Sustainability begins at home

From the outset, we wanted to demonstrate ecological stewardship through sustainable design principles. But “what exactly do you mean by sustainability?” is a question I was asked by many architect and builder candidates I interviewed. In many industries the term is used broadly and casually. In the field of architecture and the realm of building, it often starts with a goal of ensuring the building produces as much or more energy than it consumes. Beyond energy efficiency of the building once completed, we also have to consider the embodied energy required to produce all these ‘high tech’ new solutions. Other sustainable solutions include reusing old buildings (the Seaholm project in Austin) or building something off-grid and totally self-sufficient. It can also mean utilizing “durable” materials that minimize long-term maintenance. I’ve found that although indoor air quality is a driving criteria for LEED, sustainable architecture doesn’t necessarily prioritize “wellness”. One thing is clear–it certainly isn’t a one-size fits all.

You don’t have to dig too deep to uncover facts like this:

50% of carbon emissions comes from the construction industry, ~25 million tons of greenhouse gases per year (in contrast, cars and trucks account for just 12% of emissions.).

Growing Buildings EcoRock, via FastCompany

So, what do we want to prioritize? How can we define our terms and develop criteria for how to make decisions about materials and systems throughout the project? To navigate this complex topic, we’ve focused on a few prescriptive axioms; I hope this is helpful for anyone else hoping to build a sustainable, healthy home.

More building professionals are starting the think about embodied carbon in the materials–concrete and drywall being massive biggest offenders. Approximately 1 percent of U.S. energy emissions come from the production of drywall.

EcoRock, via FastCompany

This led us to research all sorts of “earth building” systems, the term that many enthusiasts have gravitated towards in the last few decades. Specialists in alternative materials, plaster wall finishing, earthen floors comprise this funky little community. Largely connected through a web of YouTube videos, these folks are trailblazers and tinkerers and curious about old techniques and innovative processes alike. They often go off the grid as soon as they are finished with their work and consequently are hard to get ahold of for interviews and advice. They do not congregate in the halls of Dwell Magazine. These were our people and we needed to find some to work on our project. We wanted to build a space that was mindful of the larger system.

Though our vision is simple, our highly ambitious goals for this house reflect of our desire to make it an exceptional collection of buildings. Inspired by a few other projects, including this Zero-Waste project in Toronto, we created a set of project parameters.

Criteria Matrix:

  • Waste
  • Embodied energy
  • Indoor environment (toxicity)
  • Ecosystem impacts
  • Energy efficiency
  • Resilience
  • Material Cost
  • Code Compliance
  • Labor cost/source

Commercial and residential buildings are tremendous users of electricity, accounting for more than 70% of electricity use in the U.S., most of which is attributed to heating and cooling the buildings. So, reducing the reliance on artificial light and building in a way that naturally stabilizes indoor temperatures can have a massive impact on this number.

I spent several months investigated building / construction systems, talking to local architects who have deep experience in these techniques and outlining all the options available to us. You can read a bit more about one key component, the Mason GreenStar Blox, that we decided on in this post.

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