What are the best ways to create an eco home?

Whether you want to reduce your environmental impact or lower your household bills, there are many things you can do to make your home more sustainable.

While the term eco home often refers to new build property, it may also apply to improvements that can be made to older houses.

Eco home investment can range from small improvements to major renovations. And it doesn’t have to happen all at once, it can be a continuous process, starting with small upgrades and incorporating more sustainable measures over time. Even small changes can give you a better living environment, a warmer house, lower energy bills, and benefit the planet.

We look at the most popular eco improvements to make, tips on designing eco houses, and explain how to upgrade an older home so that it reaches higher environmental standards.

What is an eco home?

Basically, it’s a house with a low environmental impact. Many new builds focus on eco credentials, but an eco-home doesn’t have to be a particular style of build. However, it must mitigate its effect on the environment: it could have been built from sustainable materials with low carbon emissions in mind, use minimal energy to run, and probably involve renewable energy equipment. The most successful eco homes will accommodate all these elements.

Energy saving is now a priority

The trend for making energy-efficient improvements is growing, with more people deciding to renovate for the long term rather than move house. The Houzz & Home Report from house renovation and design platform Houzz, released in June 2023, highlighted the increased focus on energy efficiency and found that almost half of the homeowners surveyed said this is a highly important factor when renovating. This figure has risen sharply since 2020 (46% compared with 35% in 2020). It also found that upgrades to windows, insulation, ventilation systems, and solar panels have increased steadily since 2020.

The study, which involved 2,500 UK householders, also found that three people in five said they plan to stay in their homes for 11 years or more following a renovation in 2022 (63%). The proportion of homeowners who said that their reason for renovating was to increase their home’s resale value fell by five percentage points in 2022 (6% compared with 11% in 2021).

The study found that with almost half of the respondents living in homes built in 1940 or earlier, there is a focus on home system improvements; over a third (38%) upgraded heating systems in 2022, closely followed by electrical (37%) and plumbing systems (36%)

Liza Hausman, vice president of Industry Marketing at Houzz commented:

We continue to see investments that help spaces to function better for the long term. We’re also seeing an increased focus on efficiency, with homeowners making upgrades that will help to conserve energy and keep associated costs down.

Popular eco improvements to make

As well as being a priority for homeowners, energy-saving features and future proofed homes are now high on the wish list for house buyers. A survey for online estate agent Purplebricks revealed the most popular eco features that buyers are looking for:

  • Double glazed windows, 56%.
  • Loft insulation, 47%.
  • A high energy efficiency rating, 47%.
  • An energy-efficient gas boiler, 45%.
  • Cavity wall insulation, 39%.
  • Solar panels, 34%.
  • Smart meters, 26%.
  •  Property that’s already at its Energy Performance Certificate (EPC) potential so no further investment in energy saving required, 23%.
  • Ability to commute to work or school on foot, 23%.
  • Air source heat pump,18%.

Vince Courtney, Chief Sales Officer at Purplebricks said that central heating and a high EPC rating are two of the main things that housebuyers want. He added:

Given the cost of living crisis, many future homeowners are now looking to take on properties with energy-saving features to help them out in the long run. In terms of new features, like heat pumps, it’s important to do your own research as they may not be appropriate for all properties.

Designing an eco home

It’s important to clarify your aim, which could be to achieve lower running costs, create a healthier internal environment, be more sustainable, or a combination of all these factors.

How to approach it:

Fabric first

This means assessing the fabric of the house – the way it’s constructed – before considering renewable options. The fabric first approach can achieve an energy-efficient envelope, or provide low carbon energy from renewable sources: these are not mutually exclusive as an energy-efficient house means that less needs to be spent on renewable energy.

Insulation

Good insulation is a priority, either cavity wall or solid wall insulation along with loft insulation. Insulate walls, ceilings, and floors to reduce heat loss and make the house airtight to reduce energy use. A consistent level of insulation will achieve the best results. Consider natural materials such as cellulose insulation, straw, hemp, and sheep’s wool. Draught proofing is also an important way to insulate your home.

Passivhaus standards

Key factors here include the orientation of a building which should take priority over other features. Positioning the house and its windows to make the most of solar gain and natural light will enhance energy efficiency. Passive solar orientation means installing south-facing windows to capture light and heat, and a minimum amount of north-facing windows to reduce heat loss. You may want to consider building to Passivhaus standards, which create highly energy-efficient eco homes, but the technique is costly.

Glazing

Consider replacing single glazed windows with double glazed windows or triple-glazing. Triple-glazed units are more expensive and may only be worthwhile if the rest of the house has high levels of insulation; secondary-glazing can also be highly effective.

Carbon neutral

This means offsetting any carbon produced in the build process and the method of heating and powering the home. It requires using materials with a low carbon footprint, renewable systems, and no fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources include solar PV or solar thermal renewable energy systems which generate clean renewable energy and lower electric bills, an air source heat pump, a ground source heat pump, or a biomass boiler to provide water and heating.

Air quality

A mechanical heat ventilation system (MHVS) will ensure healthy air in an airtight home. To control heating and cooling, install an efficient heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system, (HVAC). Use programmable thermostats to control temperatures and reduce consumption, and consider passive design strategies like natural ventilation, shading, and orientation.

Conserve water

Rainwater harvesting methods can save water to flush toilets and use in the garden. Install low-flow fixtures in bathrooms and kitchen to reduce use. A greywater system will recycle water from showers, sinks, and washing machines to use outside.

Smart home technology

Optimise energy usage via smart home devices. Use smart thermostats, lighting controls, and energy monitoring systems to monitor your energy consumption, along with energy-efficient appliances and LED lighting.

Reuse and recycle

This is possible with both new eco houses and upgrades, for instance using pre-used bricks and timber.

Sustainable materials

Use locally sourced materials with a low carbon footprint – an assessment of the carbon dioxide produced in the manufacture and transportation of building materials can impact how green a home is. Environmentally friendly materials for building and furnishing include wood, bamboo and cork, and sustainably sourced materials, such as certified timber from the Forestry Stewardship Council.

Establish good habits

Adopt eco-friendly habits to live sustainably by reducing water usage and energy consumption. Plant sustainably, using native plants as they need less water. Create a recycling and composting system to reduce waste going to landfill. Use low VOC paint which contains fewer Volatile Organic Compounds than regular paint: VCO’s can damage health and can be released years after being applied to walls.

Effective eco measures for new and old homes include:

  • Glazing:  double glazing replacing single glazing will have a great impact on keeping a house warm. Secondary double glazing is cheaper and can be almost as effective.
  • Airtightness or draughtproofing: this is a low-cost move with a big impact on energy consumption.
  • Solar panels: these can be the obvious first step to take to provide hot water.
  • Use recycled materials if possible.
  • Outside areas: planting mixed grass species including wildflowers will help ecosystems.
  • LED lighting: this can make a real difference in terms of energy consumption.
  • Green roofs: these will need specialist planting to attract plants and insects.
  • Log-burning stoves: sustainable alternatives include biofuel and electric stoves.

Long-term goals for your eco home

While using eco-building materials will be more costly than taking a conventional route, carrying out just some of these improvements mean that you’ll be doing your bit for the environment as well as reducing your energy bills. Remember that making your home more sustainable doesn’t need to happen all at once, it can be an ongoing process.

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