How to build a house for climate change?
March 26, 2021 2:56 PM   Subscribe

My family is in the process of considering if we want to build a new house or renovate our existing house. We'd like to take climate change into account in our decision-making but feel completely at sea in figuring out how to do that.

Our house was built in the 1950s and the previous owners did some sketchy maintenance, e.g. we had to have the back half of the house rewired so the DIY wires wouldn't burn down the house. The house is habitable right now, but has some issues, like one wall is full of bird poop and associated mess below an opening in the bricks used by generations of birds as a nest. That same wall is full of ants. There's no insulation, so we've been knocking out walls, putting in insulation and dealing with whatever surprises we find behind the drywall, but have only made it through 1/4 of the house.

The house sits on roughly 2 acres in the middle of Nashville. Nashville is growing like crazy and it's very tempting to take an offer from a developer and just build a house from scratch using the money from the sale. Alternatively, we could extensively renovate (though every time we renovate anything we find more problems).

We'd like to take into account not only our desires for high ceilings and secret passageways, but also climate change. It would be nice to have built-in backup generators maybe? Or something for dealing with the increasing likelihood of flash floods? Or to make cooling and heating the house less energy-intensive?

I don't really know anything about this stuff. My husband works in construction, but knows very little about building for climate change, but at least he can read knowledgeably if somebody has laid out what we need to take into account.

Is there a good resource that would tell us what sorts of things we should be considering in building and/or renovating for the Middle Tennessee of 2040 or 2050?
posted by joannemerriam to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I know someone involved in the group that calls their work Pretty Good House. Their goal is sustainability, livability and maybe not exotic solutions. Good links. High ceilings, esp. with a vent up high to let the hot air out, are a nice way to manage heat. Light or white roofs reflect heat. Building for sustainability and low carbon impact is local; there are likely similar builders in your area.

If I had 2 acres, I'd build a few houses and establish a pocket neighborhood.
posted by theora55 at 4:48 PM on March 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

I know someone who built a house in the Berkshire Mountains in Massachusetts with climate in mind. The house was extremely well insulated and tight, and he used a ground source heat pump to heat it.

The house was tight enough that he didn't need a furnace, and instead used a hot water heater connected to the ground source heat pump and that kept him warm all winter. All run off electricity, which is increasingly green.
posted by Winnie the Proust at 4:52 PM on March 26, 2021 [4 favorites]

Read up about earthships. There's a lot of stuff you could implement to lesser or grater degrees.
posted by turkeyphant at 5:04 PM on March 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Passive solar is also an angle to explore, it varies from being as simple as orienting your home and roofs to catch or shade sun during the changing seasons to more aggressively situating and building thermal mass retention etc. I have personal experience with Lindal Homes that are passive solar, but it's generally a more mountain aesthetic (at least the older classic designs) than you may be looking for. Passive solar does keep my parents heating bills in northern NY in the winter to a minimum, but in increasingly hotter summers is a bit of a downside. (We probably need to install more shades for the summer, but have never quite gotten around to it)
posted by larthegreat at 5:13 PM on March 26, 2021 [2 favorites]

Many of the newer episodes of the television show Grand Designs deal with eco-friendly and sustainable building practices. It’s UK-focused if that’s relevant, but you should be able to get a fairly good grasp of both basic construction principles and the latest contemporary sustainability standards (insulation and efficient heating/cooling comes up a lot, for example), which might aid your research.
posted by lhall at 6:42 PM on March 26, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Renovation vs new-build is debatable; there are so many variables , e.g.

• What is your proximity to flooding potential and is that getting worse?
• Are you getting heat/cold events and can the house be upgraded to get you through them?
• Is radon an issue where you are?
• Can you subdivide? If yes, and you kept say half an acre, how much could you come away with? (i.e. how many saleable lots that preserves some sense of your current neighbourhood?) One thing I suggest to clients is to sub off several parcels and sell them when you need cash - better than money in the bank (much of the time).

Def. try and get off the grid, esp. if your jurisdiction is becoming unreliable.

I have a client doing what you're thinking; full bare-frame upgrade to cert. Passivhaus standard - which is prob. >> $ than new-build - but it's near the right school. Another project I worked on, the builder told me a new build would have been 25% less (but I'm in NZ where building is most expensive in world so YMMV).

Old House Eco Handbook is very helpful on systems and materials, it's a UK book but very focused on renovation

as is Urgent Architecture: 40 Sustainable Housing Solutions for a Changing World House books are a dime a dozen but for me these are two recent standouts if you want to see what the best minds and hands are doing with reno and new-builds.
posted by unearthed at 6:58 PM on March 26, 2021 [5 favorites]

Like larthegreat, I think you should look into renovating or building to passive house standards (Wiki, Youtube explainer, US-based certification org). Using 90% less energy to cool and heat your home would free up a lot of money for other climate mitigation solutions like storm and grey-water recovery systems, gardening and composting, and other steps to make your life more self-sustaining.
posted by minervous at 8:41 AM on March 27, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Correctly DIYing a house to near passivehaus standards of airtightness and superinsulation is a tall order. Take some time to lurk on and read articles. You'll need to pay to read the all the good stuff, but that's fair. Once you get a feel, check out the articles at
posted by Glomar response at 2:34 PM on March 27, 2021 [2 favorites]

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