In Methods of Design & Patterns

We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.”

Winston Churchill

essential-sustainable-home-designI love this quote because it conveys how important it is to get the design of our buildings right. I’ve recently been rereading Essential Sustainable Home Design by Chris Magwood, one of North America’s most trusted ecological builders. Chris has been designing and building for over two decades, and his book is a technical resource for owners and builders who are in the early to mid-stages of planning their own sustainable home. Essential Sustainable Home Design is accessible and full of interesting juxtapositions that force us to come to terms with many of the internal biases that we tend to glaze over.

One of my favourites is how Chris points out the irony of people being resistant to composting toilets when it’s socially acceptable (and required) that we pick up after our dogs. If we can handle pet waste, surely we should be able to handle our own!


We’ll pick up dog poop but won’t think about using composting toilets.

In this latest post, I would like to share some of the favourite insights I’ve gleaned from the book. I also did a live interview with Chris a few months back – you can watch our conversation in the video at the end of this review.

Setting Your Goals

I appreciated how Chris begins his book with an emphasis on goal setting. Having consulted on the designs of many high-performance homes and properties over the past decade, I know that setting a holistic set of goals is one of the most critical lead measures for success. Time and time again I find myself needing to pull folks out of the details to look at the bigger picture, something that a sound goal-setting framework can promote right off the bat. Essential Sustainable Home Design helps you gain this mindset by posing a plethora of questions that helps you clarify the “why,” which in my experience dramatically reduces the difficulty and time spent working on the “what”.  

Home design and construction is a complex process and involves more decisions than most people realize going in; having a sound set of questions will help front-load many of those decisions and help prepare you for construction. In my opinion, the book is worth the price just for asking the right questions.

Chris Magwood.

One of the things I look for in design books are comparison tables. With so many options out there, things can get overwhelming unless you have a fast and easy way of comparing the pros and cons. Nine times out of ten I find myself building tables for clients so they can easily compare everything from tree species and heating appliances to renewable energy choices to greenhouse styles. When it comes to ecological and resilient properties, there are literally hundreds of decisions on thousands of options, all of which will affect how you design and construct your structures.

Luckily, Essential Sustainable Home Design is full of comparison tables that help its reader navigate these decisions with ease. One of my favourites that I’ll be using in my own consulting practice is the breakdown of all the various building methodologies, which span from R2000 to Passive House to Living Building Challenge. I find this table very informative because it explains the key differences between each methodology with respect to how they approach elements like ecosystem impacts, embodied carbon/energy, energy efficiency, indoor environment, waste, durability/maintenance, and third-party verification.


One of the many tables in the book that helps you navigate options in building vision, design, and implementation processes.

Chris does a great job going through all the various building systems with what he calls “the Criteria Matrix.” It allows you to understand the intersection between your goals and the various building systems.

The long and short of this all is, once you understand the “why” behind your goals and how that relates to the “what,” it becomes a lot simpler to choose a building system to design around. And once you’ve chosen a building system, the project becomes more concrete and can move forward along a defined path.

Playing The Design Game

Once you’ve set your goals, formed a vision, and chosen a building system, you are ready to design. Chris refers this phase as the “design game”. I like this way of describing home design because it’s a complex and iterative process that can take many tries to get right. Essential Sustainable Home Design goes through a host of different design methodologies that gets your brain thinking creatively about the space and what it needs to be to match your vision. Chris provides a great series of tools and processes in this section to ensure each iteration is as efficient and effective as possible.

Understanding Building Codes

One of the most overwhelming aspects of construction is getting a handle on the intricacies of building codes. Once again, Essential Sustainable Home Design does a great job of explaining the regulatory system and how you can navigate through it.  Knowledge is power, and Chris provides you with the necessary information you need to navigate through this part of design so you can obtain a certificate of occupancy for your home easily and quickly at the end of construction.

A Building Materials and Systems Resource

The last section of Essential Sustainable Home Design delves into building materials and systems, going over the potential options you can choose for your design. If you find this part of the book useful, I would recommend getting Chris’ other book titled Making Better Buildings, which goes more in-depth on material options and how they affect indoor air quality, waste, embodied carbon, lifecycle impact, and other elements.

I hope you found this review useful. For more information, check out the interview I recently did with Chris Magwood below. Til next time!

Join Verge and New Society Publishers in conversation with authors who are on the verge of changing the world. Sign up for our “Ideas On The Verge” email list at 

Recent Posts

Start typing and press Enter to search

Designing Your Own Passive Solar Greenhouse, Part 3Getting Unstuck in Life and Design: An Intro to Holistic Management