Challenges and Rewards
We are at the beginning of a major period of disruption in the building industry. Pressures from many directions are forcing important changes in the practice of home design and construction, including more stringent energy efficiency codes, concerns about occupant health, and the imperative to reduce carbon footprints and change to clean energy sources — all of which are having dramatic effects on how we build. The cost of property, materials, and labor has been on a steep incline for over a decade. It is a constant challenge to find the best ways to meet a reasonable budget target and achieve a high level of performance, and if the intention is to also use the healthiest possible materials, the challenge is amplified. Add in a dash of aesthetics and a fair share of bureaucratic red tape and regulatory hurdles, and you have a serious challenge on your hands.
The effort required to prepare yourself for this particular adventure is great, and the decision to move forward must begin with acknowledging that you are about to engage in a process that will be all-consuming for at least a couple of years. If this idea doesn’t appeal to you, don’t go down this path. Give this decision the weight it deserves. Put it on par with decisions of the magnitude of changing your career, going back to school, or moving to a new city or country.
But before I discourage you from even considering setting foot on this path, I should mention the incomparable satisfaction that comes from settling down for an evening in a home that you have designed and built for yourself, your family, and your friends. In a world where many of the archetypal “coming of age” moments are absent or watered down, weathering your first literal storm sheltered in your own home is a great and deep satisfaction. And if you can manage to get through that storm with the lightest possible footprint on the planet and the healthiest possible environment surrounding you, the satisfaction goes beyond just a personal achievement and becomes something that will be an integral part of your life and a legacy that will live long beyond your time on this planet.
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It’s my hope that you can make your project a forward-looking legacy, one that provides you and your family with all that they need while also achieving the goal of sustainable development — nicely defined by the UN’s World Commission on Environment and Development: “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”1
Most blogs about home design jump right into the process of actually putting a house design to paper (or, in the modern context, to a software program). We’re not going to get to that stage for a while. Of course, this is an essential part of designing a sustainable home, and it will be covered here in reasonable detail, but designing a sustainable home requires much more than putting lines onto a drafting board in the right order. It needs to start not with drawings, but with goal setting.
The fact that you are reading a blog about sustainable home design indicates that you have an interest in setting a goal for your project that in some way addresses key issues of personal and/or societal sustainability. However, each of us probably means something different when we use such a term — and the words we use may themselves be different. Terms such as sustainable, healthy, eco-friendly, natural, green, environmentally-sensitive, and net zero are often used — sometimes interchangeably — to describe the kind of better home an owner desires.