What is green architecture? How to build an environmentally conscious home

Green architecture is an environmentally conscious approach to housing construction and design that aims to reduce the burden on the environment. This includes how homes are built and decorated, as well as how they function, from the architecture to the building materials and appliances inside. These green building choices minimize negative impacts on the environment, create homes that function smarter and more efficiently, and make the most of natural and sustainable resources. With green architecture, environmental considerations are as integral as factors such as cost or color. Learn more about the principles of green architecture as well as interior design and design ideas to consider for your own home.

Ed Gohlich

Principles of green architecture

Climate change, a growing awareness of dwindling resources and a desire to live more sustainably have brought environmentally conscious construction to the fore. But many of the concepts behind green architecture are not new. In fact, they are very old – as in ancient civilization. Before HVAC systems or even glass windows, living spaces were built to produce natural airflow, maximize daylight, and rely on natural means of heating and cooling.

Today, there are numerous options – large and small, natural and technology-based – to make greener choices. Mary Homa, vice president and design consultant at PEA Builders, a company specializing in sustainable construction, shares five overarching design principles for green architecture.

1. Attention to property details

Consider the topography of the earth. Can the house be built to take advantage of natural features? How can it be constructed with minimal damage to the natural habitat? This includes designing the house for the best orientation to the sun, specifically for windows and solar panels, for maximum heat and light. “In the north, we orient most of the living space (great room, kitchen, dining room) to the southern exposure, with most windows on this side of the home,” says Homa.

2. Material selection

There are two facets to choosing green building materials. The first is to choose the best materials, including long-lasting materials that can withstand wear and tear. “Things like hardwood floors or well-built cabinets that won’t need to be replaced in a few years,” says Homa. Or choose materials that work harder to protect the home, like cool roof shingles that reflect heat in particularly sunny areas. Second, source materials as locally as possible to reduce energy consumption, carbon emissions, and even packaging that results from shipping.

3. Maximizing space

A “thoughtful floor plan that doesn’t waste space” is another key element of green architecture, according to Homa. An efficient layout heats and cools more efficiently to save energy over time. Plus, a right-sized (vs. oversized) home saves on building materials and energy upfront. Layouts should also be designed to last, with universal design principles in mind, to avoid major renovations.

4. Tight building envelope

A home’s climate screen is a critical part of green architecture. “Think superior exterior wall systems, efficient windows and lots of insulation,” says Homa. She recommends triple-pane fiberglass windows (or double-pane composite for cost savings) and high solar gain glass (or SHGC) on south-facing windows in northern climates.

However, new, efficient windows have less of an impact if the rest of the home is not insulated, and the same goes for energy-efficient plumbing choices. This principle ensures that the entire house is sealed so that the climate control is not wasted by air leaking out of or into the home.

5. Green Technology

Green architecture is not limited to natural materials. Homa points to things like photovoltaic (PV) solar panels, radiant floors and geothermal heating and cooling systems as technologies to consider when building a home. Car chargers are another recent item Homa puts in this category. In many cases, green technology is about prioritizing renewable energy sources and making these resources available to the home now or in the future. “Every home we build is solar ready; the solar system can be installed at the time of construction or at a later date,” says Homa.

Akin Island

Green remodeling ideas

“One size fits all” is a big misconception about green architecture, according to Homa. For example, geothermal technology is a common request, but it is not always the answer. “We discuss with customers the pros and cons for their lot, needs and budget. Geothermal may be the best option or another heating/cooling system.” Similarly, green building is not all-or-nothing. Inefficient layouts can still benefit from a tight building enclosure, and making smart material choices isn’t negated by not having solar.

Although many green architectural principles are implemented in basic elements, green building does not only apply to new construction. There are also plenty of opportunities to make sustainable, environmentally conscious choices in remodeling projects.

If you want to remodel with sustainability in mind, Homa recommends several smaller projects that can make your house more efficient.

  • Install an on-demand water heater. Also called tankless water heaters, these heat the water instantly when activated so no water is wasted waiting for the shower to heat up and no needlessly heating a large tank of water just to have it available as required.
  • Improve the building’s climate screen. Replace windows or add insulation to areas that need it.
  • Update to energy-efficient LED light fixtures and bulbs.
  • Add an ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilator) or HRV (Heat Recovery Ventilator). “We call this the ‘lungs of the home,'” says Homa. These can be used to preheat or precool air brought into the home to reduce HVAC usage.

Want more big ideas? Check out The homeowner’s handbook on green building and remodeling, a book that can be downloaded for free from Green Builder. It covers green roofs, windows, siding, cabinets, appliances and more.

Brie Williams

Green decorating ideas

Decoration offers the opportunity to also think green. When shopping, look for key labels and certifications that indicate a product is environmentally conscious or sustainably produced—you’ll likely recognize some of the more common ratings like Energy Star and WaterSense.

Kristin Bartone, creative director and principal of Bartone Interiors, recommends finding Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) building products and furniture. “By choosing products made from FSC-certified wood, you reduce deforestation, global warming and increase conservation efforts by preventing the extinction of certain plants and animals important to the rainforest ecosystem,” says Bartone.

Slow decorating and used things

Choose long-lasting, local furniture and decor. Consider slow decorating, a design trend that promotes mindful selection and quality products rather than buying quickly available, low-quality products that fit an immediate need. Or outfit your home by buying second-hand and using architectural salvage, which not only recycles materials but also goes hand-in-hand with buying local.

Water-saving fixtures

If you are updating kitchen or bathroom fixtures, look for opportunities to save water. “Conserve water by using a dual-flush toilet,” says Lina Galvao of Curated Nest. “This reduces the amount of water used for flushing.” You can also find low-flow faucets, water-saving shower heads, and gray water recycling systems, including products that recycle shower and tub water for use in toilets.

Low-VOC materials

Choose furniture and materials such as paint that have low or no VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Bartone also suggests avoiding upholstered items with added flame retardant chemicals. These steps reduce off-gassing, which can degrade indoor air quality. In addition, Galvao points to Greenguard certification, provided when a product meets chemical emission standards.

Energy-saving technology

You can also look for ways to make energy-saving upgrades, such as presence-sensing light switches (so you never have to worry about someone turning off the lights) and replacing old appliances with more efficient Energy Star-rated models. Even a smart-home system that controls temperature and electricity use or monitors water leaks can increase a home’s efficiency, Galvao says.

Brie Williams

Conditions for green building to know

Green architecture can also be discussed as green construction, green design or sustainable construction. The terminology varies based on the type of project, the professionals involved or even the local language. When building green, here are a few terms to know:

Circular construction is a concept that includes reuse, sharing and upcycling of building materials. Galvao gives the example of using locally sourced reclaimed wood for building or in furniture, which diverts waste from the landfill.

ONE net-zero home, or zero-energy home, produces as much electricity as is needed to run the house. For example, a house that generates electricity through solar panels and makes enough energy to power the entire home.

ONE passive home is a house built to have as little energy as possible. Not only does it generate its own power, but it also has an incredibly robust frame and design designed to minimize the required energy consumption.

Blower door test determine how energy efficient your home is by measuring how much air enters and escapes your home.

There are also terms to note when looking for professionals to work with on green building projects. You might see LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) listed behind a builder or designer’s name with other professional credentials, in the description of a completed construction project or in the details of a design firm, architect or builder. LEED recognizes energy efficient building practices and projects that meet their energy efficiency standards. LEED is certified by the USGBC (US Green Building Council) and there are several levels of certification. However, Homa notes that LEED is more prevalent in commercial design than residential design. There are many other green-related credentials you may come across, including the National Association of Home Builders’ Certified Green Professional (CGP) certification.

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