A1DesignBuild Explains Why You Should Care About ‘High-Performance’ Homes

For more than 60 years, A1DesignBuild has made good on its mission to build better homes in our community. Whether it’s a new home or a restoration/remodel, A1DesignBuild is committed to high-performance design and construction.

But what exactly does it mean to have a “high-performance” home?

Maggie Bates, A1DesignBuild’s design team manager, says the answer is multi-faceted.

“A high-performance home is going to have the highest standard for a thermal envelope, air quality inside the house and energy use,” she says, “with products that are durable and selected from sustainable sources whenever possible.”

The idea, adds A1DesignBuild’s construction team manager Shawn Serdahl, is to have a home that’s energy-efficient, well-ventilated, durable, and easy to maintain. Although the cost of high-performance housing is higher upfront compared to a lower-performing home, as time progresses, the less-expensive home begins to cost more as cheaper construction methods and materials give way to more maintenance and growing inefficiency.

This is especially a problem with a lot of modern construction in the United States, explains Patrick Martin, A1DesignBuild’s general manager. In places like Germany, more stringent building codes and commitment to higher performance yields 100-year mortgages on homes. This translates to significantly lower mortgage payments for homeowners and confidence in the soundness of that structure for lenders.

Even something as small as a series of light switches can be a source of escaping or inefficient air control in your home. An infrared shot of the same light switches reveal airflow issues. Photo courtesy A1DesignBuild

“In our world, we offer 30-year mortgages on houses that might last 90 years,” he says. “Most of those homes you get a low 30-year mortgage on, you’re going to be looking at significant maintenance in less than 10 years.”

And indeed, Serdahl says he has done extensive repair work on homes built between just five and 20 years ago.

As another example of U.S. construction lag, Bates says U.S. window manufacturing is just catching up to other countries. In the past, A1DesignBuild has had to turn to Canadian manufacturers to obtain the durable, triple-pane windows they seek for many of their projects. Now, they’re finally beginning to find U.S. manufacturers that offer similar products.

A1DesignBuild’s goal, Martin says, is to offer an integrated approach to how money is spent on homes, staying ahead of standard U.S. building construction and providing clients with the best building science and products they can find.

And seeking out the right people to make your home a high-performance structure not only helps you, but benefits the community as a whole, says Bates.

“If you hire the right people, you can actually affect something big without doing anything except just pointing yourself in the right direction,” she says. “That’s sort of what we’re trying to do. Take our company and point it in the right direction, focus on this stuff and make it grow.”

Where To Start

So, if you’re thinking about making energy-efficient retrofits to your existing home, where should you start?

Serdahl says to first consider thermal control for the air entering and exiting your house. The “envelope” of a home, as it’s called, consists of your walls and roof. It can be looked at from five angles: structure, insulation, air control, vapor control, and siding.

Top: The ceiling of a home, prior to observing thermal control and air movement with A1’s infrared camera. Below: Using an infrared camera, air (colored blue) can be seen fanning across the ceiling. These types of thermal inefficiencies are what A1 strives to avoid or fix with their high-performance work. Photo courtesy A1DesignBuild

Taken as an analogy, Serdahl says to consider your home’s airflow like a balloon around your house. Ideally, you want to wrap a sweater around that balloon to create an air-tight space allowing efficient heating and cooling of your home, without having too much of that air escaping through gaps like venting, windows or doors. This escaping air is akin to poking holes in your balloon.

You can start with optimizing the insulation in your attic and walls. A1DesignBuild can conduct a blower test to reveal air leaks under negative pressure. They use an infrared camera to literally see where air is escaping, and this is often an eye-opener for many homeowners.

Mike Feeney, A1DesignBuild’s architect and designer, says that a high-performance envelope balances ventilation for your home and helps controls humidity, allowing you to save energy and keep a healthy and comfortable abode.

A poor envelope, by comparison, is especially detrimental, Martin says. It can cause mechanical “powerhouse” systems inside that envelope—like heating, cooling and appliance systems—to fail faster. High performance, meanwhile, helps these systems work less hard and last longer.  

One item to boost your home’s powerhouse systems is the electric heat pump, both for water heating and primary heating. These efficient pumps can make a big difference, especially when paired with a good envelope. For water heating, Feeney says a heat pump is several hundred percent more efficient than a traditional electric water tank.

As another analogy, Martin says to consider heating as a lighter, and the home’s envelope as either an efficient cooler or an inefficient paper bag. It will obviously take less time to heat the airtight cooler than the porous paper bag; a heat pump at least gives you a more efficient lighter as a place to start improving things inside your home.

Putting It All Together

With every project the A1DesignBuild team embarks upon, no matter how small, Martin says they’re always looking at the entire home as an inter-connected machine.

“We need to know what’s happening with that house, because the work we do is going to affect it,” he says. “We have to know that in order for our design to bring all of the building’s components into unification with one another.”

Having an efficient envelope, and resulting airflow, makes a critical difference in the comfort, health, and safety of your home. Photo courtesy A1DesignBuild

Serdahl echoes that sentiment.

“High performance is focused in on doing things right,” he says. “You’re not going to get a high-performance home unless you’re really focused in on every aspect of the build. They’re all tied together.”

For emergency repairs, A1DesignBuild’s team says they’re not the place to contact. But they’re a great choice for even small renovations, provided you’re patient regarding scheduling. And no matter how small the renovation may be, A1DesignBuild will bring a high-performance mindset to their work.

“If we can help people improve—even through a bathroom remodel—one window and one wall, that’s a start,” Bates says.

As a whole, Martin says they hope to see more governmental support at local, state and federal levels to help support both high-performance building methods and provide financial support to those who want it but can least afford it. Doing so, Bates adds, would help A1DesignBuild continue making a world of difference.

“We, as a company, want to not only take really good care of our clients, but we want to actually affect our environment and the future of Bellingham,” she says. “We can do that by building really good houses that are going to use way less energy than other houses, and even our retrofits are going to use way less energy than other houses, and everything’s going to last longer.”

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