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The Endless Summer (or why I need a high-performance building envelope)

by Rick Reynolds

Those of us living in the teeth-chattering deepfreeze of the northern tiers (and in houses built not that long ago) can only dream of living in the high performance houses of today. When the outside temperatures seem to tunnel through the walls and into one’s hands and feet despite the furnace running continuously, and a dropped Kleenex lands several feet away, the thought of a super-insulated, tightly-sealed, draft-free, energy-sipping house with minuscule floor-to-ceiling and floor-to-floor temperature differentials can make your mind surf towards “The Endless Summer.”

Conversely, in the dog days of August, when the hot, humid, indoor air par-boils your patience and clothes cling like a neglected child, you can keep your cool by imagining the cooling ocean breeze of “The Endless Summer.”

At Bensonwood and Unity Homes, we are committed to building high performance homes that are endlessly comfortable. With tight, highly-insulated building envelopes coupled with sophisticated HVAC with ERV (Energy Recovery Ventilation) systems, home living environments can be insulated from the extremes of nature, while at the same time, drastically lowering heating and cooling bills. Low energy loads not only increase comfort and decrease utility costs, achieving them also makes “net zero” energy independence easily within reach with the addition of a renewable energy sources, most commonly solar.

More and more, people are seduced by the promise of high tech electronic marvels that define our world, and their application in homebuilding is growing exponentially. The emergence of so-called “smart homes,” with programmable, intelligent thermostats, appliances and lighting, all wirelessly controlled through a mobile device connected to the “Internet of Things,” hold some promise in reducing energy usage. Additionally, with renewable energy sources like photovoltaic, wind, and geothermal powering ever more sophisticated HVAC systems with heat pumps and ERVs, energy efficiency can be significantly improved. But it’s important to note that the single biggest factor concerning energy consumption and comfort has to do with the thermal performance of the home itself. Attaching an oversized heating and cooling system to a cheaply-built, energy sieve of a house to compensate for its poor thermal performance is like closing the barn doors after the horse is gone. Moreover, while smart, internet-enabled HVAC control systems can save energy dollars by learning and responding to your living patterns, they eventually become obsolete as newer technologies come on line—and don’t actually improve the underlying quality of the home itself.

In contrast, well-built, highly-insulated, tightly-sealed homes require fewer, simpler and smaller systems while achieving higher levels of energy efficiency and comfort. And these efficiencies won’t be measured in years, but decades, providing benefits fifty and a hundred years into the future. When it comes to energy dollars (and carbon footprint), energy saved is truly energy earned.

So the quiet but growing revolution in homebuilding has less to do with electrical devices and more to do with the precise engineering of the building core itself. When a building’s core thermal envelope is airtight to Passive House standards (.6ach@50Pa) and super-insulated with minimal thermal bridging—when triple-paned windows are properly located and shaded—and when sophisticated ventilation systems with Energy Recovery are employed, smaller, less complicated systems, if any at all, are all that are needed to maintain year-round thermal comfort. And with the lower energy demands of sophisticated building envelopes, total energy independence can be achieved using either drastically scaled-down, traditional heating and cooling systems, or super-efficient new technologies like air source heat pumps, as well as fewer renewable energy generators like PV panels.

The high quality building envelope we try to achieve at Bensonwood and Unity Homes is designed and engineered to do more than bathe you in comfort. Natural materials and solid construction can impart a sense of well-being that is measured more importantly in health than dollars. Your home should be the healthiest indoor environment you experience, and therefore the place where you find both solace and renewal. These same attributes also bring the benefits of a quiet, aesthetically pleasing living environment—where outdoor noise remains outdoors while the beauty of natural wood brings the splendor of the outdoors, indoors—and work in a way no short-lived, add-on, remedial system can simulate.

Another long-term (and perhaps the greatest) comfort can be derived from knowing your home can more easily adapt to your changing needs over time. Whether moving a light fixture, or reclaiming a bedroom, the Open-Built® systems of Bensonwood and Unity Homes, where mechanical systems are disentangled from the structure, allow your home to evolve as new technologies or your changing needs suggest.

So rather than traveling the globe in search of the endless summer, think inside the envelope—the building envelope that is. It’s the most important evolution in better building.