9 Energy-Efficient Home Designs and Features
Who doesn’t get excited about building a new house? You get to buy shiny new appliances and design everything the way you want. That said, it can be an expensive journey.
Luckily, you can get your money back by cutting a huge chunk off your future utility costs. This doesn’t just mean hoarding EnergyStar-certified appliances. Our guide will show you how to build energy-efficient homes from the outside, starting with the walls to the windows.
- 1. Insulation
- 2. Whole House EnergyStar Certification
- 3. Air Sealing & Ventilation
- 4. Heating and Cooling Systems
- 5. Energy-Efficient Appliances
- 6. Pass Energy Rating Systems
- 7. Cool Roof
- 8. Energy-Efficient Lighting
- 9. Proper Fenestration
- Final Thoughts
Padding your walls with the right insulation is the first step to building an energy-efficient home. Without it or the lack of it will result in a quick energy loss, deeming your heating and cooling systems useless.
Remember, heat will always move from a warm area to a cooler area until the temperature evens out. If your home has proper insulation, you will restrict that movement. No more uncomfortable hot and cold spots!
“So which insulation should I use?”
You want to choose insulating materials with high thermal resistance or R-value per inch thickness (1). Spray foam insulation and foam boards have high R-value levels.
Green insulation options like cellulose are also available.
Insulation is an added expense to your construction bill. But think of it as an investment since it naturally keeps your new home cool in the summer and warm in the winter. If you live in an area with a milder climate, adding proper insulation might be enough to keep your home comfortable without cooling or heating systems.
2. Whole House EnergyStar Certification
Getting your new home Energy Star Certified is one of the best ways to ensure you’ve done everything right with the build. Plus, you also rest easy knowing that you don’t have to worry about missing the little details of the energy-efficient home.
Energy Star certification goes beyond insulation and other energy-efficient home features. Your home should also pass air quality and moisture control, which are usually overlooked (2). That said, it’s a very time-consuming, painstaking process to get a house Energy Star certified. And you have to deal with lab people coming in and out to test every little thing.
“Why spend and go through all that?”
Again, it’s an investment. You’re paying for security, safety, and all-around peace of mind. In the end, an energy-efficient home that takes care of itself and your family is the reward. Plus, you save energy and money. Energy Star certified homes pretty much pay for themselves over the years.
3. Air Sealing & Ventilation
I know, sealing and venting are quite the opposite. But, trust us, you need both to have an energy-efficient home.
First, let’s talk about air leaks. Sometimes contractors miss sealing a few nooks and crannies, and it can be a serious safety concern.
“What harm can it do?”
Before we get into the details, you need to remember that warm air always rises because it’s lighter than cold air (3). Now, let’s say you have an air leak that causes cold outside air into your new home. The draft pushes warm air to the top of the house. But as it travels up, it creates negative air pressure below.
To even out the pressure, the air gets sucked back in from the vents, messing up the home’s airflow. Air containing toxic gases like carbon monoxide and radon usually leave the house through exhausts and vents. But instead, back-drafting lets these gases back in, eventually making you sick (4).
“Houses with negative air pressure may cause flue gases to backdraft into your home… Energy Star suggests mechanical ventilation reduce radon and carbon monoxide in the home.”
Now you know the worst-case scenario of not having a tight home, it’s imperative to seal up every inch of your new home. And remember to install good heating, ventilation, and cooling (HVAC) systems that let every space breathe properly.
You want a ventilation system that works well for your house type, keeping clean, fresh air flowing throughout all year round (5).
4. Heating and Cooling Systems
Hooray, your foundation is set. Now we can talk more about the temperature control system of an energy-efficient home. But first, let’s review the basics of heating and cooling. Bear with me here because understanding the concept will help you save the big bucks.
We all know that sweating is your body’s cooling mechanism. But who wants to stay sweaty in their new home, right?
Luckily, HVAC systems can do the heating and cooling work for you. As cool air moves through your home, it absorbs heat from your body and objects that tend to warm up. Again, the hot air rises and exits the vents, and cool air keeps coming in (6).
Now as for heating during the winter, the opposite happens. The vents circulate the warm conditioned air from your wood stove or heater all around the home.
Make sure you conduct the necessary maintenance of the HVAC system of your house, though. Otherwise, they won’t work efficiently and can cause problems.
Water heating is a bit different. To conserve energy, you want to choose low-flow fixtures and a low-energy use water heater. As the name suggests, these don’t let out as much water volume compared to the usual faucets.
Considering the average household uses 18% of its energy to heat water, you want to go low-flow (7). Nowadays, you can get the best low-flow showerhead or faucet without breaking the bank. Plus, you’ll end up saving way more on your energy bills and conserve water too!
5. Energy-Efficient Appliances
Shopping for shiny new appliances is probably the most fun part of building an energy-efficient home. But before you raid the nearest Home Depot, stop and think about what you need the most and what you can do without. For example, cooling systems might be off the list thanks to your new ventilation system.
Also, with all the high-tech features out there offering convenience, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important, energy efficiency. I don’t think you’d enjoy a smart appliance that costs more to keep running, would you?
That said, remember to look for that blue Energy Star sticker we mentioned before to save money and maximize energy use. Each of your home’s appliances can be Energy Star certified too.
Pro tip: Use advanced power strips that lessen the energy use of home offices and other grouped appliances when not in use.
Most energy-efficient appliances these days have low wattage. Plus, some even have automatic idle features or sleep timers that save you the trouble of shutting down the units every time (8). Some clothes dryers completely shut down on their own after a cycle to prevent overheating. That’s a big bonus for moms juggling housework and taking care of kids!
Our last suggestion is to make a final list of your home’s appliances. Adding up the wattages will give you an idea of how much you’ll be spending on them over time. If it’s still too much, you might want to consider investing in renewable energy sources like solar energy to help reduce energy usage.
6. Pass Energy Rating Systems
Different agencies under the Department of Energy evaluate a home’s energy performance (9). Houses that get a high home energy score are considered energy-efficient homes.
If you don’t meet their score, don’t worry. The evaluation comes with suggestions for improvement on how to increase your home’s energy efficiency.
Here’s how energy ratings help from a home renter’s point of view.
The Home Energy Score is not the only home rating system out there. Your comfort as a resident also matters, which is what the LEED evaluation prioritizes (10). The rating system includes air quality and eco-friendly factors in evaluating energy-efficient homes.
Don’t get us wrong; there isn’t one agency that evaluates better than the other. They have the same goal — to improve the livability and efficiency of houses. They just differ in what specific aspects they focus on.
7. Cool Roof
Many energy-efficient homes have cool roof systems because it reflects and absorbs less heat. However, it’s not a requirement, especially for houses in the far north with long, harsh winters.
You should only consider cool roofing materials if you live in a scorching and dry area. If enough of your neighbors also have them, they can benefit the entire community (11).
“Cool roofs can reduce local air temperatures (sometimes referred to as the urban heat island effect) and lower peak electricity demand, which can help prevent power outages.”
Since a cool roof is best placed on houses located in hot areas, adding solar panels makes much sense.
It takes advantage of all the direct sunlight, giving you a renewable energy source while reducing your overall cooling costs. Talk about an extra energy-efficient house.
8. Energy-Efficient Lighting
The first thing you probably think of when you talk about energy-efficient lighting is LED. And you’re on the right track.
Light-emitting diodes are a crucial element in building energy-efficient houses. They last 2-4 times longer than your average fluorescent bulb. Plus, they are a safer alternative to the incandescent light bulbs of the 1980s, which warm up the longer they stay on (12). But these lights are not your only option to reduce energy use.
Compact Fluorescent lamps (CFL) are the tinier counterparts of traditional fluorescent bulbs (13). And, in addition to being more energy-efficient, this modern-day version comes in warm tones.
It’s easier on the eyes compared to the blinding white light that fluorescents were known for.
Halogen incandescents are another energy-efficient lighting option. These are great for areas where you want to create mood lighting while keeping the energy-efficient features of the house.
Energy-efficient homes use a combination of lighting fixtures and natural light to save as much energy as possible. We all need natural light shining throughout our energy-efficient homes. After all, it’s the best kind of light, and it’s free!
Using energy-saving lighting options together with solar panels and other renewable energy sources is even better. Having solar power lamps in the garden is also a nice and efficient touch. There’s no such thing as an overly energy-efficient house.
9. Proper Fenestration
Fenestration is just a fancy building term for the arrangement of doors and windows in a house. And believe it or not, it can impact your home’s energy efficiency (14).
You often hear real estate people mention south-facing windows or skylights as selling points of a house. These are examples of what energy-efficient home designs should have.
“But what does fenestration have to do with saving energy?”
These energy-efficient home features all lead back to reducing heat transfer. Windows don’t just allow natural light into the house; they also allow heat to enter.
Remember, the sun moves from east to west. Windows in these areas let hot, direct light into the home, making it less energy-efficient.
If you want a nice sunset view, you can opt for double-glazed windows. You can also minimize heat absorption by adding window shades to your already energy-efficient home.
Skylights serve more than just focal points in a home. Since we already know that heat rises, these roof windows work great for purging hot air in the summer, reducing energy use.
Make sure you choose sustainable building materials for the window frames and doors of your energy-efficient home. Coating them with glazing materials also helps increase their durability and weather resistance.
A lot of thought goes into making energy-efficient home designs. Honestly, it can cost more to add all these energy-efficient home features. But in the long run, an energy-efficient home ends up paying for itself. You end up not only reducing your energy costs but also reducing greenhouse gases.
Collectively, all the features of energy-efficient houses create a better living space for you and your family. You reap the rewards of clean air, comfortable heating, and cooling as well as low energy use. When done perfectly, an energy-efficient home can even run on its own to the point that paying an electric bill won’t hurt your monthly budget ever again.
You maintain an energy-efficient home by doing little things like switching lights off when not in use. Motion sensors are great in case you regularly forget to switch lights off. Cleaning the filters of heating and cooling elements also helps make sure they perform efficiently. Accumulated dust can make even energy-certified appliances overheat.
General cleaning and doing an annual check of the vents and house framework also helps keep the home in tip-top shape.
Yes, a 2-story house can have a higher energy efficiency than a bungalow, especially regulating temperature. Warm air naturally moves up instead of spreading to the sides. Therefore, expanding the square footage upward is a better option.
The disadvantages of energy-efficient buildings are higher initial cost and careful planning. Between choosing the right building materials and energy certifications, you will shell out a lot at the start of the build.
A lot of the critical aspects of an energy-efficient home must be built into the foundation. Things like insulation and proper fenestration are not simple add-ons you can make later on. If you forget an essential part of the build, it can literally be a costly mistake.
- All About Insulation R-Values. Retrieved from: https://www.homedepot.com/c/ab/insulation-r-values/9ba683603be9fa5395fab9091a9131f
- Features & Benefits of ENERGY STAR Certified Homes & Apartments. Retrieved from: https://www.energystar.gov/newhomes/explore_features_benefits
- BECP_Buidling Energy Code Resource Guide Air Leakage Guide. Retrieved from: https://www.energycodes.gov/sites/default/files/documents/BECP_Buidling%20Energy%20Code%20Resource%20Guide%20Air%20Leakage%20Guide_Sept2011_v00_lores.pdf
- Clearing Your Home of Negative Air Pressure. Retrieved from: https://yellowbluetech.com/2019/04/10/clearing-home-negative-air-pressure/
- Whole House Ventilation. Retrieved from: https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/weatherize/ventilation/whole-house-ventilation
- Principles of Heating and Cooling. Retrieved from: https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/principles-heating-and-cooling
- Water Heating. Retrieved from: https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/heat-and-cool/water-heating
- Reducing Electricity Use and Cost. Retrieved from: https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/save-electricity-and-fuel/appliances-and-electronics/reducing-electricity-use-and-costs
- Home Energy Score. Retrieved from: https://betterbuildingssolutioncenter.energy.gov/home-energy-score/home-energy-score-about-score
- LEED Rating System. Retrieved from: https://www.usgbc.org/leed
- Cool Roofs. Retrieved from: https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/cool-roofs
- 15 Advantages of LEDs When Compared To Traditional Lighting Solutions. Retrieved from: https://www.stouchlighting.com/blog/top-15-advantages-of-led-lighting
- Lighting Choices to Save you Money. Retrieved from: https://www.energy.gov/energysaver/save-electricity-and-fuel/lighting-choices-save-you-money
- Window and Door Placement: What a View. Retrieved from: http://www.dnr.louisiana.gov/assets/TAD/education/ECEP/constr/d/d.htm
Tana grew up around island farms and pine forests. Her love for nature lead to her degree in Biology and mission to lessen her environmental impact. Now she grows food in her backyard and shares what she learns from Eco Peanut with others.