Taking Eco-Friendly Homes to the Next Level with Bioclimatic Design

Up-and-coming design trend turns homes into ecological wonderlands

By Marcie Geffner

Colorado-based builder Thrive Home Builders prides itself on constructing zero net energy homes. The PWR floor plan by Thrive Home Builders in Denver, CO.

Photo: Thrive Home Builders

Imagine a home that collects and purifies stormwater and wastewater and uses it to cool its own interior and irrigate the exterior landscape. On the home’s roof is a garden that provides fresh vegetables or a peaceful place to relax.

This home might sound futuristic, but in fact, homes that incorporate bioclimatic design features aren’t new. These ideas—let’s call them a trend—started to attract a lot of attention in the early 1980s. Since then, eco-home and bioclimatic design has grown from a niche into the mainstream, primarily in commercial and civic properties and high-end custom-built homes.

What is bioclimatic design?

The term “eco-friendly” refers to design that’s kind to the natural environment. Bioclimatic design is more complex and intense. It doesn’t just consider ecology. It integrates the natural world directly into the home to ensure that its water, energy and other systems benefit both the residents and natural environment.

The trend has matured into much more than low-water landscaping or rainwater barrels that supplement lawn sprinklers.

“It’s not just about pretty plants or shade and trees,” said Paul Kephart, principal ecologist and designer at Rana Creek, a bioclimatic design firm and plant nursery in Carmel, California. “We look deeper and more meaningfully at the (building) site and structure to develop (bioclimatic) systems.” He spoke about his work at the Dwell on Design conference in Los Angeles in April 2018.

How bioclimatic design happens

Before a home is built, bioclimatic experts study the lot’s slope and orientation, prevailing winds’ speed and direction, outside air temperature, natural habitat, proposed building materials and other factors. Working with architects and visual designers, bioclimatic designers develop ways to incorporate ecology and make the home more environmentally sound.

The bioclimatic process is part art, part science and part ecology.

“Our principles look at natural systems and their attributes,” Kephart said. “For wet design systems, like rainwater harvesting, bioswales, stormwater catchment and stormwater reuse, we apply those (principles) and logically engineer them as part of the structure and architecture.”

Bioclimatic design migrates to residential properties

Much of the work in bioclimatic design has been done for commercial and civic projects, not residential ones.

Kephart’s firm was involved in projects for the California Academy of Sciences, Vancouver Convention Centre, Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco, and a police station in San Jose, California.

His approach isn’t limited to large-scale properties, though.

“We’re seeing an increased demand in these kinds of systems for homeowners,” Kephart said. “Many of the people we work with are building expensive homes and iconic properties and they have values or an interest in the environment.”

The top items on homeowners’ wish lists are stormwater catchment systems, living roofs, habitat creation and overall energy reduction.

“People are recognizing the financial and environmental benefits,” he said.

Manufacturers are stepping up to meet the demand for systems that catch, store, purify and pump rainwater and graywater to integrate ecology into buildings. Big companies like John Deere that produce and distribute components of these systems are starting to size them for residential use, Kephart said.

Outlook for residential bioclimatic design

Homebuyers who aren’t in the luxury class, custom-built home market might have to hunt harder for bioclimatic design features in their new home.

How quickly these principles might migrate from the high end to more modest residences is an open question, though the recent explosion of interest in zero net energy (ZNE) homes might offer clues.

A ZNE home is one that produces at least as much energy as it uses. One way a home can produce energy is to capture solar power with rooftop panels.

Like bioclimatic design, ZNE homes started out as an expensive option for high-end, custom-built new homes.

Over time, many builders have developed a keen interest in the ZNE trend. Builders like Shea Homes, Clarum Homes, Premier Homes and Grupe Homes have completed early-stage or pilot programs with ZNE homes that have been well received by buyers.

Thrive Home Builders in Denver builds homes that meet the standards of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Zero Energy-Ready Homes program. Nationwide, the program has enrolled more than 320 builders and certified at least a thousand homes.

Other large national builders like Meritage Homes, KB Home and PulteGroup are also involved in meeting the demand for ZNE homes.

Will bioclimatic design follow ZNE’s path?

Only time will tell.

Marcie Geffner is an award-winning freelance reporter, writer and editor. A second-generation native of Los Angeles, she relocated in 2015 to Ventura, a beach town in Southern California, where she owns a split-level hillside home.

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