Reducing our environmental impact is one of the most pertinent tasks of this generation. And what better place to begin the work than in your own home? Mark Tambornino and Kendra Fjerstad of Albertsson & Hansen Architecture tell us why energy efficiency is so critical to building a home (not only for the environment but for our own selfish reasons) and how you can start.


The question of how we will reform the structures of our lives to accommodate a more sustainable future is one that haunts even the most mundane activities. Luckily for all of us, there are experts who are intimately familiar with the complexities of that question who are ready to write the playbook for the rest of us – and what better place to begin than in your very own home?


“As residential architects, we are in a unique position to understand the breadth of the whole project and look at every variable to help our homeowner clients prioritize and choose systems and methods to make their home as energy efficient as possible,” said Mark Tambornino, Managing Principal at Albertsson & Hansen Architecture.


To Tambornino, it’s not just about saving money or meeting local building codes. It’s about designing homes where the homeowner feels they’re making a difference as our world confronts climate change. It’s about being at peace with your home as it stands in the world, whatever that future may be.


“There are a lot of questions around what’s happening in energy efficiency in code right now and what’s anticipated to potentially happen sometime in the future,” said Tambornino. “We think about code as a minimum. We want to do better than minimum. So, what does that look like in the future and what kind of considerations are there when thinking about energy efficiency?”


Unfortunately, the answer isn’t so cut and dry. There are many different factors that play into energy efficiency that all interact in one large solvable, but complex puzzle.


“There’s a lot of great information out there, but it’s complicated,” said Tambornino. “In a lot of ways, we are conditioned to ask ourselves, what’s the perfect wall? What’s the perfect window? What’s the perfect roof? And the answer to that question is, ‘It depends.’”


“A large part of energy efficiency is also addressing the comfort and longevity of your structure, and there is no one perfect system that covers all of our climate regions in United States,” added Kendra Fjerstad, Senior Project Manager at Albertsson & Hansen Architecture. “Energy efficiency and longevity on Lake Minnetonka in Minnesota is going to be different than in Naples, Florida or Jackson Hole, Wyoming. It all depends on local climate and environmental conditions.”


To help you strike the right balance for your home, Fjerstad and Tambornino speak to what you can do now to implement energy efficiency in your home, and new technologies you should keep an eye on for the future:


What You Can Do Now to Build an Energy-Efficient Home


Between the prospect of solar panels, storage batteries and electronic vehicles, the conversation around energy efficiency can make it seem grander than it perhaps needs to be. Though there is a time and place for those ideas (and don’t worry, we’ll get to them), it is important to remember that sometimes energy efficiency doesn’t require new technology at all. In fact, intentional, structural changes in designing a home – how it is built and how it is oriented on the property — can sometimes make or break a home’s energy efficiency.


Here are some examples:


Consider solar heat gain – Solar heat gain describes the way radiation from the sun is turned into heat. For example, in an environment where the climate changes drastically throughout the year, architects must negotiate how to best orient a home to intake heat from the sun in the winter months and shade heat gain during the summer. This reduces the amount of heating/cooling that a homeowner will need from their furnace or air conditioning system to be comfortable.


For example, in Minnesota, within 30 degrees true south is ideal for optimal solar heat gain in the winter. In the summer months, using shade techniques such as overhangs or blinds, as well as deciduous trees that provide additional shading, reduce the solar heat gain in the summer without sacrificing the light in the winter.


Materials matter – Once sunlight enters your home, homebuilders should consider which materials will best retain that heat. According to Fjerstad and Tambornino, not all materials are created equal in this regard.


“If the sun falls on a wood floor,” said Tambornino, “it will warm the wood floor nicely, but it won’t store that heat very well. In some homes that really use solar heat gain to control the interior environment, we utilize ceramic tile, porcelain tile or even concrete, which stores and retains heat very well. Then at night, it gives off the heat and evens out the swing of the sun as it moves across the house over the day.”


Warm living room with floors heated by circulating water.


Photo: To better trap heat in the floors of this new-build cabin on the shores of Lake Superior while retaining the aesthetic value of the structure, the architects decided to implement a concrete floor with wood on the surface. Water circulates through the concrete floor, warming it in an efficient way.


Continuous insulation is non-negotiable – To the same point, once a home has trapped heat, the last thing a homeowner wants is for that heat to be stored improperly, such that it dissipates, and more energy is required to sustain a comfortable internal environment. That’s where continuous insulation comes in.


“A lot of the home’s heat loss comes from air leakage, which could be prevented by wrapping the home in continuous insulation and using proper air and vapor barriers,” said Fjerstad. “Continuous insulation on above ground walls isn’t required by code yet, but, in my opinion, it should be and it probably will be soon.”


Besides wasting energy, not implementing continuous insulation can have detrimental effects on a home’s longevity. Without insulation of this kind, the walls of a home are susceptible to condensation forming in the wall cavity, causing water damage and rot. (Talk about a nightmare!)


Unfished exterior of an energy efficient home in the winter.


Photo: Continuous insulation is installed in an energy-efficient cabin on Lake Superior. This homeowner desired to honor the memory of her grandmother’s cabin, which had all the studs exposed. To optimize energy efficiency, the team opted for four and a half inches of insulation on the exterior of her house in the form of structurally insulated panels.


Don’t use just any windows – While an important part of the aesthetic experience of a home, poorly designed windows can contribute to a lot of energy loss. Furthermore, if a window does not provide a strong enough barrier from the outside environment, it can have a huge impact on the comfortability of a home.


According to Fjerstad, once the surface of a window reaches 57 degrees Fahrenheit or lower, if a person stands within three feet of that window, they will start to feel uncomfortable – even if the air temperature inside of the home is comfortable.


“The difference between a single pane, double pane and a triple pane produce very different results, especially if you want to be sitting next to a window,” said Fjerstad.


What’s on the Horizon and How to Prepare


Ten steps ahead of the rest of us, Fjerstad and Tambornino have their eye on new developments that aren’t quite ready to be implemented yet, but, once the technology is up to par, will make a big difference when it comes to energy efficiency in residential architecture. Here’s what you should watch out for:


Solar shingles will be the new solar panels – “It might come as a surprise that solar panels, as we know them now, will actually go away on roofs,” said Fjerstad. “Instead, it’s most likely we will move to solar shingles.”


Solar shingles are an integrated system into a home’s roof, as opposed to the standard solar panels, which are typically installed on top of a roof’s finished surface. The technology isn’t quite there yet to make them affordable and readily available, but it is a technology that you’ll want to keep your eye on.


(Net) zero impact is on the horizon – “We did one project – a cabin on Madeline Island – where we put solar panels on the structure. In that case, we were able to create a system where the homeowner nets out their energy usage over the year,” said Tambornino.


The homeowner on this project was not at the cabin often in the wintertime, so they were not using a lot of energy during those months. But their solar panels were still in place and producing energy to send back to the energy company. During the summertime, the homeowner uses more energy, but, over the course of the year, it almost nets out to zero. In effect, the homeowner is not paying for electricity.


What is the carbon footprint of your home? – “Another idea that’s going to be coming down the road is considering how much carbon is embodied in the construction,” said Tambornino. “For example, wood is a carbon-storing material, meaning wood is a very good material to work with and it doesn’t require a lot of energy to process in comparison to concrete or steel, both of which take an enormous amount of energy to produce.”


So, how much carbon does it take to build any given house? That is a question you will want to explore with your design team to make sure you fundamentally agree with the way the materials that make up your home are interacting with the environment.


Prepare for Electric Vehicles (EVs) – It is of no surprise to a modern audience that electric vehicles are on the rise. So, how do you prepare your home for the change? On all new home construction and major renovations, Tambornino and Fjerstad recommend considering installing EV charging stations or make sure systems are in place to add it. Even if you don’t own an EV today, it’s highly likely that you will within the not-too-distant future.


“That is something we can plan for by making sure your panel’s big enough that you’ll be able to plug this in and that you have space for a future storage battery,” said Fjerstad.


Albertsson & Hansen Architecture: Live a Sustainable Life


Keep in mind that, though it is a good idea to mull over these ideas individually when building or renovating a home, a strong relationship with a like-minded architectural team will be what makes all the difference. After all, this is only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is possible for energy efficiency in homes.


If you have questions or ideas, contact Albertsson & Hansen Architecture here.


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