How to Design Sustainable, Cost-Effective Housing in Urban Areas
It’s becoming increasingly obvious that we need both sustainable and cost-effective housing for those living in urban areas.
The role that buildings play is clear — they create 30 percent of a city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, a growing percentage of Americans are cost-burdened by the price of their rents. These issues will only become more prominent as more people move to cities. Today, 55 percent of the world lives in cities, but by 2050, that percentage is expected to increase to 70.
Green building, though, may provide a solution. Using green construction practices can reduce a building’s carbon dioxide emissions by more than 30 percent.
While many people believe sustainable buildings are too expensive, green features only add around two percent onto construction costs on average. Plus, because green homes use electricity and water more efficiently, these features can pay for themselves within a few years.
So, what makes a green building, and how do we go about creating this sustainable, economical housing?
One of the most important aspects of green housing is renewable energy, namely solar panels.
A 6-kilowatt solar system, which is the average size for a U.S. home, can prevent between four and five metric tons of carbon emissions each year, according to Energy Sage.
While installing solar panels is an upfront cost, it can lead to reduced energy expenses over the long run. The exact amount of savings varies depending on where you’re located as well as other factors, but for U.S. homes, the electricity savings over 20 years range from around $10,000 to nearly $30,000.
Plus, incentives such as tax rebates, grants and loans are widely available to reduce the costs of solar installations. The federal government offers a 30 percent tax credit, and many states provide additional incentives. Arizona, for example, offers a tax credit of up to 25 percent of a system's cost or $1,000.
Heating and cooling is a major source of energy consumption and, therefore, a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions. Improving insulation, which keeps warmed or cooled air inside the home, is an essential aspect of green building.
Green buildings are also often literally green. Rooftop plantings are a central tenet of green building. In addition to looking nice, they offer many environmental benefits.
Green roofs can improve stormwater management by reducing runoff. They can retain 60 to 100 percent of the water that falls on them. They also act as natural insulation, reducing the amount of heat that comes through the roof.
Additionally, they help protect the roof from UV rays and temperature fluctuations, which extends its life and reduces maintenance costs.
Natural Lighting and Heat From the Sun
Another sustainable building strategy is passive solar, which seeks to take advantage of the power of the sun directly.
Passive solar strategies involve orienting windows toward the south so they absorb sunlight and heat. The masonry in the building then absorbs this heat to raise the temperature inside. When you don’t want the house to heat up, you simply block some of the windows with shades.
Using the sun for heating and lighting is, of course, free.
Eco-Friendly Building Materials
The materials used to construct a building also have a significant effect on its environmental aspects. Using sustainably sourced, reclaimed or recycled materials can make a home much more eco-friendly.
Some of the most environmentally friendly building materials, according to Smart Cites Dive, are bamboo, cork and reclaimed or recycled wood.
Efficient Fixtures and Appliances
Energy and water efficiency is a crucial aspect of making a home green, so the fixtures and appliances that use those resources should be as efficient as possible.
Low-flow faucets, showerheads and toilets, for example, can save considerable amounts of water. Energy-efficient appliances, such as those certified by Energy Star, can bring about substantial savings as well.
It is possible to build urban housing that is both sustainable and cost-effective. Some of these savings will directly benefit developers, but many of them, such as savings on energy bills, will mostly help tenants. Because of this, some have suggested that policy needs to play a role in creating this housing, especially for low-income residents. Others believe the market should be the only driver.
However it gets done, one thing is for sure. We need sustainable, cost-effective urban housing to create a future we can all live in safely and comfortably.
Emily is a green tech writer who covers topics in renewable energy and sustainable design. You can read more of her work on her blog, Conservation Folks.