How to design an eco-friendly house

Updated February 21, 2017

Green homes are drawing increasing attention as architects and builders advertise energy-saving and environmentally friendly residential design. High-profile disasters like the hurricane damage from Katrina in New Orleans highlight the need to build site-sensitive housing. Organizations such as the U.S. Green Building Council, the Forest Stewardship Council and Make It Right, the non-profit that is helping to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, offer guidelines and examples of how to design an eco-friendly, economical and efficient home. Before engaging a green architect, it's worth learning about new developments and available options.

Situate the house on its lot in the most favourable way to take advantage of light and protection from the elements. Consider the direction and slope of the roof that will accommodate solar panels. Plan for adequate sun to grow an insulating green roof or rooftop vegetable garden. Choose wide eaves to overhang the walls, provide shade from intense summer sun, and allow winter sun, which is angled at a slant, to enter the home. Build the thickest walls with the fewest windows facing the northwest to shelter the house from winter storms and chill. Put a house in a flood zone on stilts.

Route the construction materials and vehicles around and through existing trees to disturb the natural landscape as little as possible. Evaluate typical runoff, grades and even soil type when planning the structure, foundation, location and eventual landscaping for the home. Use roofs for collecting rainwater and use xeriscaping -- drought-tolerant landscaping -- to save on irrigation. Keep as much of the house open to the outdoors as possible by designing interior spaces around a sheltered courtyard or adjacent terraces. Factor daylighting into window and interior wall placement. Take advantage of airflow in milder seasons to save on air conditioning or avoid it altogether.

Opt for sustainable materials whenever possible. Materials should be local so there are minimal transportation energy costs. Get supplies from sustainable sources, such as wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council. Use natural textiles, construction materials, finishes and decoration made without potentially toxic or environmentally hazardous additives. Classic linoleum, for example, is completely compostable, made from linseed oil, flax, jute and other natural fibres. Insulate with tech-forward products like rolls of recycled blue jeans. Never use old-growth lumber, but do use architectural salvage when it is clean and locally available.

Focus on energy-efficient doors and windows, water heaters, bathroom fixtures, heat sources and kitchen appliances. Buy Energy Star-rated appliances and minimise excess. One TV in a family den might really be enough television for the whole house. A clothesline in the yard and one in the garage might take the place of an energy-intensive dryer.

Explore natural options for an outdoor pool. There are workable alternatives to a typical chlorinated concrete shell that might better suit your lifestyle, budget and environmental consciousness.

Things You'll Need

  • Books, websites, articles, videos on green building
  • Continuing education courses
  • Eco-friendly housing plans
  • U.S. Green Building Council LEED guidelines
  • Community presentations
  • Cooperative Extension Service seminars
  • "Green" architect services
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About the Author

Benna Crawford has been a journalist and New York-based writer since 1997. Her work has appeared in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle, The New York Times, and in professional journals and trade publications. Crawford has a degree in theater, is a certified Prana Yoga instructor, and writes about fitness, performing and decorative arts, culture, sports, business and education .