Plan Your Green Home

Seven Steps to Green Building

South Austin 5-star AEGB rated home incorporates green features. © Kimberly Davis.
South Austin home incorporates green features. AEGB rating: ★★★★★ ©Kimberly Davis

Great homes don't just happen — they are planned green from the blueprints to the build out. Here are seven steps to building a green home.

If you are considering to build a new home, we also recommend attending our Green by Design Workshops, where we cover these topics in greater detail.

Step 1: Assess Your Needs

Do you hate to commute? Do you need a home office? Do you entertain a lot? Do you love to garden or consider it a chore?

Consider future needs also — what changes in lifestyle might happen in the next several years? What purposes, needs, and desires do you and your family have that your home can help you address?

What Home Size is the Right Size?

Try not to think about space in square footage, but in what it will help you to accomplish. A larger home has many benefits, but also uses more materials and costs more to heat and cool, and to furnish, clean, and maintain. It's all about what is most important to you and your family.


Step 2: Form a Team

It takes a lot of people to make a house a reality — designers, engineers, a general contractor (builder), construction workers, appraisers, lenders, insurers, realtors, building officials, inspectors, and more. Maybe you won’t need all of them, but you do need to make sure everyone is on the same team — your team.

How to Vet a Good Team

You want team members who are committed to working cooperatively, willing to spend the time to do things right, open to new ideas, knowledgeable about green building, and experienced in the kind of building you want.

In all cases, check references thoroughly. Look at a number of their previous projects in person to make sure they have specific experience with the kind of building you want, and ask former clients if they had a good experience and would choose them again.


Step 3: Design for Your Conditions

Before you design your house — before you even choose a site — you need to know the conditions of your region. The climate, topography, and soil type are all factors affecting how durable, comfortable, safe, and efficient your home will be. Thinking about climate early on is the most cost-effective way to maximize energy efficiency.

Here in Austin we are a hot, humid climate zone. Strategies that tend to work well here are:

Site:

  • North and south exposure (avoiding hot west-facing slopes)
  • Deciduous (not evergreen) trees on east and west for sun protection

House:

  • Long, narrow shape; long walls with most glass facing north and south so the smallest area faces east and west sun
  • Large overhangs and covered porches on east and west for sun protection (skylights and sunrooms avoided)
  • Operable windows placed for cross ventilation and heat exhaust
  • High ceilings, so hotter air rises above occupants
  • Light exterior colors to reflect the sun's heat

Want Some Design Inspiration?


Step 4: Choose Green Materials

There are a lot of green building materials out there, which can make it overwhelming to choose.

Keep your building goals in mind, then ask yourself if the material is:

  • Right your conditions?
  • Healthy and safe?
  • Durable and easily maintained?
  • Available in your area, and can contractors work with it?
  • Cost-effective? Consider both the initial and future cost for required maintenance across the expected lifespan.
  • Nice looking and not just trendy — will you mind looking at it day in and day out for years to come?

Browse these sites for helpful tips on sustainability practices and materials:


Step 5: Choose the Right Mechanical Systems

If you understand a few basics about heating, cooling, ventilation systems, lighting and appliances, you'll be able to get all the benefits for a reasonable price.

Choose the Right Size Air Conditioner

The old rule of thumb to estimate air conditioning size based on square footage is not enough anymore. All Austin Energy Green Building rated homes are required to submit a Manual J calculation that is reviewed by our team for accuracy.

Ask your contractor for:

  • ACCA Manual J Load Calculation.
  • ACCA Manual S Equipment Selection.
  • ACCA Manual D Duct Design.

Choose Efficient Equipment

Air conditioners are rated using a Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio (SEER). In Texas, current federal standards require a minimum of a 14 SEER rating on all new equipment.

Heat pumps that provide both heating and cooling require a Heating Seasonal Performance Factor (HSPF) rating. The higher, the better.

Design the Location for the Equipment

Air-handling equipment and ductwork should be inside an insulated space, so the conditioned air will be less affected by outside conditions. Try to avoid running ductwork filled with cold air in a hot attic.

Choose Efficient Lighting

First, design a home to make efficient use of daylight, without introducing unnecessary heat gain. Next, consider LED light bulbs. The price has come down in recent years, they are efficient and have a long bulb life.

Visit the ENERGY STAR® website for more information on how to choose the right color and brightness (pdf)

Select Energy Efficient Appliances

Where possible, look for ENERGY STAR® certified products and read the energy label. For super-efficient appliances, consider appliances that meet the Consortium for Energy Efficiency (CEE) Tier 2 and Tier 3 requirements.

Check out these helpful websites to help you select and save on high efficiency appliances.


Step 6: Maximize Your Benefits From the Start

Thinking about your house and site work together as a single unit from the initial planning stage on will help you save time and energy.

Increased Comfort and Energy Efficiency

Vegetation has a cooling effect because it transpires moisture, which cools the air as it evaporates. Thoughtful placement of trees can provide additional shade and cooling.

Enjoyment of Plants and Wildlife

A beautiful landscape can not only be relaxing to look at, but also to create and maintain. With easy-care, low-water native and well-adapted plants, even people without green thumbs can have a thriving landscape. And it's not just about
looks. Plants attract birds that ward off pests and provide homes for helpful insects.

Additional Living Space

Designing an outdoor area for recreation and entertainment can expand your living space without the associated heating, cooling, and building costs of additional construction.

Your Own Healthy Food and Water Supply

Your yard can provide space to grow reliably fresh and healthy fruits, vegetables, herbs, and nuts. It's a place to collect and store rainwater, too.

Better Stormwater and Erosion Control

Grade and plant your site so that water drains away from buildings and into areas made to contain it. This will avoid foundational damage due to water during a storm.

This also allows water to seep slowly into the ground, giving your landscape a healthy drink without washing away valuable topsoil. This slow filtration gives water time to purify before entering the water table, streams, and lakes.
Otherwise, it speeds to the pavement, picking up contaminants — such as motor oil leaked from cars — along the way.

Get sustainable advice for planning your outdoor space:


Step 7: Test and Maintain

Building a home is complex and involves many different professionals. Even the best builder can miss things. The City of Austin Energy code requires a number of tests to ensure your home systems are working as intended.

If you choose a rated home, our team or an approved rater will inspect it for compliance with the rating requirements, though it is still a good idea to have your new home inspected by a licensed home inspector.

Just like your car, your home needs maintenance to keep performing effectively. Here are some of the most important aspects of maintaining your home:

Materials

For durability and energy efficiency, be sure the outer "skin" of your house keeps doing its job of keeping out weather and pests. That means timely caulking and painting of siding and trim, and replacing weatherstripping as needed.

Heating, Cooling and Ventilation Systems

For health, safety, efficiency, and comfort, get your heating and cooling system checked out at least once a year. If your system has filters, change or clean them as often as needed.

Cleaning

Regular cleaning helps materials last longer. Choose cleaning products carefully to avoid ones that could damage your house or your health.

Pest Control

Products that harm pests may also harm you and your family too, so do your research and choose pest control methods carefully. If you keep moisture away from your house, your landscaping healthy, and do regular cleaning and maintenance, your house won't be so attractive to pests.

Site and Landscaping

  • Over time, soil shifts and builds up, so drainage patterns on your site may change
  • Be sure water continues to drain away from your foundation to areas where you need it, such as planting beds
  • Keep vegetation away from the foundation, walls and roof
  • Keep trees trimmed to maintain the amount of solar access your house needs for heat and light
  • Compost household food waste to build healthy soil
  • Avoid toxic fertilizers and pest control products to keep your home and soil healthy

Get healthy pest management tips from City of Austin Watershed Protection

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Date last reviewed or modified: 9/18/19

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