How a Tight Building Envelope Can Generate Energy Savings

According to a recent consumer study conducted by Civano Development and America LIVES, baby boomers are willing to pay “a little bit more” for “sustainable practices.” Eighty-seven percent of respondents “looked favorably on a hotel company that had a green design and implemented sustainable practices, with half of those surveyed willing to pay up to 5% more to stay at such a place.”

Armed with this information, we decided to look at ways companies can offset the costs of these sustainable practices, and we’ve discovered that a tight building envelope can generate energy savings. Here’s a recap of how this is possible:

Upgrades Can Pay Off Down the Road

Greentech Enterprise explores how 60 buildings are reducing energy costs by making investments in sustainability. While many of the buildings are looking at going net zero, the majority of these building owners are focusing on design strategies to reduce costs. High-performance envelopes are being used in more than 60% of the cases explored in the New Building Institute’s report from the Deep Energy Savings in Existing Buildings Summit.

Greentech Enterprise writer Katherine Tweed points out that while every building can’t receive a new envelope, improvements can be made to the existing one. Skylights, high-performance windows, increased insulation and a radiant HVAC system combined with a ground-source heat pump can increase energy efficiency, which in turn can reduce energy costs over time.

Tweed reports that the payback for each of the examples cited in the NBI report was “11 years or less.” In addition, we dug into the NBI report and all of the case studies presented at the summit had somewhere between a 30% and a 60% reduction in energy costs. The summit also defines deep savings as “moving existing buildings to a minimum of 30% and a target of 50+% energy reduction.”

Insulation & Proper HVAC Maintenance Lower Costs

According to the National Institute of Building Science (NIBS), there are six fundamentals in sustainable design and several of them relate to the building envelope including the design and indoor environment quality.

These fundamentals specify that the proper insulation, selective glazing of glass, daylighting, strategic exterior shading, commissioning the building, and maintenance to keep building systems functioning properly are all ways to maintain a tight building envelope and reduce energy costs.

The maintenance program is extremely important because it can “maximize facility and equipment reliability while minimizing lifecycle costs,” according to the NIBS. The organization recommends a reliability-centered maintenance program (RCM) versus a preventative maintenance approach. The difference is that RCM spans multiple maintenance practices including reactive, time or interval-based, condition-based and proactive maintenance practices.

The benefit of approaching building maintenance in this way is that when you know why something goes wrong, how it happens, and the cost to the business, you can make better decisions “to prevent the causes, perform the repair and/or minimize the consequence of failure,” writes Joseph M. Michalek in the Reliability Hotwire, a magazine for reliability engineers.

Invest in Energy Efficiency Up Front

The LEED platinum status is not that simple to achieve, but it’s a goal to strive for.

However, when a developer or building owner sets his sights on delivering a LEED platinum site, costs can rise rapidly. According to a report from the Daily Journal of Commerce, in order for green building practices to break into the mainstream, costs cannot exceed mainstream construction costs.

So, how are companies like Rice Fergus Miller (an architecture and interior design firm) achieving this coveted certification? And how does that apply to our tight envelope theme of cost savings? For starters, the company went into the rebuild of an old Sears Automotive Center with a focus on energy efficiency and ended with LEED platinum and a market level build cost of $105/square foot.

The firm achieved it in three ways – by reusing 93% of existing materials through “selective demolition,” super-insulating the existing concrete shell, and installing a “small, economical, non-central HVAC system” that reinforced a LEED and NIBS fundamental step in sustainability – looking to the local climate.

The firm’s managing senior principal Steve Rice writes, “By investing in energy up front, Rice Fergus Miller will use energy savings to recoup the cost of its super-insulated skin within a year.”

Next Steps:


  • Hi, I just wanted to make a quick comment that I completely agree with the idea of investing in sustainability up front. The issue I have ran into is how to convince people to do this. It’s kind of like if you take care of your body and get regular checkups then you will have better health. I run into the problem of people not caring enough, until an actual problem arises. This is the hump I try to overcome with my clients.

    April 5, 2012
  • It’s painful how tightening up your home’s envelope drops your indoor air quality! We use a fresh air system to keep the air breathable while keeping our energy costs down.

    April 5, 2012
  • […] them relate to the building envelope including the design and indoor environment quality,” writes Good Way. “These fundamentals specify that the proper insulation, selective glazing of glass, daylighting, […]

    July 18, 2013
  • […] them relate to the building envelope including the design and indoor environment quality,” writes Good Way. “These fundamentals specify that the proper insulation, selective glazing of glass, daylighting, […]

    May 8, 2014
  • […] stage. They can work out framing techniques that leave more room for insulation and create a tight building envelope, so smaller HVAC equipment can be installed. Plumbers and electricians are also given a voice early […]

    December 11, 2015
  • The facts that have been discussed here are really important. Thank you so much for sharing a great post.

    October 9, 2020

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