Building a High-Performance House [Complete Guide]
Rising energy costs and climate change have brought back to the table the topic of a high-performance home. Although seemingly vague, a high-performance home is more than energy efficient: it takes care of your and the building’s health. It takes energy efficiency to the next level and reduces your total energy use by more than 60%. When coupled with a good solar panel array, it will reduce your carbon footprint to virtually zero.
All of this can be achieved with very little extra input during the construction phase. Needless to say, a high-performance home costs more to build, but significantly less to maintain and operate. In fact, an average US household is predicted to give away around $15,000 every 10 years on their electricity bill, excluding inflation and energy costs rising year after year.
What is a High Performance Home?
Taking this into consideration, it is clear that a high-performance home costs more to build but will save money over its lifespan. $15,000 every decade for electricity only means around $60,000 for the first 40 years of owning a home. These are not the only bills you have to pay to run your home, as you may have to pay all of the below and more:
- Electric bill – $1,500 per year,
- Water bill – $580 per year,
- Sewer bill – $900 per year, and
- Natural gas bill – $670 per year.
A high-performance home is a home that has been designed to use the least possible amount of energy and water for its operation. With this in mind, you can expect at least a 60% reduction in all of the utilities listed above, or $2,200 per year less in your utility bills. This sounds very feasible, especially as a high-performance home also decreases the work that needs to be done around the house and on its maintenance.
So, a high-performance home combines insulation and water-saving techniques to do the most it can with the least possible use of energy. A high-performance building of any kind has a good thermal envelope, energy-efficient windows, and different solutions that enable you to save both energy and water. A high-performance building usually integrates some renewable energy source:
- A solar array,
- A residential wind turbine,
- A geothermal energy source, etc.
Considering that an average high-performance building uses much less energy than a conventional building of the same size, it is clear that the renewable energy source needs to be much smaller as well. This boosts your savings even further, as it offsets the high initial cost of installing a renewable energy source.
A high-performance home has a very high energy-efficiency level. This basically means that the house uses very little energy for its operation. As this energy efficiency refers to both electricity and heat, we will consider each of these separately.
A high-performance home uses very little electricity. During the design and construction phase, high-performance buildings are usually equipped with large, energy-efficient windows which let in a lot of natural light and heat. In addition to this, they usually come with energy-efficient appliances, such as dishwashers and laundry machines with a hot water inlet. The hot water is usually provided by rooftop solar collectors.
In addition to this, high-performance buildings also use the least possible amount of heat. This is achieved thanks to thick layers of insulating materials, much thicker than the climate would demand. Large windows also let in a lot of natural heat during the winter, while sun shades and other features of the building block that same light from entering the house during the summer. In addition to this, these buildings and homes provide mechanical ventilation with heat or energy recovery (HRV or ERV).
Continuous insulation is the last word of building science. It ensures that no thermal bridges can form and that no heat is lost. Considering the climate change and all the temperature extremes that we can already experience, this is a very good way to insulate a home and use less energy than usual.
Health & Air Quality
While the heat recovery ventilation (with a heat exchanger) releases the stale air outside and brings fresh air inside, it does only heat it during wintertime and cools it during summer. Quite on contrary, it also filters the air and removes any fine particles that could be deposited around your home as dust or that can be harmful to your health.
These particles include PM particles, such as PM10 and PM2.5 particles. While the first kind can be found close to dry areas, mines, dry riverbeds, and in the vicinity of construction sites, it can seriously damage your health, by irritating the nose, the lungs, and the eyes. The symptoms are similar to strong allergies and can last for months.
PM2.5 particles, on the other hand, cause more detrimental damage to the body. Recently linked to lung cancer, these particles can also penetrate the bloodstream and cause more damage on their way through your body. The PM2.5 and PM10 particles are always filtered out using HEPA or MERV 12+ filters.
During the construction phase, special attention is paid to the materials, adhesives, and paints used throughout the object. The thing is that these should release no VOCs – Volatile Organic Compounds. In any case, even if a small quantity of these is present, high-performance homes use an energy recovery ventilator that can expel them outside.
Durability & Resilience
The durability and resilience of high-performance homes are also taken into consideration while designing such homes. Many of them take into consideration landscape and climate factors to provide the best possible protection against winds and rain. Slowly, these can degrade even the sturdiest of materials. The building science here relies on natural, sturdy materials to guarantee both health to the occupants, as well as the sturdiness and structural integrity of the building itself.
Most high-performance homes come ready for smart technology. Far from simple wall outlets that did an excellent job 50 years ago, these homes come equipped with sensors and other digital technologies that enable them to use less energy, provide a healthier living environment, and help mitigate climate change.
Some interesting digital solutions include monitoring inside air quality and only starting up exhaust air pumps or ventilators when the air quality has degraded. Other solutions can include inlet air dehumidifiers, automatic shades, and energy and water management systems as well. It is important to note that these solutions do not replace, but rather complement low-tech solutions, such as natural ventilation, heat mass placement, and draft pathway design that’s supposed to keep high-performance homes liveable places.
Whole Life Cycle of the Building
Building high-performance homes also relies on overviewing and raising awareness of the entire life cycle of a building. These homes are built mostly from natural materials and salvaged materials, where possible. They are also made in such a way that they are relatively easy to recycle once their lifetime is over.
The optimal design practice is usually followed in high-performance homes. Intended for residential use and made from natural building materials, these homes are designed in such a way that they draw on the aesthetics of the surroundings and the objects nearby. They can be of a very contemporary, modern, and minimalist design, or they can be of a more traditional design if this is needed to better match the surroundings.
Types of High Performance Home
A simple division of conventional and high-performance homes or buildings is not enough, as a further subdivision, based on residential energy use, is needed. Since there are no unique standards, many terms can be seen in the housing markets, ranging from ‘eco-friendy’, ‘eco plus’, etc. Here, we will deal with recognized bodies and their ideas of what high-performance homes can be like, including:
- Passive home,
- Net zero energy buildings,
- ILFI’s living building, and
The term passive house (also ‘passiv house’, ‘passiv haus’, or ‘passivhaus’) is used to describe a building that uses very little energy. It is built to the latest standards in the construction industry and with an addition of a solar array, it can easily become a net zero home. Combining a solar array with a solar battery will make it an off-grid, net-zero home. A home like this has to undergo certification to be called a passive house.
Net Zero Energy Buildings
Net Zero Energy buildings are a type of high-performing homes that use zero energy for both electrical and heating needs. These are basically passiv houses with a solar array or another type of renewable energy source that is utilized to offset the little energy that is used for electricity and heating. The cost of building these houses is higher than with conventional homes, but considering there are no heating and cooling costs, the new home pays off within decades.
ILFI’s Living Building Challenge
The International Living Future Institute has started its Living Building Challenge which seeks new ways of building that will limit the object to be built by its performance, locally available resources, and living space standards. The program offers a unique approach to net-positive buildings, stating that the building areas their program/challenge focuses on are:
- Place, as the building has to interact with the locale,
- Water, as all water has to be processed on-site,
- Energy, as the home, should produce more energy than it can consume,
- Health + Happiness,
- Materials should preferably be locally sourced and from responsible sources,
- Equity, and
LEED for Homes was founded by USGBC – the US Green Building Council. The LEED certification is offered in a three-tier system and is one of the most rigorous US-based efficient-building certifications available today. LEED homes provide their inhabitants with:
- Energy-efficient home,
- Low to no energy costs,
- Improved indoor air quality,
- Consistent temperature and humidity year-round,
- Sustainability in building and operation,
- Low maintenance,
- Low cost of homeownership,
- Environmentally friendly, and
- High resale value.
Benefits of a High Performance House
A high-performance house offers all of the above benefits that LEED certification for homes offers. With a simple installation of a small solar array, the entire home can easily be made into a net zero home and your living carbon footprint could be significantly reduced. There are even high-performance homes, such as passive + homes or net-positive buildings which lock in more carbon dioxide than they release during their lifetime.
Of course, your personal lifestyle dictates how most energy will be used. To be able to achieve this low level of energy use, you need to have at least a zero-energy ready home. This home will take care of both your bills and your health.
Costs of a High Performance House
Depending on where you live and what kind of passive house you would like to build, be ready to pay more than when building a conventional home. How much extra you will pay depends also on the company that you would like to hire to build the high-performance home for you as well as on the availability and the current pricing of the materials used in the house itself.
Needless to say, you will be paying more than with a regular, conventional home, but you will also have to pay less for energy and water year-round. Some passive houses or ILFI-style houses also take care of water on site, so you will have virtually no expenses for water or sewage either. For as long as there is rainfall every once in a while, you will be purchasing no water and paying nothing for your electricity needs.
High Performance Home Certifications
Building a home to be called a high-performance is one thing, but getting the necessary certification is something else. To get the certification, it has to be carried out by a third party. In addition to following very strict guidelines, you will also need to pass the certification itself.
Third-party verification is necessary to protect the standards in the industry and the green or high-performance home market. With this in mind, even if your home has been built according to the latest standards, it needs third-party certification to ensure that the home can join the high-performance home market.
High Performance Home Metrics
Here are some guidelines and metrics to help you better navigate what the market demands of a high-performance home:
Home Energy Rating System (HERS ) Index
The Home Energy Rating System Index or HERS Index measures how much energy a home uses without being able to provide it back. Normally, the lower the score, the better the home performance. Ideally speaking, a home should have a negative HERS Index score, meaning that it produces more energy than it consumes. However, as this is difficult to achieve, and may require technologies that take unreasonably long to pay off, a HERS Index score of 0 is already considered ideal.
When insulating a home, especially in a cold climate zone, the thickness of the material is of paramount importance. Living in a warmer climate means that you will need thinner insulating materials, but never that you need any: although insulating materials are designed to keep the warm air inside a home, they can also do the opposite. Indeed, keeping the hot air outside during the summer months is as important as keeping it inside during the winter months.
As it goes, cooling bills can be higher than heating bills, especially in very hot climates. Texas is a great example, as the summer temperatures are unbearable without a strong AC unit. Some solutions can increase the thermal performance of a house that is applied during the construction phase itself. Different forms of sun shades and blinds can help keep the house cool in the summer, but only to an extent, as heat can penetrate the house even through uninsulated walls.
Air tightness is another important factor to consider. Most of the air that enters or leaves the house does so through walls and window and door cracks. For this reason, it is necessary to:
- Create an air-tight envelope around the house,
- Seal any cracks and spaces between walls and window and door frames,
- Increase the durability of the connections and seals, as they tend to wear off with time,
- Consider forced or mechanical ventilation systems,
- Integrate other solutions to prevent moisture from building up in the object itself, as this can cause health problems due to mold and mildew that tend to build up with moisture and high humidity levels.
As an air-tight home needs mechanical ventilation, you will also need to consider energy recovery systems. These systems can recover energy that is lost in both letting in the cold outside air or letting hot water run to the sewer line. In any case, heat exchangers are the best solution there is right now, as they can help you recover over 60% (typically around 85%) of the heat that would have been otherwise lost.
Indoor Air Quality
Indoor air quality needs to be constantly monitored. This does not mean that homes that are not airtight have better air quality, quite on the contrary: as the air is exchanged between the house and the outside, particles and other pollutants can enter the house. With all this in mind, filtering the incoming air is important, and filters such as HEPA or MERV12 + filters are commonly used for this purpose.
Complementary Approaches Used by High Performance Homes
While this is not always necessary, there are also other ways to increase how healthy and comfortable the home is. These solutions include complex and expensive solutions, such as using all-natural materials, as well as recovered or recoverable materials. Indeed, the material choice has a big say in just how nature-friendly your home is. Let’s consider some complementary approaches to building high-performing homes.
Building Materials & Products Used
Building materials and products used are an important part of building an eco-friendly home, especially as many materials, paints, and sprays used in conventional homes can contain and slowly release into the air VOCs – Volatile Organic Compounds. Choosing the best materials may cost more, but it is always less than expensive medical bills and allergy-like symptoms year-round.
Indoor & Outdoor Air Circulation
Your home always exchanges air with the outside. This happens two ways: through door and window frame cracks and the walls themselves. As high-performance homes are airtight, for as much as possible, let’s consider how air circulation is different between conventional homes and high-performance buildings, such as passive houses.
Conventional homes have a high air exchange rate. This happens through tiny spaces between frames of windows and doors and the walls they are attached to. It also happens through the walls and the roof themselves, which can pollute the air in the home with tiny particles. All the dust and particles you can find in your attic slowly penetrate your home, making the air less healthy.
This also means that you spend way more on heating and cooling your home. As these two systems (or a single HVAC system) use a lot of energy, this means that your home’s HERS Index score and energy use rise with each air exchange cycle, making your home less of a high-performance home.
High Performance Homes
With all this in mind, your high-performance home has to be built differently from conventional homes. As the walls, doors, and windows are made to be airtight, air exchange has to be done differently. This is usually done through mechanical ventilation systems. As now we have air that is mechanically removed from the house, we have to find a way to keep all the heat in (or out of it, during the summer months).
This is done through heat exchangers. These simple devices take heat from one air stream and give it over to another, practically reducing the amount of air that you should air condition or heat. This results in significant savings, although, especially in high-pollution areas, it raises the question of how to get rid of pollutants found in the air that is about to be pumped into your house.
For this reason, HEPA or MERV air filters are used. These filters are an integral part of your home mechanical ventilation system and can filter out particles as small as 0.1 microns. This will give you clean air that is safe for your and your family’s health. Beware not to simply upgrade your existing ventilation with a HEPA or MERV filter, as they may reduce overall airflow and contribute to the worsening of pollution in your home – by promoting mold and mildew growth through the reduced airflow.
What are Five Good Features of an Ideal House?
High-performing homes have:
• South-facing windows,
• An airtight structure,
• Good insulating properties,
• A lot of thermal mass all around the home, and
• Mechanical ventilation with a heat exchanger.
What are the 5 Principles of Green Building?
Green building principles encompass the following 5 principles:
• Livable, accessible communities which are walker, rather than car-friendly,
• Energy efficiency throughout the building or apartment complex,
• Resource conservation, as all trees and local plants, should be left intact during the construction, wherever possible,
• Water conservation, as all the water (or most of it), should be coming from rainwater and be treated on-site,
• Air-quality management, for long-term health benefits.
What are the 7 Most Common Green Building Practices?
Green building practices are varied over the world and across climate zones. However, there are seven universal building practices that should be considered in every project:
• The building has to work with the site and the surrounding buildings and natural resources,
• Energy efficiency is favored wherever possible,
• Water efficiency is favored even in water-rich areas,
• Indoor air quality is constantly monitored and managed,
• Waste is managed on-site and reduced as much as possible,
• Material efficiency is followed throughout the lifespan of the building,
• Low maintenance and operational cost solutions are integrated wherever possible.
What is the Green Building Strategy?
A green building strategy is a building or construction strategy that takes into consideration the impact that the construction process, the building itself, and its possible future demolition will have on the environment. The recycling of the materials is also taken into consideration and all possible efforts to reduce the carbon footprint and the impact the building has on the environment are undertaken.
Building high-performance building costs more initially, but the extra initial investment is paid back over the lifetime of the building through reduced operational and maintenance costs. A home like this will also provide its inhabitants with a variety of other benefits, in particular by reducing their carbon footprint and ensuring their increased health. Systems to maintain high indoor air quality, water management, and renewable energy systems are all integrated into the fabric of the house, providing you with maximum benefits and asking for little to no input on your side.