All three terms have individual meanings, yet all three are just as similar as they are different. Though they can be thought of in much the same ways: one is not the synonym of the others.Confusing, isn’t it?
Universal design is where an idea, an environment, or a design is inherently accessible to everyone. By everyone we mean exactly that—everyone regardless of age, or infirmity. First considered by the architecture community, it quickly became a national effort through legislation with little regard to referendum. A good idea in its time, it made more of America’s goods and services accessible to more of our population than ever before. As a result of universal design you see grab bars in public places, curb cuts and sidewalk ramps, and even color-contrast dishware with higher sides to assist those with visual impairments. You might remember the concept as “barrier-free.” The concept has now evolved to blend aesthetics with accessibility, but with the threat of law behind it.
Green design, or green construction, dictates the structures one builds “should” be environmentally responsible and resource-efficient throughout its life-cycle. That life-cycle consists of initial design, materials acquisition, construction, operation and maintenance, future renovation, and ultimate deconstruction all the while minding concerns for economy, utility, durability, and comfort. The term green evolved to identify all the aspects that surround an environmental issue or cause. The “Green Revolution” is, of course, an individual choice allowing for the owner to decide where his or her emphasis will lay. For example an owner can ignore where and how the materials for his home are sourced. That process may be anything but green. For the most part contemporary green buildings, as we’ve come to view them today, use existing materials, products, and technologies. Having taken on the status of a religion, “green” design doesn’t push the envelope quite far enough.
Sustainable (environmental) design, a leap beyond “green,” is more a philosophy of designing everything within the principles of socio-economical sustainability. The core intention is to “eliminate negative environmental impact through design on a global basis.” Sustainable design considers societal needs beyond personal or individual needs. The Oak Ridge National Laboratory Campus, east of Knoxville, TN is tightly focused on all things sustainable. Further, our Europeans neighbors, especially Germany, embraced the sustainable concept even before the concept had a name. Freiburg, once a medieval city leveled by the Second World War, in the Breisgau region is regarded as the greenest city in Europe, possibly in the world. In this brave utopian vision of sustainable living, Eco-housing, car-free streets and socially conscious neighbors made this German city a shining example of sustainability first hand.
Still confused? They all sound close to the same, don’t they? All three have regard for the environment with some thought given to economics and basic human needs, but there’s one more category: the high performance home.
What is a high performance home and how does it differ from one or more of the other three? A high performance home is a conscious choice. The term high performance home is nothing if not green, but it is much more than that. It is also sustainable and embraces the philosophy, if not the fact, surrounding universal design. A high performance home is one that is constructed with materials using methods and techniques that produces a home which “performs” better in all aspects to render a home that is more comfortable, more energy efficient, safer, sustainable over time, less costly to operate and maintain while providing a living environment that is simply healthier than a conventional home. It’s so much more than shelter and fashion. It is a style and sense of being all its own.
High performance homes don’t just happen. A truly high performance home is the end result of a lot of careful thought, consideration, a real commitment, and planning that helps homeowners design their home to shape their future. The goal is to integrate and balance the elements that make a high performance home:
- A high performance home is resource-efficient: Energy efficiency – tailored to the climate – reduce and conserve energy while reducing the pollution footprint. Water efficiency – reduce the costs of water treatment and wastewater. Waste management – lessen the impact on landfills. Pollution prevention – protect the ecosystem. Favoring sustainable – use local resources efficiently.
- A high performance home is healthy: Control indoor air quality – minimize mold, dust mites, and combustion pollutants. Universal design – safe, functional, accessible – accommodate all ages and stages of the life cycle.
- A high performance home is durable: Decay resistance – manages and controls moisture, reduce or prevent deterioration. Natural hazard resistance – hurricanes, floods, fire, etc. Pest resistance – protect against termites and other damaging insects.
- A high performance home is convenient: Functional and family-friendly – provides efficient flows. Low maintenance – reduced cost and time needed to maintain value and appearance. Advanced wiring – ready for the information age.
- A high performance home is practical: Cost effective – saves money in the long term – lower lifecycle costs. Feasible – reduce the costs of making the change. Often offers generous tax credits.
Before you make the decision to build or renovate your existing home around the high performance model, do your research. Few contractors can explain what makes a high performance home, let alone honestly say they are capable of building one. The concept is simply beyond their intellectual capacity to comprehend, much less their technical expertise. When it becomes apparent your research has positioned you to understand what a high performance home is, then begin interviewing contractors. Don’t be embarrassed to ask the really tough questions. Make your contractor of choice one that has the answers to your tough questions.