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Definition of a High Performance Building

In the United States, we spend more than 90% of our time indoors, so the buildings we live and work in greatly affect our lives.  In total, buildings use one third of all energy, two thirds of all electricity and a large portion of our water.  Within the last 20 years, building construction technology has changed dramatically.  Development of new products, systems and techniques make it possible to construct more efficient buildings with little to no increase in upfront costs.  When properly combined, these new products and practices have yielded returns of 4X or more in energy savings, resulting in very short return on investment, low operational costs, with increased resale value.


Knowledge is the only way to decipher all the hype about High Performance Building Products.  You must understand it to accomplish it.  It does not happen by accident or from conventional contractors doing what they normally do with traditional materials.  One of the most difficult tasks is making the best use of time in studying, learning, and understanding the comparisons and differences between High Performance Building Products and traditional building materials.  The key thing here is to follow the science and facts of real world performance.  Products with superpowers that defy the laws of physics do not exist, even though you will find many companies that make that claim.  By appearance, these specially designed buildings are not necessarily easily distinguishable from their less sustainable and less efficient counterparts but, in performance, they are much different.


High Performance Building Features

Affordability means High Performance is not synonymous with high cost, when return on investment is maximized through value engineering, long life cycle, low operational costs, energy savings and less maintenance.

Design freedom means the only limitation is the imagination.  Day lighting along with passive solar techniques allow the sun to shine in, while High Performance Building Products provide both form and function to efficiently create the conditioned space needed.

Energy efficiency means using less energy to get more comfort.  The system approach to design with intelligent plans maximizes performance and comfort, ensures quality material use and long life cycle, minimizes construction waste, and to the extreme can result in a true net zero energy building.

Fortified against natural disaster
means standing up to hurricanes, hail, floods, fire, tornadoes, earthquakes and even man made disasters so occupants stay safe.  The increased issues of bullet, blast and radiation protection have become issues of real world concern for all new buildings.

Healthy indoor environment means occupants are protected from pollutants, carcinogens, allergens and illness while providing increased comfort and stress reduction.

Low environmental impact means systems and structures that consider the environment with outstanding energy conservation, low waste and significant recycled content.

Speed of construction means systems that compliment productivity and come together faster for lower labor requirements, less field adjustments, and call back reduction.


A High Performance Building is one that generates a high return on investment for the owners, occupants, environment and community.  In more specific terms, High Performance Buildings are ultra energy efficient, have long life cycles, are safe and healthy for the occupants, and initially minimize negative impact on the environment and ultimately have a restorative impact.  Objectives include the tangible savings associated with energy, safety, water and waste efficiencies, as well as softer benefits such as health, comfort, productivity, minimal impact on the environment and recycled content materials.

These buildings require an integrated and team driven approach that brings together various experts in the early stages of planning, design and construction conceptualization.  The process requires thinking about the building and its site as a series of interlinked and interdependent systems and relies on simple techniques for design, such as the manipulation of land features, building form and exterior envelope materials before involving the electrical and mechanical assistance from energy driven heating, cooling, ventilation, lighting and control systems.

This type of design forces the re-examination of traditional products, systems and procedures, identifying innovative technologies, safe products and systems that offer significantly improved thermal and comfort performance.  The use of quality documentation and computer energy analysis, design and modeling further refines a more progressive total design approach supporting accurate cost and benefit forecasting.

Cost overruns are common in conventional construction and mostly caused by poor documentation, lack of details and lack of planning.  Some people have the attitude that every dollar spent on design and engineering is a dollar that's not available for construction.  Having skilled design professionals, working as part of the construction team, can save the client far more than their fees.  This is one of several areas that "Spending Less Will Cost You More".  A caveat of free design services or the "design-as-you-go" approach are normally worth less than what the client may pay and can be very expensive in the long run.  Utilizing this poor design approach, time and quality materials get used poorly and initial investment and goals of the project fail.  The traditional contractor “design-as-you-go” thinking has plagued the high performance building industry, with the client or end user paying for the failures.  Keep in mind that some construction mistakes, though sometimes possible to alter or change in some way, are not physically or economically reversible.


Well planned and detailed projects are always the most cost effective with the best results.

Most Important Construction Question... Will spending less, cost you more?


"High Performance Building Products" in your New Building

Experience has proven that the client will pay for some high performance building products and specialty systems, whether the client receives them or not, resulting in the loss of all the benefits the products or systems had to offer.  The major cost of any building is more about the details clients include inside the building, rather than just about the total of what the exterior envelope and HVAC cost.  A perfect example of this is that most well planned ICF "High Performance Buildings" are constructed 2X faster than conventional, offering a minimum of 2X energy savings, having far less labor costs involved for the same construction processes.  Under normal circumstances with conventional contractors, if it isn't specified on your construction plans and design you are not likely to get any "High Performance Products."  Without High Performance Building Products, the price one will pay, is lack of comfort, poor planning, poor design, increased construction labor cost, increased energy bills, poor life cycle, increased maintenance, etc.  Operational costs (fuel, electric, maintenance, replacement, etc.)  are always reflected by the decisions made during design with the selection of materials used throughout construction.

Poorly designed and inefficient building and HVAC systems get installed everyday.  Many of these poor designs and systems are integrated right into the building due to construction circumstances, and have no economical reversible solution to correct them.  Over the years, Smart Solutions has been asked to analyze and somehow help correct some of these types of problems created by others, after the fact.  Thermal envelopes and radiant floor heating are often the most violated areas having the most issues with this problem.  Most problems prove to have been a waste of initial investment on good materials and labor, with impossible or very difficult and costly fixes at best.

A comprehensive energy plan for your building starts with proper planning and design.


                                       High Performance Design offers clear benefits:

Whole Building System Design including Renewable Energy Options
Do you have an overall strategy for the entire building?  Will systems all work together properly?
We will approach your project from a true whole building perspective and provide a comprehensive strategy for the building envelope, heating, cooling, hot water, reclaimed water, appliances, lighting, ventilation, energy production, and more.  We offer alternative choices that can either eliminate, reduce or offset your use of fossil fuels and incorporate renewable energy systems to partially or completely off-set annual energy consumption (zero net energy).

Energy Analysis Provides Valuable Design Data
Recommendations from design stage eliminate many common building design mistakes and result in better overall design and lower energy costs.  Energy reduction for our clients is a minimum of 2 to 4X better than conventional construction.  Recommendations are based on final design and energy analysis data, including energy costs, contractor labor, available financial incentives, inflation rates, your borrowing costs, maintenance costs, and equipment/material life cycle.  Financial analysis of this data clarifies where your money is best invested for improved energy performance.

Quality HVAC Design and Details Equal Better Comfort
Improper HVAC sizing and layout can lead to humidity and mold problems, system inefficiency, and short cycling with possible mechanical failure and shorter system lifespan.  Systems that are sized correctly will avoid these problems, ensure the best performance, and reduce costs associated with installing an oversized system.  Our HVAC design of heating, cooling, and fresh air ventilation yields a more comfortable indoor environment with reduced humidity and even, consistent temperatures. 







WHOLE BUILDING                             DESIGN BASICS


Simple design basics are sometimes forgotten or completely lost during design stage but will come up (show up in $) in plan review and budget checks.  Square foot cost can be deceiving.  Starting with design basics helps you to not lose sight of this difficult task of budgeting during the planning stage.  Review True Cost of Construction, Myth and Math of Square Foot Cost and Sq. Ft. Pricing Mystery as they may shed some light on contractors offering square foot pricing with limited details.  The following are some facts to consider:


Plans                                                                                                                                                    Complete, well detailed plans are the real foundation of a successful building project.  They not only represent your personal desires but they create a clear description of how your contractor will achieve them.  Many plans are available online at what appear to be great prices.  These plans very seldom represent what you want and require modification to some degree.  Most online plans do not meet current minimum codes and are far from High Performance.  The benefit of looking at a variety of plans is to gather great ideas for your designer or architect who will create your plans using CAD.

Building Shape

Building with ICF does not limit design.  Just as with conventional construction, additional corners (more than four) increase cost from start to finish throughout the entire construction  process of the building.  Additional corners typically complicates the roof construction as well, increasing costs even greater.  You can reduce energy consumption and building cost, create an attractive design, and ensure smart use of interior space as you consider these types of issues.

Building Orientation

Buildings should have adequate south wall with appropriate glass area to improve sun tempering and passive solar energy.  The more energy you gain from properly designed orientation, windows and overhangs, the less power driven heating and cooling energy that is needed to make up the difference.  Do not underestimate the importance of properly designed windows and overhangs (use of thermal mass).  You can strategically plant trees for summer shading, and they may help with wind, noise and privacy.

Optional Earth Sheltering

Blending of the building with its site, lowering its profile and connecting the building to the earth reduces energy demands.  Walkout basements are a great option for two level homes as this provides the best geothermal earth link for the ICF wall to work properly.  The ICF concrete wall core, when built correctly, will maintain earth temperature throughout all weather conditions.

High Mass Low Maintenance Construction

Choosing construction materials that provide superior life cycle, heat storage and comfort, such as hard surface flooring on concrete, tile, stone and dense materials will provide a greater heat sink storage (West windows), improving passive solar heating and cooling while maintaining good steady thermal comfort.  Best practices with concrete and tile before and during installation, using good information and reports, can result in the best life cycle performance.


Crawl Spaces

Crawl Spaces increase energy used more than 20%,  reduce comfort and add construction costs.  Crawl spaces, unconditioned require the floor above to be insulated for even marginal comfort.  By adding four feet of wall and a slab, you have a basement which doubles real living and storage space.  You also save additional labor costs by eliminating installation of mechanicals in the crawl space. 

Dormers, Bonus Rooms & Steep Pitch Roofs

Any living area built into a roof truss increases energy used for marginal comfort, and adds construction and labor costs.  This is normally more expensive during construction than adding a new floor with walls for the same area.  The operational costs of these areas are the highest.  This subject, due to living space in the trusses, leads to steep pitched roofs (6/12 and higher), as steeper pitch roofs always cost more for materials and labor. 

Wall Height Variations or Corners that Complicate the Roof

Nine foot ceilings are normal in most modern homes.  Adding wall height for fir downs or tray ceilings is not as expensive as elevation changes and corners that complicate the roof which adds labor and materials costs.  Fir downs and tray ceilings are low in cost and the best location for single level mechanicals.


Single Level Home

A single level home is an excellent choice for all situations but especially to accommodate the handicapped and elderly.  With a single level home or a multi-level home (walk out basement), you should consider a main floor master suite with no step entries, four foot wide halls, 36" doors, low sills and lever handles.  All main entrances should have a bench and closet, and easy access for walkout basements and outdoor spaces should be considered.



Basements are the lowest cost square footage you can add to any home.  Basements (earth linked) are also very energy efficient naturally and typically require little to no cooling. Ensure easy access with a walkout basement and egress windows in bedrooms.

Kitchens & Baths

Kitchens and baths normally account for the largest portions of the building budget on a room by room basis.  Limiting the number of each to what is needed can offer savings.


Use of Space

The less square footage needed for the building’s function means less cost to build, maintain, heat, cool and ventilate. We achieve efficient design by:
                          Open floor plans, minimizing hallways
                          Multiple uses of space where appropriate
                          Developing traffic patterns to reduce hall area
                          Built-in cabinets, furniture and recycle center where appropriate

                          Take advantage of outdoor space

Proper Insulation & Air Sealing

ICF walls achieve high performance R-value, air sealing, moisture control, and added structural strength in the narrowest wall thickness for the least cost.  Concrete floors need to be thermally isolated and insulated with Viper vapor barrier and EPS R-10 insulation minimum.  Attic ceilings should be hybrid insulated with Viper 10 Mil vapor barrier under the trusses, EPS R-10 attached under the trusses, and then R-50 cellulose on top in the trusses.  Take a look at Cellulose Insulation Video  and Insulation Issues.

Windows, Doors & Coverings

Consider choosing windows, doors and coverings of the highest quality that your budget will allow.  Low window to wall area ratios for all directions other than south is recommended.  Window type and use should be studied carefully, placing fixed windows wherever possible.  Tilt & turn, casement and awning are the best efficiency of operator type windows.  All windows and doors require properly designed overhangs.  West gable glass should be size limited or exterior shade options should be considered.

HVAC & DHW (Domestic Hot Water)

Cost effective radiant floor is the best heating option when designing with high mass passive solar and solar thermal DHW.  Room by room piping and zoning control is the best way to get comfort and efficiency.  Floor covering and room use considerations are also key elements.  Cold Climate High SEER ductless mini-split heat pumps are normally the best option for cooling energy efficient buildings.  Other considerations include passive solar, cost of fuel sources, cost of  PV (photo voltaic) solar electric system, amount of federal, state and utility rebates, etc.


Controlled, Dedicated, Balanced and Filtered HRV Displacement Ventilation

Build it air tight and ventilate it right.  A high efficient (80%), multi-speed HRV ventilator with dedicated displacement ducting using a whole house MERV13 air filter box will ensure great indoor air quality

Automatic Night Cooling

HRV bypass night cooling cost very little in energy but drastically reduces daytime cooling energy while it increases indoor air quality.  The higher the mass of the indoor building components, the better the automatic night cooling works.


Solar Thermal

Include solar thermal domestic hot water preheat system, as this provides free domestic hot water heat, reducing total DHW operational costs.



Automatic controlled DHW re-circulation gets hot water to every fixture within seconds.  Other plumbing considerations are hose bibs at 32" high, emergency water main or water heater shut off, faucets with lever style handles, no curb showers, easy access tubs and safety grab bars.

Lights & Appliances

Best lighting choices for energy efficiency are L.E.D.  When choosing energy efficient appliances, base your decisions on energy savings and life cycle.


Considerations should include using rocker style switches, raising outlets from 12" to 18" and installing under cabinet lights and ceiling fans everywhere possible. 


Electric Generation

An automatic transfer backup electric generator, properly sized, should be standard to ensure the solar thermal system always has power.  A solar electric PV system is optional but recommended to generate remaining annual electricity needs.  PV electric systems costs, when using roof mount options, are as reasonable as ever.

SS Logo 8 inches by 3 inches at 300 DPI.
SS Logo 8 inches by 3 inches at 300 DPI.
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