Sustainable BuildingsConstructionHow to Get Started with Sustainable Construction: Residents

How to Get Started with Sustainable Construction: Residents

Karl Dickinson
Karl Dickinson
Change matters. It takes courage. As a writer - and citizen - I am inspired by stories of those who challenge the 'we've always done it this way' attitude. We can do better - it's time to listen to those who go against the grain.

If you’re building or renovating your own place, consider a move away from the typical concrete structures and fiberglass insulation. Natural and renewable products work equally as well – or better! Whether you hire a contractor or try your hand at a bit of DIY, our how-to guide will help you get started with sustainable construction for residents’ home projects.

Building ethically is a noble cause. Sustainable construction methods can produce environmentally friendly structures that are energy-efficient, durable, comfortable, and future-proof. Isn’t that what you want for your family home? We look at where you can get equipped with the right know-how, setting a clear plan of action, choosing the right materials, and consideration for local planning rules.

Get Learnin’

As with all things, the first step to success is getting informed. Luckily, you’re in the right place: browse through the wealth of sustainable construction know-how compiled on for a robust overview of the topic.

Expand your knowledge of sustainable building processes and materials via one of any number of online courses. They range in depth, duration, and cost – some accessible for free. Here’s a selection:

  • Sustainable Construction and Development course from the Chartered Institute of Building: learn what sustainable construction is, about best (and worst) practices, and the “considerations of sustainability and their implications on construction processes and practices”.
  • MSc in Green Building from the Centre of Advanced Technology: covers design principles, sourcing and practical use of sustainable materials, regulatory and legal requirements, planning, retrofitting, and occupation-stage evaluation of energy, water, and waste performance.
  • An Introduction to Sustainable Architecture with online platform MOOC List: available in English and Spanish, learn about materials, innovations, and energy efficiency through real-life examples from a range of European cities.

What’s the Plan?

Project planning is key. Mapping out every stage, tool, resource, material, contractor, creating a timeline, and fixing your budget will help restrain drift from your goals and avoid runaway expenses. The great thing is:

“The design and construction of green buildings doesn’t necessarily have to cost more, especially when strategies are put into place at the very beginning and are intricately woven through the project fabric at every stage.”


This may sound like language more familiar to industrial-sized developments, but it’s equally applicable to your home-scale project.

You’ll want to decide on the right building materials early on. Choose based on your desires and needs. Ask yourself some basic questions:

How do you want the finished article to look?

Don’t underestimate the significance of the joy you’ll get from a room with a good aesthetic. And the appeal it can have to potential buyers in the future.

What properties should it have?

Consider heat insulation or cooling, airflow, damp-proofing, and load-bearing requirements.

How much should it cost?

The various materials come with different price tags. Quality also makes a difference. Investing wisely can save on utility bills in the years ahead.

What’s the lifespan of the building?

Longer-term use should factor in more resilient fibres. If the property will be used for other purposes in future, can you build now to prepare to accommodate that, too?

Can the materials be sourced locally?

This reduces transport distances, saving time, money, and emissions.

When you have some answers in mind, read through our natural material fact files to find out which of them can bring your vision to life:

Wood natural material -
Image credit: Unsplash / Mockup Graphics

Knowing what you need in advance saves ordering too much or using too little – both of which can lead to unnecessary leftover waste.

Plastic Fantastic?

There are plenty of reasons not to like plastic. It’s a high-energy product and there are plenty of suitable plant-based alternatives.

Controversially, though, if you want to be assured of reliable long-term stability, plastic might be the answer. Recycled plastic bricks, like those used in Colombia, are good heat insulators, and fire- and earthquake-proof. Materials engineer Nzambi Matee is pioneering paving bricks made out of Kenya’s recycled plastic which are 5 times stronger than concrete equivalents, with sights on creating house bricks in the same way.

Recycled plastic bricks don’t degrade or change much at all, even under pressure. The compound is light and needs little or no maintenance, so once building work is complete, confidently leave it to withstand the ravages of weather and time. And better that it serves a purpose in our walls than add to landfill: the Ecoinclusion Foundation in Argentina has even developed a course (in Spanish) showing how you can make your own bricks from recycled PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic bottles. They are lighter and better insulated to heat and noise than conventional equivalents, so definitely rank on the sustainable spectrum.

Planning Permission

Woah there! Before jumping headfirst into a building project, you’ll need to make sure it meets with local planning regulations. This applies to changes to existing stock – e.g. retrofitting or adding an extension – as well as building on a virgin plot.

Speak to your city administration or local authority about the planning permission process. Getting the go-ahead for sustainable projects needn’t be any more problematic than for conventional builds. As time passes, it’s even likely that properties falling short of minimal sustainable assessments will struggle to get the green light as easily – if at all!

It will be difficult if you’re working on protected land or a protected building. If you have a contractor overseeing your project, this is something they will take care of. But as the face of your own property, it should be you who informs the neighbours in a friendly and timely manner of any construction work. A bit of advanced warning can prevent challenges to planning permission applications and help them turn a blind eye to the extra noise and dirt for a while.

Going Underground

Don’t forget, planning permission isn’t the same as building control compliance:

“Planning is mainly concerned with the size and appearance of the building. Whereas building control regulates structural details and aspects like drainage and fire protection.”

Centre for Alternative Technology

Factor rules and restrictions in your plan. These range from changing how the land is used to getting the go-ahead for connecting or altering underground infrastructure, e.g. adding or rerouting pipes. While you’re at it, stick something sustainable down there! Clay drainage is strong, long-lasting, impervious to external pollutants, often locally produced, and can be fully recycled. They are also easy to install.

DIY Sustainable Construction in a Nutshell – Next Steps

There you have it: start with knowledge-acquisition, planning, and understanding material properties, what you want to achieve, and the local building regulations. Get this under your belt and moving ahead with sustainable construction for residents will be a lot easier. Often, it’s about asking yourself the right questions.

If you’re hiring a construction manager, you are now able to brief them on your thoughts and requirements. Do this from the get-go so you’re always working toward a shared goal. Doing your groundwork is key to a project done well.

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