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Building a Home for a Sustainable Environment

During our lifetimes, many of us will build a home. When we do, we have the opportunity to create our living space while at the same time preserving the environment in which we build. With just a little effort, we can build around the natural features on our home site. We can start by protecting the native vegetation that inhabits our site.

Our native trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants are a critical part of the ecosystems of the Lowcountry. These plants take the sun's energy and produce food for themselves and all other organisms, taking up carbon dioxide and producing oxygen in the bargain. They provide food, shelter and homes for our native animal species, and filter our air, reduce glare, and reduce erosion and flooding. Plants also cool our homes by providing shade and humidity, and provide recreation and improve our psychological well-being.

A well-planted yard can also add up to 20% additional value to our homes. Saving the existing vertical layers of native vegetation during construction of your home can save you money on landscaping, irrigation and pesticides (natives are drought and pest tolerant), and give you the instant gratification of mature landscaping.

Protect Native Plants During Construction

  • Hire a land surveyor to do a tree survey of your site, prior to drawing any site plans.

  • Walk the site with your architect and identify trees and other vegetation to be saved, adding locations of vegetation onto the tree survey as needed.

  • Sketch all structures, pavement and utility lines on the tree survey in locations that best protect the roots found within the canopy of the vegetation to be preserved. Have the architect draw the final plans from this sketch, substituting as much pervious surface for impervious as possible. You could use pervious concrete or pervious pavers for a patio and sidewalks, for example.

  • Photo of vegestation staked out
  • Specify barricades around all vegetation to be preserved, as close to the edge of the canopy as possible. Compaction of the soil can destroy root systems, so avoid storage of materials, equipment and vehicles in these areas.

  • Review the site plan with your contractor, emphasizing the importance of tree protection. Consider adding a clause to your contract specifying penalties for removal or damage to protected vegetation.

  • Discuss with your landscaper the installation of any irrigation lines, lighting and ornamental plants. Remember that tree roots can also be damaged by these activities, and limit them within the canopies of protected trees.

  • Monitor the work being done on your site to ensure vegetation protection is accomplished.

  • Consult with a certified arborist and your landscaper to discuss care of trees and other vegetation, respectively, after construction is complete.

The process just described is part of something referred to as "green site design". Other natural features that can be designed around (and the benefits they provide) include:

  • Sand dunes - flood control, habitat for native organisms, storm protection
  • Wetlands - flood control, pollutant filtration and break down, habitat for native organisms, stormwater receptacle
  • Vegetation, wetlands and dunes can all be considered "green infrastructure". They perform natural services for us that are free of charge; if these features are destroyed, we have to replace them with man-made structures that perform the same function, but usually at great economic cost to the taxpayer for both initial construction and maintenance.

For more information on green site design, visit www.sustainablesites.org; be sure to check out the "Benefits of Sustainable Sites" brochure. For more information on green infrastructure, visit www.epa.gov/green-infrastructureeexternal link icon.

In addition to preserving the natural environment on our building site, we can also be sustainable by designing our house to be energy and water efficient, as well as incorporating recycled or otherwise sustainable building materials into our home. In economic terms, this is often significantly more expensive than green site design, but the benefits to both the environment and dollar savings is long-term and significant.

And don’t forget that many contractors and waste hauler services now provide recycling or reuse opportunities for unused construction materials rather than sending them to the landfill!

For further information on sustainable homes, visit the following websites:

http://www.epa.gov/greenbuilding/index.htmexternal link icon
external link icon

If you would like to certify your home as sustainable, visit the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) site at www.gbci.org.