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Energy efficiency vs. frills. Many home buyers choose a Jacuzzi over better insulation

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Materials such as Tyvek are another more recent innovation. Tyvek wraps around the house immediately behind the siding, keeping out the wind, yet allowing interior moisture vapor to pass through.

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In the scramble to cut heating and cooling costs in the decade immediately after the first sharp increase in oil prices, many energy-saving measures were adopted, and some accompanying mistakes made. But the flaws in the new systems have since been uncovered, so that today most builders, particularly in the cooler regions of the country, ``have mastered the techniques,'' according to Kate O'Brien of New England Builder. ``They know about vapor barriers, wind barriers, insulation, and site orientation.''

Even with today's moderate energy costs, some builders in the colder north use their energy package as a marketing tool, ``and all good builders will respond to an informed client,'' she says.

So, to get what they want in energy efficient construction, would-be home buyers should ask several questions of the builder. They include:

Can he site or orient the house so that the living areas face the south? If this is not feasible or if a spectacular view demands a different siting, are there other ways that winter sun can be introduced into the home?

Will the home be sufficiently insulated? State building codes generally specify the R-value (resistance to heat transfer) for a given region.

Will the home be reasonably airtight? Total air tightness isn't necessary or even desirable. But if the house is very tight, what steps are being taken to ensure air quality and moisture control? In particular, are adequate, quiet exhaust fans being installed in the kitchen, bathroom, and any other stuffy room?

Will combustion air be ducted directly from the outside to any fireplace or furnace? This is particularly important in a tightly constructed home.

What heating system is planned? Electric baseboard heat is cheap to install but costly to run. Avoid it. During their lifetime, more efficient though more costly systems keep repaying for themselves over and over again.

Will high-quality windows be used that include frames with a thermal break (insulation) which prevents heat being conducted directly to the outdoors and glazing that is correctly spaced? (Panes too widely or narrowly spaced will lose heat. A quarter-inch gap is considered ideal.) Are triple-glazed windows being used on the north wall, and is special heat-excluding glass being used on west-facing windows?

Finally, is the design such that the house can vent itself in summer? This generally requires a relatively open plan that allows cooling breezes to move unimpeded through the house and exit, preferably under the eves or through some other high point in the home.

Meanwhile, the rise in the world's energy use is beginning to accelerate again, spurred on by both economic and population growth.

Some forecasts suggest that the demand for energy may be 1 times its present level by the turn of the century. In such an event the cost of keeping a home in the comfortable range year round will probably increase dramatically. Then those who invested in energy efficiency today ``will have reason to smile,'' says Fox.

First in a two-part series on home energy savings. On Tuesday, a look at some ways to upgrade thermal efficiency in your present home.