Want to lower your utility bills? Beware these home design trends

These designer home trends may look better on your Pinterest and Instagram feeds than on your utility bill.
by Dana McMahan /  / Updated 
Image: Laptop on coffee table in a modern living room of an old country house
Ever notice anything missing from the Pinterest homes with beautiful banks of windows? Often there's not a curtain or shade in sight.Westend61 / Getty Images
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We know Pinterest is dangerous for the hours (and hours!) you can spend scrolling and saving for that perfect home you'll have someday. But there's another hazard to lusting over the homes featured on it or Instagram. Nobody ever said you should believe everything you see on the internet, but it's awfully hard to tell a beautiful design that will actually work in real life — your life — from one that is completely untethered from reality.

When I began re-designing the third floor of our 1890 home — a hoarder's lair that time forgot — I fixated on a soaring ceiling, the rustic original beams all exposed. It would be beautiful, I thought.

It would be … a very bad idea, according to the friends I shared this plan with.

I resisted, but eventually their logic won out over my "But They Do It On Pinterest" argument. I didn't take it well, but the insulation brigade was right. Pinterest and Instagram still fuel my house makeover dreams, but I try to take a more critical approach now.

To reveal some of the worst offenders of the "Only in Pinterest" world, I talked with Lauren Urbanek, the Senior Program Advocate, Center for Energy Efficiency Standards, Climate & Clean Energy Program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Urbanek weighed in with tips for keeping cool without busting the bank on your utility bill, and she shared some reality checks for some beautiful photos I've collected on Pinterest.

Exposed beams

Oh, how we love our exposed beams. There's just something so rustic/industrial/chic about them. They bring so much architectural interest to what could otherwise be a blank expanse of drywall. Better still? Open it all up, take it to the underside of the roof for a room with waaaay up there ceilings. Paint it all black or a soft gray and your place may be the next Pinterest star.

But “living in a building where there's a half inch thick piece of wood between you and outside … of course comes at a cost … to your utility bill and to your comfort as well” Urbanek said. That wood was never meant to see light of day. “Heat always wants to travel to where it's cooler so if it's cooler inside your building … if you have no insulation between your rafters and the roof, the heat or cold is just going to pass right through,” she explained.

Living in a building where there's a half inch thick piece of wood between you and outside … of course comes at a cost … to your utility bill and to your comfort as well.

Yes, it's painful to hear that. “They're beautiful spaces,” Urbanek said. “They're really stunning but if you want to stay comfortable and not swelter on a 100-degree day then you might have to rethink or come up with a creative way to help the cool stay inside.” (We ended up compromising by insulating and drywalling between the rafters in one nook to keep just a few exposed — although that still wasn't ideal for keeping a comfortable temperature in the room.)

Exposed brick

If there's anything we love more than rafters on display it's bringing brick out from hiding. There's just something irresistible about that gritty, urban look that has people tearing out drywall and plaster in droves. I'm among them; when we removed damaged plaster from the mudroom in our 1890 home we found beautiful weathered brick, and left every inch of it exposed. (Along with the rafters, for good measure.) The room now conveniently serves as a walk-in freezer in the winter, as it's absolutely frigid that time of year.

“Exposed brick is really wonderful, but brick is also not a great insulator in and of itself,” Urbanek said. “You can put your hand up to an exterior wall in the middle of winter and feel cold if it's just a layer of brick.” Consider this: building codes today call for insulation levels of R-19 (the the R-value refers to a material's thermal resistance) or higher on exterior walls, according to North American Insulation Manufacturers Association. Even in a house like this that's three bricks thick we're lucky if we're at R-3. No wonder inside that brick room doesn't feel much different from outside!

But don't give up your brick dreams just yet. You may be in luck if the wall you'd like to expose is an interior wall. Urbanek herself did it in a row house in Baltimore built in the late 1800s (and I plan to do it soon on a wall in my kitchen).

All the windows

Ever notice anything missing from the Pinterest homes with beautiful banks of windows? Often there's not a curtain or shade in sight. And certainly the flood of natural light is wonderful. It may even be that these window enthusiasts live in a temperate climate where it's not such a big deal. But for the rest of us? Urbanek wondered if many of them are even operable.

“It doesn't look like a lot are open. They're pretty but you can't really get a breeze in which is something a window is great for,” she said. Here's an idea. “Use windows for what they're supposed to be used for — unless you're a fan of the greenhouse effect which some of these look like they provide in the summer.”

Granted, window technologies — especially in the higher-end market — have come a long way, Urbanek said. But at the end of the day it's glass. And that's “not as a efficient as wall.”

Skylights can be problematic, too, for anyone looking to keep their energy usage dialed in. “Same as windows, skylights are [a place] you certainly want to make sure air sealing is tight around them,” she said. Not installed correctly, a skylight will let air escape what, remember, is “a hole in your roof.”

Where are all the ceiling fans?

Look, ceiling fans aren't exactly a social media sharing jackpot. When I'm sharing photos of our third floor space I try to angle the shot so as to not get the less-than-lovely (albeit new and necessary) ceiling fan. Urbanek wonders where all the fans are.

“I see a lot of pictures of rooms with beautiful light fixtures but not ceiling fans,” she said. “For me personally I couldn't live without a ceiling fan in the bedroom.” The breeze makes a room feel cooler, she explained, “and I don't have to bump the AC down really low.” Even if they're not as pretty as some of those designer light fixtures, “consider installing one if you're in a warmer climate,” she urged. And “there are some more attractive options than the old wood panels.”

Entry ways are a statement, but what kind?

You don't have to look far to see all those imposing entryways across the internet. “The really tall foyer in an entryway, it's certainly a grand statement,” Urbanek said. “But with tall ceilings you're going to use more energy to heat or cool those spaces, and it's not usable space either.” These grand foyers are a good reminder, she said, that “there are effects on utility bills from design choices.”

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