2023 Design Trend: Sustainable Housing


Sustainability has gone from an obscure term we randomly heard in the ’90s to an emerging trend in the housing industry. More property owners and housing builders have embraced sustainability, especially here in California, in response to our growing energy crisis and climate change, which has put a strain on natural resources. In 2023, look for more and more property owners to upgrade their existing properties to more sustainable options and housing builders to incorporate more of it into new structures.Sustainability has gone from an obscure term we randomly heard in the ’90s to an emerging trend in the housing industry. More property owners and housing builders have embraced sustainability, especially here in California, in response to our growing energy crisis and climate change, which has put a strain on natural resources. In 2023, look for more and more property owners to upgrade their existing properties to more sustainable options and housing builders to incorporate more of it into new structures.The definition of sustainability applied to housing means designing energy-efficient spaces that use non-toxic, natural materials and resources in a responsible way. The application of this concept aims to create a positive physical and psychological effect on the people who not only live in the homes, but also the community at large. When people can reduce energy consumption, water usage, and depletion of natural resources, everyone benefits. 

In fact, in California a recent change in the building code will drive sustainable housing forward. In an article in the New York Times titled “California’s Plan to Make New Buildings Greener Will Also Raise Costs” by Ivan Penn, it said, “The idea at the heart of California’s new building code, which is expected to go into effect in 2023, is to reduce and eventually eliminate the use of fossil fuels like natural gas, replacing them with electricity generated by renewable sources like solar panels, wind turbines and hydroelectric dams. It is difficult to make that switch because millions of homes and commercial buildings need to be updated. That’s why California is starting with the easiest buildings to change — ones that haven’t been built yet … California is already far along in that transition with more than a third of its electricity coming from renewable sources. Its building code change is meant to accelerate that.”

As a result, new homes will be mandated to accommodate the building code’s demands. In the meantime, concerns have arisen over the burden of extra costs to build such homes translating to questions of affordability among lower-income and middle-class homebuyers who may not be able to afford such homes. However, when the big picture comes into view, the long-term savings not only from the use of sustainable power supplies, but also from energy efficiencies gained from sustainable home designs, appliances, and other materials outweigh the overall concerns. The benefits to the environment and community also adds value to adopting sustainable practices overall. 


Sustainable Design Trends

In the design and construction of new homes and multi-tenant housing, designers have steered away from using nonorganic, manmade materials and more toward natural ones. The use of things like plastics have gone away. Over the course of its lifecycle, plastic releases toxic metals, such as lead and mercury, organic substances (dioxins and furans), acid gasses, and toxins into the air, water and soil. Living in homes where plastic has been used for things like sinks, crown moldings, or even shower designs can sicken residents.

The shift back to more natural building materials eliminates that exposure. “One of the biggest trends we’re seeing right now is a return to natural materials,” said Steven Hill, an interior designer and founder of DIY Gazette. “There’s been a lot of interest in using wood, stone and other organic materials in both the interior and exterior of housing complexes. I think people are really craving a connection to nature, and using these materials is a way to achieve that.”

More homes and multi-unit complexes have been designed with real stones and wood both on the inside and outside. A use in naturally occurring metals, bricks, cobblestone, and corrugated siding has replaced manmade materials such as plastic siding and fake bricks. On the inside, natural stone countertops, marble tiles, and wooden butcher blocks have come into vogue. These materials all come from nature, which creates an appealing indoor environment that resonates with many people while also not introducing toxins and chemicals into the home.   

In the last few years, a shift away from carpeting to natural wood flooring has also taken place. The reason is simple: carpeting isn’t good for people for a number of reasons. According to an article on the Tower Energy website titled “Carpet and Indoor Air Quality,” “You might think that carpets are made from natural materials because they feel soft and plush. Truthfully, most carpets are made of synthetic fibers. Many manufacturers like using these materials because they are cheap and stain-resistant. Unfortunately, toxic chemicals are utilized when carpets are manufactured and installed. If these chemicals are released, continuous exposure can pose a risk to your health. Older carpets can also be harmful as these trap dust, pet dander, mold, bacteria, and other debris that are not easily removed.”

Another trend involves the use of composite fencing that uses sustainable materials. “Composite fences are made up of a combination of recycled wood and plastic, and that recycled plastic makes the fencing last much longer than any type of wooden fencing,” said Jeremy Yamaguchi and I’m the CEO of Lawn Love. “Even wood that is properly sealed and maintained will fall victim to weathering and can easily splinter and grow mold. Because composite fencing has some plastic in it, and plastic is a sturdier material, it can withstand more weathering and is less ideal for mold. So, with composite fencing, not only are you being more eco-friendly by using recycled plastic material, but you also aren’t having to replace your fence nearly as often, minimizing waste and production of materials.”


Remodeling Older Structures

For many property owners who want to go sustainable, simple upgrades and remodels can do the trick. Older structures are often not energy efficient. When a property owner pays utilities as a part of rent, it’s important to overall cost savings to make the upgrades. While it might cost extra money in the short term, it will bring long-term savings that justify the expense. 

The good news is sometimes making residence more sustainable doesn’t require a huge remodeling process. Property owners can start with basics, including:

  • Switching to LED lighting
  • Installing smart lighting
  • Filling the gaps between floorboards
  • Insulating the floors and walls
  • Upgrading to smart heating controls 
  • Installing an energy-efficient stove 
  • Insulating the attic

One of the most critical upgrades involves the HVAC system. Outdated HVAC systems consume more energy and increase utility costs. In California during heat waves or cold snaps, property providers who pay utilities, especially in multi-unit complexes, can see costly spikes in utility usage. Yamaguchi doesn’t suggest all units be completely replaced, but he does recommend basic upgrades that can do wonders to reduce utility bills. “Installing a smart thermostat is a great addition. These thermostats automatically adjust the temperature and use of your HVAC system to maximize efficiency and minimize wasted energy (and money).” 

Another easy fix to reduce energy usage is to keep up with changing air filters. Some property owners don’t leave it to renters. They cover the cost of filters and give them to residents with the long-term strategy to reduce energy costs. “When it comes to regular maintenance, make sure that you are changing all HVAC filters at least once every two to three months,” advised Simon Bernath, CEO and founder of Furnace Prices. “Keeping your appliances as clean and dust-free as possible will lower the amount of energy that they end up using because they won’t need to work as hard to heat/cool down your home.” Keeping the HVAC system running efficiently won’t be of much value without proper insulation. “It is important to insulate the unit or house properly,” said Oberon Copeland, owner and CEO Of Veryinformed.com. “This helps to keep the heat in during the winter and the cool in during the summer, saving energy and money. By taking these steps, property owners can help to make their units and houses more sustainable.”

“Good insulation can actually create a huge impact on improving sustainability in housing,” said Sarah Jameson, marketing director of Green Building Elements. “For one, it has a direct relationship to the amount of energy the home consumes because it directly relates to the cooling and heating system. Materials such as fiberglass insulation and rock and slag wool products are high-quality that could efficiently reduce energy consumption. Another benefit proper installation can bring would be waterproofing because of the airtightness properties.”
“Dual-paned windows offer insulation against the elements and soundproofing qualities,” said Josh Riutta, owner of Mikku and Sons Roofing. “There are several types of dual-paned windows: air-filled, gas-filled and silver-coated. Each type results in better thermal performance, keeping the heat in during the winter and out during the summer.”

Another popular trend that continues to grow each year, especially with incentives from energy providers and government subsidies, is the use of solar power. “About 23% of homeowners across the country are now progressing toward or have already installed solar panels,” said Jon Sanborn, co-founder of Brotherly Love Real Estate in Philadelphia, PA. “Solar panels could help homeowners save money on energy bills and also reduce the use of fossil fuels. They cut electricity costs by generating energy independently.”

Builders cleverly integrate the solar panels into new home designs to make them look more natural and attractive. “This can be done by installing solar panels on the roof or simply using solar lights in the yard,” said Copeland.  

Finally, here in California where drought has become commonplace, rainwater tanks have started to become popular. “Rainwater tanks help properties be less reliant on their local water supply and enjoy reduced water bills,” said Jameson. “Especially with the implementation of water restrictions during the summer season, home buyers who are also interested in putting up a garden on their properties could benefit from this feature to solve water issues in local states.”

New sustainable technologies and techniques will continue to take hold as 2023 goes on. It’s not a trend that is likely to change. In fact, look for sustainable housing to become the norm and not the trend. 

Michelle Gamble is the editor of Rental Housing Magazine.