Building for heat efficiency

I would like to build a fairly simple frame house which is insulated to the nth degree. I probably would use a heat pump with a circulating wood or coal heater as a backup. What is the most cost-effective treatment for peripheral walls, cellings, and windows? How can one use solar energy effectively in such a situation -- only for hotwater heating? Benjamin P. Clark Northport, Ala.

The objective of building a thoroughly insulated dwelling, taking advantage of up-to-date design methods and materials, involves many more questions than posed here. True, these questions can be answered substantively by a professional there in central Alabama who is familiar with a whole bunch of specifics to which I am not privy.

Thermal insulation, probably in batt form with a rating which is commensurate with the local climate, would be essential to insulate the walls, ceilings, and suspended floors. The cosmetics, both inside and out, applied to the frame walls, are matters of aesthetics, cost, preference, and availability of materials. These choices should be made, not separately from the rest of the project, but as part of the whole concept -- architecturally, structurally, mechanically, and aesthetically.

The budget is generally the tail wagging the design dog. These days one starts with the owner's budget rather than his personal choices. After that has been decided, only then does one develop the schematics preliminary details and outline the specifications to suit the pocketbook as much as the taste.

This developing concept of the project, are all relevant aspects of the project, are weighed together. The choices should be made in an intelligent and orderly manner.

In other words, a piecemeal approach is inadequate these days to reach the best solution.

Thermopane windows, of course, are logical choices to reduce heat gain or loss through the glass. Should these window frames be metal or wood? That depends on some of the other choices to be made, such as the building materials to be used as well as the style of the house.

A solar-energy system should be very practical for you, since such systems work even in non-Sunbelt states. The simplest application of solar energy is the heating of domestic water, but space heating and cooling are mounting in usage and are being perfected technologically, albeit the way is costly.

In the US there is a plethora of solar-energy contractors. Likely there are several such contractors in your area. Most solar-energy contractors are new at the game, so check them out as to their experience and reliability.

In summary, our recommendation is to seek the help of a professional design office for your residence. The architect must know your taste, needs, desires, and, obviously, your budget. He should visit the site, assess the neighborhood, and arrive at solutions in the form of preliminary drawings and details which may result in the final project in all its various components.

Just any designer won't do, particularly in view of your up-to-date expectations for a highly insulated house using solar energy wherever feasible.

Investigate the records of two or three good architects. Visit some of the jobs they have designed. Talk to their clients. When you find an architect which you feel right about, then discuss the fee, concepts, aesthetics, budget, and taste with him or her.

Only then go forward into design and later build that energy-saving house.

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