Building vs Buying a House: Which is More Sustainable

Jori Hamilton - Contributing Writer

Posted on Monday 3rd May 2021
Man holding miniature house


Having a home to call your own is one of the most significant investments you’ll make in your lifetime. Certainly, from a financial perspective, it’s among the largest expenditure on a single item the average American is likely to make. But also from an emotional perspective, owning a property can help you to feel more stable in your life, and provide a safe space for your family to thrive in. In either case, one of the choices you’ll need to make is whether it’s better to buy an existing property or to build one from scratch.    


While there are certainly financial and practical considerations that need to go into this decision, there are also environmental issues. It is increasingly vital and urgent that each of us makes choices that place minimal negative impact upon the planet and everyone that lives on it. As such, you’ll need to factor in what potential ecological pros and cons each method of homeownership presents.  


It’s not always easy to know how to examine the issues, so we’re going to take a look at some of the key areas you can focus on. 


One of the primary concerns for our environment is the overuse of resources and the pressure put on the ecosystem as a result of removing raw materials without consideration for natural recovery. As both construction of a building and residing in one uses resources, it’s important to understand how your choices might negatively affect this. After all, you can’t go green in your new home if your approach to buying a property is already ecologically unsound.   


In the simplest possible terms, buying an already existing home uses fewer resources. The materials have already been mined, the house has already been built. You don’t even have the problem of vehicles using fossil fuels to bring materials to the construction site. Even if you buy an older building that requires some renovation, you are not utilizing as many resources as a new build requires. Indeed, if you can live in the property while the renovation is undertaken, this allows you to take your time to research and plan for the most sustainable approach. 


While it is undeniable that a new build is less sustainable from a resource perspective, that doesn’t mean to say that it’s not possible to undertake mindfully. You can certainly mitigate the impact you make by sourcing existing materials for aspects of the project. Reclaimed wood, which is salvaged from older buildings that are no longer fit for use, can be a good approach for structural elements of your new home, including roofing joists. You can also use it in more decorative elements like fireplaces. Taking this approach not only reduces your consumption of finite materials but can also give a vintage look to your building. 


The energy industry is one of the key areas of focus for sustainability. Problems are surrounding the damage that creating electricity does to the ecosystem, not to mention that relying on non-renewable sources is pushing toward irreversible environmental destruction. As such, there is increasing concern about whether building a house or buying a house is more friendly to our energy infrastructure. 


Certainly, buying an older home reduces the energy utilized in construction. However, older homes aren’t always well designed for energy efficiency. Outdated materials in insulation and architecture not directed to green living often mean they’re less sustainable in the long term. This doesn’t prevent them from being in high demand; unfortunately, it’s certainly the case that fewer people have been selling their homes as of late. Though this is generally less because they’re resource-efficient and more associated with hesitation due to pandemic concerns and financial uncertainty.   


Whether you’re unable to find a property to buy or want to prioritize energy efficiency, building your own home can be an apt option. There are a growing number of architects that specialize in creating plans to maximize the positive environmental impact of homes both during and long after construction. This isn’t just limited to the materials like green insulation and polyisocyanurate (PIR) foam bricks that help retain heat. It also means designing the positioning of windows to catch the most light and heat throughout the day (solar tempering) and even building solar panels directly into the roofing to minimize grid electricity consumption.   


One of the aspects of homeownership that doesn’t get enough attention from the perspective of sustainability is the potential for pollution. Unfortunately, whether you choose to buy an existing property or build your own home, you need to be aware of where the problems can come from, and how to mitigate them. 


From an industrial perspective, the building and construction industry accounted for “39% of energy and process-related carbon dioxide emissions” in 2018. As such, you need to recognize that building your own home produces emissions in various ways. This can be from direct on-site activities such as machine operation, and from the production of all the various materials that go into making your home. While you may not be directly involved with these processes, to act sustainability you do have the responsibility to work with contractors and suppliers to ascertain how these pollutants can be avoided, and where necessary invest a little more of your capital in greener procedures.     


Both when you build your own home and buy a new one, there is also the problem of reducing your pollutants over the years you live there. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using polluting fuels. Even if you don’t utilize wood, kerosene, or coal in your home, there is also potential for water pollution through poor septic systems. As such, you need to make regular checks of your plumbing and outdoor storage to make sure that there are no leaks and that it is well maintained.


On the surface, it can certainly seem as though buying an older home might be more sustainable, but there are trade-offs. Building a new house might use a lot of up-front resources, but can be more effectively designed for long-term sustainability than an older property can. Whichever method you choose, there is a responsibility to make certain that your actions and condition of the home don’t cause additional negative impact on the environment. 

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