Breaking down the elements of an energy efficient building

The up-front costs of energy efficient buildings and passive houses may be relatively high. But they are one of the most important ways to reduce energy use and thereby emissions – and, of course, energy bills. Justin Havre takes a look at how homeowners and businesses can act.

a small passive house building on Darmstadt University campus with a blue sky overhead and grasses growing in front of it

Passive houses can be both functional and attractive (Photo by Jeff Kubina, edited, CC BY-SA 2.0)


When it comes to an energy efficient home, there are many dimensions to consider. The first of those dimensions starts with a philosophy, and then moves into the building materials and technology that are used for construction. Some buildings are more efficient than others, and passive houses meet the highest standards for reducing costs and providing comfort while ensuring that power bills stay low. No matter how many energy efficient elements are in the house, each of those elements works together to reduce energy consumption.

The Philosophy of Energy Efficiency

The idea of energy efficiency is not new. Energy efficient choices that are built into homes or that are used for upgrades all started with the philosophy of saving money and having a home that was easier to maintain and care for. Many countries have set goals for renovating houses or building only passive homes (for example, the EU requires that homes built after 2020 be nearly zero-energy).

For most homeowners, the philosophy of energy efficiency is one that has also adapted and changed over time. As more appliances were created that used energy – everything from dishwashers to electric can openers – some homeowners made the choice to do without those things. But others pushed for these modern conveniences to have energy efficient ratings. Their philosophy was that the conveniences shouldn’t come at the expense of energy efficiency, but they also shouldn’t have to be avoided or done without.

The Right Building Materials Make a Difference

The materials used to build a home are important, because they can make a difference in the degree of energy efficiency. Homes that have the right materials can save a lot of money, while homes that do not have the proper materials may be listed as energy efficient but not really save power. Insulation is among the most significant of building materials when people are looking for energy efficiency; other materials include windows and doors, along with ductwork and appliances.

Water heaters, stoves, refrigerators, dishwashers, and more can all be energy efficient, and many people focus on those types of options when they look for efficiency. For anyone building a home (or any other kind of building, for that matter) the focus should be not only on the appliances that are being used in that building, but also on the materials themselves. There are different grades and types of insulation that can be used to improve efficiency, and there different types and thicknesses of drywall that can make a difference. The more care is taken in choosing energy efficient materials, the more that can be done with a home or business that has a comfortable feel and better efficiency.

Technology is Improving Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency has been greatly improved in recent years by the advent of different types of technology. These include new and better ways to test products for energy efficiency. Furthermore, the costs of technology have been greatly reduced over the years; for example, solar power has never been more accessible as prices have decreased.

Some of the older products that were deemed energy efficient in the past would not meet the standards of today for products that are energy efficient. With that in mind, more knowledge goes a long way. There are now products that can automate functions of a house, allowing for maximum energy efficiency and reminding homeowners to make adjustments to their home that can help reduce their utility costs.

Thermostats that change the temperature at particular times, lights that turn on and off on a timer or through a smartphone app, and other types of features can help keep power bills low and the comfort in their buildings high. While this technology is not always inexpensive, over time it can help save so much money that it pays for itself many times over.

Passive Houses for True Energy Savings

There are a number of options for energy savings, but the best way to save as much energy and be as efficient as possible is to buy or build a passive house. These houses virtually run themselves, and they are as energy efficient and detailed as possible. Consumers will want to focus on these types of houses if they are truly interested in reducing their energy consumption to the lowest possible levels.

The passive house concept is spreading around the world, but currently there are not that many houses that truly qualify for this level of energy efficiency. This is mostly because homes like this cost more up front. The types of materials and appliances they use are efficient, and that makes them higher-end.

Over time the cost of passive homes will start to come down, but this may take a number of years. In the meantime, people who are interested in these types of homes will continue to research them, and may make changes to their current homes to get them closer to passive house standards. While that will not provide an extremely high level of energy efficiency, it can provide enough to allow for homeowners to feel good about saving money on their power bills and reducing their carbon footprint as much as possible.

The reduction of a carbon footprint may not be the focus of many homeowners. But if we can have both a more comfortable, and over time cheaper building, it makes sense to move to a more energy efficient standard today.

Justin Havre is a Calgary native and owner of Justin Havre & Associates.

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