Location, Location, Location: How to choose a sustainable place to live / build a home

The sustainability of one’s home depends as much (if not more) on its location as on how the house is built. If you’re looking to buy land or to buy (or rent) a house, consider sustainability criteria when comparing the locations of different properties.

The following are some of the key “location efficiency” issues to consider. (Some of them only apply to buying land that you plan to build on.) Try to choose a spot that meets at least some of these criteria:

Seek a property that…

  • is located close to your (and your family’s) jobs and schools; close to shops, parks, civic buildings, and other services and amenities your family regularly uses; and close to public transit stops—ideally within walking distance (i.e., less than 1/4 mile, or 1/2-mile max.). Living in close proximity to such things will save you gas, money, and driving time; reduce your stress level and your odds of getting in a car accident; and also reduce traffic and air pollution!
  • ...has been built on before. It’s best to choose a property that has an existing house or other structures that can be renovated and reused. (If a structure is unsafe or beyond repair and must be demolished, have it deconstructed carefully so that you can recycle, reuse, donate, or sell its salvageable materials; and then rebuild on its original foundation or footprint.)
  • is an infill site (i.e., surrounded by other developed parcels) that is already (or can easily be) hooked up to existing infrastructure for roads, water, wastewater, and utility lines (to reduce the costs, resource waste, and sprawl associated with extending or building new infrastructure)—unless you’re planning to live entirely off-grid (with on-site power, water, and wastewater treatment). If you are planning to live off-grid, be sure that the property has a good source of clean water on site, as well as adequate solar access and/or wind or biomass resources for generating your own electricity.

And avoid buying or building on a property that…

  • is within a floodplain zone; on or very close to a known earthquake fault; or on coastal land that’s at (or near) sea level, vulnerable to erosion, or located in a tsunami zone;
  • is a Greenfield site (i.e., land that has never been developed / cleared / built on before);
  • contains sensitive habitat, endangered species, wetlands, or prime agricultural land (unless you preserve the key areas for continued agricultural use or conservation, whichever is applicable); or
  • consists of steep slopes (often defined as slopes with a grade of 15% or more), which would need to be substantially graded to enable development of the site. The grading and development of steep slopes can cause soil erosion and increased stormwater runoff, which in turn can cause water pollution, flooding, and potentially mudslides.

Living in an environmentally sensible and sustainable location has numerous benefits. You can reap significant financial savings (e.g., by reducing the amount of driving you have to do; or by avoiding or minimizing the need to build new infrastructure or to do extensive site grading). Location efficiency can also yield broad, collective benefits for society and our shared environment, such as:

  • reducing sprawl-related automobile dependence, traffic, and air pollution;
  • protecting public health, environmental health, and the climate;
  • conserving natural resources, habitat, and open space; and
  • contributing to the creation of livable, walkable, healthy, and vibrant neighborhoods that enhance your community’s quality of life and local economic opportunities.
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June 3, 2011

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