The Future of American Housing

…is high-performance home building! Homes that are better for us, for our children and grandchildren, and our country. New home buyers want, even expect, a high-performance home. But just as with the word “quality”, the term “high-performance” has been used so many ways in home building that it has become vague and confusing. To provide clarity and a baseline, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) published their criteria for constructing a high-performance home around three benefits: comfort, wellness, and efficiency – the subject of this post. 

In looking at a new home, as home buyers, we tend to focus on individual decisions in isolation. A co-worker’s new home was insulated with expanding foam, they love it, and you want your new home built that way, too. Home builders on the other hand understand that a new home is a system, comprised of inter-related decisions. That super-insulated home will call for downsizing the home’s HVAC system and ductwork. Failing to do so would mean wasting money on larger HVAC system components which would cycle on and off quickly, thereby costing you more for utilities, too. And having larger ductwork is like trying to blow through a big, round tube vs. blowing through a straw. It won’t seem like much of the conditioned air is coming out of those oversized ducts.

Fortunately, many of the same decisions which contribute to your comfort and wellness are solutions to achieving an energy-efficient home with lower utility bills. Air sealing measures such as a housewrap, plus close attention to caulking voids and seams, reduce uncomfortable drafts and contribute to the effectiveness of your home’s insulation.


Building with Structurally Insulated Panel (SIPs), or Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs) provides superior insulation and air-sealing, drastically reducing energy use. Choosing one of those advanced construction techniques can also affect the design. We’ll use Design Basics’ Cavanaugh plan to illustrate:


Plan 8540BL as originally designed with 2x4” exterior walls – 1,699 sq. ft. (without optional 2nd floor expansion.)


As originally designed, with 9’-high main level walls and 10’-high ceiling in MBR.


Optional expansion/storage adds 165 sq. ft.


Plan 8540FOX adapted for 11.25” thick ICF exterior walls – 1,877 sq. ft. (without optional 2nd floor expansion.)

8540 ECO_1

The width and depth of the home grew because of the thicker ICF walls, some room sizes changed slightly.

8540 ECO_2

Note: due to their weight, ICFs are used for 2nd-floor walls only when they stack directly over main floor ICFs.


Plan 8540SUL adapted for SIP construction. Note SIP rooflines change slightly. Second-floor loft adds 201 sq. ft. for a total of 1,900.


The SIP roof means dramatic ceilings sloping upward from the back of the MBR, Family Room and eating area.


Sloping SIP rooflines create a loft overlooking the 1st-floor; BR3’s ceiling slopes up from the front; BR2 has a cathedral ceiling. Also, a play loft can be built above the bathroom and walk-in closet, accessed by a ladder from BR3.


Tight, well-insulated homes can be heated and cooled with less expensive, smaller furnaces and air conditioners. Optimal efficiency and comfort can be achieved when you pair your HVAC equipment with a smart thermostat that “learns” your preferences, continually monitors indoor conditions and operates your system accordingly without your need to adjust it.

ENERGY STAR-rated lighting and appliances complete an energy-efficient home.  LED lighting prices and selection have become so attractive that choosing LED bulbs and fixtures a no-brainer. ENERGY STAR ratings for kitchen and laundry appliances make it easy to take energy consumption into account when selecting your new appliances.  As reported on, “Water heaters account for 12 percent of residential energy consumption.” Several ENERGY STAR-rated water heaters are available, and you can easily recoup the added cost in utility savings.

he question sometimes arises in conjunction with water heaters: which uses more water, tankless, or tank-type water heaters? If you’ve lived in a 2-story home with your water heater in the basement, you know how much water is wasted before hot water reaches your showerhead! But assuming the same location for your water heater – regardless of the type – there’s likely very little if any difference. You have the same amount of cool water to push out of the way before the hot water reaches your shower. This brings up another factor, the length of the water pipe runs. Notice that the Cavanaugh plan’s Owner’s Bathroom, laundry room, and half-bath are in close proximity, and the second-floor bathroom is above the laundry room?

Originally designed on a basement foundation, the Cavanaugh plan’s suggested water heater location is directly beneath the Owner’s Suite walk-in closet, keeping water pipe runs efficiently short.

8540 Basement Highlight

Choosing water-saving dishwashers and clothes washers can cut water consumption in half compared to older models. Further, the US EPA has a program identifying water-saving products for the home, WaterSense. Toilets, faucets, and showerheads bearing the WaterSense label have been certified to meet the EPA’s specifications for water efficiency.

As posted by the EPA, “Nationwide, landscape irrigation is estimated to account for nearly one-third of all residential water use.” And, as much as 50% of that water is wasted, due in large part to inefficient irrigation methods systems! WaterSense labeled products also include both weather-based and/or soil moisture-based sprinkler system controllers which can keep you from overwatering. Finally, selecting grass types and landscape plantings that need less water will further reduce the amount of water used.

Our previous post “It’s Raining In The Basement!” chronicled the woes of a catastrophic water leak in a brand-new home. Following remediation, the new home owners purchased a whole-house water leak detection system. Small wireless remote sensors were placed where leaks if any, would likely occur. Then, should a leak happen, the home’s water supply would automatically be shut off, stopping the leak.

As a nation, we can build better homes, and following the NAHB’s high-performance home guidelines is a fast track to “better”!

For more resources on thoughtful design and products:

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