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 Two: Choosing Sustainable Building Sites

For decades, activists have been beating the drum against urban sprawl with little evidence that the message was being understood. However, such efforts are never in vain and in this case the right people were listening and are now acting! Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)™ has taken on the challenge of rewriting how the construction industry conducts business.

In this issue, I will present how LEED standards provide a way to minimize the effects of residential construction site disturbance on the environment. This includes managing storm water, light pollution and alternative transportation. Whether you are renovating your home, or buying or building, this information could lead you to a healthier life, increased savings and a greater sense of optimism for the future.

Site Selection:

One of the important aspects of site selection is to leave the habitats of rare species alone and not to build on land specified as endangered, threatened or vulnerable habitat. Nor should houses be built on land designated as parkland nor on lands containing prime or unique soils. In other words leave greenfields for their intended agriculture purpose. Do not build structures or roadways within two meters of the 100-year flood plain or within one meter of the 200-year flood plain. Do not build within 30 meters of wetlands.

If you are uncertain of the history of the property on which a new home is being built, ask a neighbor. If all the trees were removed, they will happily steer business away from that developer.

Preferred Location:

In selecting a new home or lot with LEED principles in mind, choose a previously developed area. Developers are encouraged to purchase land that has between 25 to 75 percent of the perimeter bordering developed areas. The alternative to this is to build on previously developed sites or infill.

Related Articles

Building Your Sustainable Home - Part 1

Building Your Sustainable Home - Part 3

Building Your Sustainable Home - Part 4

Building Your Sustainable Home - Part 5

Building Your Sustainable Home - Part 6

Once LEED for residential construction is well established, subdivisions can be certified for their compliance to these values. Neighborhoods will be advertised for the level of sustainability that was proven to meet LEED standards. These levels begin with certified and move through silver, gold and platinum.


Municipalities are finally realizing that extending services to distant subdivisions has little value to the whole of the community. We will discuss in more detail in the next issue how water and sewage infrastructures can become a thing of the past. The health problems associated with sewage sludge may become the driving force behind such change.

Community Resources:

The emphasis here is to encourage walking and biking. The direction to developers is to build within 400 meters of basic community resources like art or fitness centers, libraries and restaurants. They should also locate within 900 meters of transit service. Buy a home where consideration has been given to walking and biking.

For condo and rental projects, LEED encourages secure covered bicycle storage for a minimum of 15 percent of the occupants.

Access to Open Spaces:

A three-quarter acre minimum area of open spaces is encouraged within 800 meters of residences. As small as this is, it represents the equivalent of six residential building lots. To a developer, that is a major loss of revenue, so hats off to those who recognize the value of this minimum requirement.

Site Stewardship:

Disturbance to top soil during construction is a source of both air and water pollution as affected by rain and wind. Erosion control can prevent the bottom of a stream become plugged with sand or clay. It can also prevent soil from blowing into neighboring properties, killing plants and causing allergies. To this end, no LEED project can begin without a comprehensive erosion control plan and implementation.

There is emphasis on leaving 40 percent of a new site undisturbed. The option for previously abandoned sites is to restore them by removing invasive plants, undoing compacted soil and basically restoring their natural beauty.


In both residential and commercial development, there is a move away from the use of invasive plants, chemicals, massive lawns of turf grass and bad watering habits. This is achieved mainly by using native plants that are acclimatized to the region’s rain cycles. Better still, you can use trees and plants directly from the building site. Forested lots contain ample young shrubs of various sizes that are easily be relocated to an undisturbed corner until they can be replanted months later. These plants are best suited because they have adapted to the existing soil conditions.

We will discuss water use as it relates to landscaping in the next issue.

Heat Island Effect:

The downtown temperatures of North American cities are found to be about ten degrees F higher than surrounding areas. The amount of air conditioning energy used to offset this is enormous. The cause is dark surfaces like roofs and roadways. The solution is shade trees, low reflective surfaces, Energy Star roofs or green roofs.

Surface Water Management:

Sustainable site design allows the water that falls on the site to remain there. In other words, don’t landscape in such a way that rain water runs to the street, then to the treatment facility. Instead, use permeable pavers to allow water to enter the ground. Use shrubs and other vegetation to act as run-off barriers. On sloped lots, create shallow low points to allow water to pond for an hour, thereby enabling the earth to absorb the moisture.

Storing the water for other uses will be discussed in detail in our next issue under water use.

Nontoxic Pest Control:

A home designed with the following recommendations will not need chemicals to control unwanted bugs: Keep the top of the foundation 30 cm (12 inches) off the ground. Don’t allow any wood related products to be discarded around the foundation before back-filling. Seal all wood framing joints. Keep wood and concrete separate from each other. Keep mature plants 60 cm (24 inches) from the house.

Light Pollution:

This exists when a neighbor’s lighting becomes disruptive. This could be exterior lighting to accentuate plants and architectural features or for security. It also pertains to interior lighting that bleeds out through windows. The solution is to use less lighting and when it is used to combine low wattage with shielding. Solar manufacturers are quickly targeting this new market for essential lighting with no energy cost or offensive pollution.

The home building industry is beginning to be proactive in all of the areas mentioned. There is an underlining realization that people knew all along that this was how things should have been done. So when a home buyer shares their appreciation for these values, someone is probably listening. As we put forward questions to builders, suppliers and realtors about these design considerations, the more likely they will realize that the word “sustainable” is more than a cliché.

Hugh Perry provides assistance in the preliminary stages of design for sustainable buildings by preparing hand sketches, cost comparisons and answers to the many questions regarding recycled materials, water use, healthy environment, energy and durability. He can be reached by email at


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