Affordable Sustainability At Home

To produce affordable designs, sustainability and simplicity are of utmost importance


Sustainability and affordability are not always associated with each other but they should be. Energy efficiency, environmentalism, sustainability and affordability are co-partners; they help us achieve a long and balanced life. Sustainability helps affordability extend beyond the immediate means of building and budget.

The future maintenance of a home and its carbon footprint are part of affordability. It extends beyond the immediate here and now. Being aware of energy efficiency, environmentalism and sustainability in every design makes building anything affordable, not just in this moment but for the future.

Affordable sustainability is achieved by learning how to design with simplicity. There are many wise sayings about how to achieve and maintain simplicity. Wisdom like “keep a simple eye” and “less is more” are simple reminders to always question the complexity of the design. Simplicity is achieved by creating comfortable spaces informed by their surrounding environments.

Choosing a simple material scope is important for simple and affordable design. Having a few select materials not only makes a project more affordable but it keeps simple design details. In terms of sustainability, focusing on fewer materials allows the architect/designer to research and find materials that will provide low maintenance longevity and weather better. It also creates

an opportunity to find and use locally sourced materials. Local materials support the local community, fit in with the existing environment and are usually more affordable.

Configuration of space is just as important, if not more, when it comes to the affordability of a building. Keeping the massing of a building simple cuts down on construction costs and makes the construction details more sustainable. Complex spaces lead to complex design details, which can lead to maintenance problems. Complex spaces and details not only create high maintenance costs, but also drive up the cost when it comes to design and construction. Designing complex space configurations take time, it takes even more time to design complex details, so they work. Simple spaces and details are affordable and sustainable to construct and maintain.

Understanding the site means using different forms, weather experiences and natural materials to inform design decisions. A cool, shady, humid site should be thought of much differently than a hot, dry, sunny site. Using site information will help guide material choices, building mass and even intended use of interior space. This allows for better construction, and maintenance because the site is guiding the design. It is not the architect/designer’s job to redesign the existing environment and site, it is their job to enhance it.

The first steps of design are the most important. Things like the mass of a building, footprint, location on site and intended use have a substantially greater impact on the final design, budget, detail and construction decisions at the end of the project. The details at the end of the project will have much less of a controlling environmental impact if the project scope is not defined well from the beginning. Some broad stroke choices that help establish the scope are material choices, massing/space configurations and probably the most important, understanding the site.

Creating harmony between nature, community and climate is imperative. That harmony cannot be achieved if the existing site and environment do not inform the design. Creating harmony between the built environment and the natural environment can be achieved through shade, from existing trees and green walls to roofs, other passive design systems.

There is nothing more affordable than using what already exists, like a tree on the site, and it is a sustainable, free, environmentally friendly and energy efficient choice.

The simplest form of energy efficiency is size and solar orientation. It is not a new idea that bigger buildings require more energy. Especially, if they are tall and use lots of glass and steel, two materials that have high solar gain. If a structure uses the shade of an existing tree, there is less solar gain, and the building maintains a cooler temperature in the heat of the day. A cooler temperature in the heat of the day allows for a less dramatic influx of temperatures. Steady temperature increases and decreases require less mechanical heating and cooling demands/loads.

Interior spaces are not supposed to supply different seasons just because there is an HVAC system. To increase energy efficiency in large buildings using highly insulative materials is ideal. For example, high emissivity walls and roofs, high coefficient materials, will help create an airtight building envelope. Other factors to keep in mind are performance in HVAC, lighting and other considered add-ons such as ground source heat pumps, active and passive solar, solar shading, tax credits and using homes or entire projects as generators.

Affordable sustainability is much easier to achieve than we think. Being sustainable, environmentally aware and energy-efficient are the best ways to achieve and maintain affordable buildings

John Allegretti, LEED AP has been the principal architect of Allegretti Architects for over 30 years.