How to Build an Energy-Efficient Home on a Budget | The Light Lab

How to Build an Energy-Efficient Home on a Budget

Even if you leave the actual designing and building up to the professionals, building a home from scratch is a huge undertaking for future homeowners. There are hundreds of individual decisions that go into the process, and some of them can be quite consequential. But the upside is that when the work is done, you can have a home that perfectly reflects your needs, personality and values.

If energy efficiency and environmental friendliness are among your core values, it makes even more sense to build rather than buy. Modern building techniques and materials are more energy-efficient than they used to be even 20 short years ago, and you might even be able to construct a zero-energy home if saving energy is your top priority.

But what if you’re building on a budget? Here are some of our best tips for building energy-efficient homes while controlling costs.

How to Build an Energy-Efficient Home on a Budget | The Light Lab

1. Shop Around for the Right Pros

Don’t just go with the first architects and contractors you interview, even if they’re well-reviewed. If you want a truly energy efficient home, it’s important to choose professionals who take a whole-home approach to green home building. And once you identify those builders, you may need to narrow the list down even further to find professionals who can work within your budget constraints.

2. Emphasize Function Over Form

As you learn more about energy efficient building elements, you might be disappointed to learn that some of your favorite architectural styles are inherently inefficient. When it comes to these decision points, keep your eyes on the prize. You’ll hopefully learn to love some different aesthetics once those tiny utility bills start rolling in.

3. Build Up, Not Out

There are lots of energy and cost benefits to building a multi-story home with a smaller footprint. Vertically oriented homes tend to have less exterior wall exposure, which helps cut down on heating and cooling costs. Climate-controlled air and heated water will have shorter distances to travel, saving you even more. And a smaller footprint means a smaller roof and foundation, which can cut thousands out of your building budget when compared to a ranch-style home with similar square footage.

How to Build an Energy-Efficient Home on a Budget | The Light Lab

4. Choose a Cool Roof

Your choice of roofing materials makes a big difference in overall energy efficiency, and fortunately, some of the most efficient materials are in the middle of the roofing price spectrum. Evaluate “cool roofing” materials like metal, foam or tile shingles, or consider going truly green by turning your roof into a garden in the sky.

5. Make Heating and Cooling Count

Installing the most efficient HVAC system possible can be tricky on a tight budget. Depending on your location, the most efficient choice may be a geothermal heat pump system, but these can cost well over $20,000 to install. If that’s outside of your price range, you should still work with your designers to choose the most efficient system you can afford, because HVAC costs traditionally account for the largest share of monthly utility expenses.

6. Splurge on Windows

Inefficient windows can undermine your whole energy efficiency strategy, so you should prepare to spend a good chunk of your budget in this area. You might need to skimp elsewhere to cover the cost, but it’s worth it. If the price starts spinning out of control, ask your designers if reducing the number of windows could help you close the gap.

How to Build an Energy-Efficient Home on a Budget | The Light Lab

7. Insulate, Insulate, Insulate

When energy efficiency experts audit older homes, they almost always recommend upgrades to the insulation, which can be an expensive job. But when you’re building from scratch, you can invest in the best materials and put them everywhere insulation is needed, avoiding the need to punch messy holes in the walls in the future.

9. Go Solar

The building phase is a smart time to make decisions about whether or not to include solar panels, especially since it could help you save on roofing materials. In addition to considering solar panels to offset your monthly electrical costs, you can also plan for a solar water heater that installs right on your roof.

10. Pick Energy Efficient Appliances

You’ll need a new suite of appliances to fill up your new home, so make sure they’re contributing to your whole-home efficiency strategy by choosing models that have been certified by the federal ENERGY STAR program.

11. Take Advantage of Tax Credits

The federal government, and perhaps your state and local governments, have an interest in your household energy efficiency, too. Federal tax credits for a variety of energy efficiency improvements have been extended through 2021 and may be extended again in the future. You can do your own research to see if additional credits are available in your state and municipality, but it’s a good idea to also ask your architect and contractors, who should be familiar with local tax breaks.

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Josh Crank is a freelance writer with a background in legal journalism, travel writing and marketing. He's found his perfect fit in writing about home maintenance and repairs, energy efficiency, smart home technology and other topics to help readers make home life green and comfortable. Josh lives with his wife, two sons and endlessly howling beagle-basset hound mix in New Orleans.