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Energy Efficient Landscaping: Greening from the Outside-In

There are all kinds of expensive mechanical systems and home modifications that can help reduce our heating and cooling bills, but we wanted to talk today about how we can work with plants, the sun, and the wind to make our homes much more comfortable (for much less money!).

Working With What You've Already Got

It’s hard to imagine a world without air conditioners, but the reality is that window AC units didn’t make their way into our homes until the 1940s, and central air didn’t come around until the dawn of bellbottoms. For this reason, older homes have all kinds of built-in systems to protect us from extreme temperatures, and our elder homeowners know of countless ways to warm-up and cool down homes from the days before we became so dependent on our mechanical systems.

We can make a big difference inside our homes by working with what we’ve already got outside—even on a tight city lot. By paying attention to your home’s orientation to wind patterns and the sun, you can plant wisely and save a bundle on your heating and cooling bills.

Where to Start?

The first step is to just spend some quality time in and around your home. Start to notice the wind patterns—what direction are the prevailing winds coming from? Is the flow of air influenced by landscape elements like surrounding trees or bushes or by the proximity to the homes or buildings around you? What rooms heat up too quickly or too slowly from too much or too little sunlight?

Not only will paying attention to this stuff help you determine what windows to open or where window shades are needed to cool down your home, this can also help you with an outdoor site plan. You should be able to do basic assessments on your own, but you can also call in a professional if you want to implement an ambitious outdoor plan.

Controlling Wind for Warmth

Designing an energy efficient landscape allows you to be creative, adds beauty to your life, and is incredibly cost effective. Thoughtfully positioned trees can cut your household energy consumption by 20-25%.

Bungalow member Pamela Dallas’ home is a stunning example of filling in dead space along exterior walls to block wind without losing sunlight that can enter through windows and warm up your space.

Some tips to warm up your home during the colder months:

  • Plant shrubs to create a dead air space next to walls, blocking wind and providing insulation for outside walls. Be careful to not plant too closely to your wall or you might harm your siding or take on moisture issues—make sure the leaves or branches are not actually rubbing against the walls. Additionally, make sure you aren’t creating Mount Kilimanjaro by piling on heaps of new mulch every year. This can saturate your foundation.

  • Be careful not to place trees in such a way that they block out too much sun. Be selective about what trees or plants you use, and plant them at an appropriate distance from your house. You need that sunlight to warm your interior space as well!

  • While possibly less of an issue on smaller city lots, if you live on a larger piece of land and the landscape is especially windy, plant evergreens on the north and northwest sides of your house where winds tend to be strongest. Evergreens keep their foliage year-round and won’t let you down in the winter.

Cooling With Natural Shading and Wind Control

Examples of shading to control excessive solar heat gain. (Image from Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House.)

External shading is a great way to keep your home cool. Working with what your home already has and redesigning your external landscape will bring you more in touch with your surroundings and allow nature to do what it’s meant to do.

While it may seem obvious that you can use breezes to cool your home, there are ways to maximize this effect and use it to conserve both money and the environment. By providing shade to your home, you can reduce cooling costs by 15-50%.

Here are some tips on how to naturally cool your home:

  • Tall trees will block the midday sun from overheating your home. Deciduous trees are especially effective because they lose their canopy during the colder months, allowing sunlight to heat your home with passive solar energy.

  • The amount of shade that a plant or tree provides depends on the density of its foliage and how quickly it grows. For example, vine-like plants might offer shade sooner than foliage from trees.

  • Use trees, fences, shrubbery or other plantings to redirect wind. This can enhance your natural ventilation scheme and cool down rooms that take on more sunlight or have higher amounts of traffic.

  • Houseplants! Plants evaporate water to cool themselves. This removes heat from the air and allows wind to pick up moisture and bring it indoors to cool rooms and add humidity.

  • Add trellises covered in vines to the east and west sides of your home.

  • If you have the space, you can also plant deciduous trees on the east and west sides of the house to balance solar heat gains in all seasons.

  • An air conditioner runs more efficiently if it is in a cooler environment. For instance, less air conditioning is necessary to cool a car if it was parked in the shade. Paved areas like driveways and patios absorb and radiate heat far faster than planted areas. Plant trees near paved areas around the house or grow vines on a trellis over or near patios to create cooler areas around your house. For good airflow and access, plants should be more than three feet away from the air conditioner.

  • Visit, or contact the Plant Clinic at The Morton Arboretum at 630-719-2424,, or for tree and plant advice for Chicago yards. A few recommendations to note are American hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), oaks (quercus), pagoda dogwood (Cornus alternifiolia), tupelo (Nyssa sylvatica), and ironwood (Ostrya virginiana).

Create an Outdoor Room

Bungalow members Rosaileen Diaz & Chris Iandolo’s back yard project.

Construction and additions take a toll on your wallet and the environment. Now that you’re more in touch with your natural surroundings, why not create a room outside? This allows you to expand your livable space on a low budget while enjoying the benefits of an intimate, meditative space.

Well planned outdoor spaces take advantage of natural heating and cooling systems. Use the following elements to create your space:

  • Plants for shade and attracting wildlife

  • Water for a birdbath, fountain or pond

  • Fabric for awnings and umbrellas

  • Screens to keep out bugs and break wind patterns

  • Structure such as a roof, walls, trellises or arbors

  • Thermal mass such as concrete, stone or earth to help heat your space

  • Retractable blinds or vines for shade

  • Operable or removable windows to adjust temperature in screened porches

Also add a bench, bird feeder, hammock, fireplace, mosaic table, sculptural pieces, potted plants, brick paths, or an endless variety of other features to create your space. Creating an outdoor room can be very inexpensive and easily added to or rearranged as inspiration hits you. Eat your meals, stretch, or read outside while watching the birds and enjoying the calming sounds of a dribbling fountain. Think outside the box!

For some gorgeous examples of outdoor spaces created by our members, check out our past Driehaus Award winners at

Resources Used:

Krigger, John, and Chris Dorsi. Residential Energy: Cost Savings and Comfort for Existing Buildings. Montana: Saturn Resource Management, 2004.

Venolia, Carol, and Kelly Lerner. Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House. New York: Lark Books, A Division of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc., 2006.

Sustainable Buildings Industry Council, Green Building Guidelines: Meeting the Demand for Low-Energy, Resource-Efficient Homes, 3rd Edition (published through the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Building Technology, State and Community Programs, National Renewable Energy Laboratory, March 2003).

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