August 29th, 2007
Growing Up Global
Eco House: Learning to live more with less

What is “sustainable development?” The UN’s 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development recognizes the right of every individual to enjoy a healthy and productive life, and the right of every sovereign state to use its resources to that end. But, the declaration goes on, “this right to development must be fulfilled so as to equitably meet developmental and environmental needs of present and future generations.”

In the United States, such calls for “sustainability” are often conceived as infringements on individual freedom and national sovereignty. On his way to the 1992 Rio Summit, the former President Bush said, “The American way of life is not up for negotiation.” But does it have to be? In a sustainable community, residents consume resources (and produce waste) at a rate that allows their children (and their neighbors’ children) to enjoy the same lifestyle. Sustainability is about living smarter, not less. And thanks to advances in ecology, planning and alternative energy it’s now possible (and affordable) to build communities that are not only less harmful to the environment, but more enjoyable for the individual.

Environment & Community

The ultimate goal of sustainable development is to limit consumption and waste by building more harmonious relationships between people and the environment. Residents of a sustainable community know where their food, water and energy come from. They know where their waste goes. Exposed to rural landscapes and wildlife, they are aware that individual behavior can either help or harm not only their own community, but the world at large.

Eco House Checklist

  • Local, low-impact organic agriculture and distribution system meets community food needs.
  • Forest reserve shelters wildlife; biomass cleans community aquifers.
  • Bike and foot paths encourage “human power” within community.
  • “Green corridors” of forest allow free movement and genetic exchange of wildlife.
  • Community forest for recreation, licensed hunting and fishing.
  • Efficient commuter railways reduce need for automobiles.
  • Community garden augments food supply and acquaints residents with agriculture.

Materials & Design

It’s common sense that a home in wet and temperate Boston should differ from one in hot and arid Phoenix. Yet until recently, home builders have often ignored regional climate and materials, creating homogenous homes that are not only wasteful, but that look out of place. There are exceptions, of course. In Bermuda, for example, light masonry houses use stepped, white roofs to reflect sunlight, collect rainwater and deflect hurricane winds. And in New Mexico, homes made of adobe, a local material, absorb daytime heat and then release it during the Southwest’s cool nights. Indeed, while natural materials are often more efficient than synthetic ones, most have the added benefit of being non-toxic and biodegradable.

Eco House Checklist

  • Recycled tires, salvaged wood and other used materials make durable, attractive flooring.
  • Cork, bamboo, grass matting and hemp flooring come from self-renewing sources.
  • Indigenous, organic roofing material, such as thatch, is a renewable resource and suited to area climate.
  • Community home designs conform to “regional design” best suited to area climate.
  • “Low emission” window panes with gas insulation layer prevent loss of heat in winter.
  • Organic insulations — sea water magnesium, treated newspaper waste and volcanic minerals — are non-toxic to residents and landfills.
  • Use of farmed timber from local “managed” forest ensures renewal of this resource and reduces transport costs.
  • Hemp wall covering is durable, non-toxic and breaks down easily when discarded.

Water & Waste

In our modern economy, consumption is the engine of prosperity. Disposable goods make room for next week’s purchase. But as with energy, limited resources and a growing population imply eventual shortages — along with growing mountains of poisonous waste, much of which could be reused or avoided. Sustainable development envisions food and water as existing in closed loops. It maximizes conservation and minimizes waste wherever possible.

Eco House Checklist

  • A dual water system provides treated water for drinking and re-uses “drain and rain” water for non-drinking purposes.
  • Run-off from eaves collects in “gray water” tank for use in plant irrigation.
  • Low-flow sinks and waterless toilets preserve potable water, which requires energy for treatment.
  • Kitchen waste goes into a compost for use as fertilizer on food crops.
  • Front-loading “horizontal axis” washer uses less water than a top-loader.
  • Solid human waste goes into a compost for use as fertilizer on non-food plants.


Across the developed world, towns, cities and later suburbs formed under conditions that no longer apply. Cheap and abundant fossil fuels — coal, oil, gasoline and natural gas — once seemed inexhaustible. Relatively few big cities had factories and pollution was a local problem. Today an ever larger proportion of an ever growing population — now at 6 billion, compared to 2.5 billion in 1950 — is joining the developed world and creating its own modern settlements. Where will they get the energy? One answer is by shifting to such renewable resources as solar power and wind. Another is to build homes with natural energy efficiency.

Eco House Checklist

  • Retractable glass panels allow sun heating in winter, natural cooling in summer
  • Natural gas driers and water-heaters are more efficient than electrical ones.
  • Big, south-facing (“passive solar”) windows reduce heat-energy needs by 30 percent.
  • Compact fluorescent lights with occupancy-sensors cut energy use by up to 75 percent.
  • Smaller, north-facing windows reduce heat loss in winter.
  • A long narrow, house uses sunlight most efficiently.
  • White metallic roofing can cool attic temperature by 30 degrees in a sub-tropical climate.
  • Today’s solar panels can generate up to 60 percent of the average home’s electrical power.
  • Insulated walls offer up to 75 percent savings on heating and cooling

Sources: Landscape Architect, Eco-Urbanism, The Practice of Sustainable Development

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