Our homes are one of the most defining elements of who we are.

We spend great care in furnishing and decorating them to reflect our likes and values. We raise our families in them, cook meals, have friends over, entertain hopes and dreams, and just plain live.

For most of us, buying a home is also the biggest expenditure in our lifetime. We often consider our home the reason for and fruit of our labors, a safe haven. In short, a home is so much more than the sum of its parts.

The parts of a home, however, can very much influence the level of comfort, the air quality and the expense associated with this structure.

Structures have many features intended to provide comfort. Windows allow sunlight to enter; insulation and air sealing keep conditioned air inside and hot or cold air outside; ventilation ensures proper air exchange; heating and air conditioning equipment generate hot or cold air and ducting delivers the conditioned air to living spaces; and the list goes on.

In recent years, more attention has been placed on the importance of evaluating a structure’s performance and ensuring that the systems work well together to deliver a healthy, comfortable, and cost effective living environment. This evaluation is a growing field called building science.

More and more prospective home buyers are asking for evidence the homes they are considering are efficient and healthy. Nationwide, the most common reporting standard for scoring a home’s efficiency is the Home Energy Rating System.

An Energy Star Certification standard for new construction is also available and becoming more popular as some utility companies offer rebates to comply with this standard. Some states are taking the lead to require energy use disclosures or energy performance scores as part of residential real estate transactions, and the MLS can accommodate this additional information, but there is still a lot of opportunity to enhance this process to help ensure buyers know how their home performs and what to expect regarding any needed improvements.

New home construction has typically benefitted greatly from this increased focus on performance. Improved code requirements ensure minimum levels of performance are met and builders who emphasize quality treat the structure as a system and work to ensure all of the components work efficiently together to deliver a superior product.

This is an important aspect to consider when buying a home. Buyers generally place a high value on finishes and amenities and can take if for granted home performance features are up to par. After all, not many a buyer ever fell in love with the insulation or the furnace.

For existing homes, the puzzle can be a bit more challenging. Traditionally, in mainstream residential structures, aspects of home performance have taken a back seat to size, finishes, and other amenities. With plentiful and inexpensive fuels available, builders all the way into the 1970s had very little incentive to add insulation, better windows and doors, and duct insulation or sealing.

Houses were generally leaky, allowing conditioned air to escape, and outdoor air to enter the building. These existing conditions can make it tricky for owners of older homes to recognize and target solutions to an uncomfortable, unhealthy or costly structure.

So what does all of this mean to the average homeowner?

Certified building performance specialists are now available in most communities and can conduct a certified home inspection for a reasonable fee. The audit includes inspections of the home’s attic, wall and ceiling insulation levels, the ducting system and the heating and cooling system. A leakage, or blower door, test is done, and for homes with natural gas appliances, a combustion appliance zone test will be performed.

Other diagnostics and tools like an infrared camera can help further pinpoint problems. Visual inspection of windows, doors, vents, fans, light fixtures and more allow the auditor to provide a comprehensive report and recommendations for improvements.

In Washington, the state Legislature since 2012 has continued funding that was originally part of an American Recovery and Restoration Act pilot, for the Community Energy Efficiency Program. CEEP is administered by the Washington State University Energy Program statewide and is available in Walla Walla, Franklin and Columbia counties through the Sustainable Living Center.

With SLC’s program, participants complete an application and are scheduled for a low cost home energy audit that makes prioritized recommendations for upgrades. The program then provides financial assistance to complete needed work.

Work is completed at state prevailing wage and through vetted local contractors. An incentive tier helps provide a higher level of assistance for near-low income participants. The SLC also helps identify utility rebates and facilitate that process to further decrease the final cost of upgrades.

Since its inception, CEEP has helped provide hundreds of homes in Walla Walla with needed upgrades. Improving building performance not only makes for a more efficient, comfortable, cost effective and often healthier home, but also creates a demand for services.

Generally provided locally, these services and the jobs they create help fuel the local economy. For more information about the Community Energy Efficiency Program or to apply, call the SLC at 509-524-5218 or go to www.sustainablelivingcenter.com.

Placing an increased focus on building performance has wide-spread benefits. For individuals, it is a natural extension of what we wish for our homes; comfort, health, and cost effectiveness; for communities, the economic effects can be great; and as a society, the reductions in overall energy use will make a huge impact for years to come.

So, when buying a home, or making upgrades to your current home, consider making building performance a part of your plan.

Erendira Cruz is the executive director of the Sustainable Living Center. She has a bachelor’s degree in business management from Montana State University.