Building an Energy Efficient Home from the Ground Up: Choosing Sustainable Building Materials

So, you want to build a house? And not just any house, but one that considers home energy efficiency and long-term savings every step of the way. Embarking on the journey of constructing a home from the ground up is a remarkable milestone, often reflecting a culmination of experience, aspirations, and a readiness to invest in a living space that truly reflects your personal journey. But where to begin?

We’re big proponents of highly energy efficient home designs but seeing as this isn’t yet standard practice for new construction (someday we hope it will be) we know that you as a homeowner will face a lot of choices along the way. This article is crafted to guide you through the myriad aspects of building an energy efficient home from the ground up, ensuring your investment is both personally, financially, and environmentally rewarding.

all wood residential design

What Defines an Energy Efficient Home?

Before we get into the details of construction, let’s review what constitutes an energy efficient home. An energy efficient home is designed and built to reduce unnecessary energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, and demands on non-renewable resources. It achieves this through efficient insulation, windows, appliances, heating, and cooling systems, air sealing, as well as the use of renewable energy sources. The goal is to create a living space that is comfortable, sustainable, and cost-effective over its entire lifespan. Home energy efficiency exists on a spectrum, from existing construction with energy efficient upgrades to full passive house or net zero home design. Your home energy efficiency relies on several variables including:

  • Building materials
  • Appliances and electronics
  • Insulation and air sealing
  • Lighting
  • Heating and cooling systems
  • Water heating
  • Windows, doors, and skylights
  • Local climate
  • Energy source
  • Ventilation
  • And more

Homes can be rated using the national Home Energy Score system, with the average home falling around a five out of ten. When building an energy efficient home, you can decide what your efficiency goals are and the impact they will have on your home design and costs.

How to Build an Energy Efficient Home

As we discussed, there are many variables that feed into your home energy efficiency and good design will consider the interplay between all of them. You want a home that fuses functionality, aesthetics, and environmental responsibility. Taking a holistic approach involves considering every element – from the overall architectural layout to the smallest details like lighting fixtures. Even things we don’t typically think of when it comes to home construction are important, like how the home’s orientation impacts natural light and temperature regulation.

Even thoughtful landscaping can contribute significantly to home energy efficiency. Deciduous trees provide shade in the summer and allow sunlight in winter, natural windbreaks can reduce heating costs, and green roofs or walls can provide extra insulation.

Today’s homeowners and architects also have the benefit of some amazing smart home technology that can contribute to your home energy efficiency. Incorporating automated systems such as programmable thermostats, smart lighting, and energy-efficient appliances not only enhances the functionality of your home but also significantly reduces energy consumption. Appliances rated by Energy Star can reduce energy use by anywhere from 10-40% compared to other products and can have other benefits like reduced water use.

Working with an architect well versed in energy efficient new home construction will help guide you through all these decisions. Don’t be afraid to ask lots of questions along the way to best understand how everything in your energy efficient home design connects.

Choosing Sustainable Building Materials for Maximum Energy Efficiency

Every material that goes into your home represents both a cost to the environment and a potential savings to your energy use. Making careful selections of green building materials will ensure your home balances both.

  1. Timber Framing: Compared to conventional stick-built homes, timber framing can reduce the amount of wood needed by up to 30%. Not only do they sink carbon, but they also provide naturally insulating properties for better thermal regulation. A timber frame supports the weight of the entire home, eliminating the need for load bearing walls in the interior and opening the design possibilities.
  2. Wood Fiber Insulation: Made from a natural, renewable resource, wood fiber insulation is carbon negative, the only insulation of its kind. It offers a naturally high R-value that balances temperature swings and buffers changes in humidity to regulate your home’s climate in all seasons. This in turn means less energy (and money) needed to heat and cool your home. Wood fiber insulation can be used in floors, ceilings, and walls for a complete, energy efficient building envelope.
  3. High-Performance Windows & Doors: Air sealing is incredibly important to home energy efficiency, so selecting high performance windows and doors can make a big impact. Look for high Energy Star ratings and characteristics like double or triple glazing when making your selections.
  4. Cool Roofing: While climate is an important factor to consider when choosing your roofing material, most homes are built with dark, non-reflective materials that absorb heat. On sunny days, this can mean rooftop temperatures reaching 90-100 degrees above the air temperature. This of course, can quickly raise the need for air conditioning. Cool roofs use reflective materials to shed heat and keep your home cool with a potential for up to 25% savings on your energy bill.
  5. Interior Sustainable Building Materials: When designing your home’s interiors, consider eco-friendly options like highly renewable bamboo flooring or reclaimed wood. While they may not have a huge impact on your long-term energy use, they do often use less energy to be manufactured, transported, and installed in your home.

While these high-performance materials may come with higher upfront costs, they are a wise investment for the long-term. The enhanced durability and superior energy efficiency they offer lead to significant savings in energy bills and maintenance costs over the years, making them a cost-effective choice for the full lifespan of your home. Builders of energy efficient homes can also claim up to $5,000 in tax credits for their work on energy efficient new home construction.

Installation & Maintenance

Selecting sustainable building materials is only half of the equation. Proper installation of these elements and maintenance of your energy efficient home are equally important to its performance. This means you will need to carefully vet your builders for experience working with these green building materials and technologies.

Energy-efficient materials often require less maintenance, but it’s important to understand the specific needs of the materials and technologies you choose to maintain their efficiency and longevity. Remember to change filters, clean ducts and schedule professional checkups for your heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) system. If your home includes solar panels, they’ll need periodic cleaning and inspections to ensure they are functioning optimally. Debris, dirt, and even snow can impact their efficiency, so keeping them clean is essential. Likewise, the roof and gutters play a significant role in protecting your home from the elements. Keeping gutters clean and inspecting the roof for damage are important to prevent water infiltration, which can impact your home’s energy efficiency. Your water heater, energy efficient appliances and more will need similar regular maintenance.

Improving Home Energy Efficiency in the Future

Without a doubt, energy efficiency technologies for residential structures will continue to develop and improve with time. While your new energy efficient home is built for longevity, you can always consider making energy efficiency upgrades down the line. As of 2023, homeowners can receive up to $3,200 in rebates for qualifying improvements made to their home energy efficiency. The best thing you can do is take care of your residence and keep up to date on energy efficiency standards and new building technologies. You sign up for our email newsletter to receive regular updates about the latest in the high performance building industry as well as tips for maintaining your home.

Here’s to creating a more valuable, comfortable, and efficient built environment that is healthy for us and the planet!