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Sustainable Residential Design and Plan Implementation

Sustainable residential design and project implementation combines technology and innovation. The technology has been around for 400 years and the first 100 years humanity utilized it and then for the next 300 we stopped.  Which begs the question, what happened?Exploring sustainable residential design and plan implementation helps shed some light on this important topic.

What is sustainability?

Sustainable design also known as “environmental design” over the years has adopted several meanings.  Loosely defined, sustainable design is the process of considering environmental parameters when implementing plans, programs, policies, buildings or products. Additionally, sustainable design attempts to create systems that can maintain themselves over time.  In 1970, NEPA, National Environmental Policy Act set a goal to create and maintain conditions where humans and nature can exist together and preserve the social and economic requirements of generations of today and in the future. 
Over the past three decades, sustainability has evolved into policies that affect the public and private sectors.  Both sectors focus on the need to support economic growth while keeping in mind the importance of reducing the cost to our natural resources. 

The innovative and beautiful art known as sustainable residential design.


A few definitions of sustainability from experts:

Sustainable development is a journey rather than a destination. David Buzzelli, former member of Canada's National Round Table on Environment and Economy, and former president of Dow Chemical Canada Inc. Growth in harmony with our environment, preserving our resource base for our economic well-being, and planning for our children's future.

Gary Filmon, former Premier of Manitoba and Chair of the Manitoba Round Table on Environment and Economy Development without destruction. Maurice Strong, Secretary-General of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit.

Sustainable development requires environmental health, economic prosperity and social equity.

Earth Council

Sustainable development is the achievement of continued economic and social development without detriment to the environment and natural resources. The quality of future human activity and development is increasingly seen as being dependent on maintaining this balance.
European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions
(an agency of the European Commission)

Sustainability means resolving the conflict between two competing goals: the sustenance of human life and the integrity of nature.

Why two competing goals? Living beyond our ecological means will lead to the destruction of humanity's only home. Having insufficient natural resources, and living in unsatisfactory and inequitable ways will cause destructive conflict and degrade our social fabric. In a sense, we putting a new spin on the old nature vs. nurture question. How can we get nurture without destroying its ultimate source, nature?

Redefining Progress
Sustainable development involves the simultaneous pursuit of economic prosperity, environmental quality and social equity. Companies aiming for sustainability need to perform not against a single, financial bottom line but against this triple bottom line.

The World Business Council for Sustainable Development
Improving the quality of life while living within the carrying capacity of supporting ecosystems.

World Conservation Union

Each generation is entitled to the interest on the natural capital, but the principal should be handed on unimpaired.

Canada's Commission on Conservation (in 1915)
Sustainable development means implementing a process that integrates environmental, economic and social considerations into decision making. This reinforces the World Commission on Environment and Development's conclusion that development should be sustainable for the benefit of current and future generations.

Environment Canada
Development which ensures that the utilization of resources and the environment today does not damage prospects for their use by future generations. Canada's National Task Force on Environment and Economy Living on the earth's income rather than eroding its capital. It means keeping the consumption of renewable natural resources within the limits of their replenishment. It means handing down to successive generations not only man-made wealth, but also natural wealth, such as clean and adequate water supplies, good arable land, a wealth of wildlife, and ample forests.

The United Kingdom's Sustainable Development Strategy


Why is sustainable design important?

Sustainable design is important because it attempts to look at the loop of human behavior.  When thinking of the natural world, human behavior and decisions affect the health and well-being of the natural world, and the health and well-being of the natural world affect human existence. 
The US Census Bureau reported that the world population is expanding at a rapid pace.  In 1800, the population reached 1 billion people, 1922 2 billion people, and in the year 2000 6 billion people.  It is estimated that the world population will hit 9 billion by 2050.  What does this mean?  Imagine if in the year of 2050 all the natural resources were divided equally amongst the estimated 9 billion people that would equate to people having only 25% of the resources that people had in 1950. Strangely enough as the population increases, the world can only provide a set amount of natural resources where on a daily basis humans make decisions that deplete these resources. 

Think about it, we save for college education and weddings for our children and grandchildren, yet we don’t think about leaving our children clean air, water and fuel sources.   Building a new and sustainable residential model begins with an idea.  The idea is to produce a house (technology for a house) that can produce as much energy as it use.  Why do you ask?  The average national crisis of utilities, natural gas, heating etc. has risen 150 percent in the past 10 years, not to mention the incredible toll past residential models have taken on the environment.  Sustainable design is just plain makes sense financially and for the planet. Establish good air quality.  Eliminate indoor pollutants.  Ensure thermal comfort.  Maintain a connection with the outdoor environment. 


Who supports sustainable design?

Sustainable residential design can be implemented across several disciplines, ecology, civil engineering, environmental sciences, and public health.  Architects play a major role in the implementation of sustainable design.  Architects are the advocates to and this website will focus on this discipline.


When we realize that sustainable residential structures are the way to go, our brains must also understand that the finished product is not the process that takes the longest.  The distinction between finished product and planning is important to understand because without proper planning, the finished product will be impacted.

Planning sustainable structures can be a tedious task.  The overall job of planning consists of a variety of subjects and concepts.  These concepts and subjects consist of the location of the project, the actual construction of the blue prints and how the project will be funded. 
Location:  Location is key when building a sustainable residential structure.  When dealing with location a few things have to be taken into consideration.  A lot of it is dealing with Geometry and elevation of the land. 


Where the structure sits in relation to the land directly affects the warming of the house with natural heat.  The temperature of the earth stays at a consistent temperature of 55 degrees Farenheit.  This natural heat happens if you are dig deep enough into the earth’s surface.  These angles also help out with the rate at which the son hits the house. 

Geometry comes into play with the angles during winter solstice.  Winter solstice occurs when the natural (23 26) tilt of the earth and is its furtherest away from the sun causing the shortest days and the longest nights.  With a house that contains cements floors that reside inside of the earth’s surface, the sun will heat up the concrete in the floors in the house creating radiant (sun) heat and dispersing heat slowly throughout the course of the day. 

In the case of summer equinox, which is the exact opposite of winter solstie and is when the earths tilt is at its closest to the sun, making for longer days and shorter night.  During summer equinox the sun will not heat up cement due to its angle in proportion to the sun (it will not hit the house because the how is lower) regulating the temperature of the house by sustaining an already warmed house.

The challenge job builder’s face in finding ways to eliminate pollution and decrease waste by utilizing the earth’s increasing dwindling natural resources.  Proper planning and implementation will hopefully do away with the entire negative persona attached to building construction. 


Loosely defined a blue print is a paper based creation or detailed plan for a project.  The blueprint of the project is majorly important, as it encompasses all the structural plans, different ideas and measurements.  A blueprint is an integral part of planning for it is the visual component of the plan.


In green building regulations: extending mandate to the residential sector provides opportunities to heighten awareness in the building industry that usually goes under the radar as far as pollution is concerned.  This happens even though houses are a major of source of greenhouse gases.  All this could be eliminated by producing more environmentally friendly, more sustainable homes. As the awareness of sustainability heightens, different grant programs and funding initiatives to support sustainable design have taken form.  

California Sustainable Community Planning Grant Program - a program that administers $22.3 million dollars to foster and support development of sustainable communities. 

Enterprise Green Communities Grants - provides grants to cover the cost of planning and implementing sustainable, affordable, housing developments.

            Planning & Construction Grants ($75,000)
            Charrettes Grants ($5,000)
            Sustainability Training Grants ($5,000)

Green and Health Homes - a program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Housing and Development to improve knowledge of green construction with a focus on children and sensitive populations.   

Green Building Funding
- the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency provides sources for grants, tax-credits, and loans for sustainable design.
Livability Innovation Fund Grants- a program that provides funds that enhance sustainability through planning and design.
Pittsburgh Green Building Funding- provides builders with assisted funding to implement green practices.

Urban Sustainability Grants
- program that provides grants from $500 to $5000 dollars that focus on sustainability issues focusing on waste, energy, consumption or transportation.


The main objective of sustainable design is to implement structures that require the least amount of usage of materials that deplete our natural resources:  energy, water and raw materials.

When you think about materials, initially cost becomes the first priority.  With sustainable design, the cost of materials equates to the cost of social and environmental impact.  Purchasing of materials is done in phases, known to the architect world as life-cycle phases. 

Pre-building Phase (Manufacture)

Extraction, Processing, Packaging, Shipping
This phase is the production and delivery process of a material to where the installation will occur.  This phase includes where the material will be extracted from, the process, the packaging and the shipping. 

Building Phase (Use)

Construction, Installation, Operation, Maintenance
This phase starts with the moment the material is placed in the structure and continues through the life of the material.

-- Post-Building Phase (Disposal)
-- Recycling (back to Pre-Building Phase)
-- Reuse (back to Building Phase)

The Reuse phase begins when the life of the materials has expired. This stage is important  because during this phase it is determined whether the material is reusable, recyclable or should be discarded. 


Why use sustainable materials?

The foundation of every building project is the use of materials.  The taking of these raw materials poses some type of ecological damage.  Ecological damage suffered to produce building materials is extreme.  This damage hinders wildlife habitat, erosion, and water and air pollution.  This damage transfers to our climate change, acid rain, air quality, and water pollution. 

When you speak about loss of wildlife, you talk about the natural environment where a species is located.  For example, cutting down the forests for lumber directly affects the plant life.  For a moment, think about the importance of plants... plants return moisture to the air, serve as a natural filter for water/air pollution and provide oxygen for survival. 

Sound familiar?  Without this simple process, carbon dioxide increases hence starting the problem of global warming. 
What about erosion and water pollution?  When you remove trees you reduce groundcover, which reduces fertile soil and ultimately causes plant life below the surface to receive adequate sunlight. 

Air pollution is vulnerable when manufacturing companies have machineries that emit toxic gases, which may contribute to acid rain, greenhouse gas or carbon monoxide. To decrease ecological damage, sustainable materials provide a way to do so.   

Sustainable materials help support pollution prevention.  How so?  There are many processes that manufacturers can use to produce building materials, yet it is the manufacturers that adopt practices that improve efficiency while reducing the amount of waste and pollutants that leave the factory.

While the manufacturing process is important, another key to supporting pollution prevention is primarily with the packaging.  Packaging that is green friendly will ultimately skip past a resting spot in a landfill. 

Sustainable materials also use measures called waste reduction.  With this process manufactures consciously make an effort to produce while reducing the amount of scrap material.  This process can use scrap materials to produce energy on the plant or recycle the scrap material to use elsewhere. 










What are some examples of materials?

Recycled Plastic

Recycled plastic can be used in many landscaping products.  Outdoor furniture.  Decking.  Both items used with recycled soda bottles and milk jugs.  Some companies even take “scrap materials” and incorporate them into the items as well.  The advantage-plastic lumber does not rot or warp hence sustaining its purpose over time. 

Landscape pavers can be made from recycled plastics instead of bricks.  Landscape pavers allow grass to continue its cycle of growth and allow water to drain.  Keep in mind, plastic is a major contributor to waste that resides in landfills. 

Recycled newspaper

Everyone is familiar with the best way to reduce energy in a building-insulation.  In sustainable design, fiberglass insulation is substituted for insulations from recycled newspapers.

Cork Flooring

Cork tile flooring provide high indoor air quality.  Cork is derived from the bark of cork trees.  Cork trees shed bark on a seven year cycle, making it a natural renewable resource.  Cork flooring provides sustainability because it has a long life. 

Fiber-Cement Siding

A durable product made from recycled cellulose fibers, sand and cement fiber that has been cured.


Slate provides a long life span for roofs.  A roof is vital to any structure and provides the energy efficiency of the structure.  When installing a roof, choosing materials that provide a long life assist with a huge reduction of operating costs and material waste.  Slate is difficult to install and very expensive “off the shelf”.  An imitation slate provides a longer life than asphalt or shingles and the imitation is produced from recycled and re-engineered materials.  An added bonus to this imitation slate is that any waste from installation can be recycled into a new product. 


Many buildings have poured concrete foundations which provide insulation to a structure.  The waste of this process occurs when forms are created to pour the concrete and then discarded after use, due to is difficulty to recycle and usually sent to a landfill.  The sustainable material used for concrete forms is permanent formwork made from rigid plastic foam.  The plastic foam is used during the pouring of concrete, retains the heat from the setting of the concrete and creates a stronger wall with a greater insulation rate. 


This material alone is used in every building project at some phase of construction.  The most common method of harvesting wood in the past is by clear-cutting.  Clear-cutting is when all vegetation in a given area is removed for the sole purpose of clearing the land for processing.  Sustainable practices provide a management plan that ensures that trees grow before harvesting is conducted.  This plan protects the rivers and streams from degrading and little damage occurs during the harvesting. 

Low impact Landscaping

This process uses grass and trees that can tolerate a drought.  Choosing this type of landscape will allow for a reduction in water compensation. 
The consideration to use sustainable materials is one of great measure.  When seeking materials keep in mind that the quantity and type of material go hand in hand and the area that requires the most material and has the greatest impact should take precedence over other areas when preserving ouIntroducing Sustainable Design into your home
Implementing sustainable design during the building phase poses to be a great way to protect our environment for future generations.  Are there any opportunities to implement sustainability in my current home?  Yes, there are many avenues that a person can take to begin to protect our natural resources. 

Permeable Pavement

Instead of traditional pavement used for driveways, the next time your driveway needs upgrading, reach for a sustainable choice.  Permeable pavement is a system that will let water flow through the surface, posing as a natural filtration for rain water.  This filtration is important because it eliminates water pollution by not allowing storm water to flow on streets and sidewalks picking up debris, leaves, and bacteria from pet waste. 

Solar Water heating

There are many ways to use the sun to heat hot water.  With solar water heating a “catch bin” is secured to the roof or wall facing the sun, and the liquid collected is passed through the house for heating purposes.  Solar water heating is a system that can be used alongside a tank less water heater. 


An immediate fix to sustainability concerning plumbing begins with toilet design.  The key to enhanced toilet design is low water consumption.  The difference between a standard toilet and a sustainable toilet is one that using air pressure instead of water to transport sewage.  When less water is used, smaller pipes can be used and proved a reduction in the production of materials.  Additionally, toilet systems exist that can send sewage to a central holding tank where it can be used for compost. 

Painting (Interior)

Currently there is a wide array of paints, stains and finishes that is non-toxic.  These paints are made from natural pigments, mil solids, lime, talcum and salt.  Sisal wall coverings are an alternative to vinyl and wall paper.  Sisal fibers are renewable and contain no toxic pigments.  

Window systems

Windows provide the opportunity for daylight to come inside of a building while reducing the need for artificial light.  This poses true for skylights as well.  Pertaining to energy, windows are the weakest point of energy loss.  Installing Low-E glass will provide a method to send infrared rays back to its original source.  Condensation causes heat loss through window systems and an easy fix for this is to install a transparent film which allows daylight to enter the structure while eliminating ultra violet radiation.  This easy fix, applying film, is biodegradable and is produced from nontoxic materials. 


Implementation defined is the carrying out, the execution, or practice of a plan, a method of a design.  The final piece to the puzzle, while ensuring to follow the blue print closely and not sacrificing the different design elements. 

Innovative ways are discussed to enhance livability and rebuild local communities.  The ability for cities to partner with the livability concept by implementing sustainable location policy will avoid the typical mindset of building huge buildings in the middle of communities but rather implement strategic planning ideas that will provide spaces for farmers markets. 

Now that you have finally completed all of the homework associated with the project.  And what originally started out as some thoughts coupled with a dream, it is now time to start your check list.  This checklist will provide you with information that will allow you to proceed into the phase of construction and implementation or advise you that more preparation is needed.


If the following components are met you maybe ready to construct your dream:

-- You set out ion a journey and this journey consisted of finding the perfect location, which you now have (check).

-- Taking all of those beautiful ideas about sustainability and turning them into a very extensive blue print (check)

-- Taking that same blue print and finding the best and most efficient materials that will help not only the project but also helping to preserve and protect the planet from a variety of negatives things would cause it to spin faster into it’s demise.

-- The last item on the checklist would be a very crucial portion and this crucial portion would consist of the funding of the project. The sad reality is this dream is not free and costs a pretty penny as they say.

-- Defining the project team roles and responsibilities begins by referencing the housing industry and its importance to national development.

With this development comes great responsibility like meeting requirements that would prolong the nation and improve life.This would create the task of developing ways to utilize all material we have and eliminate waste.


Did you know?

Building account for 39% of U.S. primary energy use, 70& of U.S. electricity consumption, 40% of raw materials used globally, and 12% of portable water consumption.

According to the EPA, cutting energy cost by 50 cents per square foot can save and average of $50,000 in a five year time span on a 20,000 square foot building. 

A study by Carnegie Mellon University showed the relationship between lighting control and a productivity increase of 7.1%


This site was created by Thomas Jones at Millersville University of Pennsylvania

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