2022’s Best Cities for Self-Sustaining Homes

A self-sustaining home can help you save money, become self-reliant, and live in harmony with nature. It helps save the planet, too. 

But which of the biggest U.S. cities are ideal for building your own eco-conscious home? 

To find out, Lawn Love ranked 2022’s Best Cities for Self-Sustaining Homes. 

We considered 17 factors, such as solar potential and generation and friendliness to off-grid and sustainable lifestyles. We also looked at the number of existing green and LEED-certified homes, as well as laws and limitations related to composting and water use.  

Plan where to set up your autonomous or passive home with our city rankings and in-depth analysis below. 

In this article

City rankings

See how each city fared in our ranking:

Infographic showing the Best Cities for Self-Sustaining Homes, a ranking based on solar potential and generation, off-grid lifestyles, urban gardening potential, and more
Note: For presentation purposes, not all ties for some metrics may be displayed in the above infographic.

Results in depth

Follow the LEED-er

Head out West where eight green cities sprouted to the top 10 of our ranking.

California LEEDs the way with Los Angeles at No. 1 both overall and in LEED-certified surface area. San Francisco (No. 2) and San Diego (No. 3) follow closely behind with high scores across each metric.

Eco-minded California has some of the most stringent water limitations and energy codes in the nation. This makes it a great place for developing energy-efficient passive home projects.

Outside California, Seattle (No. 7) and Portland (No. 8) have plenty of LEED-certified homes despite low solar power potential. These cities also have great access to sustainable home builders to help create your green dream home.

Go green, cowpokes

Texas is the best state for living off-grid, so it’s no surprise that it’s also a superb state for building self-sustaining homes.

Austin lands at No. 4, while Houston (No. 13) and Dallas (No. 14) also impress. These cities each have abundant green homes for sale, as well as plenty of sustainable home builders and solar contractors for hire, on top of a high Self-Reliance score.

Solar power has been keeping this fast-growing state’s grid running throughout this hot summer. Other sustainable practices, such as driving electric vehicles and biking, are rising in popularity in the Lone Star State, too.

Earthships landing in the Southwest

New Mexico is no stranger to passive housing design. Revolutionary Earthship Biotecture originated in The Land of Enchantment in the 1970s with some of the first self-sufficient vessels, so it’s fitting that Albuquerque (No. 19) is one of the Best Cities for Self-Sustaining Homes.

Other Southwestern cities fared well in our ranking, including Denver (No. 5) and Phoenix (No. 16). The Mile High City surpassed all other ranked cities in Self-Reliance, but both Denver and Phoenix flourished across the board.

These cities have the optimal conditions for solar power generation, making the Southwest a leading region in residential solar energy.

Self-sustaining crossroads

You might need a self-reliant attitude to survive in Alaska, but that doesn’t make it an ideal spot for an autonomous home. Anchorage slips to the bottom at No. 200 next to Paterson, New Jersey, and a handful of Florida cities.

It’s hard to be energy-independent in these cities, where solar potential is low and access to sustainable contractors and eco-conscious homes is slim.

Decreased daylight in the winter can explain Alaska’s reluctance to embrace solar panels (on top of the state’s booming oil industry). However, interest in solar is growing as the cost of solar energy dips below fossil fuels.

Expert take

Unless you’ve attended Earthship Academy, creating a self-sustaining home can be an intimidating endeavor. Not everyone can commit to living off-grid in a house made entirely out of recycled materials, but there are still ways for everyone to make their home more self-sufficient. 

We turned to some experts to learn more about the benefits and challenges of living self-sustainably — check out their responses below. 

  1. What are three common challenges that come with creating a self-sustaining home? 
  1. What are three benefits of owning a self-sustaining home? 
  1. How can the average homeowner make their existing property more self-sustainable? 
  2. Where can aspiring self-sustaining homeowners find inspiration for their home design?
Scott Cloutier, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, School of Sustainability, College of Global Futures
Stephen M. Wheeler, Ph.D.
Professor
Anthony J. Abbate NCARB, AIA
Professor, Director, Metro Lab Community Design Collaborative
Scott Cloutier, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, School of Sustainability, College of Global Futures
Arizona State University

What are three common challenges that come with creating a self-sustaining home?

  1. A lack of knowledge on how a homeowner or resident can do so.
  2. A market that mostly values cheaply built homes with relatively short life spans.
  3. A lack of knowledgeable community to support one another.

What are three benefits of owning a self-sustaining home?

  1. The opportunity to use local and sustainable products.
  2. A deeper relationship with the home you occupy and care for.
  3. A smaller environmental footprint than the average home.

How can the average homeowner make their existing property more self-sustainable?

  1. Capture and retain water on site.
  2. Use natural building materials to retrofit or maintain the home.
  3. Grow your own food on site, using native and traditional plants and landscapes to enhance the property’s biodiversity and beauty.

Where can aspiring self-sustaining homeowners find inspiration for their home design?

Great resources exist online. You can also take natural building workshops and classes. I am certified in a few different techniques. You can also look to indigenous and traditional knowledge local to your area and how they worked with nature to build their homes and structures.

Stephen M. Wheeler, Ph.D.
Professor
University of California, Davis, Department of Human Ecology

What are three common challenges that come with creating a self-sustaining home?

  1. The most important step is to use photovoltaic panels or other renewable energy sources to produce as much energy as your home –– and car –– consume in a year so as to end your greenhouse gas emissions for those purposes.That means not just adding PV, but improving home insulation, replacing the furnace and hot water heater with heat pumps, and replacing the gas stove with an electric or induction model. Totally electrifying the home, in other words. This can often be done whenever you would have to replace your old furnace anyway.
  2. Reducing water use is another main step towards self-sufficiency. Depending on the current water efficiency of your home, it may mean replacing toilets and dishwashers with the most water-efficient models and installing flow restrictors in showerheads.It may mean collecting stormwater for irrigation and installing greywater systems to collect sink and shower water for reuse in toilets and landscapes. And most importantly, it means replacing water-hungry turf with xeriscape landscape designs.
  3. The third main sustainability challenge is rethinking our consumption patterns. Products we buy contain embodied energy and resources that increase our ecological footprint. Buying less, reusing existing goods, recycling materials after we use them, and sharing products with others are all good strategies.Consumption refers to things we eat as well. Eating less meat, dairy, and packaged foods is particularly important in order to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. Plus, it’ll probably improve our health.

What are three benefits of owning a self-sustaining home?

  1. Long-term savings from reduced operating costs. Some up-front investment may be required, but rebates and incentives are often available.
  2. Beautiful, climate-appropriate landscapes around the house.
  3. The satisfaction of knowing we’re doing our part to live in healthy and environmentally responsible ways.

How can the average homeowner make their existing property more self-sustainable?

  1. Find a local expert who can guide you through the process.
  2. Read up on the best strategies for your region.
  3. Talk to friends and neighbors, especially those who have already retrofitted their homes or changed their lifestyles.

Where can aspiring self-sustaining homeowners find inspiration for their home design?

  1. Check out your local bookstore to find inspirational books and magazines.
  2. Your local utility company may have good materials about energy- and water-efficient design.
  3. Regional magazines like Sunset Magazine often have inspiring examples.
Anthony J. Abbate NCARB, AIA
Professor, Director, Metro Lab Community Design Collaborative
Florida Atlantic University, School of Architecture

What are three common challenges that come with creating a self-sustaining home?

  1. First and foremost, it may not be legal to go off-grid in your community or jurisdiction. Check the local building and zoning department. If your community has adopted the International Property Maintenance Code, then you may need to consider relocating to another area. Unincorporated or rural areas are places where you are more likely to successfully build and live in a self-sustaining home.
  2. The second would be selecting the most suitable and reliable sources of water and technology for onside energy production: mainly solar, geothermal, hydro, or wind.
  3. And third, managing waste and proper disposal of waste.

What are three benefits of owning a self-sustaining home?

  1. First and foremost, Independence.
  2. Second, taking into account the initial costs, there are long-term savings (no electric, gas, water, sewer, or trash collection bills).
  3. And perhaps most importantly, it supports a lifestyle that brings you and your family in tune with the natural environment and the opportunity to develop knowledge and skills for adapting to environmental change.

How can the average homeowner make their existing property more self-sustainable?

First, check to see if you can legally go off-grid and disconnect from the utility grid.

Then find out as much as you can about the local climate throughout the year, e.g., prevailing breezes, the extent of solar penetration through windows and skylights, the plant ecology on your property and the soil and drainage conditions, availability of water sourced from wells or rainwater collection, and the amount of waste you produce (biological and other).

Also, assess how dependent you are on fossil fuels (car, truck, motorcycle, heating, generators, lawn mowers, etc.).

Depending on the climate zone you live in, the transition to self-sustainability can be easy or challenging. If you live in a climate where you are less likely to rely on mechanical cooling and heating systems, then you have a clear advantage and can focus on other aspects of autonomous living.

Research the variety of plumbing and sewer options for retrofitting or replacing your existing system.

We waste a huge amount of drinking water with each toilet flush in a conventional plumbing system. A composting toilet is the best option, a septic tank might impact the quality of the groundwater and nearby lake or stream ecologies, and the most basic is a latrine pit – best suited to remote areas.

You can also collect rainwater and use it to irrigate your onsite agriculture, or if you have a lot of rainfall, the water can be harvested for domestic use, provided it is of good quality.

Where can aspiring self-sustaining homeowners find inspiration for their home design?

Indigenous building practices are very inspiring because they traditionally build with locally sourced materials and have adapted the homes to the local climate and weather conditions.

Depending on your climate zone, you may also want to check out a classic text, “Design with Climate: Bioclimatic Approach to Architectural Regionalism” by Victor Olgyay. He investigated climate adaptive architecture in four climate regions: hot-humid, hot-arid, temperate, and cool. The book was originally released in 1963, but an updated version is now available through Princeton University Press.

Primal Survivor publishes an inexpensive and helpful guide, “The First Step to Going Completely Off Grid and Becoming Self Reliant,” available online at their website. Their main website also publishes a list of places where there are no restrictive building and zoning codes.

If you live in Florida, Compass Solar has a very helpful website.

David A. Crutchfield AIA, NCARB
Associate Professor / Professional Architect (ND&MO)
David A. Crutchfield AIA, NCARB
Associate Professor / Professional Architect (ND&MO)
North Dakota State University, School Of Design, Architecture & Art

What are three common challenges that come with creating a self-sustaining home?

  1. Money: Recognizing that upfront costs can be more than they would be for a ‘regular’ home.
  2. Systems: Understanding the complexities of running and managing unfamiliar self-sustaining systems –– especially if the system is electronic, computer, or data-reliant.
  3. Behavior: Understanding that occupant behavior may need to adapt to living within the new systems. It can require more thinking about the house and interaction with it.

What are three benefits of owning a self-sustaining home?

  1. Freedom from often less-reliable utilities, depending on how well and thoughtfully it is designed.
  2. Savings over time can be an investment for the future in utility costs –– if properly maintained.
  3. Conscious lifestyle –– living more in touch with one’s relation to the context.

How can the average homeowner make their existing property more self-sustainable?

Making simple, low cost improvements can reduce grid reliance to a degree. Imagine if your power and water went out –– or decreased greatly –– right now. How would you cope and keep comfortable? Or how could you prepare for such a situation in advance?

Even doing simple things can reduce grid reliance, such as caulking, sealing, weatherstripping, maximizing wall and attic insulation, shading (trees, trellises, etc.), solar-heat controls (exterior awnings, interior curtains), and new windows (multi-pane, thermally broken, with treated glass).

For water use, rainwater harvesting is always helpful –– and reducing consumption with xeriscaping. Rainwater can be used for flushing toilets, watering plants, and various other non-potable needs.

Where can aspiring self-sustaining homeowners find inspiration for their home design?

For aspiring homeowners, I would suggest that they first find a licensed professional architect that has the desire and experience to design a ‘self-sustaining’ home.

Much like the upfront investment in off-grid systems, the cost of hiring an architect is also an investment in the holistic design and construction (and enjoyment) of a home. It’s usually a small percent of the construction cost.

Architects can also find ways to include a sophisticated ‘delight’ component within the design of a home that an otherwise competent homebuilder may not consider.

Methodology

For each of the 200 biggest U.S. cities, we gathered publicly available data on the factors listed in the table below.

We then grouped those factors into four categories: Self-Reliance, Contractor Access and Cost, Green Home Prevalence, and Policy.

Next, we calculated weighted scores for each city in each category.

Finally, we averaged the scores for each city across all categories.

The city that earned the highest average score was ranked “Best” (No. 1), while the city with the lowest was ranked “Worst” (No. 200).

Sources

BuildZoom, Columbia Climate School National Center for Disaster Preparedness, Consumer Affairs, FeGlobal Solar Atlas, Green Building Information Gateway, Houzz, LawnStarter, Redfin, U.S. Composting Council, and Water Education Colorado

Final thoughts: Bring sustainability to your backyard

Don’t underestimate how landscaping and lawn care can impact your home’s autonomy. Eco-friendly lawn care is imperative if you care about conserving water and energy: Lawn irrigation can account for more than a third of your water bill, and that bill isn’t cheap

Use sustainable landscaping to improve your ecological footprint: 

  • Grow an edible garden for easy access to fresh, healthy, hard-earned food.
  • Get some bees to take care of your honey needs or invite them to help pollinate your garden.
  • Collect water in a rain barrel to keep your garden and lawn hydrated without dipping into your drinking water supply.  
  • Fill your yard with native plants for a stunning, low-effort, and eco-friendly landscape. 

Planning to replace your lawn with a drought-tolerant grass type? Hire a local Lawn Love pro for all your lawn care and landscape maintenance needs.

Main photo credit: Shutterstock

Sav Maive

Sav Maive is a writer and director based in San Antonio. Sav is a recent graduate from the University of Virginia and is a loving cat and plant mom.