What is Sustainable Housing?

Sustainability has become a huge topic over recent years and has started to impact many areas of our lives, from the food we eat to the transport we use and the homes in which we live. While the word “sustainability” may have passed into common usage, it’s worth taking a little time out to try to grasp what it means with regards to property in general and housing in particular. In general terms, the concept of sustainability refers to housing which is in harmony with its environment and ideally should have either zero environmental impact or, if at all possible, a beneficial environmental impact.

Sustainability starts with construction

One of the reasons why it’s important to replace existing “low grade” housing with a modern equivalent is that the concept of sustainability starts with the construction of the house. As time has gone by, not only have home builders gained a better idea of how to build in a sustainable manner, but they have also started to integrate more sustainable features into the fabric of the house, for example, in the UK’s climate, buildings which are created with insulating qualities are inherently more sustainable than those without.

Sustainability is closely linked to suitability for the local environment

While the basic concept of sustainability is universal and many of its general principles (such as minimising carbon emissions) also hold throughout the world, translating these principles into practice means taking into account the practical realities of any given local environment. For example, cities with high population densities, such as London and New York have been experimenting with enhancing sustainability through the use of higher-density housing, which is often closely linked with developments in technology. In simple terms, reducing the amount of housing space per head reduces the amount of materials and labour required to create it and therefore the environmental impact of its construction, plus it effectively makes for a more efficient use of resources. For example it takes the same amount of energy to heat an entire building regardless of whether it is used by 1 person, 10 people or 100 people. This approach has been yielding very positive results in the cities where it has been tried but is clearly useless in a rural environment, where dwellings can be literally miles apart from each other. In these cases, sustainability may relate more to making such dwellings “passive” in the sense that any resources they use either come from renewable sources (such as solar panels) or are replaced in some way, such as by planting trees for those cut down for wood.

Sustainable housing is dependent on sustainable infrastructure

Housing is, of course, a place for people to live and these days it’s also increasingly used as a place to work as well. Humans do not, however, spend all their lives in their homes. They need to go out to grow food or buy it, meet people, go to work, use services and do all kinds of other things. This means that developing sustainable housing needs the support of sustainable infrastructure. Again, what this means in practice depends on the local environment. In the city, where distances are relatively short, it may mean encouraging “zero-carbon” modes of transport such as cycling, by making them safe in every sense of the phrase and also providing effective public-transport for those for whom activities such as cycling are impractical (e.g. those with disabilities). In the countryside, however, the population spread can make it extremely challenging to develop a meaningful public transport network, so again sustainability returns to the concept of using renewable resources and/or replacing any resources used. In terms of transport this could mean making the switch to electric cars powered by solar energy as opposed to petrol ones.

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