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Energy Efficient Homes: How to Take Your House Plan to the Next Level

Last updated October 15, 2019

An Energy-Efficient "Green" Home is a Smart Home


Before the movement toward tiny homes was popular, there was a trend that started it all and still remains – the need for energy-efficient homes. Why go greenJust imagine a world where nature’s untouched beauty reigns—with lush rainforests, oceans with clear blue water, clean air, and animals, birds, and all living things thriving in a safe and beautiful planet Earth.

Since the observance of that first Earth Day in 1970, millions of people around the world have embraced the concept of protecting the environment and conserving energy. Today, “going green” is a lifestyle—not just a fancy trend popularized by a new generation.

For at least the past two decades, there has been an increasing demand for energy-efficient homes. Architects and builders have responded by using green products on walls, windows, doors, roofs, floors, and ceilings. From solar panels to cell-foam insulation and energy-monitoring units, new homes definitely have a “cleaner footprint.” 

These homes are designed while considering the impact of the building materials on the environment by using natural resources, recycled materials, and new technologies, all while saving the homeowner money. It’s a win-win!


9 Tips for Energy Efficient Building

According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an energy-efficient Green Home will add value to your home, help reduce energy use and energy costs, fight climate change, and help protect your health. This Web site is an umbrella site for EPA and other federal agencies on residential environmental issues. It identifies the key environmental and energy issues at hand, suggesting solutionsThe EPA green home website provides Americans with some very easy-to-use and credible information on how to green their homes, such as:

• Reduce home energy use and use of renewable energy

• Reduce water use and protect water resources

• Select the most environmentally friendly location for a new home

• Choosing greener home building materials and household products

• Reducing waste from home construction and household activities and increasing recycling

• Protecting your health from environmental hazards that occur in homes

The green home Web site provides introductory information and links in an organized fashion for the homeowner to access more detailed information. For energy issues, this site links extensively to the EPA-DOE ENERGY STAR® program.

One of the many topics that is of interest among architects today is the proper building techniques for constructing the high performance home, which is designed to use about 35 percent less energy than a similar new home and about 50 percent less energy than a similar existing home. These high-performance house plans are more than just energy efficient—they are more environmentally responsible and maintain a very robust sustainable living environment. 

In fact, the NAHB and BuildingGreen, LLC have developed a special course that provides builders and remodelers with the latest information and techniques available in order to build a high performance home. 

In the end, a “Green House Plan" will be what every sophisticated homeowner wants because it will be a comfortable, convenient, energy-efficient, and environmentally friendly place to live.

So how do you go about turning your ordinary house plan into an energy-saving, Green, earth-loving architectural masterpiece? Read on to find out.

2-story passive solar home with deck and wood siding

South-facing passive solar home with steep roof

Above are examples of 2-story passive-solar energy-efficient house plans featuring huge south-facing solariums, which allow abundant natural light and solar radiation into the homes to help warm them up on cold but sunny days (top, Plan #146-2046; bottom, Plan #146-1177).

Passive solar home with octagonal sunroom in center

An alternative to a solarium, the octagonal sunroom in this house is the focal point of the dramatic design. Clerestory windows admit light and solar heat, and the area can be vented in warmer months to cut down on cooling energy/costs (Plan #146-1249).


1. Passive Solar Heating

If your building site has lots of sunlight, look to use large windows or walls of windows on the home's south-facing side to soak up the heat from that sun and provide warmth in the winter. It’s important to make sure you have some kind of thermal mass, such as a tile, concrete, brick, or stone floor, inside the windows to absorb the heat energy from the sun. The sun is low in the sky during winter, so its warming rays will penetrate deep inside the house through the windows. Conversely, make sure you have strategically placed overhangs or awnings over the windows during summer to block the sun when it is high in the sky. The overhangs – or even blinds or shutters – can provide much needed shade for cooling in the hot months.

Passive Solar House Plan #146-2806

The "wall of windows" on this 3-bedroom, 2-bath Contemporary style vacation home plan not only provide a great view but offer opportunity for solar heat gain as the sun's rays shine in during cold months. The gable-end overhang is wide enough to shade the windows – avoiding excess heat gain – during hot summer months when the sun is high in the sky (Plan #146-2806).


2. Framing

Be sure to frame your roof on top of ceiling joists to provide room for insulation throughout the perimeter of the home. Additionally, consider using 2x6 lumber instead of 2x4s to provide more space inside the walls for insulation. This will increase the R-value – or insulating value – from approximately between R-11 and R-13 to about R-19 to R-21. Other desirable framing techniques are shown below.

Illustration of advanced framing techniques for energy efficiency

How a house is framed can make a big difference in its thermal performance. The techniques shown in the illustration above maximize energy efficiency (minimal use of lumber and maximum potential for insulation) while ensuring structural integrity. Some of the techniques include spacing wall studs, roof rofaters, and floor and ceiling joists on 2-ft. centers; eliminating headers in non-load-bearing walls; using single lumber headers and top plates where possible; and lining up floor, wall, and roof framing members to create an unbroken path to directly transfer loads to the foundation (courtesy energy.gov).  


3.  Insulation

A home isn’t energy efficient unless it has adequate – or more than adequate – insulation. Use insulation in between walls, ceilings, floors, and other areas of the home. Use caulk to help seal around pipes and other small spaces. Find out the recommended R-values for the area that your building in to ensure you have the correct insulation for the job. One of the most important—and easiest—areas to insulate is the attic. In the Northeast, for example, recommended attic insulation value is between R-49 and R-60. You can achieve those R-values by using fiberglass batts, blown insulation (cellulose or fiberglass), or foam spray insulation.

You shouldn’t ignore the foundation, either. Although insulating the walls of a basement provides little insulation value (and energy efficiency), laying foam insulation before pouring a slab foundation or the slab in a basement is beneficial. For a crawlspace foundation, be sure to insulate under the floor well.

In addition to insulation, insulated-concrete-block units are gaining popularity as the core construction material for today’s modern homes. Insulated concrete blocks are versatile – decorative, functional, and most importantly, energy-efficient. Some homeowners in warm climates also grow trees around the home to provide shade from the sun and allow the breezes into the home – and avoid using air-conditioning for as long as possible.

Energy-efficient home that uses insulated concrete walls

Here’s a charming and eco-friendly 1-story, 3-bedroom home – with an insulated-concrete-block exterior that makes it energy efficient (Plan #133-1029).


When insulating, don't forget about sealing! Much of the eventual energy efficiency of a home plan is in the building of the house itself. Caulking, sealing, and weatherstripping are important to additions to the efforts of insulating your home. Paying close attention to filling gaps around plumbing, electrical wiring and fixtures, windows, doors, and other openings in the shell of the home makes the difference between an insulated home and an energy-efficient insulated home. Unfilled gaps that allow air infiltration compromise the performance of the insulation, wasting energy and money. Use foam spray to fill large gaps; caulk to fill smaller gaps, especially around rough window and dorr openings; and weatherstripping around finished window and door openings.

With the house envelope well insulated and sealed, you are most of the way toward having an energy-efficient house (and about as far as you can go with a house plan). The other decisions involve things like an efficient heating system (furnace or boiler, possibly radiant heating) and air-hadlilng system (in a well-sealed building envelope). You should shoot for at least 90% efficiency in a heating system. And be sure to consult with a qualified heating and cooling contractor to match up your house with the correct air/handling/ventilation system. This will ensure that you always have fresh air circulating through the house while preventing your heating or cooling from escaping. The last step will be selecting Energy Star appliances, which will use energy sparingly while delivering the performance you expect.


4. Simple, Smaller Home Plans

A home with less square footage and a less complicated design equals a home that is more efficient to build by using less material and saving on labor costs. A simpler design – without a lot of embellishments, bump-outs, etc. – also makes it easier to fully insulate the building envelope to make it an energy efficient home by eliminating hard-to-reach corners, niches, etc.

House Plan #138-1012 illustrating simplicity in design and construction

This 3-bedroom, 2-bath Ranch style home plan takes up only 1,360 sq. ft. and is framed simply – without lots of gables and valleys in the roof and bumpouts in the walls. The more simple the building envelope can be, the more efficient it will be in both construction and energy-consumption performance (Plan #138-1012).


5. Smart Spaces

Pick a home plan that utilizes every square foot. Avoid designs that have little alcoves or spaces that leave you wondering what you would use it for. Don’t just think about the now, think about the future and what spaces you may need as you your family grows, such as bonus room above the garage, or as you get older, such as a laundry room on the main floor.


6. Energy Star Products

We know you’ve probably heard this a million times, but just to make sure: buy Energy Star products. Energy Star is a program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that incorporates voluntary product labeling designed to identify and promote energy-efficient products with the goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. You can choose from appliances, lighting, heating & cooling, electronics, building materials, water heaters, home office equipment, and more. The labeled products meet certain design and performance criteria and are certified by the Energy Star program to be energy efficient. They will save you money and help the environment – really, why would you not do this?

Energy Star label

When you search for products, materials, and advice as you build your new home, look for this label if you want to ensure that what you are choosing has been certified by the EPA's Energy Star program.


7. Recycled or Green Materials

There are so many fabulous products to choose from, you will have a hard time deciding. Look for green materials for your countertops, floors, and fixtures. Green materials may be natural materials; sustainable materials, such as sustainably harvested wood; products that use recycled or recyclable materials; products that use less energy to be manufactured or allow you to use less energy in use; etc.


8. Solar Panels

If possible, consider installing a grid-connected or standalone solar power system. While this may involve an upfront cost, the ability to generate your own energy for your home for years to come will be a significant cost savings in the long run. In addition, there are dozens of programs in place nationwide to help reduce the upfront costs. Some states also offer special subsidies to help you save on the entire process, while others offer special loans specifically designed to help you purchase solar panels. You can find more details about your state’s policies through the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency website.

Solar electric power panels installed on a residence

Installing solar panels on the roof of your home, whether connected to the grid or not, gives you some energy independence, provides clean energy, and can save money in the long run. If you choose to connect the solar power panel(s) to the grid system, you can actually sell excess power that you generate back into the grid system, increasing the economic benefit of installing solar panels (courtesy Tesla).


9. Windows

Most of today’s homeowners know that they should invest in energy-efficient windows – double- or triple-pane with low-e coating on the glass being preferable. But homebuilders concerned with energy efficiency should take it a step further and carefully consider window placement in the floor plan. The right windows in the right spot help homeowners cut energy costs in their home plan. In cooler climates, take advantage of the natural light and warmth of the sun by focusing windows on the south and west sides of the house. In warmer climates, focus windows on the north and east sides.

To keep cooling costs down in the warm summer months, use a sun blocking shade on south-facing windows to reduce the amount of heat let in. Choosing a partial shade or a light color shade with heat blocking properties will still let in natural light.

Another beautiful but energy efficient window option: clerestory windows—small windows that line the top of the wall, above head level. These windows let in an amazing amount of natural light—particular when placed on several walls—while preserving privacy. This beautiful design element works equally well for modern and contemporary homes or classically traditional houses.

There are so many different options available that we couldn’t possibly list them all but this is good start. Still not sure if going green is right for you? Reach out to your local designer or builder – they will have plenty of information; especially if they are a certified green professional.


Ways to Go Green Every Day

1.  Invest in a programmable or zone-based thermostat to adjust temperatures in the home, conserve energy, and save money on the bill.

2.  Turn off lights when you leave rooms for long periods of time. The same rule goes for appliances and computers. It’s not just a matter of turning them off—you should also unplug them because, especially with cell phones, laptops, and other rechargeable devices, current still leaks through while they are plugged in. Even unconnected rechargers still use small amounts of current while they are plugged in.

3.  In the summer time or when days are longer, open curtains and blinds to allow as much light as possible to filter into the home.

The attractive tree-lined courtyard of this two-story contemporary home is all about curb appeal; and the house is all about energy efficiency with its insulated-concrete-block exterior. Inside the home (below), the living-room area remains somewhat bright even as the light outside starts to fade. Only two low-wattage ceiling lights are on (Plan # 190-1004).


4.  Lower the heat during the winter months, and turn up the air-conditioning a notch in the summer to save energy.

5.  Take it easy on the water, especially heated water. Shorter showers are recommended. Install low-flow showerheads, toilets, and faucets if you don’t have them already.

• Love bottled water? It’s cheaper to get a filter and drink tap water. Save your money and all those plastic bottles.

• California residents in some cities are facing fines for over water use.People fear genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and the dangers of pesticide use, therefore personal consumer growing has become a nationwide trend.

• Conserving water extends the life of your septic system by reducing soil saturation, along with pollution due to leaks.

• Water conservation helps prevent water pollution in lakes, rivers, and local watersheds. When it comes to having a new home that has a light environmental footprint, ask yourself, what’s your plan?

• Make sure your faucets and pipes are not leaking. Even little drips from leaky faucets can waste up to 20 gallons of water per day. In fact, there is a new product called ShowerStart, which saves the water and energy used while waiting for the shower to become warm. A small thermostatic shut-off valve (TSV) is all that’s needed to protect the resources that many homeowners don’t know they are wasting.

• Federal plumbing standards specify that any new toilet must use only 1.6 gallons per flush.

• In the garden of your new home, install a rain collection system so that you can use natural rainwater to drench for your yard, which lowers your water bill too. According to EarthEasy, your new home can be built with a roof for water containment. Just 1,000 square feet provides about 600 gallons of water during a one-inch rainfall.

• Installing drought landscaping with indigenous plants, which will cut back on outdoor water usage, Grass and flowers that require high water maintenance. Always use drought-resistant vegetation and replace perennials with native plants.

• The best time to water your garden is early in the morning when loss of water due to evaporation is reduced.

• Use a broom instead of the hose and water to wash down driveways, sidewalks and patios. Wash your car using a bucket, not the water sprayer.

• Use the correct settings on home appliances such as the dishwasher and washer.  Run a full load of laundry every time, but when you don’t have a full load, adjust the settings to use less water.

6.  Stop the drip! Fix those leaky faucets, and save water.

7.  Has it ever occurred to you to use the cold cycle when doing your laundry? What about line-drying some of your clothes? This is a common practice in many tropical climates; elsewhere, you can line-dry your clothes in the spring and summer months.

8.  Save a tree—or a few them. Instead of using paper towels and paper napkins, use dishcloths and cloth napkins.

9.  Don’t throw out printed paper. Use the other side if possible—at least as scrap paper.

10.  Recycle glass and plastic bottles, cans, and jars; plastic containers; cardboard; paper; and cell phones, chargers, and other electronic devices. Some municipalities have introduced “single stream” recycling, in which they pick up containers filled with mixed recycling items, making it easier for households to recycle.

These are just simple, painless ways of being active participants in preserving the planet and fostering environmental responsibility. Start by doing the little things, and before you realize it you’ll be on your way to a healthier and “greener” lifestyle.


Are you looking to build an energy efficient home or are you in the process of building your green home and have some more suggestions? Let us know in the comments section below – we’d love to hear from you!




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