Natural Life Magazine

Building Your Sustainable Home
Applying the principles of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) to your new home
by Hugh Perry

Part One: The Past, Present & Future of Sustainable Housing Design

The construction industry is presently making quantum leaps in its approach to sustainability. Sustainable residential building can be traced back to the 1960s when homesteaders were moving to rural properties and exploring alternative construction methods, many of which are now becoming mainstream.

Those pioneers re-learned old traditions of gardening and processing food without chemicals and thus paved the way for today’s organic food movement. That same ethic led them to explore solar heating, solar cookers, wind and hydro electric generators, water filtration, composting toilets, straw bale and adobe construction. There were many less popular attempts made in the same spirit of change. But access to money was a deterrent in further developing these methods beyond the do-it-yourself stage.

Then along came the trend toward home-based businesses, which meant that families could move to remote rural areas and still make a living. These individuals brought with them a strong desire for sustainability and a new financial attitude about return-on-investment, fueling a new wave of interest in all things related to decreasing our impact on Nature. As a result, these home owners were the original “angel investors” and their homes became the R&D for sustainable construction.

Their roofs became the test sites for photovoltaic (PV) panels, solar heating and green roofs. PV is now the fastest growing industry in the world and green roofs are appearing on many commercial buildings.

Related Articles

Building Your Sustainable Home - Part 2

Building Your Sustainable Home - Part 3

Building Your Sustainable Home - Part 4

Building Your Sustainable Home - Part 5

Building Your Sustainable Home - Part 6

Experiments with window locations created the rules for best practices in passive heating and cooling as well as other methods of home comfort. Masonry stoves combined with water piping in floors introduced radiant floor heating to homes. These families also advanced the testing of alternative sewage treatment methods and water reuse.

In many ways, they challenged the thinking of contractors to revise their methods. And those who measured up to the task are now the leaders in their craft. These builders then accelerated the trend toward sustainability by introducing to less-conscious homeowners their preferred sustainable methods. They encouraged smaller building foot prints, less site disturbance and the use of native plants, along with the many of the available energy features. In every sub-trade, these contractors made requests to suppliers for new products and better materials that supported their craft. But with such a small market, manufacturers were reluctant to invest in these more sustainable products.

While this was occurring in Canada, the desire for sustainability was quickly growing in Europe, China, Japan and, to a lesser degree, in the U.S. Forward-thinking individuals gravitated to each other, creating more effective associations with other like-minded individuals. As a result, the general public became aware of concerns and solutions being put forward by organizations like the cohousing networks, the solar and wind industry associations, and the various Green Building Councils, to name a few.

The scene was set for the construction industry to be hit with new demands from consumers that would force old, outdated methods to be phased out while more sustainable methods were introduced.

Then along came the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™. It was developed over a number of years by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC), which was formed in 1993 and adapted for Canada in 2004 under the direction of the Canadian Green Building Council (CaGBC). LEED was initially targeted at commercial buildings and is now being extended to residential construction. The U.S. LEED for Homes program is in place and the Canadian one will be launched next year.

The manner in which LEED has been accepted by private developers, investors, manufacturers, designers and building occupants is marvelous. As a result, the construction industry is being rewritten from the inside out. What started in the barns, garages and basements of homesteaders is now available off the shelf. Capable contractors are a telephone call away and others are rushing to be trained for this new wave.

In the next five articles, I will present an overview of how to buy or build in the most sustainable way available today, based on LEED for Homes., as well as on my personal experience in design and construction. These articles will follow LEED’s five main themes: Site, Water, Energy, Materials and Indoor Environment.

Each topic requires a conscientious design approach, referred to in LEED as “Innovation & Design Process” and begins long before construction starts.

First, we’ll explore the site on which your home is built, including both the selection process and stewardship issues after your home is constructed. We will look at avoiding urban sprawl and protecting greenfields, forested areas, wet lands, parks and other sensitive areas, as well as ways to minimize site disturbance and to use open space, existing infrastructures and innovative landscaping methods that eliminate watering and chemical use. This category also explores how to reduce heat build-up known as heat island effect and how to better manage surface water and pest control.

The water efficiency article will cover water reuse, waste treatment, high tech irrigation systems and indoor water use.

The energy article will provide recommendations on insulation, air infiltration, windows, ductwork, heating and cooling, domestic hot water, lighting, appliances and renewable energy.

Then I will discuss the wise selection of materials and how this will lead us closer toward sustainability.

The last article will cover indoor environmental quality, which includes venting, moisture control, outdoor air, filtering, contaminant control, radon protection, vehicle emissions and indoor contaminant control.

Learn More

U.S. Green Building Council

Canada Green Building Council

Hugh Perry has experience in all aspects of construction, specializing in commercial mechanical systems and residential architecture. His passion for sustainability has seen him take part in Ottawa’s first office recycling program, the original solar heating movement, Canada’s largest geothermal project, lobbying for domestic solar approvals and promoting alternative construction methods and products. He estimates that in the last 15 years he has helped save carbon emissions equal to that of 1350 net-zero energy homes. 


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