High Performance Home Design

This is an example of just one of many ways to construct a High Performance Home wall system (Image by Bernie Kern).

What is a high performance home and how do I get one?

These questions are often asked and you are in luck, because it is easier than one would think to accomplish. Some High Performance Homes are ultra-contemporary, exotic structures such as Earth Shelter, Passive, or Active Solar. Others are Federal, Greek Revival, Victorian, or any other American home style any homeowner wishes.

A High Performance Home is one that is…

  • Energy Efficient,
  • Healthy,
  • Comfortable,
  • Affordable to live in,
  • Sustainable,
  • Resilient, and
  • Visit-able.

High Performance Home building is the result of years of examining, learning, and evolving building science. The years of building science have produced some fundamental changes to the way we are building today.  In short, the current way we build employs the same basic methods and practices that have been used since the early 1800’s – structural studs with a finish on the inside and a water resistant veneer applied to the outside. Today’s science of building does not fundamentally change that concept. It is the process of what and how we apply the finishes, insulation and connectors that are the backbone of building a high performance home.

Programs such as the Department of Energy’s Energy Star for Homes and the National Association of Home Builders, USGBC LEED –H, Residential Energy Services Network or Resnet have additional guidelines and resource information available to the public.

Creating a High Performance Home

The first step in obtaining a High Performance Home is to assemble a team.

The primary team includes…

This is what is known as an Integrated Design Process.

Subcontractors and suppliers are essential too, but come into the picture once the primary team has been established. The team must understand the science of building. It is imperative for the homeowner to also be educated as to what the current building science is and it is the responsibility of the building designer and builder to provide any instruction necessary.

The design process is similar to the design of any new home. Site selection, style, personal wishes and budget are all to be considered in any home building project.

Selecting a Building Site

The selection of a new home building site is the first step. Consulting with the designer and builder regarding the site selection can be extremely helpful in making the right choice. Some things to consider when looking for and selecting the site for your new home include:

Within an established neighborhood:

PRO: The infrastructure of an existing neighborhood usually includes electric, gas and sanitary services making neighborhood construction desirable to many.

CON: Deed restrictions and community architectural guidelines should be investigated prior to purchase. If, for example, the homeowner would like to have Photovoltaic Panels (solar panels) on the roof and the deed restrictions prohibit them from being visible from the street. A different building site might be a better choice.

Sparsely vegetated sites:

PRO: Placing the right trees in the correct places, is a big advantage when it comes to passive heating and cooling applications.

PRO: Less trees, or no trees, within the building area will reduce the base construction cost of the home thus allowing more to be spent on the home itself.

CON:  Living within a forest has a unique charm. But, forward-looking attention to layout and design should be included when considering a High Performance Home is the on a heavily wooded site.

Rural settings:

PRO: This may give the homeowner more options such as orientation, size, and finishes of their new home.

CON: Usually a rural setting requires a water well, septic tank, and delivered propane gas. These can seem inconvenient at first, but if planned correctly there will be little, if any, problems for years.

Natural elements such as Prevailing Wind direction, Rain & Surface Water and Sun Path or Solar Access have an impact on the site selection process. Each of these natural elements affect the performance of a home, as well. Rest assured, modifications can be made for less than perfect sites. Those adjustments are addressed during the design stage of your High Performance Home.

A 5 Plus rated Energy Star home constructed in the Village of North Clayton, Ohio (Photo and home design by the author).

Home Design

High Performance Homes can be any American architectural home style. That is one of the most exciting elements, thanks to the current science of building as we know it today. We are not limited by items such as product restrictions, availability, or models.

High Performance Homes integrates design with the current building sciences to create a functional design.  This individualized process takes advantage of the site conditions, homeowner lifestyle, wishes, and needs, as well as the technology available today.

Wind, Water and Solar will guide the designer to a solution to the basic functions of the home and the intended occupants.

The design process of a High Performance Home begins with considering the home as an entire system. The building envelope has to be the ultimate goal in energy efficiency and long term affordability with an emphasis on low maintenance.

The designer is obligated to educate the homeowner, if needed, as to the various building methods and systems available to construct the structure of a new home. The standard and most widely used on jobsites is the conventional framing which incorporates 2”x 4” and 2”x 6”stud framing.  This system has been utilized since the 1800’s with little variations. The stud cavity is filled with various types of insulating materials such as Fiberglass, Cellulose, and Spray Foam.

Alternative building systems available include:

  • Structural Insulated Panels (SIPS)
  • Insulated Concrete Forms (ICF)
  • Some exotic and uncommon building methods
    • Straw Bale
    • Earth Shelter
    • Air Entrained concrete block
    • Hempcrete

Technology can be incorporated in any building method.  Well known products include

  • Geothermal Heating & Air Conditioning
  • Solar Panels both Photovoltaic and Hot Water Systems
  • Residential Wind Turbines

These products can be applied to any building method. There are limitations of cost and payback when choosing any of these systems. The value of the building envelope and additional technology is an important consideration for the long term cost-benefit relationship.

Your design team is obligated to investigate and recommend the best building method for the construction of the new High Performance Home. If the structure of the home utilizes minimum building standards but has the best in technology installed, the effort to build a High Performance Home will be diminished. The ultimate goal is to build the best structure possible. It may result in a compromise in something else such as travertine tile in the bathroom, or wide plank wooden floors in the foyer, but the overall value is the ultimate goal.

Sizing the home suitably is a task that is the most challenging for both the homeowner and the designer. “Right sizing” the design means the homeowner needs to prioritize the uses of the proposed new home. Right sizing does not mean giving up elements on the homeowner’s wish list.

The concept of building in value to the home is needed. The value of getting more square footage for the lowest cost per square foot should be secondary.

The value of a High Performance Home will be evident in an energy efficient, healthy and comfortable structure to call home.

The Team consisting of the homeowner, designer and builder will need to keep the issue of Ultimate Value in mind when making decisions and selections for the new home.

About the author:

Michael Battaglia began his career in residential design in 1975. He is a graduate of ITT Tech of Dayton with an Associate’s degree in Architectural Engineering. Michael spent many years of working in architectural firms and as a staff designer for various home builders and throughout those experiences; it became clear that the profession of home design was the path he needed to follow. In 1990 Michael opened Michael J. Battaglia Residential Design providing home design service to private clients and builders. While Michael has mainly designed homes and projects for clients in Ohio, his work can be found in additional states including Arkansas, Arizona, California, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida and Virginia. Michael’s passion for residential design has been enhanced with interest in the development of the science of building. Michael believes Historic Design Styles and the Science of Building can coexist without having to compromise.


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