3 Steps for Building Carbon Neutral Houses

The world has been focused for years on designing environmentally safe cars, but what about homes? We spend more of our lives in our houses than in our cars, especially since the pandemic. Shouldn’t we focus on making them as healthy and environmentally friendly as, say, a Tesla?

Yes, we should—and many builders already are. I know because I am one of them, and I represent thousands of other green builders as CEO of the Energy and Environmental Building Alliance (EEBA). Our movement has been around for more than three decades, but today it is gathering steam—and evolving.

Our primary focus thus far has been on energy efficiency. Our work, bolstered by federal programs like ENERGY STAR and the Department of Energy’s Zero Energy Ready Home Program, has helped catalyze the adoption of energy-efficient tech like solar panels, electric appliances, and better forms of insulation, to name just a few. Still, too many traditional homebuilders refuse to utilize these efficient techniques.

Ultimately, however, energy efficiency is a means to an end, with the end being reducing the carbon footprint of our homes. Focusing primarily on energy efficiency may not be the best way to shrink our carbon footprint, because so much of a house’s environmental impact comes from building materials such as concrete, steel, and fiberglass, which throw off massive amounts of carbon when produced. Further, many localities are transitioning energy grids to electric power, which lessens the burden on homebuilders (and homeowners) to use alternative energy sources.

Don’t get me wrong, energy efficiency will always be a central pursuit for green builders. But increasingly, it isn’t enough. So what if homebuilders begin by focusing on the “end” of carbon reduction? How might our means of achieving it change?

It's a question that green builders want to answer, and we’re committed to working with policymakers, academics, environmental champions, and every other stakeholder to figure it out. This task is urgent now more than ever, as builders scramble to meet spiking demand for new and affordable housing. Many houses built today will stand for 100 years or more (much longer than the eight-year average for cars), so the stakes are high for our planet and for human health.  

I believe there are three steps that must be taken to put carbon reduction front and center in the home building marketplace.

1.    Create a standard benchmark for evaluating the carbon footprint of houses

The practice of measuring the carbon impact of homes is known as carbon footprinting, and it’s easier said than done. There are many factors to consider. Do we include the lawn in the calculation? How about the concrete driveway or septic tank? Do we factor in the extraction and production of the building materials, or only their impact once the home is built?

The way we answer these questions matters less than the fact that we answer them. Agreeing on a standard benchmark for carbon footprinting, regardless of what it includes, will give us a scoreboard for measuring progress and evaluating the effectiveness of green building efforts. It will also empower homebuyers to shop and compare houses on environmental merit.

2.    Establish a carbon offset market for residential homes

Once we determine the carbon footprint of a home, what do we do about it? The answer lies in carbon offsetting.

Here's how it works. If I built a house with a 100-ton carbon footprint, I could effectively erase that footprint by going to a carbon market and funding 100 tons worth of carbon reduction. This might mean investing in methane recapture, a wind farm, or planting trees. The current price of a carbon offset is around $60 per ton, meaning I could write a check for $6,000 and offset the footprint of the house I built.

So far, carbon trading for residential homes is unheard of. But as more cities enact climate action plans that require footprinting, interest in offsetting will increase. Just as green builders want to develop a standardized calculator for carbon footprinting, we want to join with others in normalizing carbon offsetting for homes. The health of our planet and our families is worth every penny.

3.    Establish realistic rules for green homebuilding on the federal, state, and local levels

Today, government programs and regulations regarding environmental building are few and far between. Many states do not even have statewide building codes, which leaves it up to each municipality to set its own rules. Localities that choose to enact climate action plans often don’t know where to begin, and their efforts fall prey to lobbying from well-intentioned groups that don’t understand the costs and considerations of homebuilding. The result is either a total absence of rules, or a patchwork of unrealistic and hard-to-follow regulations.

Green builders are eager to pull up a chair and join these discussions. We want to provide guidance that can help avoid the situation we’ve seen in Fort Collins, Colorado, where even the greenest builder in America (there is one, and I know him) can’t build houses because the rules aren’t feasible. That’s why we’re in the process of establishing a board of advisors to work with cities on designing effective environmental building standards.

This effort has implications not just for the environment, but for affordable housing. As demand grows for single-family homes, many consumers are priced out of the market.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We can have it all. We can have healthy and sustainable homes that are entirely affordable for many or even most families. That is our goal as green builders: to build affordable, net-zero, carbon-neutral houses. We know many others share our passion, including a new generation of home builders, and we hope they’ll join our movement.

Currently, our Inventory of Zero Energy Homes and the UN global registry of carbon-neutral buildings list not one residential home in the United States. In five years, they could list thousands. But that will depend on what we do next—and on who steps up to join us.