Build or Remodel with Energy Savings in Mind

Passive solar construction and appropriate plantings can help reduce energy costs. Photo: J Wasson

Passive solar construction and appropriate plantings can help reduce energy costs. Photo: J Wasson

Spring is just around the corner in the Northern Hemisphere, and the home-building season is fast approaching. If you’re considering a major remodel or are building your dream home, there are some significant sustainable-building techniques that you can integrate into the structure to conserve energy and save long-term costs. The upfront cost of these improvements may be quite a sticker shock, as many are quite expensive to initiate; yet, the long-term savings can be substantial.

Each of these construction techniques requires substantial planning before incorporating into your overall plans. Be sure to check your library or work with a builder you trust to determine which works best for your existing home or building site, as well as your local climate.
Cool Roofs

Cool roofs use materials that reflect sunlight and absorb less heat as compared to standard roofing materials. While standard roofs can reach temperatures upwards of 150 degrees, a cool roof generally runs about 50 degrees less. This not only extends the life of the roof, but lessens the need for air conditioning, ultimately lowering energy costs. It is important to note, however, that cool roofs are not appropriate for all climates….

With the new materials available today, a cool roof doesn’t have to be white anymore. If you want a darker roof, the Cool Roof Rating Council (CRRC) advises using products that are “highly reflective in the near infrared (non-visible) portion of the solar spectrum.” You’ll find a list of cool-roofing products on the CRRC website, as well as links to online directories of cool-roof contractors.

Before purchasing materials for a cool roof, work with your builder and one of the following calculators to be sure you’re getting the right materials for your location:

Department of Energy Cool Roof Calculator

Environmental Protection Agency Cool Roof Calculator

Log Homes

Despite the fact that wood is a relatively poor insulator, log homes are a good choice for some homeowners.  And they’re a lot warmer today than the cabins Abe Lincoln grew up in.

Most companies that build log homes have an energy-efficient product that can reduce the rate of energy consumption above and beyond that of standard wood products. For example, The Thermal Log System, designed and patented by Wisconsin Log Homes, is an insulated building system that couples wood materials with insulation techniques to make the home three to four times more efficient than a solid log wall.

Passive-Solar Homes

Passive-solar homes collect, store, and distribute solar energy using windows, walls, and floors. A passive-solar design takes advantage of the climate’s natural tendencies and uses the sun’s energy for heating. This is typically accomplished without using fans to move the heat through the home—though some homeowners add fans and ducts to maximize energy distribution.

Implementing a passive-solar design is most cost-effective when it’s incorporated into the design before building begins, but you can still apply some principles of passive-solar design to most existing homes.

Your cost savings will depend upon various factors, including the overall climate where your home is located as well as the size of your home. According to Recharge Colorado, it is not unheard of to see energy savings of nearly 50 percent with passive-solar features in your home.

Straw Bale Homes

Though the story of the Three Little Pigs would have you think otherwise, the little pig who built a house of straw was ahead of his time. As the name implies, these are homes using bales of straw as structural elements, building insulation, or both.

This concept is sound, cost effective, and eco-friendly. In fact,, a site that raises awareness on the benefits of using straw in building endeavors, asserts that energy costs can be reduced by 75 percent due to the superior insulation of straw.

You may be surprised at how beautiful straw-bale homes can be. The photo gallery features homes that are nothing short of elegant.

Earth-Sheltered Homes

Since the days of the cave dwellers, the earth has served as a shelter for humans. Earth-sheltered homes are either built underground or bermed into a hillside. Using the earth as insulation helps protect your home from extreme weather and fluctuating temperatures, keeping internal temperatures more consistent and comfortable. In addition, strategic placement of exposed windows and walls provides light, solar heat, and outside views.

According to, a new technique called Passive Annual Heat Storage (PAHS) enables earth-sheltered homes to store heat in the summer and release it in the winter. “The resulting subterranean home interiors are balanced with the natural environment, and are able to extract all of their energy needs from their surroundings without using any commercial energy sources,” the site claims. “Thus, there is no longer any need for using mechanical devices or causing any disruption in global ecosystems.”

Ultra-Efficient Homes

Why use only one energy-efficient home-building technique when you can take advantage of several of them? Ultra-efficient homes incorporate all aspects of energy conservation into home construction.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “An ultra-efficient home combines state-of-the-art, energy-efficient construction and appliances with commercially available renewable energy systems, such as solar water heating and solar electricity. The combination offsets or mitigates a home’s energy use.”

These homes are not only environmentally sound, but cost effective as well.

Energy-Wise Landscaping

While designing new building projects, be sure to consult a landscaping expert before purchasing trees and shrubs. A wise investment in the right landscaping for your lot can have a lasting impact on your home energy costs. Landscaping projects can be used in conjunction with energy-saving techniques to better insulate and conduct heat.

Planting the right trees and shrubs will maximize shade, deflect winter winds, or funnel breezes toward your home during the summer, reducing the burden of heating and cooling costs.

As a general rule, evergreens should be located on the north side of the property while deciduous shade trees should be placed on the south and west sides. A strategically placed tree can reduce air conditioning costs by 25 percent.


Energy savings are not difficult to achieve. It’s a matter of taking the time to figure out how exactly you will benefit the most from changes and what you realistically can implement, given your budget and location. It’s important to remember that you most likely won’t see an immediate return on your investment; the cost savings will add up over time.

But money isn’t the only factor to consider. The true savings are more than financial: Energy-efficient upgrades and building techniques reduce your carbon footprint on the earth, protecting the environment and making the earth a habitable place for generations to come.

Brenda Ankney

Guest Contributor

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Brenda Ankney is an avid blogger who writes for a variety of publications, including Heating Oil Shopper, a leading provider of information on numerous home heating oil topics including heating oil prices in Massachusetts.