The 2017 Blue Ridge Area Homebuilders Association Parade of Homes takes place this weekend and next, and this year you’ll find Pearl Certified homes on the tour with both Stony Point and Dominion Custom Homes. Given the attention focused on new homes, we took the opportunity to chat with John Semmelhack of Think Little Home Energy in Charlottesville about the latest and greatest in energy efficient home design and construction, some of which is on display in the Parade of Homes.

You’ve worked with a number of custom homebuilders in Charlottesville, including some in this year’s Parade of Homes. Tell us a little about your background and how you came to be in the business.

I’m the owner of Think Little Home Energy in Charlottesville. I’ve been doing this work since 2006 when my wife and I were working with an architect on a home we were building, at which point I fell in love with what I was learning and decided to get some training and launch my own business.

Let’s start with a baseline for the term “energy efficient home.” From your perspective, how has the term evolved over the years, and what key features constitute an “energy efficient home” today?

The term has certainly changed over the years. It used to mean just energy efficient appliances to homeowners. Now we have big-picture, whole-home thinking. Both builders and clients are more interested in – and are demanding more – energy efficient features in a home. Energy efficiency now includes HVAC, water heating, lighting, insulation, windows and more.

What are some of the top energy efficient home features that builders seem to want these days? Which have the best ROI?

High efficiency water heaters or HVAC are very popular with builders. The best ROI is on LED lighting, high-efficiency water heating (heat pump, high-efficiency gas water heater), and also better insulation and air sealing.

In terms of HVAC systems and some of the less “sexy” and visible aspects of a home, what is top of the line for an energy efficient, high performing home right now?

Sealed ductwork, all ducts inside conditioned space, heating and cooling provided by variable speed heat pumps or mini-splits.

What does the term “variable speed”mean?

Variable speed systems provide both comfort and energy efficiency benefits. They are like a car on cruise control. As heating/cooling needs change during the day or the season, the output of the system will ramp up or down as needed. Most of the year, homes only need half of what the system is capable of producing. Working at 50% these systems are incredibly efficient. Standard systems are on/off. These systems are able to improve on that by a lot.

Variable speed systems are available in both top of the line heat pumps but also in mini-splits.Mini-splitshave no ductwork.

The notion of a “smart home” is very popular these days. How do you see smart home features contributing to energy efficiency?

At this point, I don’t have a lot of faith in smart home devices saving a lot of energy. Many of my clients have wifi thermostats, where they can control the settings remotely. Not as many have learning thermostats, the performance of which will vary a lot by home type. Learning thermostats are supposed to provide real savings, but with high performance new construction, they won’t provide as big a benefit as they would in an older home.

Aside from lighting, appliances, etc, talk about the trends you’re seeing in overall home layout that speak to energy efficiency and sustainability.

The biggest positive trend I’m seeing is the growth in multifamily and townhome construction, which yield a lot of energy savings through a smaller footprint and shared walls.

What’s most exciting or interesting to you in terms of new products, new building techniques, etc?

We’ve been focusing the last couple of years on providing HVAC design and testing services to our custom builders and multifamily developers. We’re very excited about fine-tuning these variable speed systems and getting the most out of them.

From the location of the ducts, to their tightness, to the right airflow in the rooms – these are all things that can be and should be tested for performance.

 How important is indoor air quality to builders and homeowners with whom you work?

It’s slowly growing. We haven’t had clients come to us very often with these concerns, but rather we are bringing them to our clients.

The two big things homeowners can do to improve indoor air quality are to first control humidity through their HVAC or dehumidifier and to use higher performance filters in ducted heating and cooling systems.

With respect to the topic of home efficiency, if you could share one piece of advice to a homeowner, real estate agent and builder – respectively – what would that piece of advice be?

Homeowner: Do your homework! Take your time and find out as much about the house as you can once you’re serious and before you make an offer. You can also include a third party inspection in your contingencies.

Real Estate Agent: Get educated! In terms of what builders are offering, new building codes, where the standards are going. And know what’s possible. For example net zero homes, where you produce as much energy as you use.

Builder: If you build it they will come! Don’t be afraid. Home building is a slow industry to change. The builders I work with have been pretty successful in offering higher efficiency packages for their clients.

*John Semmelhack of Think Little was interviewed by Pearl Certification’s CEO Cynthia Adams. This is a summary, not a transcript, of that conversation.

This article originally appeared in The Daily Progress.