building an energy efficient home on a budget

There are plenty of ways to not only build an energy efficient home on a budget without breaking the bank, but many of these tactics will also help you to save money over the long term. Read on to explore the possibilities in this in-depth guide to building an energy efficient home on a budget – as well as top tips for cutting costs in your current home!

Tips for building an energy efficient home on a budget

The advantage of building your home from the ground up is that it gives you the opportunity to get things right from the start! Follow these tips to make your new home as energy-efficient as possible while saving your pennies now and into the future.

1. Consider solar or wind energy

Setting up your own renewable sources of energy for your home is a great way to reduce or eliminate the energy you take from the power grid. It’s now relatively easy (and affordable) to create your own.

Building your own solar or wind-powered system does involve an initial investment, however, this is actually a cheaper option than relying on the power grid over the long term. Both solar panels and wind turbines will more than pay for themselves over the long term in what you’ll save on your power bills.

In fact, solar energy was named the cheapest form of electricity ever created by the International Energy Agency in their 2020 Outlook. Not to mention that you’ll be helping to save the planet too!

two men installing solar panels on the roof of a building

You can save on installation costs by building your own DIY solar system to power your home. Furthermore, solar panels and other associated materials are cheaper than ever: thanks to advances in solar technology, photovoltaic (PV) panels reduced in price by 90% from 2010 to 2019, and are expected to get even cheaper this decade.

If you’re seriously considering building an energy efficient home on a budget, or you’re looking to cut costs and be more green with your energy – check out our guide. You can learn more about solar and wind energy to decide which is the best solution for your home with our comparison of solar and wind energy.

2. Consider geothermal heating and cooling

Geothermal heating and cooling is another type of renewable energy that you can use to make your house more energy efficient while saving some cash. Residential geothermal HVAC systems tap into the sun’s radiant energy that is absorbed by and stored in the ground around your home.

In this way, geothermal energy is another form of solar power, conveniently stored for you nearby until you need it! Domestic geothermal systems have a network of pipes laid below the frost line – typically four to six feet underground – where temperatures stay consistently at around 50℉ year-round.

These pipes are filled with a mixture of water and antifreeze, or refrigerant, which circulates between your house and the ground around it. The liquid absorbs the heat from the earth and carries it instead to heat your home. In some cases, this heat is also used to generate domestic hot water.

In summer, the system can work in the opposite way to disperse heat by carrying it from your home and releasing it into the cooler temperatures underground.

These systems can either be closed loop, meaning the same liquid travels around a continuous loop, or open loop, where heat moves from supply groundwater or well water in a once-through path that is then discharged.

Like solar and wind systems, the initial investment you make in a residential geothermal system will repay itself many times over in the long run. The system should pay for itself within 2-7 years, and after that, you’ll essentially enjoy free heating and cooling, with efficiencies of up to 600%!

3. Build with recycled & renewable materials

Traditional building materials take large amounts of energy to produce. For example, one square meter of concrete needs 2775 MJ of energy to create, which mostly comes from burning oil.

Reusing and recycling existing materials, such as salvaged tiles, bricks, and masonry reclaimed from demolished buildings, has little to no carbon footprint. There is a range of other recycled building materials which are much more energy-efficient to produce than regular materials, as well as helping to reduce global waste.

Examples of recycled building materials include:

  • Reclaimed wood from old felled logs, train tracks, utility poles, shipyards, or bridges
  • Kitchen countertops made from recycled glass
  • Roof shingles made from old car tires or recycled asphalt
  • Steel rebar formed from scrap metal

Locally-sourced materials are also inherently more energy-efficient, as they required much less energy transport to your building site. Look for materials produced in your local area, whether it is wood, bricks, ceramics, or stone, and try to incorporate them into your design.

Additionally, local construction materials are often more affordable than expensive imported materials, so that’s an added bonus for you!

4. Invest in decent insulation

Insulation also plays an important role in making buildings more energy efficient. Good insulation will protect your house against fluctuations in temperatures, keeping a significant amount of the heat or cold inside and stopping it from dispersing outside.

Insulation will also make your home quieter by insulating it from outside noise.

Sheep's wool eco friendly insulation from Havelock Wool
Sheep’s wool eco friendly insulation from Havelock Wool

Like other items on this list, decent insulation will involve a higher upfront investment, but energy savings make it more cost-effective in the long run. If you want to have an energy-efficient home, you need sufficient, good-quality insulation in your ceilings, walls, and floors.

Many conventional forms of insulation are not sustainable because they’re made from fossil fuel-derived plastics such as fiberglass and polystyrene.

However, there are a number of eco-friendly options, including:

  • Sheep’s wool insulation is a 100% all-natural, renewable, recyclable, and biodegradable form of insulation. Not only is wool a high-effective insulator, it also stores humidity and releases it back into the air when ambient humidity drops, helping to regulate humidity levels in your home. It even acts as an air filter, absorbing several harmful chemicals that can be found indoors!
  • Cork, a natural material that literally grows on trees, and can be sustainably harvested and manufactured in a carbon-negative process. It is also an equal or better insulator than most fossil fuel-derived types of insulation, long-lasting, and very fire-resistant.
  • Hemp is a sustainable material with a range of uses, including insulation. This hardy plant is fast-growing, requiring little water and no pesticides for cultivation. Unfortunately, most hemp insulation available today contains polyester – up to 40% in some brands – meaning that it is not biodegradable or truly sustainable. However, hemp has great potential for eco-friendly insulation, just watch out for the polyester content.
  • Cellulose insulation is typically made with around 80% post-consumer newspaper, making it a mostly recycled product. It is an effective insulator that is combined with non-toxic borate – a natural repellent to insects and rodents. Blown-in cellulose is also available, which can be retrofitted to existing homes without needing to remove the walls.

These types of eco-friendly insulation will allow you to slash the amount of energy you need to heat and cool your home while being kind to the environment (great for building an energy efficient home on a budget, but also for cutting energy costs in your current home).

These kinds of insulation are also free from toxins, unlike conventional forms, which commonly contain chemicals like isocyanate, formaldehyde, and hexabromocyclododecane, which have been linked to hormonal disruption and could be harmful to your family’s health.

comparison table of the eco-friendly insulation
Summary table of the eco-friendly insulation commercially available in 2021

It’s important to note that not all types of eco-friendly insulation are suitable for all climates and conditions, so make sure to do a bit of research before making a final decision.

5. Consider a prefab home or an Earthship

Prefab (prefabricated) homes are an easy way to build an energy-efficient home on a budget. The best eco-friendly prefab homes incorporate eco-insulation which will help to keep your home cool in summer and warm in winter, minimizing the amount of energy you use for heating and cooling.

Prefab home from Bensonwood
Prefab home from Bensonwood
Source: Bensonwood

Additionally, the building process for prefab homes is more efficient: they are partially pre-built on a large scale in a factory, allowing for the most efficient use of energy and materials. Because all components are transported and delivered at the same time, they also use less energy for transport of materials.

All this makes them more energy-efficient to construct and transport, and so the building process is more energy-efficient, as well as being an affordable option.

If you want a truly eco-friendly building, you could consider an Earthship home. These are very specific types of houses that incorporate sustainability into every aspect of design and construction, including a number of strategies that make them extremely energy efficient.

Along with solar energy systems, Earthship homes also make use of passive solar. For example, these houses can have windows that are situated in the ideal position to use the sun’s energy to generate heat in winter.

earthship home with large windows
An Earthship home with large windows that allow maximum sunlight into the house.
Source: Wikimedia / Twolking

Earthships also make use of the earth’s natural thermal energy for heating and cooling, making them very energy efficient. They have thick, dense walls built from high-mass materials.

This not only keeps internal temperatures stable but additionally, these high-mass materials absorb heat in warm weather and radiate it back into the house on cold days. Finally, Earthships use a range of innovative and sustainable insulation solutions, such as old tires pounded with dirt, to minimize the energy needed for heating and cooling.

Though the cost of building an Earthship can vary, these structures are highly customizable, giving you a lot of control over the budget and helping you to keep costs down.

6. Consider your home’s dimensions, orientation and positioning

The design of your house can make a big difference to how energy efficient it is. Planning for the most energy-efficient size, orientation, and positioning can have a big impact without breaking your budget.

Build upwards

The first thing you can do to improve energy efficiency is to build upwards. Multi-storey homes have less surface area per volume compared to single-storey builds with the same square footage.

The lower surface area means less opportunity for hot or cold air to escape, meaning they need less energy for heating and cooling. Building upwards also shortens the length of plumbing and duct runs, making these systems more efficient, while reducing the footprint of the home and therefore two of the largest costs involved in building: the roof and the foundation.

Position your home well

Equally, positioning and orientation can make a big difference to the energy efficiency of your home. Orientating the longest side of your home to face south will give you maximum sunlight in winter, reducing the amount of energy you need to spend on heating.

At the same time, taking the slope of your plot into consideration can greatly reduce the costs of building. Laying a foundation on a slope is much more expensive than on level ground, so pick a level spot if possible, otherwise use a vertical design that is built into the slope.

It’s also important to think about the roofline – you should have an overhang that is the right length to shield your windows from the summer sun, while catching the winter sun which sits at a lower angle.

Keep it simple

Choosing simplicity over complexity will also help you to make your build as affordable as possible. A simple layout with minimalist rooflines is far cheaper, easier, and quicker to build than complex designs and features.

Extra design touches may be ornamental, but if they don’t have any function they’re frankly a waste of money. However, this doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice style: a good simple design can be not only practical but also visually stunning!

Building an energy efficient home on a budget is definitely possible

From using the right kind of insulation to orientating your house in the best direction, there are plenty of tactics to help you with building an energy efficient home on a budget. Adopting solar or wind power and geothermal heating can also allow you to slash the amount of energy you use to heat or cool your home. 

You could even reconsider the type of construction itself, and go for a super energy-efficient prefab or Earthship home!

If you want to learn more about eco-friendly building practices, check out our guides to sustainable house design and recycled building materials.

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