Over the past 10 years I’ve seen a lot of mistakes in home design in both urban and rural properties. Over the next few blog posts, I want to look at some of those blunders and point to possible solutions. I’m writing this partly for myself and partly for all the folks out there who want to build their own homes right. But before I begin, let me tell you my biases so that it will help you understand how I critique design:
- I believe the next 20 years will be fundamentally different than the past 20.
- Energy for transportation and heating will become a lot more scarce.
- Our ability to thrive in a northern climate is going to be based on the decisions we make on shelter, food production, and storage.
- Choosing or building a home is one of the largest and most important investments of time and money anyone can make.
- Since it’s a place we will spend a lot of time in, it’s crucial to get it right the first time.
As a consultant, I see all too often people rushing through the design phase only to make a ton of changes during construction. This adds time and cost to the endeavour, along with frustration and strains on relationships. This piece will look at the top 8 basic home design flaws I’ve come across. The first piece of advice I’ll start with is to take your time. Read some books. Tour some homes. You’ll thank me later.
Home Design Flaw #1: Too Big
Cheap natural gas, propane, and electricity have fooled people into thinking they can build massive without consequences. Many cities, counties and small towns feed into this mentality by having minimum building size requirements – the larger the home, the more taxes they can collect. But big homes cost a lot more to build, maintain and heat. So don’t build a home based on 2013 natural gas prices. Instead, build one that can be heated by an assortment of fuels.
I’ve lived in a 1,000 square-foot bungalow for almost 10 years now, with my wife, mother-in-law, two kids and two staff. While it can be hectic at times, this is more due to a lack of outdoor space than indoor space. Design your home with lots of outdoor living space. Plan to have an outdoor kitchen, deck or greenhouse. It’s healthier to be outside anyways and you will enjoy it a lot more.
Home Design Flaw #2: Building for a View
People naturally want to build their home in places with great views. But often these locations are situated in high-energy environments: beside a river, on a flood plain, on top of a hill or mountain. With climate change increasing the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, do a disaster assessment before choosing or building a home. Is the house in a place prone to forest fires or mud slides? Is it on a hill with extreme winds both hot and cold? (High wind exposure can increase energy consumption by up to 50%) Is it located in a place that gets regularly flooded? You’ll eventually get tired of the view, but you’ll be grateful for not being stuck with an uninsurable home in a disaster-prone area.
Home Design Flaw #3: Basements and Sump Pumps
I cannot count the number of homes with basements in areas completely unsuitable for them. In order to even have them, sump pumps must run constantly to dewater the groundwater table. But this is an impossible task. Flooding is bound to occur whenever there is a power outage, and with seepage comes mold. Sump pumps are also hard on the local ecology because a depressed water table limits life around the home. I personally dislike basements – they are unpleasant to live in and most people just use them for storage anyways.
If you need more space, build up or out unless you are sure there will be no problems going down. Walk-out basements are the exception – Usually built into hills, they work because groundwater is able to run out.
Home Design Flaw #4: Poor Rainwater Management
Time and again, I see people letting their downspout drain around their foundations and then hear them complaining about basement water issues. Rainwater must be managed, either by directing it away from the house, or better yet, by storing and using it on-site to hydrate the landscape in the dry season.
Home Design Flaw #5: Complicated Shapes
Modern architecture works constantly to create new and exciting home shapes. But while these designs are eye-catching, more edges, surface area and complexity adds cost, energy loss and discomfort, especially to those living of us in northern climates.
I sincerely hope we can progress towards a culture that relishes simplicity, performance and health. Apple has built their brand through their emphasis on simplicity, and I think we can take their design philosophy into the way we build houses, to create high-quality, performance-based and healthy designs that are both subtle and purposeful.
Home Design Flaw #6: Wrong Solar Orientation
If engineers and architects knew where south was, an estimated 50% could be saved off our annual heating bill. I live in a home that’s oriented incorrectly: It overheats in the summer and can’t take advantage of the winter sun. A properly oriented house has its long axis on the east/west and its short axis on the north/south. This allows maximum solar access, optimizing heat gain in the winter and minimizing it in the summer. Generally the best place to build is mid-slope with the main exposure facing south.
The Passive House Institute has gotten so good at this that they can design homes that use 90% less energy than a conventionally-designed home. To put this into perspective: A 1,000 square-foot house can be heated by a hair dryer! Solar photovoltaics can economically heat the home without the need for natural gas. The Institute has a highly versatile design tool that can be used to optimize any building – Check it out here.
Home Design Flaw #7: Under-insulated Homes
There are few things more uncomfortable than living in a poorly insulated home in a northern climate. Up until recently our homes have been build with the same amount of insulation as a home in California. Cheap heating costs (natural gas is around $3-$4 per GJ right now) have allowed engineers, architects and planners to be lazy, but the fossil fuel bonanza is not going to last forever. My advice: Insulate now or freeze later.
Home Design Flaw #8: Poor Tree Selection and Placement
So many homes have useless landscapes, with trees located in random spots. I love a spruce as much as the next person, but 9 times out of 10, the trees I see planted around Calgary do not provide yields to either the homeowner or the city dweller. Trees NEED to be included in home and urban design.
We should be more discerning about what we plant, where we plant, and the service trees can provide. Deciduous trees are great on the south side of homes because their leaves provide shade in the summer and their bare branches allow the warmth of the winter sun to pass through. Conifers work on the north side as windbreaks from cold northerlies. How great would it be if the conifers provided pine nuts (Korean Stone Pine, Swiss Stone Pine) and the deciduous trees provided fruits and nuts (Apple, apricot, plum, pear, walnut, butternut, hazelnuts trees)? Think of the possibilities!
Next up: More Bad Home Design Decisions
I must say you have covered most of the points that cover home design flaws. I never thought about rainfall management but you have given a clear idea about it.
Would love to see a similar post for hot weather environments by a similarly qualified consultant…
Great list. I’d add: Don’t go it alone. Draw on expertise in your community. When designing a new house, consider saving yourself years of PATO and missed opportunities by finding a local architect who really gets it. Tap into the knowledge of someone who has built many homes locally. Talk to your local cooperative power utility if you have one.
Great read! These are like some of those tips you wish your first Permaculture mentor told you, lol. Looking back on my Permie journey (just a few years) these would have been great to know right away…. but the truth is, one learns these things from experience and years of observation! So even if someone did tell me this – I might have had to wait a tid bit to learn it for myself 🙂
I have a blog post in the back of my mind that I have been wanting to post about some of the terrible tree placements here in the desert.
Large tree species are planted in locations that are having to be “pruned” aka hacked as not to interfere with another element on site. (Telephone/ electric wires.)
Not only are they poorly positioned (in no relation to other elements, or obstructing important view,) they are chopped up and unhealthy looking. A desert tree is rarely allowed to be the desert tree that it is – meaning they are “pruned” (hacked!( like lolli-pops and when the Monsoons come they fall right over (due to bad watering practices, etc. as well).
It’s a common epidemic to see lots of downed trees due to improper care right after a monsoon. I see a lot of really sick trees not properly taken care of on public property. ….but I see this also an area that we can LEARN from and begin to use these as examples of what NOT to do in educating others about it!
After introducing Permaculture princples and concepts in to my life, the way that I saw the world changed. I was able to make connections between things for the first time in my life – and this has been such an awakening experience for me.
I will say, however, after tapping in to observation and really slowing down to see “what works and why” around me – I continue to I find that it’s almost painful to see the way things are constructed!!!
I am almost laughing in a way just to make light of it – because a deep dark part of myself just cringes in seeing the poor planting practices, trees that are hacked to death, or watered at the trunk, etc – the placement of things is erratic and often find elements having NO relation to anything else, etc – but the other ‘new Permaculture me’ knows to look further and see the problem within the solution and also to use it as a learning tool to propel the next idea or solve the next ‘problem’ meaning recognizing and creating regeneration by integrating elements instead of
Thanks for letting me tangent and for a great article.
Thanks for the comment Torrie!
Great article Rob! We continue to build oversized, leaky homes that are designed with no consideration of solar orientation, neither to benefit from advantageous winter solar gain nor to avoid excessive summer solar input. And I agree that as a society we are still collectively demanding ever growing McMansions that are unsustainable in the long run.
Smaller homes for couples as well as co-housing (we recently decided to share living arrangements with my father in law) makes more sense on many levels. I’m looking forward to our next downsize to a location where we can build a small, energy efficient, tightly built home with more outdoor space for living.
Great post Rob. I am working to reduce the minimum house size here in Turner Valley and Black Diamond and I would like to see the towns offer incentives to developers who orient subdivisions for maximum solar gain. With regard to passive design it is worth mentioning that in addition to a sound envelope, correct orientation and proper glazing, it is important to consider thermal mass in order to absorb and store our free heat source. We do have building challenges in our climate but we now have all the information we need to build energy efficient, and energy producing homes.
You bet. A proper solar home has to have the correct thermal mass to glazing ratio in order to moderate the solar gain during the day and lack during the night. Thanks for the comment.
Thank you for this info, Rob, and others for your comments.
We have a Design Flaw #3…. A basement that requires a sump pump because of the high water table…..we live very close to a creek. Ours is a dirt basement. I was wondering if you could suggest a source of info on refilling the basement in. It’s always been a worry that there would be a bigger issue than there already is if the electricity went out when the water table is at a high point.
I don’t have any resources. If I were you I would contact a few foundation specialists. A civil engineer would be a good start as well. Thanks for the comment.
Many of the ideas are sound however, living in an older neighbourhood where there are many volunteer gigantic trees everywhere limits the possibility of solar panels. Also when one builds up, which most people do after they have knocked down the small house, is creating many sunless spaces for neighbours (inside the homes and in the garden spaces) Thus building up may be great for larger lots and acreages etc but not for inner city dwellers.Many cities are encouraging greater density in the inner city and the above problems are occurring Building out is impossible too. East-west orientation would be good but again often difficult on the smaller lots since they are usually longer and narrow & are situated N-S. Thanks for all of your work, re sustainability of everything.
All good points. These are structural planning issues that are very hard to change. It is what makes design challenging and fun. 🙂
ah basements – coolest place in the house in the summer, warmest in the winter. Many homes don’t need sump pumps, and with proper windows it becomes really useable space. Allows vertical build, smaller footprint. If we are building walls down 4 – 5 feet anyway for frost…. seems a way to maximize space for cost. Think earth bermed… on all 4 sides. 🙂
I agree…if no sump pump is required and there are no radon issues. They can be made quite livable, however, poor basements are more common than good ones. Thanks for the comment.
This is great. Really enjoyed reading it. Thanks for the insightful advice.
Love this post, all though none of the ideas foreign to me, it’s nice to see them all in one place! 🙂
Great article Rob. On the subject of no basements here’s a link to designing frost protected shallow foundations which obviates the need for foundations set down to frost level. http://www.huduser.org/publications/pdf/fpsfguide.pdf Another great reference to design (although it doesn’t deal directly with sustainability)is A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander , a great reference on increasing the “livability” of homes.
Great stuff! If you are against basements, what would you suggest for people who live in areas that experience tornados?
Basements can work, most of them though need sump pumps and have issues with mold and air quality. Perhaps a root cellar for your food is a better fit for tornados?
Great article and helpful advise!
Rob, what is your opinion on a drive under garage instead of walkout basement?
We decided against a basement for the exact same reasons you listed. Though we get told over and over that a utility room is best in the basement for several reasons (freezing pipes, etc.).
So we figured we need a basement after all. So we came up with this part storage (plus gym), part garage basement idea. Easy access, great use of space and the utility room as part of the garage would be fire proof too.
Drive under garages can be problematic if there is living space above as you are basically making a cantilever. This will let out a lot of cold due to increased surface area and connection details.
Shared. Have heard that deciduous trees can still shade up to 60% by branches alone even in winter*. Of course your mileage will vary with different tree species, and it’s totally up to the individual what they want to do. Most fruit bearing trees are short and will not shade if planted just a little further away, and summer-shading can be accomplished by eaves.
*The Canadian Solar Home Design Manual, SolarNS 2009, p23.
Thanks Jenn! Great resource.
I’m sending it out to the step kids! and anyone else in this phase in life (when-ever that my be!) I’m looking at the straw bale houses in the tiny house book and being inspired – also the ones dug into the ground partly – hobbit style – lovely dreams..
I love this article. Mind if I post it on my blog?
Is there ANY way to insulate a house from inside? Although it’s a small house, the crawl space is impossible for me to access (I have severe arthritis) and exorbitantly expensive to hire anyone to go into, if I could even find anyone who’d do it. I hadn’t intended to be here for more than a few months but life took a turn, as it does, so now looking to try to fix it as much as possible. They insulated the walls and roof but there isn’t even plastic on the ground below the kitchen and the floor is C O L D and drafty in the winter. There’s an actual breeze on the ankles some days.
Could I put insulation on the top of the kitchen floor and then something on that? It couldn’t be too thick or the door wouldn’t open but if it would help…
There are lots of ways to insulate a home. You do need to be careful about creating condensation surfaces. Also, regarding the arthritis, check out “wheat belly”, “grain brain” and “why we get fat and what to do about it”. Artristis can be cured with diet most of the time. Then you can insulate the space yourself.
Timely article. We just bought 5 acres in Okanagan a few days ago and will begin designing our new home.
Nice one, Rob. On point. Ever read How Buildings Learn? Some seriously insightful info in there.
I have not but I am going to check it out now. Thanks for the comment Mark!
As always, a great article!
Having just did a bunch of prep for a day of Ron and Javan’s PDC on the subject of net-positive shelters, it is reassuring to see the similarities in critique coming from such a sharp mind!
I’d be very interested in speaking with you regarding said field next time we collide in timespace…
Keep up the great work amigo!
I look forward to it Kurtis!