Defining a high performance building is one thing. Narrowing down the top most-cited benefits to the end user and to society of a high performance building is another.
Energy Efficiency, Comfort, and Health
Energy efficiency, comfort, and health are inextricably related, and are three of the most obvious benefits that occupants of a high performance building immediately notice. In fact, it is often because a building is more energy efficient that it naturally – and as a matter of course – more comfortable. This is because energy efficient buildings address air leakage, insulation, and thermal bridging as the three top contributors to heat transfer through building envelopes.
Addressing air leakage means eliminating drafts by making the building envelope airtight, in order to stop conditioned air from leaking outside. By nature of this air control, they also provide better air quality by controlling where air enters and exits the building, through filtered heat-recovery ventilation units. And because of this better air quality, they affect long-term occupant health and comfort by reducing the development of allergies and asthma in building occupants. When drafts are eliminated and good quality windows are used, all of a sudden sitting by a window on a cold winter day isn’t so uncomfortable, and the usable area of a home becomes larger. Did you know that an estimated 40% of energy loss in modern homes is due to air leakage?
Utilizing safe, non-toxic insulation such as densepacked cellulose (recycled newspapers) is like adding a blanket on the outside of your building, as opposed to cranking up the heater to compensate for your cold floors and poorly insulated walls and roof. Again, energy efficiency, comfort, and health are impacted by this simple measure.
Addressing thermal bridging means designing the layers of the wall or roof such that heat doesn’t conduct through material super-highways like wood and steal, and this has an impact on energy efficiency and comfort, but perhaps more surprisingly also on health, as thermal bridges lead to condensation issues, which is the leading cause of rot and mold in homes constructed of wood or wood-based materials. Eliminating these energy losses means eliminating the risks of mold and rot, too.
The comfort benefits of high performance buildings don’t stop there. What happens when the power goes out in an energy efficient building? Like a thermos that keeps your tea warm, a well-insulated, high performance building can stay warm for days and weeks on end, a resiliency measure that is valued now more than ever. What happens if you live in a town with trains, highway traffic, or other noise? A well-insulated, high performance building offers – quite literally – peace and quiet.
Durability and Longevity
The worst kind of building is one that doesn’t last, but it’s not as if a building one day decides to fail after 20 years. More commonly, buildings constructed today are failing after as little as one to five years, and the building occupants are simply putting up with their failing buildings until the issues become simply too great to ignore, or the occupants sell the house leaving issues unbeknownst to the next buyer.
But this is no mistake – buildings are lasting only 20 or 30 years today because they are designed that way, giving in to market pressures for a low upfront cost for construction and the resulting quality of building this culture can produce.
A more sustainable solution – and tangible advantage – is to design a building to last 200 years. With minimal extra thought, preparation, and care in execution, a building can be constructed to be not only less costly to maintain, but built to last for generations. And based on the cost of building a new home today (not to mention the debt we often carry to do so), building to last can offer generational impacts to health, comfort, architectural and cultural legacy, and housing affordability.
A Wise Investment
It should go without saying that a lasting asset with low maintenance and operating costs is a wise investment.
Consider the fact that the total cost of ownership of an energy efficient building that cost more to build can easily be less than a building that is cheaper to build up front but has higher operating costs – forget the added maintenance costs of one that is poorly designed and has problems from rot and mold. Not only does the combined value of the energy efficiency savings exceed the additional cost of construction in a period of 10-20 years (commonly known as “payback”), but the added interest cost of financing a more expensive energy efficient building is often less than the monthly energy efficiency savings, making the cost of operating an energy efficient building less on day one.
Now, some would say that it’s not even worth thinking about the payback because after all – would you ask what the payback is on your granite countertop? Likely you’d just be pleased to have a more pleasant work surface in your kitchen, just as you (and future buyers) would be to have a more comfortable home.
In fact, energy efficiency investments continue to pay back for a long time after our investments break even because there’s no need to change your insulated, structural shell, even as you change your interior and exterior finishes after years of wear and tear.
We buy organic produce to take care of the investment in our health – a wise investment is to do the same with our buildings.
People, Planet, Profit
In an age of accelerating change and uncertainty, when wildfires rage, storms devastate, energy prices increase, and people demand a more equal and just world, reducing the energy consumption, carbon impact, and material waste involved in constructing buildings is one of the most easy, tangible ways to impact the world around us, and in many cases, it’s the single largest investment we make in our lives. The benefit to people, planet, and profit of a high performance building makes it the type of solution that stands to be around in the future – anything else simply doesn’t stand to survive much longer.