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Designed to Earn the ENERGY STAR, Our First Design Project


A few weeks ago, my uncle, John, called me up and asked if I could design the house where he and his future wife would spend the rest of their lives. Like many people, he wants to save money on the construction costs and the energy bills. “No problem,” I said. 

A few weeks ago, my uncle, John, called me up and asked if I could design the house where he and his future wife would spend the rest of their lives. Like many people, he wants to save money on the construction costs and the energy bills. “No problem,” I said. 

That may seem like a case of John wanting to have his cake and eat it, too, but I’ll discuss below how he really can have both.

After explaining the architecture process and establishing a program, I told him about the many ways that we could help him do exactly what he wants. If you’re planning to build a house, read on to see how this process might help you as well.

One of John’s requests is to save on the initial cost. Perhaps the best way to save on construction costs is by incorporating advanced framing techniques into the design. Not only does it save money by reducing unnecessary lumber, but it also results in a better insulated house.

We also won’t specify items like photovoltaic (PV) panels, rain harvesting systems, or composting toilets. While we encourage these systems for conserving our natural resources, they tend to be big ticket items in the construction of a ‘green’ home when selected. (See our 5 Step Plan for Solar Energy for more about that.) 

To meet John’s second mandate – low energy bills – we’ll apply the principles of building science to ensure that that his home is tight and well-insulated. Since about half of a typical home’s energy use is for heating and cooling, this will be the first thing we focus on. Along with a tight, well-insulated building envelope, one of the most important things that we’ll do is perform HVAC load calculations and duct design to help the heating and cooling equipment function as efficiently as possible.

Here, then, are some of the key things we’re planning to incorporate in the design for my Uncle John and his bride, Ann, to help them reach their savings goals:

  1. Insulation – Spray foam insulations are rapidly gaining popularity and earning a good reputation for making a tight home but are relatively expensive. If spray foam is outside their budget, we’ll specify blown or sprayed cellulose or fiberglass. Batts are difficult to install well and thus function poorly, so we steer clear of them whenever possible.
  2. Windows – The minimum here will be double pane, low-e windows, which are the standard now and required by code in many places. If John and Ann can afford the upgrade to the new type of window that has two panes of glass with a membrane between that acts like a third pane, such as the ones made by Serious Materials, we’ll push them in that direction.
  3.  Advanced framing techniquesThese are techniques like ladder T-walls and 2-stud corners, which use less lumber in framing a house and reduce material costs. They also increase the level of insulation as a result.
  4. Air sealing – Identifying key points for air-sealing to prevent infiltration, which increases the heating and cooling systems loads and energy bills.
  5. HVAC load calculations (Manual J) and duct design (Manual D) – Performing these two services results in a ‘right-sized’ heating and cooling system and a duct system that isn’t a liability. Good HVAC design is the second most important step after designing a good building envelope.
  6. Ductwork installation specifications – We specify that all ductwork meet the Manual D design, as well as be properly installed and sealed with mastic at all joints.
  7. HERS RatingThe home will be designed to meet a maximum HERS index, and then tested post-construction to ensure compliance.


As you can see, none of this work requires the installation of large or expensive equipment. Nor does it require a heavy maintenance regimen once John and Ann move in to the house, which was another requirement for their ‘green’ home.

Finally, what we’ll be delivering to John and Ann, is a set of drawings, specifications, HVAC load calculations, and a home energy rating file. The whole package will be Designed to Earn the ENERGY STAR, a new program for homes going through the design process. If built according to these documents, they’ll have a home that will be comfortable, beautiful, durable, and energy efficient, as well as qualified for the ENERGY STAR label.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Wow, Chris! Very informative
    Wow, Chris! Very informative and well written. Thanks!

  2. I was unaware that there was
    I was unaware that there was such a thing as a composting toilet. Can that be put into an existing house, or is that something that can only go into new construction? Thanks for posting this. I look forward to updates

  3. Definitely well written. &amp
    Definitely well written.  
    I like that you state so clearly that is pretty much the same thing as building any regular house. By using the “house-as-a-system” approach from the beginning, you can receive all of those desirable results without those extra costs.  
    I wish the 5 step plan for solar would go VIRAL. We need to not get the cart before the horse, which I see a lot of people doing.  
    Thanks for the blog today Chris!!

  4. Jane, the
    Jane, the
    house I built has a composting toilet. We went with the Phoenix from Advanced Composting Systems, although the Clivus Multrum is probably the best known brand in composting toilets. 
    Yes, they can be installed in existing homes, too, but it’s likely to be more expensive because of the extra work involved in retrofitting it into the existing structure. One recommendation I’d make is to stay away from the small ones that collect the waste in a tray that sits on the floor in the bathroom with the toilet. The models with big tanks that go in the basement or under the house are much better.

  5. Jennifer, 

    Glad you liked the article! Stay tuned for follow up postings asthe design progresses. 
    It’s so true about how important and simple it is to incorporate things like proper sealing at key points, quality installation of ductwork and insulation, and designing a right-sized system that make such a big difference without breaking the bank! 
    Thanks for your comment!  

  6. Great article. Great title
    Great article. Great title that made me want to read the article. I love how accessible and practical the advice was…and the realistic and personal element of doing the design for Uncle John and Ann. The illustrations are beautiful.

  7. Chris – you did a beautiful
    Chris – you did a beautiful job with this article and the way you described your plan was very easy to understand, even for someone with very little knowledge of house building/architecture/”Green” homes (like me!!). Congratulations on a great article – I can’t wait to see more. 

  8. Very impressive, Son! I
    Very impressive, Son! I think I will learn much while reading your blogs, while enjoying seeing your work. By the way, very well written. Nice work!

  9. The article was, indeed,
    The article was, indeed, impressive. I’m still looking for the answer to the question, “Can these modern, energy efficiency-focused, design techniques be applied to traditional architectural styles (e.g., Victorian or Craftsman)without compromising that classic look?

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