It wasn’t that long ago that insulation was insulation. Today, thanks in large part to keener competition for buyers, rising energy prices, and stiffer building codes, there is a wealth of products designed to create and improve an actual thermal envelope. And the choice for builders is not just which one to spec, but how to combine them to optimize their respective benefits and achieve higher levels of performance.

“There are a million ways to skin that cat,” says Lucas Hamilton, manager of building science application at CertainTeed in Valley Forge, Pa. “Builders can now let the unique factors of a project dictate a solution.”

That relatively new concept also makes energy-efficient housing more affordable. Builders across all price points can now modify their insulation packages not only to the climate, local code requirements, and the clients’ expectations for comfort and energy costs, but also to the construction budget. And because a systematic approach to insulation results in a superior thermal envelope, builders can reduce the size and cost of the HVAC equipment, diminish duct leakage, and afford better windows to remain price-competitive in a sluggish sales environment.

Case in point: On a recent project, Synergy Companies Construction of Leominster, Mass., employed a combination of various rigid foam insulation panels, expanding spray foam, R-30 fiberglass batts, air and vapor barriers, and proper taping and flashing materials and methods to help reduce a home’s energy use by 60%.

The 1,100-square-foot home is heated and cooled entirely by a mini-split system using two air handlers and a heat pump that looks more like a room fan, served by a single tankless water heater, and kept cozy with triple-paned windows. “If you’re trying to achieve the highest levels of energy performance, you have to approach it as a system,” says Synergy owner Gary Bergeron.