Sustainability is a buzz word that has more importance globally than many people realize. A value shared by many, sustainability basically means being able to meet our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs.

So how does this affect our homes? Essentially, when our homes (and gardens for that matter) are sustainable, our environment is healthier, safer, and more energy-efficient. To become more sustainable, we manage water use better, use renewable energy, and use materials and other resources that are themselves sustainable. Ultimately, we reduce waste and cut living costs, and importantly we protect and preserve the environment.

But to realize why it is so important to improve the sustainability of our homes we need to understand sustainability and how it relates not only to the environment but to economic development and social equity too.

Understanding the Concept of Sustainability

Perhaps surprisingly, the concept of sustainability is relatively new, even though there had previously been decades of work on sustainable development following the first World Climate Conference in 1979. The term, as we understand it today, can be traced back to the 1987 Report of the World Commission on Environment and Development: Our Common Future which proposed long-term environmental strategies that would meet serious social and economic concerns.

A long-term goal achieved through many processes and pathways of sustainable development, sustainability has become a model for thinking about a future in which environmental, economic, and societal elements are balanced so that there will be an improved quality of life. For instance, if an environment is healthy it will provide clean air, safe drinking water, and food and resources for those living there. It will also ensure that human communities are economically sustainable.

It is also a concept that has been integrated into a large number of global conventions and frameworks that are related to the key areas of sustainable development that include the:

  • Education, training, and public awareness of the United Nations (UN) Framework Convention on Climate Change.
  • Public education and awareness of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.
  • Sharing of information about the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction and what they do economically, environmentally, socially, and in many other ways.
  • Ten-year Framework of Programs on Sustainable Consumption and Production 2012-2021 that reaffirms that the promotion of sustainable patterns of consumption and production is an essential requirement for sustainable development.

About 13 years after the publication of Our Common Future, in 2010, the University of Alberta’s Office of Sustainability produced a new definition that followed the same theme. It stated that:

“Sustainability is the process of living within the limits of available physical, natural and social resources in ways that allow the living systems in which humans are embedded to thrive in perpetuity”.

The university aims to instill sustainability into university life and into the community of which they are a part. You can do the same in your home, however big or small it is, and you, above all, will benefit!

Improving the Sustainability of Your Home

When you improve the sustainability of your home you reduce energy costs, improve the quality of air inside the home, conserve water, and generally improve the quality of life and health of everyone who lives there.

Chicago is one of many U.S. cities that are making a concerted effort to make its buildings energy efficient. This includes City-owned residential buildings that have been, and are still being retrofitted in an effort to reduce energy use in buildings from 2008 to 2020. Because low-income families spend as much as 20% of their income on energy, energy cost savings are vitally important. The City has also been streamlining its resources and working with various non-profit agencies with a focus on water and energy efficiency.

An engineer, for instance, an engineering firm or company in your city that offers mechanical, electrical, and plumbing (MEP) or heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) engineering services can help you achieve certain more ambitious goals, but even replacing old appliances with energy-efficient Energy Star-certified appliances is a start. Replacing old bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs and unplugging television sets and other appliances instead of using standby settings can also save a small fortune.

Of course, if you are renovating your home, you should consult specialists to ensure that renovations improve sustainability and make your home more eco-friendly that it currently is.

While there is no doubt that it is considerably easier to build a new house that is sustainable rather than try to improve the sustainability of an older one, it is possible to improve elements like insulation and ventilation to improve the thermal envelope of your home and ensure that indoor air quality is maintained at the highest possible level. This is what shields the house from the outside, keeping it warm in winter and cool in summer.

An important element to remember is that when buildings, including homes, are retrofitted for energy-efficiency, they can be improved to make them more water efficient at the same time. Heating systems can be modified and plumbing fixtures and fittings changed to reduce water usage substantially. Rain harvesting systems and gray-water plumbing can also be installed.

Whether you are planning to totally retrofit your home or simply renovate to improve its sustainability, there is no doubt that it will be worth your while – and the environment will benefit!