The four basic necessities of life, air, water, food and shelter, are required for an individual to survive and sustain life. You may feel mere discomfort with the temporary lack of one or more of these necessities, but prolonged deficiency can drastically affect life to the point where the body ceases to function properly and dies. Shelter generally means protection from the elements and usually is a structure, such as a house, building or tent. If you go without shelter, you can suffer hypothermia, dehydration or heat stroke in extreme weather conditions.

In addition to providing shelter, housing determines the quality of life and welfare of people and places. Where homes are located, how well they are designed and built, and how well they function in the environmental, social, cultural and economic fabric of communities are all factors that, in a very real way, influence the daily lives of people, their health, security and wellbeing. Additionally, with the potential for the long life of a house or dwelling unit as a physical structure, housing can affect both the present and future generations. The concept of housing requires a new understanding to effectively address the pressing issues of providing shelter for the homeless, housing for special needs, affordable housing for poverty and low income residents, the variety of housing choices, residential density,  how housing relates to other uses and functions within the community, and climate change. No longer regarded as simply a roof over one’s head, housing today plays a crucial role in achieving sustainable development.

Sustainable housing is often considered from a predominantly “green” perspective (carbon footprint, energy efficiency, resource saving, greenhouse gas reduction, etc.), a more holistic approach is required, which recognizes  the multiple functions of housing – as both a physical and social system – and which seeks to enhance and harmonize the environmental, social, cultural, and economic dimensions of housing sustainability. Thus, along with the solutions for the built environment (resource and energy efficiency, environmental, ecological and health safety, resilience to natural disasters), sustainable housing policies should deal with the affordability, social justice, cultural and economic impacts of housing, and contribute to making healthy residential neighborhoods and sustainable cities.

It is only through sustainable solutions that the tensions between urban growth, climate change, poverty alleviation, affordable housing provision, and access to quality residential services, clean energy and environmental conditions can be mitigated, while the potential of housing for improved economic prosperity and social development can be expanded. This requires well-designed, inclusive and participatory housing policies and programs.

The negative environmental impact of current housing practices and patterns is attracting more public attention, particularly on the issue of global warming. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, building operations are responsible for almost 40 percent of carbon dioxide emissions in the U.S., while another 10 percent is attributable to construction. Among all buildings, it is housing that produces the most emissions. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that 43 percent, or 58 million tons per year, of construction and demolition waste is produced from residential activity.

When low-density sprawling residential development patterns are accounted for, the negative impacts of unsustainable housing on global warming and overall environmental quality is multiplied. Urban and suburban sprawl has created greater automobile dependency, worsening air pollution, more sedentary living and unhealthy communities. Many also contend that longer commutes undermine civic participation and vibrant communities.

Housing can also be unhealthy due to lead paint, poor indoor air quality and unsafe conditions, particularly for low-income families. The EPA has determined that indoor air quality of buildings is one of the top five environmental health risks in the U.S. According to the EPA, elevated levels of lead in children is still a serious problem today, particularly among urban and minority families, despite there being a lead paint ban in effect since 1978. In addition, asthma is now the number one chronic childhood disease in the U.S., with unhealthy housing conditions being an important factor in its proliferation. Furthermore, each year, millions of Americans are injured at home due to poor design and substandard conditions. The impact of unhealthy housing is evident by the association between poor-quality housing and various health conditions.

Besides health issues, housing is not affordable for many. According to Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies report The State of the Nation’s Housing 2007, “Affordability problems remain the nation’s fastest growing housing challenge.” The report concludes that in 2005 the number of severely cost-burdened households (paying more than 50 percent of income for housing) increased by 1.2 million to a total of 17 million. The vast majority of these households represent the lowest income earners in the U.S. Another indication of growing affordability problems is the number of households paying more than 30 percent of income on housing, which increased to 37.3 million. The high cost of housing can also negatively affect regional economies, as individuals have less disposal income, putting communities at a competitive disadvantage when compared to areas having lower housing costs.

Action is being taken by many communities to bring about positive change that supports the creation of more sustainable housing. Such changes include initiatives to encourage higher density transit-oriented development, healthy homes and green construction, as well as design that promotes walkable neighborhoods.

If deciding on a new housing project, especially of a larger scale, it may be appropriate to start not so much with the architecture and design, but with choosing the best location to maximize sustainability. This is to recognize that people live not simply in a house, but in a neighborhood and a community. Sustainable development is seriously compromised by organizing cities around “urban sprawl” and private car mobility.

Scattered, low density residential developments require more land, resources, and infrastructure (water, gas, electricity, roads) and lead to a disintegration of the city space, including between socially segregated areas. Relatively compact, mixed-use and mixed-income areas, which integrate housing, work, shopping and entertainment in close proximity, are an important strategy for reducing the negative aspects of sprawl. A more compact development pattern with high density housing also allows easier, more affordable access by low-income residents to urban services and employment opportunities and a better sense of community integration and cohesion.

Good housing practices suggest moderately-high densities for compact neighborhoods. However, the actual density needs to be context-specific. There is a level beyond which density creates social, economic and environmental congestion and undermines sustainability. In some regions, denser residential areas are associated with poverty and overcrowding. It is important in such cases to actually reduce densities and introduce new public, open and green spaces for recreation and leisure.  Good urban design creates an attractive living environment by balancing variously dense developments with access to green space, adequate infrastructure and alternative transportation choices by encouraging walking, biking and transit.

The American Planning Association adopted a Policy Guide on Housing in 2006. This Policy Guide states: “In order for communities to function, there must be an adequate supply of housing in proximity to employment, public transportation, and community facilities, such as public schools. The housing stock must include affordable and accessible for sale and rental units, not only to meet social equity goals, but in order to ensure community viability. The development of a diverse and affordable housing stock must be carried out without sacrificing sound regulations that are in place to protect the environment and public health.”

Sustainable houses are those that are designed, built and managed as:

  • Healthy, durable, safe and secure,
  • Affordable for the whole spectrum of incomes,
  • Using ecological low-energy and affordable building materials and technology,
  • Resilient to sustain potential natural disasters and climatic impacts,
  • Connected to decent, safe and affordable energy, water, sanitation and recycling facilities,
  • Using energy and water most efficiently and equipped with certain on-site renewable energy generation and water recycling capabilities,
  • Not polluting the environment and protected from external pollutions,
  • Well connected to jobs, shops, health- and child-care, education and other services,
  • Properly integrated into, and enhancing, the social, cultural and economic fabric of the local neighborhood and the wider urban areas,
  • Properly run and maintained, timely renovated and retrofitted.