This article is primarily geared toward people who live in a northern climate and are either planning to build an energy efficient home or make their current home more energy efficient. Climate varies drastically between regions, and what works best in one area may not be a good solution for another. If you do not live in a similar region, I encourage you to research best practices for efficient design in your area.
Energy efficiency is a tough subject. We all want it, but it’s often more difficult to achieve than we’d hope. Like many good investments, energy efficiency typically costs quite a bit upfront but will save money in the long run. To be sure, it’s usually easier and less expensive to build a home that is energy efficient than to convert an existing home that’s not.
If you live in a climate like this one (Western Pennsylvania), the south side of the house would ideally contain the most – and largest – windows to take advantage of the sun’s energy. Northern windows should be few as they receive little sunlight and get hit with cold winds. When it comes to windows at the east and west sides of the house, east windows are preferred over the west side due to the sun’s directional movement throughout the day. With the advent of efficient “low-e” windows, you don’t have to worry too much these days about perfect window placement, but the south and east sides of the house are still most ideal.
Large window overhangs on the south side are also very helpful for improving efficient use of energy since they provide permanent shading. The goal is to allow the sun’s energy into the home during the winter when heat is needed and the sun is low in the sky, but to shade the sun’s intense heat in the hot summer when the sun is more overhead and would make the home too hot.
Smart window placement has been well known for quite some time, but building scientists have more recently devised additional methods for saving energy. One of those methods is known as “advanced framing.” Traditional framing places 2×4 wall studs on 16 inch centers, but advanced framing places 2×6 studs on 24 inch centers. By beefing up the size of the studs and decreasing the amount of wood used for framing, structural integrity is not compromised and more insulation can be used. Even the corners of walls are designed to be more efficient with advanced framing techniques.
The importance of roofs has also become a topic of primary importance. For a home to be efficient, the roof is ideally a lighter color and reflective so the sun’s heat is reflected and not absorbed. We all recognize the difference in wearing a white versus a black t-shirt on a hot summer day, but many people don’t take that basic principle into account when choosing a roof material.
Needless to say, a home will not perform well if it is not properly air sealed and insulated. Many product developments have come on the scene in recent years, providing homeowners with excellent options for insulating their homes extremely well. Perhaps the best logic (although it requires a contractor with very up-to-date knowledge) is the concept of placing rigid foam or mineral wool insulation on the outside of the house to form a “blanket,” as opposed to the inside of the house between wall cavities as is normally done. Reputable contractors who advocate this method compare it to a person wearing a jacket to protect themselves from the cold versus having insulation tucked under their skin (if that were possible). Regardless, you can create a very energy efficient home by insulating on the inside, provided the types and amounts of insulation are ideal and that air sealing is done properly.
The methods already mentioned will make for a very energy efficient home, but you could go even further if you desire to get as close as possible to a “net zero” energy rating. Utilizing renewable sources of energy and on-site conditions is key if you really want to take efficiency to the next level. Passive solar systems for heating and cooling are especially beneficial, but other options are available, and consulting with local engineers, your general contractor, and other knowledgeable professionals is crucial for determining the best options for your particular location.
When considering how efficient you want your home to be, weighing the initial cost against the eventual pay-off is certainly a major factor. For most, having a perfectly energy efficient home is likely not a reality that can realistically be achieved quickly or inexpensively. However, taking whatever actions you can, over time, will definitely play in your favor, and it is easier to invest in energy efficient options when building a house than after a house has been built and requires extensive work.
Maybe you’ll focus on your windows this year, air sealing and insulation improvement over the next few years, and saving up to eventually have solar powered systems in a decade. Regardless of your budget and priorities, you should know that there are ways to make your home more efficient and that you wouldn’t likely regret the investment.
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