Sustainable Building – Three Ways to Keep “Green” Homes From Going Gray

No matter how strong its eco-credentials, a “green” building is not really sustainable unless it is woven into a community fabric that supports sustainable lifestyles. You can have the most environmentally-friendly construction process for the most efficient and healthy home, but if the house is located somewhere that forces occupants to drive for every errand,…

No matter how strong its eco-credentials, a “green” building is not really sustainable unless it is woven into a community fabric that supports sustainable lifestyles. You can have the most environmentally-friendly construction process for the most efficient and healthy home, but if the house is located somewhere that forces occupants to drive for every errand, then you have not created a truly sustainable home. Regardless of how eco-friendly they may feel, denizens of buildings like this can not avoid adding lots of earth-warming carbon to the atmosphere as part of their daily routine.

Instead, truly green homes are woven into a built environment that supports sustainable living – less driving, less energy consumption, a smaller ecological footprint. Portland's Urban Growth Boundary helps shape this kind of urban form and context. The UGB refocuses development on the region's urban core and creates a more compact urban form scaled to people (walking, biking, taking transit) not just cars. This provides Portlanders with green options. We can still drive where we need to go, but there are other good choices for getting around as well.

Now, responsible home builders build with the earth in mind, reclaiming and recycling materials, driving for LEED and Passive House standards, making careful materials choices, etc. But what can we do, as would-be green-donors and builders, to ensure that our homes and businesses become part of sustainable patterns of community life?

It is not an easy question. But there are at least three ways we can ensure that green structures do not go gray:

  1. Fill It In.
  2. Infill development maximizes existing infrastructure, supports walkable neighborhoods, and preserves greenfields on the region's periphery by concentrating development in existing communities. Infill structures built to eco-standards can there ever achieve the more elusive goal of “sustainability”.

  3. Granny Flats.
  4. An Accessory Dwelling Unit can be a converted garage, a basement or attic addition, or a new standalone backyard cottage. These compact living units, complete with kitchen, bath and all living amenities, add a distinct second residential unit to an existing property. Perfect for sustainable, efficient living embedded in community.

  5. Remodel.
  6. That's right. Following environmentally-responsible remodeling principles, re-purpose that old house to 21-century needs. Existing structures contain tons of embodied energy. By remodeling these homes, we are “upcycling” today's neighborhoods one house at a time, preserving precious embodied energy and weaving these households into existing neighborhood fabric.

By pursuing these three strategies, we can build sustainable homes that sustain community.