Think Green AND High-Performance Building

Reader Contribution by Paul Wood and Shelter Works
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One of the wonderful things about building a green home is that it will help you meet multiple goals (such as lowering your carbon footprint, getting better indoor air quality and lowering utility bills). But what if your home could do even more? 

Increasingly, people interested in building green homes are moving toward creating high performance homes. By adopting this holistic building philosophy and giving careful consideration to the design and materials that go into your house, it’s possible to create living environments that meet a host of goals, not just your environmental ones.

There are two schools of thought on how to build high performance homes. The first is to take advantage of the best and newest building science available. The second is to stick to tried-and-true natural building methods that have created quality, healthy homes for generations. Take time to research both and see which is right for you. It’s possible that adopting elements from both will deliver the best possible outcome.

What is High-Performance Building?

The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) defines high performance building this way: “High performance building means a building that integrates and optimizes all major high-performance building attributes, including energy efficiency, durability, life-cycle performance, and occupant productivity.”

“From our perspective, green certainly focuses on one aspect of building performance,” says Ryan Colker, a presidential advisor for the NIBS. “We look at high performance more broadly to include green and sustainable building, but also to look at the other things we want buildings to deliver. It’s not a singular focus but a more broad look at how buildings help owners and the communities in which they sit.”

The NIBS breaks this definition down into eight subcategories homes should address in order to be considered high performing. Besides sustainability, there’s cost-effectiveness, productivity, safety and security, aesthetics, accessibility, historic preservation and functionality.

Colker gives examples to explain why these considerations matter and how they relate to green home building. “If you were to build the most sustainable house, but you don’t pay enough attention to those safety and security aspects, and there’s a natural disaster and the house is destroyed, you end up putting all those resources into a landfill, or you have to think about other ways to dispose of those materials,” he says.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how green the home is if it isn’t durable enough to last for generations. 

Colker gives an additional scenario to explain why a home’s functionality is so important. Building a home that’s highly energy-efficient can lead to lower utility bills, greater comfort and fewer carbon emissions. But here’s something people don’t often think about: “If your home is super-insulated and you have a freak snow storm that knocks out power, being able to maintain a habitable environment in a home without electricity could be an additional benefit,” he says.

In other words, high performance buildings helps residents stay safe, comfortable and healthy in the face of multiple life circumstances.

Key Parts of High-Performance Homes

These cases illustrate the importance of sustainability, safety and security, and functionality. But what about the other aspects of high performance building?

Aesthetics, accessibility and historic preservation are all somewhat related. When you build a home, you want it to last as long as possible. Keeping structures standing means all of their embodied energy remains in the house. There’s no need to harvest, fabricate and ship new building materials to a site to create a new structure.

In order for a home to stay standing for a long period, it needs to be aesthetically pleasing or someone will tear it down. It needs to be accessible so that homeowners can stay in it as they age or if they become disabled. And it has to offer enough value to a neighborhood and community that it will be preserved even after the original owners vacate it.

Productivity refers to the health and comfort of the people who live and work in the building. In order for residents to carry out day-to-day tasks and accomplish long-term goals, they need to stay healthy. They also need to be an environment where they feel comfortable, both physically and mentally.

High performance homes can have excellent indoor air quality, which is a big factor in keeping people free from sickness. Their tight envelope and corresponding healthy ventilation systems also give inhabitants consistent indoor temperature, freedom from drafts, and a quiet and relaxing environment.

Building a high performance home can be more expensive than constructing a conventional home – even higher than building what we think of as a green home. But the operating and maintenance costs are likely to be much lower over the long duration of the home. If you look at the whole lifecycle of the house, high-performance homes are very cost-effective (the last item on NIBS’s list). As new building technologies continue to advance and become more mainstream, the expensive of building a high performance home is slowly getting lower.

Building Science vs. Natural-Building Methods

It’s worth noting that there’s more than one avenue for achieving high performance goals in a home. One is to make use of the newest building technology that’s available. Systems such as heat and energy recovery ventilators, air and vapor barrier systems, and smart thermostats are modern and high-tech systems that help high performance homes achieve their goals.

DIY or other home builders interested in learning more about creating high performance buildings with technological solutions can visit the National Institute of Building Sciences, Whole Building Design Guide (which is produced by NIBS), and U.S. Department of Energy for information, resources and case studies.

People more interested in using traditional building methods to achieve the same results can learn more by studying building biology, or baubiologie. The International Institute for Building-Biology and Ecology (IIBE) educates professionals and the public about this building philosophy. They guide them “to an understanding of the vital, complex relationship between the natural and built environments, and teach them the means for merging these complementary environments into greater harmony.”

Here’s an example of how these approaches differ in meeting the same goal. Homes that use conventional building techniques such as stick-framed walls, structural insulated panels or foam insulated concrete forms (ICFs) rely exclusively on tightly wrapping a building and installing mechanical ventilation systems to provide indoor fresh air exchange, which mitigates the buildup of indoor moisture.

Alternatively, building walls out of clay-straw forms, wood fiber-cement block, or straw bales are ways that encourage a more natural “breathability” (which refers to the movement of moisture, in the form of vapor, inside a home; for more on this commonly-misunderstood building term, read this blog post). DIY and other home builders interested in learning more about building biology can visit IIBE or the Institute of Building Biology and Sustainability.

Paul Wood is has more than 30 years experience in the construction industry. He spent over a decade with Habitat for Humanity International, building homes across Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. For the past 10 years, Paul has been the co-owner of ShelterWorks, maker of Faswall blocks, an insulated concrete form (ICF) that can be used to build extremely green homes. Connect with Paul on Facebook and Twitter. Read all of Paul’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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