Complimentary Strategies to Zero Net Energy Designs

Building Down vs. Building Up, Muti-Generational Design & Aging in Place

In areas of the country that typically cast a full height concrete foundation,  it is less expensive to create additional occupied and conditioned space in the lower (“basement”) level of a home than it is to build a third level that doesn't have to be there. It basically consists of putting the 2nd bedroom, 3rd bedroom and 4th bedroom/office, and 2nd and 3rd  full bathrooms all down vs. up on larger homes that include a first floor (upper floor) Master Bedroom suite.  Conversely for smaller homes, it can be designed with all of the bedrooms on the lower level along with one or two full baths.  As long as daylighting, headroom, egress, access and HVAC are designed in advance…..designing a home with a lower level walk-out makes it simpler and far less expensive to accomplish.  Think of the lower level as the earth berm segment of the home and you get the picture.


We use pre-fab fiberglass window-well units on the high side (buried sides) walls of the lower level windows for daylighting and egress.  Flooring in the lower level can be as simple as colored concrete, if that is someone’s taste.  However, we choose to use a combination of colored concrete, commercial carpeting, and porcelain tile to cover the various occupied spaces.

The traditional primary (large) laundry room stays on the lower level, as do all the utilities and HVAC.  The often created, after-the-fact “recreation space” or gathering room stays on the lower level as well, unless that square footage is dedicated for an extra bedroom.  The major difference is that they are all done with more headroom, daylighting, air quality, and thermal comfort than the typical (“after thought”) lower level finished spaces. 

Building up vs. down is not for everyone, nor does it work well for every site.  However, when it does, it’s a great opportunity to build square footage that saves initial capital cost, reduces annual energy use, and lowers annual property tax payments…..while still offering great flexibility in the use of the home.  In today’s market, need to create multi-generational homes can also be done this way.  The upper level (1st floor level) can be designed for one level living with all functions required by an aging couple (“aging in place”).  Given the extraordinary expense of assisted care and/or nursing home living, a modest investment in making a new home suitable for people to grow old in adds significant value to the home. This approach dictates a master bedroom suite layout on the first floor, with either an integral or separate master bath/laundry space to go with it.

The lower level is readily convertible into a one level, two or three bedroom, in-law suite or returning home children suite by using the whole lower level finished space as a “two family” type design....or into a one bedroom 3rd party caregiver suite by adding one simple straight partition wall to divide up the common “recreational” space area; thereby splitting up the lower level space for dual use between upper and lower inhabitants.  The “recreational” space can be programmed or built day one to include a fully functioning kitchen along one wall.  Direct access to, and parking for, the lower level can be provided at the rear of the home.

ZNE; building down; aging in place; and multi-generational living all have a common theme:  maximizing an investment in a home for a planned long use/ownership period.  If you are investing in any one of these concepts, why not do it in such a way to take advantage of them all.