9 Essentials of Building an Energy-Efficient Home

Energy efficiency is a win-win for homeowners and home builders

Energy efficiency is a win-win for homeowners and home builders. Freddie Mac reports that energy-efficient homes carry a 2.7% higher resale value and that NAHB that nine out of ten prospective homebuyers desire energy efficiency as a major selling point.

Homeowners feel good by saving money and being energy conscious, while builders can charge a higher price for their products.

Despite recent advancements in energy-efficient building materials and appliances, buildings still consume 40% of all energy used in the United States.

Instead of making haphazard attempts to adopt individual energy-efficiency technology, builders and home buyers need to understand the essentials of what comprises an energy-efficient home.

This guide will outline nine fundamental principles of building an energy-efficient home to assist builders in construction for buyers when shopping.

1. Thermal Envelope

The most essential principle of energy efficiency is not necessarily where you source your energy or what kind it is but how you maximize it.

The thermal envelope is a vital part of this equation, keeping in hot/cool air during peak seasons and blocking out opposing air.

Improving your home’s thermal envelope has many benefits for homeowners, including lowering energy costs, improving home comfort, and relieving seasonal allergy symptoms.

There are generally two approaches we can take to maximize the thermal envelope of a home:

  • Upgrading insulation
  • Air sealing

New insulation materials, such as closed-cell foam insulation and fiberglass batts, must be installed throughout the home to reach the desired R-value for your climate, as laid out by EnergyStar. Many energy-efficient building materials, such as insulating concrete forms (ICF), also naturally conserve energy.

Cracks and gaps in the home’s exterior then need to be sealed using weatherstripping, caulk and spray foam to prevent outside air from leaking in.

2. Energy-Efficient Windows and Doors

Another critical part of the thermal envelope is your doors and windows. On average, windows are responsible for 25-30% of heat loss in a home.

Investing in energy-efficient windows and doors with double or triple-pane glass, low-emissivity coatings, and insulated frames can significantly reduce heat loss and air infiltration. Look for products with ENERGY STAR® certification to ensure optimal performance and energy savings.

3. Controlled Ventilation

Well-insulated homes with loss of air circulation require proper ventilation to prevent moisture issues and structural damage. However, controlled ventilation also reduces air loss due to leaks in air ducts and vents, which are not properly controlled.

Heat recovery ventilators (HRV) recycle stale exhaust air in exchange for fresh air intake that reduces air loss and reduces the risk of moisture and contaminant buildup. Other systems, such as trickle vents, may also help facilitate this exchange.

4. High-Efficiency HVAC Systems

Selecting a high-efficiency heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system tailored to the size and layout of your home is essential for maximizing energy savings.

Consider options such as heat pumps, geothermal systems, or ductless mini-splits, which offer superior performance and energy efficiency compared to traditional HVAC systems.

We recommend reading up on RESNET/ACCA Standard 310 to find an HVAC system that maximizes your HVAC system’s HERS (Home Energy Rating System) score. This may also help builders receive eligibility for tax credits, such as the 45L tax credit.

5. Water Heaters

Water heaters account for 19% of a home’s total energy usage. One area for improvement is using tankless water heaters, which heat water on demand, conserving energy by eliminating the standby heat loss associated with traditional water heaters.

Solar-heated water systems also offer significant upgrades over traditional designs, though they require solar panels, which we’ll discuss later.

6. Smart Thermostats

Another aspect of efficiency we need to discuss is the human aspect. No matter how efficient a home is, if you’re cranking that thermostat to max during winter, you won’t be preserving much energy.

Install programmable or smart thermostats to regulate indoor temperature settings based on occupancy patterns and preferences. These advanced thermostats allow for precise temperature control, energy-saving schedules, and remote access via smartphone apps, optimizing comfort and energy efficiency.

7. Energy-Efficient Appliances

Appliances, such as washes, dryers, and refrigerators, are a massive source of electricity usage.

Choose ENERGY STAR® certified fully electric appliances designed to conserve as much electricity as possible. Not only are these appliances more efficient energy-wise, but they tend to last longer.

8. Energy-Efficient Lighting

Replace traditional incandescent bulbs with energy-efficient LED or CFL lighting fixtures throughout your home. LED bulbs consume significantly less energy, last longer, and emit less heat, making them an eco-friendly and cost-effective lighting solution for energy-efficient homes.

9. Incorporating Solar Panels

Finally, investing in renewable energy is an easy way to reduce energy usage and clean up greenhouse gasses. While most renewable projects are still out of reach (e.g., wind turbines), practical upgrades, like solar panels, offer significant savings. When we say significant, we mean almost completely offsetting your energy usage. While expensive, most solar panels will pay for themselves within 6-12 years.

Additional Ways to Improve Energy-Efficiency

Now that we’ve discussed the nine most basic ways to promote energy efficiency, we can also outline a few additional improvements builders can make.

Landscaping is one massive win, as planting shady trees and incorporating rain gardens or cisterns that conserve water will reduce energy usage.

For example, incorporating passive solar design principles into your home’s layout and orientation to maximize natural light and heat gain during the winter months while minimizing solar heat gain in the summer [Read more: Tips on how to build an energy-efficient home].

To ensure you’re following each energy efficiency principle to its fullest, partner with a qualified energy consultant. A consultant will help you draft a plan and implement measures that promote greater efficiency and reduce the need for quality control at the final stages of construction.

FAQs: Energy-Efficient Homes

Are energy-efficient homes more expensive to build?

While the upfront cost of building an energy-efficient home may be slightly higher due to investments in high-quality materials and systems, the long-term savings on energy bills typically outweigh the initial investment.

How much money can I save with an energy-efficient home?

The amount of money saved with an energy-efficient home depends on various factors, including location, energy prices, home size, and efficiency measures implemented. On average, homeowners can save hundreds to thousands of dollars annually on energy bills compared to conventional homes.

Are there any incentives or rebates available for building an energy-efficient home?

Yes, many government agencies offer rebates and tax credits, such as the 45L credit for builders. One way to acquire this tax credit is to apply for EnergyStar certification by following EnergyStar 3.1 guidelines.