High-Performance Homes – Water and Energy Efficiency

High-Performance Homes – Water and Energy Efficiency

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 energystar.gov, “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”!

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High-Performance Homes – Wellness Part 2

High-Performance Homes – Wellness Part 2

“It’s Raining In The Basement!”

True story. Eight days after moving into their newly-built home, while Mom and Dad were away, one of their children was interrupted and left the water running in the laundry room sink. A few minutes later another one of their kids who was playing video games starts yelling “It’s raining in the basement!” Making matters worse, this was a 2-story home with a second-floor laundry room! By the time Mom and Dad got home, their drywall ceiling was little more than white mush soaking into their brand-new wood kitchen floors. At least the basement wasn’t finished! A few days later they had a water leak detection system with wireless sensors which, if they got wet, would shut the water off to the entire house. At worst they would have a small puddle to wipe up. Lesson learned – the hard way.

Further complicating the situation, all four of the kids and that Mom suffered from asthma. They had prioritized wellness and spent extra money on low-VOC materials and a high-performance air purification system. After having baseboards torn off, drywall cut out, and running huge fans to dry things out, the owners’ concerns turned to mold. Fortunately,  this was a one-time event and things dried out properly. Mold tends to thrive in high humidity and areas which repeatedly get wet, such as bathrooms.

While most people’s thoughts turn to the conservation of natural resources when hearing “high-performance home”, the National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) recognized “wellness” as an essential element of building such a home.  Our last post looked primarily at indoor air quality and your wellness. The NAHB further identified mold prevention and natural light levels as essential aspects of wellness.

High Performance Homes - Wellness Pt 2

Remove excess humidity in the home

Bathing and showering release lots of water into the air, just look at your steamed-over mirrors! For your family’s wellness as well as to prevent damage to your home, that excess humidity needs to be removed. Opening a bathroom window can do the trick, but a year-round solution is having a properly-sized bathroom exhaust fan vented directly to the outside (not just up into the attic where the moisture can accumulate and cause problems undetected.) Bathroom ventilation fans are rated in cubic feet of air moved per minute (CFM), so to choose the right size fan, first figure your bathroom’s size by multiplying your bathroom’s length x width x height. Divide that number by 60 minutes, and then finally multiply by 8, the suggested number of air changes per hour for a bathroom.

If you were sizing a fan for the Bonham plan 42239V Suite’s bathroom:

  • 15’-5”L x 9’-8”W x 9’H = 1342 cubic feet
  • 1342 ÷ 60 = 22.4
  • 4 x 8 = 179

Therefore, you would look for a bathroom fan rated for at least 179 CFM. Also, consider the fan’s sound rating. While some fans are so quiet you won’t hear them running, others are annoyingly loud. You’ll recall, quiet, addressed in the first post in this series, is another aspect of a high-performance home.

As with a bathroom vent fan that merely ducts the humidity into an attic, water regularly accumulating somewhere you’re not likely to see is a recipe for mold problems. That’s why homes should be built with a moisture barrier such as housewrap products on the outside of the home, helping prevent water from seeping through the siding materials. Similarly, the roof felt under your shingles helps keep water from leaking into your attic, repeatedly wetting the wood framing members and creating an environment for mold growth.

42239V_Bonham 1clKO

Did you know air conditioning’s original purpose was dehumidification – not cooling? Your home’s HVAC system plays an important role in establishing healthy overall levels of humidity in your home. Your AC helps remove humidity from warm, moist summertime air, as the air coming out of your air conditioner is much drier. You may also have a humidifier integrated into your furnace system to add humidity to cold, dry, wintertime air, helping you avoid dry, scratchy throats and similar discomforts.

Ecobee’s smart thermostats make it easy to control your home’s humidity levels as well as temperatures in your home. www.ecobee.com


Ecobee Smart Thermostat

Increase daylight

Our former blog post, Designing With Natural Light, looked at the wonderful aesthetic opportunities afforded by daylight in your home. As seen in the sidebar, there is also an increasing understanding of health-related issues associated with sunlight.

The Bonham design’s eating area and Suite bedroom illustrate a desirable amenity – windows on two sides of the room for increased levels of natural light from two directions. A high transom window helps illuminate the bathroom, reducing eyestrain and the frustration associated with how different light bulbs render makeup colors differently. Also, there’s a window in the walk-in closet which provides a parallel benefit, making it easier to discern navy blue from black.

Single-wide windows in bedrooms 2 and 3 of the Bonham design meet building code requirements for egress, but the double-wide windows provide twice as much sunlight. The number of windows, their size, and placement, along with your home’s orientation to the sun, are key factors to consider. Of course, energy efficiency is a prime consideration when looking at high-performance windows. Opposite of insulation R-values in which higher numbers mean better insulating properties, window performance is measured in U-factors, in which lower numbers indicate better insulation.


Covered porches are very popular as they provide cool shade as well as shelter from the rain, but they also cut down the amount of sunlight making its way into the Great Room. Skylights to the rescue! Denoted by the dashed red lines, sunlight streams through three skylights in the Bonham’s Great Room filling your open entertaining area with natural light, creating a delightful, sunny place in this home for everyone to enjoy. A skylight is also suggested in the home’s interior laundry room where no window is possible, easing the frustration of poor lighting common with windowless areas in the home.

First, we examined high-performance homes in terms of comfort. Then how they can contribute to your overall wellness. Join us next time as we turn to the NAHB’s other aspects of high-performance home building – efficient use of water and energy.

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High-Performance Homes – Wellness

High-Performance Homes – Wellness

Your Indoor Air Quality Is Nothing To Sneeze At!

Feeling good…feels so good! When there’s no more cough or runny nose, your energy’s back, you’re no longer so irritable or depressed – this is how life is supposed to be!

Still, we rarely notice or appreciate feeling good until we recover from some illness or injury. After the doctor visits, the medicines, and the suffering subsides. Doesn’t it seem that “health care” in our society is really “sick care”? Most of the emphasis, attention, and dollars are placed on helping you recover from (or cope with) whatever ails you. Where’s the “wellness” in health and wellness?

Wellness begins at home, where we spend so much of our lives. The National Association of Home Builders even recognized wellness as an essential aspect of a “high-performance home.” Let’s take a closer look at how your home is built affects your overall wellness.

High Performance Homes - Wellness Pt 1

Healthier Air

In our last post discussing your comfort, we covered the importance of building a fairly airtight home. Effective air sealing and insulation is great when it comes to maintaining desired temperatures, eliminating drafts, and reducing energy consumption, but can also trap indoor pollutants and allergens. Therefore, bringing a controlled amount of outside air into the home and expelling an equal amount of potentially stale indoor air are essential for your family’s health.

Energy Recovery Ventilators (ERVs) not only exchange indoor air, excess moisture, and airborne pollutants for fresh outside air, they also extract much of your warm wintertime indoor air’s heat to pre-warm the incoming colder outside air. During the summer the reverse happens – heat and humidity is extracted from the incoming outdoor warm air, making the ERVs an essential component for both Indoor Air Quality and energy efficiency. While numerous ERVs are available, Broan’s AI Series ERVs offer easy-to-use, intuitive controls or you can choose to let the ERV continually monitor temperature, indoor air quality, and pressure, adjusting in real-time to deliver optimal air quality – all on its own. The ERVs even come with high-performance filters to clean the incoming air.

Air filtration and air purification products can be complementary, but they are not the same.  Air filtration has the goal of trapping airborne particles, from dust and other allergens to viruses, adding to your wellness.  As part of a typical HVAC system, an air filter’s effectiveness at trapping particles is reported as its MERV rating, with the higher MERV-rated filters better at catching smaller and smaller particles you don’t want floating around. Cheaper, disposable air filters, typically 1-inch thick, have MERV ratings typically around 5-8. MERV 9-12 filters are often thicker, sliding into specially-designed housings. Filters with MERV 13-16 ratings are usually thicker and often pleated, providing more filtration area. The American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning (ASHRAE, which created the MERV rating system), recommends MERV 13-14 for residential HVAC systems, but generally, the higher the MERV rating, the more restricted the airflow. Therefore, you need to make sure your HVAC system is designed with more restrictive air filtration in mind. Otherwise, a high MERV-rated filter will make your furnace fan work harder/longer, using more energy and shortening equipment life.

Air Filter MERV effectiveness

Peace and Quiet

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) can be particularly problematic for individuals suffering from asthma, allergies, or chemical sensitivities. Paints, carpeting and other flooring materials/finishes, and composite wood products (often found in your home’s trim and cabinetry) off-gas VOCs, especially when they are new. Low-VOC product options are often available, and care in choosing these options can positively affect your wellness. Air purification has the objective of cleaning and sanitizing the air in your home. Most often this is accomplished with UV light to destroy microorganisms, VOCs, bacteria, and some viruses. If you have household members dealing with asthma or allergies, an air purifier can make a huge difference in their wellness. You may even find yourself spending less on rescue and maintenance medications! HVAC products which combine both high-performance air filtration and purification are available. Talk with your builder and/or the HVAC contractor about the solution that’s best for you.

Sometimes dinner’s aroma makes your mouth water. And at other times the smells can be unwelcome and overpowering. Removing cooking odors from open, entertaining areas is one of the reasons for the popularity of work-in kitchens. However, most new home designs don’t offer that amenity. The next-best solution for removing cooking odors, grease, smoke, as well as excess heat and humidity is a kitchen exhaust fan/range hood, vented directly outside (not just up into the attic).  How big of a fan do you need?  With the recommendation of exchanging all of the air in the kitchen 15 times per hour or every 4 minutes, that was fairly easy to calculate when kitchens were more defined.

Oakridge Great Room

The Oakridge’s 16-foot 3-inch by 13-foot kitchen at left had an 8-foot high ceiling. 16.25 x 13 x 8 = 1690 cubic feet, ÷ 4 = 422.5 cubic feet of air per minute (CFM), the suggested range hood fan size. But what about open kitchen layouts such as the Markham Ridge plan at right? There’s a rule of thumb that you want a minimum of 100 CFM fan size for every 12-inches of stove width, which would call for a minimum 250 CFM range hood. But that same rule of thumb suggests 150 CFM per 12-inches of width if the cooktop is in an island rather than against a wall because of its openness (minimum 375 CFM fan) – a more appropriate measure for open floor plans.

Markham Ridge Family Room

Another consideration is fan noise.  Opting for a larger fan than what these rules of thumb suggest, operating at a lower speed, might be a quieter solution that contributes to your wellness.

Our Her Home Inspirations emails and blog posts are all about helping you make wise, informed decisions regarding your new home’s design and the products used. And that includes wellness – not as an afterthought, but as a priority! We’ll finish up the discussion on wellness in our next post, where we look at moisture issues (especially mold), and the importance of natural light.

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High-Performance Homes – Boosting Comfort

High-Performance Homes – Boosting Comfort

Making Your Home Buying Decision Easier

You want a new, comfortable home. A dream come true where the indoor environment is always perfect, and the loudest sound you hear is the clock ticking.

But there are so many other priority issues competing for your attention and your wallet when having a new home built, that comfort often takes a backseat. Later, regrets replace the excitement, as the bedroom’s too hot and too noisy to get the sleep you need.

Fortunately, you don’t have to trade off comfort to achieve goals such as energy efficiency or being environmentally responsible. Increased comfort is one of the outcomes of building a high-performance home. Tighter, better-insulated homes minimize irritating drafts and unwanted noise, while properly designed and installed HVAC systems help maintain consistent temperatures throughout your home. Then, with energy-wise, environmentally-friendly construction having gotten you a long way towards your comfort objectives, the remaining opportunities are easier to focus on and address.  

Air Sealing + Insulation

Typically, the “greenest” decision you can make in building a new home is to make it more energy-efficient. Using less energy means burning fewer fossil fuels, which in turn dramatically reduces greenhouse gasses.  The first step is to minimize air leakage through walls, roof, window, and door openings. Then, insulation can do its job of keeping outside temperatures from tyrannizing your indoor environment.

Stopping air leakage and properly insulating your home is referred to as creating a “continuous building envelope”. Building exterior walls with Insulated Concrete Forms (ICFs), or using Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) for exterior walls and roofs are both excellent solutions for creating a continuous building envelope and a high-performance home. Though traditionally thought to be slightly more expensive than conventional construction, when lumber prices skyrocketed in 2021, the popularity of these building systems surged.

Insulated Concrete Forms

ICFs consist of two insulating foam slabs, separated by spacer/ties, which are filled with concrete and reinforced with steel rebar, creating an extremely strong, energy efficient wall system that can be used below and above grade.

Insulated Concrete Forms

SIPs typically utilize two wood “skins” surrounding a thick slab of insulating foam to create highly energy-efficient exterior wall and roof panels. Built in a factory, structurally insulated panels significantly reduce jobsite waste while also speeding up onsite construction.

Still, most homes are built with 2x4- or 2x6-inch exterior frame walls with trussed or hand-framed roofs. Failing to implement air sealing methods would be like driving around Minneapolis in the winter with your windows rolled down. While your car’s heater might be blowing warm air full blast, that warm air quickly escapes and you’re shivering. Common new home air sealing solutions include: “house wrap” products; weatherstripping around windows and doors: taping all seams as well as around penetrations such as pipes, and carefully filling gaps with caulk or spray foam. Such steps also help control moisture levels in your home.

The better the air-sealing, the “tighter” your new home will be, and the better your insulation can work. While more expensive than common insulation products, spray-in foam insulation expands, filling gaps in the exterior framing. Insulation effectiveness is measured in R-value (resistance to heat transfer through the insulation material). The higher the R-value, the better that product is in keeping your home comfortable. Today’s more stringent residential energy codes have led many builders to choose to build their homes with 2x6-inch exterior walls because those thicker walls can hold more insulation. (Note, compared to building with 2x4-inch exterior walls, interior rooms in homes with 2x6-inch walls will be slightly smaller.) Fiberglass rolls and pre-cut batts, are the most common type of insulation and generally work well if an effective air sealing approach has been used. However, in corners, uneven surfaces, nooks and crannies, these fiberglass products are difficult to install and can result in voids which can translate to cold spots. Fiberglass can also be blown-in, as with cellulose insulation, better addressing the hard-to-insulate areas. While a little bit more expensive, cellulose delivers a higher R-value than fiberglass.

Expanding Spray Foam

Expanding spray-in foam provides both air sealing and high-performance insulation.

Fiberglass Insulation

To achieve its insulating properties, fiberglass must be uncompressed, making it more difficult to install around electrical boxes, plumbing, and other interruptions.

In addition to high-performance air sealing and insulation, energy-efficient windows and exterior doors complete the exterior product decisions. Having created a fairly airtight home, care needs to be taken in properly designing and sizing your home’s HVAC system to deliver the warm or cool temperature you desire. Defaulting to the “rule of thumb” for sizing heating and cooling equipment in a well-insulated home can result in oversized (and more costly) equipment and ductwork which will cycle on and off quickly and inefficiently.


Not to be overlooked, humidity levels in your home affect your comfort (and health!) With drier wintertime air, a power humidifier can add moisture to the air in your home, making it feel warmer. In warmer months, your air conditioner helps reduce humidity in the home. Properly-sized bathroom exhaust fans and kitchen range hoods, vented directly outside, will expel the excess moisture from those steamy showers and pots of boiling pasta.

Unlike the old “programmable” thermostats (which few of us ever learned to “program!”) smart thermostats such as Google’s Nest and Ecobee “learn” your comfort preferences and factor in humidity levels to help maintain the optimum indoor environment. Rather than the crude settings of standard thermostats, these smart alternatives can help save more than 20% on utility bills and are compatible with many related smart home products and systems.

Peace and Quiet

Once you consider it, it seems obvious that filling the gaps in exterior walls should reduce unwanted noise – and it does! (More on quiet construction aspects here.) Essentially, the more airtight the home, the more soundproof it is from external noise such as vehicles, lawnmowers, and loud neighbors. Beyond that, enjoying a quiet home focuses on a few key decisions to help control sounds within the home. Carpeting with pad and higher quality luxury vinyl planks and tiles with sound-absorbent pads help reduce the sound of people walking around. Acoustic wall mats, sound deadening drywall, and even traditional wall insulation products can all help minimize the sounds emanating from a home theatre or toilet flushes from a bathroom. Solid core doors block much more noise than hollow-core interior doors, and quiet, Energy-Star rated appliances and bath fans, as well as quiet garage door openers, can contribute to achieving serenity in your home. (More on quiet product choices here.)

High-performance home building is the key to your comfort, along with benefitting our entire nation! But because the term high-performance home building has many definitions, each with its own solutions, the plethora of options has led to confusion. To make your home buying decision easier, the National Association of Home Builders published a list of essential components of a high-performance home (see excerpt at right). Join us for our next post as we look at the related topic of wellness – another quality of a high-performance home!

Infographic - Boosting Comfort

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Are your Kitchen Cabinets BALD?

Are your Kitchen Cabinets BALD?

You’ve stopped at the staircase landing coming down from the upstairs bedrooms. What a lovely view this Cedar Creek home design offers, with the ceiling sloping upwards from the back wall to a height of 18-feet! But as your gaze turns towards the kitchen, there they are, your bald kitchen cabinets. There’s nothing on the tops of those upper cabinets. They’re bare. Unfinished. Why didn’t someone tell you upper cabinet tops generally aren’t finished?

Oftentimes, unfinished tops of upper kitchen cabinets simply aren’t seen, and this is a non-issue.  The bottom of upper cabinets typically sits at 54-inches from the floor.  With upper cabinets commonly 36-inches or 42-inches tall, that places the tops of those cabinets at 90 - 96-inches (7½ - 8-feet high.) So in a one-story home, the only time those cabinet tops would be seen is when standing on a step stool. Even in most two-story homes, the space above those upper cabinets isn’t observed.  Still, with two-story homes, this view should be considered, so that it doesn’t turn into a regret!

At the time your cabinets are being ordered, pieces similar to cabinet “end panels” can be ordered in the same wood species and finish. For today’s typical 9-foot-high kitchen ceilings, other options include ordering even taller upper kitchen cabinets or adding a drywall bulkhead/soffit, filling the gap between the unfinished cabinet tops and ceiling. Some people have added cubbies atop the upper cabinets for storage or display.

Bald can be beautiful – but not for kitchen cabinet tops! Even without cubbies, displaying decorative items, vases, baskets, artwork, and collectibles is a common way to help cover up the unfinished cabinet tops. At best, those are poor “fixes” to the oversight of not having considered views throughout the home.  When envisioning living in the home as you study the floor plans, place yourself at multiple places throughout the home and imagine the 360° views.  Especially in spaces with tall ceilings, do you love everything you see?

Cedar Creek
Cedar Creek Downstairs Floor Plan
Cedar Creek Upstairs Floor Plan

Looking for similar advice for building your new home?  Check out the No Regrets issue of Her Home Magazine

Her Home Magazine - No Regrets Issue

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