What Is Sustainable Construction?

The nature of construction and of sustainability both lend themselves to a variety of definitions and interpretations. However, if we focus on the most commonly accepted understanding of sustainable construction in the United States, a suitable description could be:

“The practice of building structures with the aim of reducing health and environmental impacts and using processes that are environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout a building’s life-cycle from location through design, construction, operation, and maintenance.”

As an entry at Wikipedia notes, precise definitions of sustainable construction vary from place to place, and are constantly evolving to encompass varying approaches and priorities.

hand holding image of house plans with green lawn in backgroundSustainability is an even broader topic but, as it relates to construction and buildings, we could borrow a definition from the University of Alberta and say that it is the process of living within the limits of available physical, natural and social resources in ways that allow the living systems in which humans are embedded to thrive in perpetuity.

Building and maintaining homes and commercial structures, such as retail stores, can be done in a sustainable manner. However, this also means adopting new practices and technology, and  foregoing many more traditional approaches.

Energy Use at Home and at Work

At the heart of most structural sustainability is efficient energy use, diverse and renewable energy sources, and the extensive use of  “soft energy technologies”.

The concept of soft energy technologies was pioneered by Amory Lovins, Cofounder and Chairman Emeritus of Rocky Mountain Institute. It consists of energy use based on solar, wind, biofuels, and geothermal, which are matched in scale and quality to their task.

A prime example of soft energy technology is residential solar energy technologies and the wide use of energy conserving, residential solar energy technologies is the foundation of a soft energy strategy.

While the vast majority of commercial structures are unoccupied for a significant portion of each day, they also accommodate far more people per square foot than a typical residential structure and consume vast quantities of available energy.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration reported that:

  • Buildings built between 1960 and 1999 account for 54% of both the number of buildings and of floorspace.
  • One-quarter of buildings (25%) were built since 2000, accounting for 29% of total floorspace.

And, according to the Alliance to Save Energy, residential and commercial buildings currently represent more than 40 percent of national energy consumption, 54 percent of natural gas consumption and more than 70 percent of national electricity consumption.

Residential and Commercial Sustainability Practices

The vast majority of both residential and commercial buildings are already built, and an increasing degree of sustainable practices are now being used in new construction. While this is good news, that also means that existing buildings are in need sustainable upgrades, renovations, and maintenance practices.

As the Society of Environmentally Responsible Facilities (SERF) points out,

“Creating an eco-friendly lifestyle at home doesn’t have to be an overwhelming task. Making just a few small household changes can make a big difference when it comes to your monthly energy bills and your household’s overall carbon footprint.”

They suggest a few relatively simple yet effective sustainable efforts for your home such as:

Eco-Friendly Lighting

A great way to make your home more eco-friendly is to implement some alternative lighting into your overall design. Both CFL and LED lights use much less power than halogen bulbs, and they work just as well for visual support no matter how dark it is inside.

Low-Flow Faucets

Replacing the faucets in your kitchen and bathrooms as well as your shower heads with low-flow options is an effective way to reduce your monthly energy and water bills while lessening the resource burden your household puts on the planet.

Vertical Garden

Creating a vertical garden on a wall in your kitchen or dining room will save you money on food, naturally filter your home’s air, and some depth as well as color to your overall design.

Recycled Furnishings

If you’re in need of new furnishings or décor, head to your local thrift stores and garage sales to find some treasures that speak to you and your style preferences.

Homeowners can save money on their current energy bill without spending a fortune making it happen. One of the best ways to do this is to install insulation in and around doors, windows, vents, and so on throughout your home. This is because the largest sources of heat loss in a house is through these structures. 

In fact, the average home loses 38 percent of heat through cracks in walls, windows, and doors. In addition, 16 percent of home heat is lost through windows and another three percent through the doors. That adds up to almost 60 percent of the total heat loss in an average house.

Another relatively low-cost energy savings improvement is to replace any incandescent and fluorescent lighting in your home with LED lights. 

Although incandescent bulbs provide plenty of light, they release 90 percent of their energy as heat. This makes them incredibly inefficient even in comparison to compact fluorescent lamp bulbs, which only generate about one fifth the amount of heat.

However, LED bulbs use at least 75 percent less energy, and last 25 times longer, than incandescent lighting.

The large scale impact of simply converting to LED lighting is significant. According to a report by the Department of Energy, for example,

“Widespread use of LED lighting has the greatest potential impact on energy savings in the United States. By 2027, widespread use of LEDs could save about 348 TWh (compared to no LED use) of electricity: This is the equivalent annual electrical output of 44 large electric power plants (1000 megawatts each), and a total savings of more than $30 billion at today’s electricity prices.

Sustainable Construction Advice and Guidance

Homeowners, contractors, and business owners alike can benefit greatly by implementing sustainable practices and principles. However, it can help to have an experienced and knowledgeable professional to consult.

Whether you’re a contractor about to build a home, or a homeowner looking to build their own home or an addition, or a business owner who wants to create a more sustainable facility, making use of sustainability consulting can be a huge benefit. 

A sustainable construction consultant can provide guidance and direction for any aspect of a project, whether it involves new construction, retrofitting for energy efficiency, or simply adding or upgrading energy saving components. 

As an experienced construction consultant, I can guide you in all the phases of your project and answer your questions.

To learn more, email me at  crystalconstruction@aol.com or give me a call at (707) 865-5157.

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