In the USA and Canada you can now buy a certified Energy Star home; in the European Union you have a ranking system that allows you to choose energy-efficient A to C homes (in a rating system that goes from A to G); Australia is now requiring new homes to be 6 Star...
These certified homes are built to standards above current building codes, and can deliver energy savings of about 20-30% when compared to average homes. They fall short of the standards of very energy-efficient homes and Zero Energy homes, but they are far better than average homes.
They are inspected, audited and tested to meet requirements set by the state and local governments, typically above those of current codes; and they can provide high levels of moisture control, comfort and durability.
It’s easy to buy a new Energy Star home, in America. The Energy Star site has a “New Homes Partner Locate” option that anyone can use for information and to come into contact with local Energy Star "partners" (the builders, lenders and raters). Canada has also a very similar program: see it here.
In Europe, you haven’t a program like Energy Star, but homes are audited and rated from A to G, according to their energy-efficiency. You just have to take into consideration the rating.
One "problem" with certified homes, and the one most people notice, is their cost; it is often estimated that they are 5-10% more expensive than average buildings.
That's been the case in the US, where many builders claim that Energy Star homes are difficult to sell due to their higher prices, and about the market's appraisal and the reluctance of lenders to advance further funds. And that's often true. Energy improvements are not immediately noticeable, and the price is always a key factor in the decision-making process.
But Energy Star homes are worth their price; the payback period may not be very short, but the recovery of the extra cost is not difficult, namely for those who live in a harsh climate (see Cost-Benefit Analysis of Energy Improvements).
Anyway, the Energy Star standards for energy-efficiency fall short of the best; these homes are a good option for people who want a ready-to-move home, following the prevailing standards and market trends, but there are better alternatives for people who want to build their own home.
Alternatives to Energy Star homes
The Energy Star homes are constructed with high moisture control standards (for healthy indoor air and to protect walls, roofs, floors and foundations) and high-performance windows, lighting and domestic appliances; and have high standards for heating, ventilation and cooling equipment. It goes beyond building codes in these areas...
But the program also follows the American market trends. Many Energy Star homes are large buildings, well over the average size of some years ago, and the program doesn't mandate very high levels of insulation, or the orientation of the building to the sun and summer breezes, or properly sized windows in every side of the house, or features involving the shape of the building and optimized construction details.
And it's at these levels that you have to think differently.
Energy Star vs. European and Australia Home Rating Programs
There are differences in the certification and rating system for new homes in America, Europe and Australia.
In the European Union, the Energy Performance program is a simple rating system to help buyers choose a more energy-efficient house. European home builders, as in the USA and Canada, are not required to join any program or forced to meet specific standards. They only have to submit their homes for auditing and rating.
But in Australia is a bit different. In Australia, new homes have to be constructed to earn the 6 star rating, and it’s up to the owners and builders to meet it. The system is enforceable. And the authorities are advising builders to pay attention to design, in order to keep construction costs low; they stress the importance of factors such as the orientation of the living areas to the winter sun, or proper shading; moreover, they state that these factors alone can add up to 1 star to the rating of the house, and make it a lot cheaper (see: Department of Commerce Australia).