There's More to Sustainable Homes than Solar Panels and Short Showers

With an average of 4.5 additions to our world population every second, the argument for sustainable housing solutions has never been stronger. It's becoming increasingly clear that energy efficiency is necessary to support urban growth and create better conditions for human development; building healthy communities means building efficient homes.

All kinds of innovators — from businesses like Verizon Wireless to independent local activists — are exploring sustainable housing options, and becoming more connected to the world around them in the process. Here's how the shift to sustainability is inducing early adopters to recognize how their behavior extends beyond their own backyards.

Building Green Homes from the Ground Up

You've probably noticed sustainable staples like recycled building materials and solar panels popping up in discourse surrounding green housing me (solar panels have become so popular that IKEA has announced they'll begin selling them). But what if you want to take the next step and build a carbon-neutral home — one that emits no greenhouse gases and uses no more energy than it produces? These homes require many additional considerations. External walls should be built of thick, insulated concrete, which protects the interior of the home from temperature fluctuations. And those solar panels? They're used to heat water, which is collected by a geothermal well and circulated through heated floor systems or an open-cooling system, providing HVAC without the fossil fuels.

Carbon-neutral homes may not be at the forefront of the sustainable housing conversation in America just yet, but progressive cities like Copenhagen aim to be completely carbon-neutral within a decade or so. To help push this initiative where homes are concerned, new residences must meet Denmark's Low Energy Class ratings — they're expected to cut electricity consumption by 10% come 2025. Meanwhile, the citizens of Ashton Hayes (population: 1000) have been working toward becoming the first carbon-neutral village in England since 2006. In the last eight years, the community has managed to cut its carbon dioxide emissions by 23% simply by working together, sharing ideas, and modifying their consumption behavior.

The Perks of Reviving Preexisting Residences

While renovating entire cities might seem like too much trouble for little reward, studies show it's well worth the investment. Architects in India recently discovered that retrofitting existing buildings for minimal environmental impact would save the country $25 billion.

It's important to talk numbers when it comes to making green renovations; due to lack of data, environmental agencies have had trouble convincing landlords and homeowners that they'll see a return on their investment. But a deep dive into New York City's retrofitted apartments — conducted from 2010 to 2012 by Deutsche Bank in partnership with Living Cities — proved that making energy-efficient upgrades creates jobs, improves health, and saves money (in addition, of course, to conserving energy).

The Pinefield Apartments in Alabama are a great example of how upgrading inefficient facilities can cut consumption. A benefactor of the Green Retrofit Program, the 14-unit community was revamped with Energy Star refrigerators and range hoods, energy-efficient windows, programmable thermostats, water-saving showerheads and faucets, and indoor/outdoor energy-efficient lighting. The apartments also received non-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint jobs and wooden cabinets, and the floors were replaced with bio-based floor tiles. The makeover resulted in tenants using 44% less gas, while the property as a whole cut its water consumption by 43.58% and its gas consumption by 50.81%.

Envisioning an Energy-Aware Planet

How might you change your behavior if your home called you out every time you left the water running too long or forgot to turn off the bathroom light? It sounds crazy, but it might not be too far off: an initiative called Envision Charlotte aims to introduce intelligent buildings to the urban core of Charlotte, NC. Participating buildings can tell you when you're literally abusing your power, and how you can change your ways. Fueled by Verizon Wireless technology, a series of smart sensors and meters track energy and power usage in offices across the city. The results are displayed on interactive kiosks, which offer up actionable suggestions to help the 67,000 people working in the Charlotte area make more efficient decisions. The hope is urban workers will apply these energy-saving techniques to their own homes, becoming consumers that are energy-aware, not just energy-dependent.

Initiatives like Ashton Hayes and Verizon Wireless's Envision Charlotte are proof that we're heading toward a more conscious and community-oriented approach toward home-building — one which will serve us well as we meet challenges far beyond our front doors.

For more on homes of the future, head to homeofthefuture.gizmodo.com.

Stephanie Georgopulos is a Senior Content Producer at Gawker Media. She tweets here, essays here, kinjas here, and tumblrs here.

This post is a sponsored collaboration between Verizon Wireless and Studio@Gawker.