloop. “Some clients are really interested in water conservation. Some are into energy use. You get to explore different avenues.”
Salvaged, sustainable ADU
As a true believer in green building and renewable energy, solar professional and technical writer David Brearley is always looking for opportunities to walk the talk. He serves on the Board of Directors for both the Texas Solar Energy Society and Solar Austin. In early 2015, he combined his construction skills with his passion for the environment to create a green accessory dwelling unit (ADU) in Austin, Texas.
Before construction began, Brearley and his wife Molly collected a variety of materials from renovation and demolition projects of homes, schools and even the Texas State Capitol. This included salvaged antique longleaf pine from two neighborhood homes that were slated for demolition and remnant pieces of exotic hardwood languishing in the corner of a warehouse.
They used the salvaged wood for exterior soffits, exterior and interior trim details, interior accent walls and some custom furniture. They also purchased salvaged maple gym flooring to use throughout the upstairs apartment, tiled the shower stall with donated Italian glass tiles and finished the kitchen space with a soapstone countertop found on Craigslist.
In addition to the sustainable impact of reusing existing building materials, the reclaimed inventory also gives the project its unique character. To augment the ADU’s green design aesthetic, Brearley specified Energy Star-rated appliances and LED lighting, as well as a highly efficient ducted mini-split system and an ultra-high efficiency condensing on-demand water heater. Brearley also installed a 4.1-kilowatt roof-mounted solar array, generating more electricity than the back house uses.
When approaching a green building project, Brearley recommends doing your homework and starting with the fundamentals. He also suggests working with an architect and getting at least three quotes for each scope of work that you subcontract out.
The property currently serves as a guest house and as a short-term rental. See more of Brearley’s ADU in Austin Energy Green Building’s virtual Cool House Tour.
“Smaller structures require fewer energy inputs. This is especially true if you focus, as we did, on design features that drive down the long-term cost of ownership,” said Brearley.
Forest-inspired net-zero refuge
A picturesque site in Falmouth, Maine, serves as an inspiring canvas for Blackwood House, a net-zero home from award-winning firm Kaplan Thompson Architects.
The client’s request for a home that “appeared to drop out of space, land in the forest, and blend in perfectly” resulted in an innovative design that is “modern and sleek, yet rough hewn.”
Capped with a slanted roof, the home has a chic, shed-like appearance differentiated by its quilt-like exterior. Clad in what the architects call a “complex textile pattern,” the low-maintenance and cost-effective facade includes weathering steel, fiber cement board and black-stained cedar. These exterior finishes patina with age while effectively shielding the house from the elements. An open timber-framed carport completes the utilitarian look.
Inside the 2,775-square-foot home, architects used a predominately timber palette to bring the woods indoors, including an exposed hemlock frame with Heritage Natural Finish and wood pegs that create a structured, treehouse-like feel. Triple-glazed windows ensure that the light-filled, open-plan interior maintains comfortable indoor temperatures year-round while inviting the forest view to take center stage.
With an intentional emphasis on both sustainable and aesthetic design considerations, the single-family home was engineered to produce its own fossil fuel-free energy. Photovoltaic panels mounted on the roof of the carport power the home, while a heat pump hot water heater, fresh air ventilation system with heat recovery and high-performance envelope minimize energy usage and heat loss. The result is a net-zero structure that generates more energy than it consumes.
As you consider taking steps to building more eco-friendly residences, keep in mind that a growing number of consumers are seeking homes with features that are good for the environment. In fact, more than half of realtors said their clients were interested in sustainability, and nearly a third reported they were involved in the buying or selling of a property with “green” or eco-friendly features in the last 12 months.
Images (in order of projects) via Berkshire Hathaway Home Services, BarlisWedlick Architects, David Wakely and Turnball Griffin Haesloop Architects, Leonid Furmansky and Irvin Serrano Photography