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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Build to Rent – Why Some New Home Buyers Are Choosing To Rent Instead

Build to Rent – Why Some New Home Buyers Are Choosing To Rent Instead

Build-To-Rent (BTR) new homes are attracting people away from other housing rental options and from the for-sale home market. The reasons are varied but ultimately fall into the camps of the renter’s lifestyle, preferences and aversions, life stage factors, and of course, the financial aspects.


Build to Rent List 1

As mentioned in our last post, there’s a growing mindset for leasing (paying for the use of) rather than buying (paying to own) from the automotive industry that’s becoming more prevalent in housing. The desire to own your own home is waning a bit, especially with BTR new home neighborhoods offering the new home benefits without the associated ownership obligations. These renters enjoy the sense of community and privacy inherent in single-family neighborhoods while having a landlord take care of the maintenance. BTR is viewed as freedom from the nagging and stress of homeownership upkeep and repairs. Furthermore, renting that brand-new home is immediately gratifying, as opposed to the years required to save up enough money for a purchase down payment!

COVID-19 accelerated consideration of single-family over multi-family housing options, as people sought to distance themselves and their families from the pandemic. Employees and their companies both realized that there were benefits from working from home, at least when those homes had adequate space. Flexibility became paramount, both in the design of their living and working space as well as the flexibility to live where they wanted as opposed to living near the workplace. With only a 1-year lease, renting provides more flexibility to pursue other career opportunities.

Getting what they want, avoiding what they don’t want

Build to Rent List 2

Choosing where to live is highly emotional, and people aspire to live in a new construction home!  There’s something unique and special about being the first person to get to enjoy the home when everything’s sparkling new.  Then there’s status.  What does living in a brand-new home say about that person, and how does it make them feel about themselves? Perhaps the only thing that was “new” in their present home was the paint on the walls. Having everything new in the BTR home is exciting for the new tenants. 

Choosing a BTR new home may match the school district they want to live in. They may not have had the security and convenience of a garage previously or even a convenient parking space. Even simply having a backyard can make an enormous difference. Now they can host the backyard celebration and do the grilling (their apartment didn’t allow grills due to the fire hazard.) Plus there’s the convenience of being able to let the dogs out without having to leash them up – if the apartment allowed dogs at all.

As much as they’re looking forward to the BTR home benefits, they may be even more anxious to be done with the drawbacks of their current home.  It might be eliminating the noise from neighbors above and below. Or the crowded, noisy hallways with other residents coming and going at all times of the day. It may be the dated design and finishes of the house they’re currently in. Perhaps they would rather sell their current house and rent a new one, avoiding the costly repairs their current home needs.


Build to Rent List 3

Compared to multifamily tenants, single-family home renters tend to be older and are considerably more likely to have children present in the home. While they come from all demographic groups, a disproportionate share are Millennials, who in 2021 are 25-40 years old. Many have come to realize a single-family home’s size and amenities would better suit their household than multifamily units. The emergence of BTR homes may provide this generation the opportunity to bypass the traditional (used) starter home entirely and move into what may be considered a first-time move-up home.

Add to this group Gen Xers (now 41-56 years old) and Baby Boomers (age 57-75), for which the available multi-family options fail to inspire. Some are tired of the headaches that come with maintaining older homes. Others can’t imagine giving up the single-family housing lifestyle. Empty-nesters may be looking to downsize, sell their current home and enjoy a maintenance-free lifestyle.

Financial Considerations

Build to Rent List 3

Renters are committing to a predictable payment. Though home buyers may enjoy a fixed mortgage payment, property taxes and homeowners’ insurance rates tend to spiral upward, while maintenance and needed repairs can be monthly budget-busters. Then there’s the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which increased the standard married couples income tax deduction to $25,100 (2021), mostly canceling out any mortgage interest deduction on their federal tax returns.  

BTR tenants tend to have good jobs and steady, if not stellar, incomes. But even with two incomes, for many, saving up for the down payment has been the major obstacle to purchasing a home. 2021’s meteoric rise in home prices has escalated required down payment amounts, further frustrating Gen Z and Millennials who find themselves further from their needed down payment amount while burdened with student loan repayment. Choosing to rent rather than purchase means those down payment savings can be channeled into paying off credit cards and other debt, or even invested.

Fresh home designs with today’s most-wanted amenities

With BTR homes, renters enjoy many of the same features and benefits found in new for-sale houses. Whereas available existing rental homes may have her walking through the laundry room when coming in from the garage, a small, closed-off kitchen, and little appreciation for the importance of storage, the new home can address these issues beautifully!

Stronger, safer, and more energy-efficient, new construction homes are better built.  The layouts are typically more livable.  And builders understand that to attract buyers or renters, their new homes need to offer the in-demand technology today’s buyers and renters expect. BTR homes also may feature longer-lasting, lower-maintenance products and finishes, minimizing the builder’s ongoing costs. For example, in the Midwest where hailstorms are frequent, choosing slightly more expensive, Class 4 hail-impact resistant roof shingles can create a positive cash flow through reduced insurance costs as well as reducing the likelihood for expensive roof replacements.

The Watson, plan 8538 shown here may be ideal for renters with school-age and older children. It can have a welcoming no-step entry at the front door and from the garage and coupled with the home’s 32-in wide interior doors, expanding its appeal. Flex spaces become even more important in broadening the home’s attractiveness. This design’s den is well-situated for finishing schoolwork or as a home office, while the second-floor expansion could make storage concerns disappear. The overall design presents great curb appeal in a home well-suited to BTR due to its overall size.

BTR’s rational and emotional appeals for renters are numerous and powerful. Equally compelling are the numerous advantages BTR offers home builders, the focus of our next newsletter.

No Step Entry
8538 Comp Rendering

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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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Build to Rent – Part 1

Build to Rent – Part 1

Did you know more rental residents live in single-family homes than in apartments, according to the National Multifamily Housing Council? Historically, real estate investors would buy houses and turn them into rental properties. Those houses, scattered throughout communities, often have “mom and pop” landlords. But now, a significant trend has emerged – building brand new homes, often entire neighborhoods of brand-new homes, expressly to rent the houses.

Built-to-Rent (BTR) accounted for 49,000 housing starts in 2020, according to the Census Bureau and Harvard University’s Joint Center for Housing Studies. The players include local home builders building and managing their portfolio of rental properties; land developers designing and managing new rental home neighborhoods wherein they hire local builders to construct the homes; and investors collaborating with both developers and builders to create communities of rental homes under professional management. Further fueling this movement, national (single-family) builders and large multi-family (e.g., apartment) builders, have entered the BTR market.


BTR already accounts for 4% of single-family housing starts, and is growing

As opposed to individual infill BTR opportunities, Build-to-Rent neighborhoods typically offer amenities on par with what new home buyers find in comparable for-sale communities. Such amenities, coupled with the desire for more space, attached garages, and no overhead neighbors, are attracting a cross-section of households. Childless renters are more found in multifamily dwellings, whereas families with children are much more likely to rent single-family homes. The realities COVID-19 ushered in for working from home liberated many people from the necessity to work in traditional office buildings. And the idea of leasing, paying for the use of (rather than owning) “new” made popular in automotive circles, has become a mindset for many

42481 Comp Rendering

The 1642 sq. ft. Teglia Place is an efficient BTR design with amenities including its rear foyer entry and laundry connection to the Suite

Teglia Place Floorplan
Teglia Place Alternate Layout

An alternate layout (included) provides secondary bedroom walk-in closets instead of the ½-bath and walk-up closets.

Economics plays a key factor in the viability of BTR neighborhoods. While new for-sale homes come in all sizes and price points, there is a much more defined ceiling in terms of what most renters can afford.  Currently, value-engineered, three-bedroom homes, approximately 2,000 square feet or less are most popular for BTR, and typically 45-feet wide or narrower. Buyers and renters alike are attracted to many of the same home design features and solutions. But interestingly, product selections differ somewhat in BTR houses. Exterior products, from roofing to siding to decks, as well as interior choices of flooring and other surfaces are looked at with an eye towards both increased longevity and lower maintenance in new BTR homes.

In our next newsletter, we dive into why renters prefer new BTR homes, followed by part 3 of this series, BTR advantages for home builders.

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