A Tip for New Home Buyers – Consider What is Behind the Walls

Hybrid insulation installDuring the 2013 International Builders’ Show I had the chance to speak with a regional manager for a national builder about the challenge of helping consumers understand the features, benefits and return on investment (ROI) on the hidden features in a home. 

When a potential homeowners speaks to a builder they are usually more focused on considering upgrades that are visible to the eye than considering what’s underneath the walls of the home. What they don’t consider is how upgrading the R-value in their walls will save them money on heating and cooling over the life of the home or if they plan on selling the home in the future, how this improved performance may help them compete against homes that will be built between now and then.

The challenge that is faced by a builder as well as a solution provider is to create ways to have that very conversation with the consumer in a clear and relatively quick manner. The reality is that a builder only has so much time with a prospective buyer of a new construction and they do have a great deal of ground to cover.  It is usually easier to focus on what is visible than what is not.

During our chat, we discussed creating scenarios of building a house three different ways to maximize the efficiency of the home and how to show that to a prospective buyer.  You could have partially finished walls in the garage of a model home which show building and insulating a wall to code vs. improved materials and techniques.  You could then show various types of wallboard – yes there are varieties of wallboard that address noise reduction, mold and moisture control and volatile organic compound removal.  This could be a chance for people to actually see and understand what is usually hidden behind the finishes they have been focused on.

Truth is, potential homeowners seem more interested in talking about the aesthetics of countertop materials than increasing the efficiency of their wall systems. Why are we so comfortable being ignorant about one the most important investments of our life? I would bet that more people have researched the features and benefits of their next car in terms of gas mileage, horsepower, etc.  than researching the type of insulation and wallboard to use in their home for optimum comfort and health.

Does anybody have any ideas of how we can engage homeowners in the conversation about the energy efficiency options in homes that will lower their operating costs over the life of a home? If you are a realtor, what do you do?

Take Advantage of the Extended Energy Tax Credits

cit5glamourimagesmallAs you know, at the end of 2012 our Nation averted falling off what was referred to as the “fiscal cliff” by passing last minute budget legislation.  Homeowners and homebuilders became the winners with that vote because one of the provisions was to extend the Energy Tax Credit which was designed to help them upgrade the efficiency of the building envelop and reduce their energy usage.

There were two key components of that action. Congress extended a tax credit for energy efficient retrofits through Dec. 31, 2013 and retroactively to Jan. 1, 2012. The credit allows homeowners to claim 10 percent of the cost of qualified energy-efficient building materials, such as insulation, up to $500. They also revived a business tax credit of up to $2,000.00 for builders that construct or significantly renovate “dwelling units” (e.g. apartments, condos or single-family homes) that meet certain energy efficiency standards.

I strongly recommend that to make the best decisions for improving the energy efficiency of an existing home that you conduct a home energy audit. This is an important first step in identifying where updates are most needed and how to get the greatest return from a renovation budget. ResNet is a great resource that helps connect homeowners with trained auditors in their community. For more information, visit www.resnet.us.

That being said, it is fairly easy to identify one of the greatest sources of energy loss even if you are not handy with energy modeling programs – the attic. Take a look up there. If the tops of the ceiling  joists are visible then you will definitely need to add more insulation to reach the current recommended R-value. This is typical of homes built more than 30 years ago.

ainsulatticblow1webdsmallAccording to the U.S. Department of Energy, the average homeowner can save as much as 30 percent on energy bills related to comfort simply by having the right amount of insulation throughout the home. For attics, applying a premium fiberglass blowing insulation is the best solution for adding thermal performance in an attic and in keeping a home warmer in the winter and cooler during the summer (without concern for compressing what insulation already exists  – a real issue with some other types of loose-fill insulations available). And the best part: it is easy to access and an inexpensive way to achieve great results year round.

There are tools available for homeowners that help recommend R-values for different areas of the home, provide estimates of potential savings, and identifies incentives for completing insulation projects from this federal tax credit down to local utility programs.

The most important thing is that you act now and don’t miss the opportunity to take advantage of the Tax Credits while you can.  This might really be your last chance for a bite of the apple. The reality is older homes will need to be upgraded to remain competitive is the marketplace as newer construction comes online.  It is only a matter of time before energy efficiency labels will be placed on buildings.  Don’t let your single most valuable investment fall behind!

It’s Easy to Lower Energy Bills – Insulate!

BuilderLiveI continue to be amazed at tradeshows how attracted attendees are to photovoltaic (PV) products. It is admittedly an exciting technology and I saw this again at the Greenbuild and the International Builders’ Shows.  At this past IBS show, our Builders’ Resource Center answered many questions on many topics but clearly the most interest was again regarding integrated photovoltaic roofing and PV panels.

I guess what I find so amazing is how much time people will dedicate to evaluating the return on investment (ROI) for PV while remaining so unwilling to spend even a little effort going after low hanging fruit that might not be as exciting or visible. PV can be a good investment for many folks but it could be a great investment if they improved their baseline consumption first.

Insulate, tighten up that ductwork and envelope while ensuring proper fresh air and then the same PV investment can go from providing say 50 percent of your power needs to providing 75 percent. There’s an old African proverb that says: “if you want to go fast go alone but if you want to go far go together.” Nothing could be truer in a situation such as this. Every little effort you make can combine to have an impact greater than the sum of the parts.

Another thing I often hear during trade show discussions about solar is that folks are going to wait a little longer until they get into the PV roofing (they have a new roof they don’t want to disturb just yet, they are waiting for the right client to force their hand, they heard that prices are going to keep dropping as more folks get into it, etc…). I understand. It’s not a small investment and so it should be done with prudence.

But…. adding insulation and improving the building envelope need not wait. Material prices for these types of products are near historic lows and labor is trained, willing, and eager to do the job. You will begin saving money on your energy bill immediately and perhaps your new cash flow properties will actually allow you to get that super sexy solar even sooner.

 

NAHB International Builders’ Show – Where New Products and Learning Collide

CertainTeed booth at IBS 2013

CertainTeed booth at IBS 2013

I am in Las Vegas for the National Association of Home Builders International Builders’ Show 2013.  I truly enjoy this show because it is a great opportunity to ‘kick the tires’ on products and learn about best practices taking places in the build community. 

With the new 2012 Building Codes that are starting to be adopted by states, it is critical that build professionals know the changes to the code requirements where they are building. It is also important to hear about best practices for achieving airtight assemblies and the best solutions for achieving maximum energy efficiency in the building envelope.

For IBS 2013, CertainTeed is focused on building knowledge. To assist with this, CertainTeed is incorporating in its booth (C2126) a Builder Resource Center making available building science and technical experts to share best practices but also to answer questions from show participants. If you come to our Resource Center you will be eligible to win a full day consultation by a building scientist on your construction site. 

At the booth, we will also have technical experts hosting “Ask the Expert” interactive sessions centered on building science, roofing, insulation, siding, gypsum and foundations. With the extension of the Energy Tax Credit as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations, contractors and developers who construct or renovate “dwelling units” (apartments, condos or single-family homes) that meet certain energy efficiency standards have access to a tax credit of up to $2000.

If you are attending IBS, make sure to stop by booth C2126 and pick our brains. I guarantee you will have a great learning experience as well as a fun time.

The Greening of the 2012 Building Codes: Air-tightness Testing – A Must Have for Consumers

 

Blower Door Testing

Blower Door Testing

The 2012 energy code, which we are very excited about because it is very advanced compared to the 2009, requires two things which have never been required by aU.S. code before.  These are:

  • Blower door testing of houses
  • Duct pressure testing for leakage

These two things are extremely influential on energy efficiency and have always been assumed were part of best practices. We have seen changes in the codes saying “install air barriers or tighten up your duct work” but they never required that these tests be conducted to ensure that the house is airtight.

These are two physical tests that need to be conducted on every new home if the 2012 building codes have been adopted by a state. While this is one of the best ways to ensure efficient thermal comfort for home owners, the potential impact on the builder must be understood. If you are building a house in say 120 days scheduling someone to come out to conduct this testing could severely impact the building schedule: these tests need to be conducted before installing the drywall. No drywall until you have passed the inspection- imagine it.

But who conducts this testing?  Code officials are not typically trained or funded to execute this type of testing.  This testing has been done in the past for NAHB, Energy Star and other programs by internally or externally certified raters. Home Energy Rating System (HERS) raters are a great example of one group that is trained to do this testing.

However, there is no organized resource, clearinghouse or national database for building professionals to find all of the various local professionals who can conduct these tests. To ensure that these tests are conducted and that states do not “opt out” of this requirement, a national database needs be developed so that third-party testers can be easily found and scheduled.

This is an important part of the 2012 code that qualifies for the consumer that the home is energy efficient and that some of the most critical passive elements of that efficiency were done right.  It’s not what you spec; it’s what you inspect.

 

Building America Solution Center a Great New Resource for Consumers and Residential Builders

The U.S Department of Energy has launched the Building America Solutions Center website.  Building America is a program that is operated by the Department of Energy to investigate best practices for residential construction.  They have accumulated a great deal of information from the field and done several experiments that up until now have only generally been shared within the Building Science community. It is a wonderful resource for building professionals and consumers who want to make the best choices when improving the energy efficiency in residential construction.

The Solution Center website shares best practices and other project resources to help plan, implement and measure energy efficiency programs for residential buildings and homes. The site includes resources to answer questions regarding new energy efficient technologies, projecting savings, financing home improvement projects.

This is public / private partnership funded research and everyone should be aware that it exists so they can make the best choices as we all move toward improving the energy efficiency of our buildings.

Spread the word about this great resource!

Don’t Forget the End Users When Building for Energy Efficiency

While at Greenbuild 2012 I was asked “What do you think is the most critical factor in ensuring a healthy, sustainable built environment?” My answer was posted on our Blog but there is more I want to say about this so here we go!

Users or occupants of high efficiency buildings need to understand and be a partner in the process because  ultimately they influence the  success or failure of a building’s efficiency over time. For example, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) for Homes will give you credit for and requires Energy Star performance which means certain insulation levels, certain air tightness and certain efficiencies on the mechanical systems (among other issues). The energy efficiency of the building is based upon a combination of highly efficient equipment and permanent passive systems.

When the active system wears out, if the consumers don’t appreciate the importance of the efficiency of that system on the overall performance of the habitat they are unlikely to take that into consideration when they have to replace equipment.  They can go from a high efficiency piece of equipment that made their sustainable building sing beautifully and perform wonderfully and stick in something that is on sale or is perhaps promoted by their contractor but with a whole different efficiency rating.  Now the building goes from being a Prius to being a Hummer simply because the driver wasn’t told the difference between the two.

In sustainability circles we often talk about “the Prius effect”.  This comes from the engagement of the driver with the car.  Once the driver understands the savings due to the offset of the electrical to the fuel and you give them real-time feedback, they began to drive against the machine to improve the efficiency. The build community needs to develop dashboards or other tools for high efficiency buildings so that end users can see the benefits provided by the systems.  That buy-in is critical to sustaining efficiency over the life cycle of the building.

There is no point in doing a sustainable building for someone unless you teach and show them how to maintain it. That is one aspect I especially admire about the Living Building Challenge. The Beauty petal has components which include inspiration and education. Couldn’t we all use a little more of both?

Greenbuild 2012 is a Wrap! Philadelphia Here we Come!

San Francisco is among the top sustainable cities in the U.S. so it was exciting to be out there for Greenbuild this year.  The expo portion of the conference was only two days this year but from the beginning of the first day the show floor was packed with attendees who were really engaged. In fact, it was the most engaged audience I have seen since the recession began.  Hopefully, that is an indicator that the building market is returning.

NOVA speed dating

NOVA speed dating

In my travels around the show, I was surprised that I really didn’t see too many new innovations. There was nothing that stood out as a bright, new product or very innovative with the exception of the Saint-Gobain NOVA Innovation Competition.  The NOVA External Venturing division of Saint-Gobain rewards start-ups offering the most innovative solutions in the field of habitat, energy and the environment.  This was the first time the competition has taken place in the U.S. Over the last several months Saint-Gobain reviewed and selected eight finalists who would come to Greenbuild for a final interview process during the show days.  From those eight, three entrepreneurs where awarded cash prizes, however, all the contestants will have the opportunity to partner with Saint-Gobain in exploring potential joint development, licensing and other collaboration.

It was amazing the buzz that was created on the show floor by the NOVA Competition.  The final eight entrepreneurs participated in what might be referred to as a “speed dating” round.  These innovators were pitching their ideas to some of the best business leaders in our industry. It was exciting during the speed dating and a large crowd gathered for the announcement of the winners.  The top winner was Heliotrope, a developer of energy-efficient electrochromic glass that that switches reversibly between three states:  solar transparent, heat blocking, and heat and light blocking or darkened.  The second place winner was PlanGrid, a complete collaborative platform for construction information and the fastest PDF viewer in the universe.  Third place went to SmarterShade, a unique approach to the emerging technology being called “smart windows.”

Greenbuild 2013 is coming to Philadelphia – CertainTeed’s neck of the woods.  But, for Philadelphia, following San Francisco is like having the Beatles as a warm-up band.  While many folks who are into urban sustainability are aware of the great progress made my our Mayor Nutter and his team, just how far and how quickly Philadelphia has transformed its sustainable future may come as a surprise to some of our visitors next year. I’m certain that none of this would be possible without the support and efforts of groups like the Delaware Valley Green Building Council who is hosting GreenBuild for 2013. There are some very exciting projects taking place in Philadelphia and we are eager to share them with the green world.

I hope to see you in Philadelphia for Greenbuild 2013!

 

 

A New Perspective on Environmental Impact

From a product standpoint, conducting life cycle assessments has become a fairly standard practice. Building industry professionals as well as end users expect this kind of transparency and want to be equipped with information on how products are manufactured, the raw materials that are used, and their ultimate fate at the end of their useful life. This is all good (actually it’s great), but what if we also look at the environmental impact of an installed product from a broader, collective perspective? For example, there’s a whole range of products that can save — and even generate — energy for homes and buildings. This energy savings and generation can equate to significant reductions in carbon emissions.

Working in conjunction with Sustainable Solutions, we set out on a mission to further explore this idea. Using Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed products —  such as fiberglass insulation, solar window film and photovoltaic roofing systems — we created a model based on data from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency. What we learned is that the carbon reductions of installed Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed products on an annual basis equates to the carbon dioxide emissions produced by more than 300,000 passenger vehicles or the amount of electricity needed to power more than 189,000 homes. Ultimately, these types of products have a long-lasting impact on the built environment and we take great pride in that…

Interested in learning more? Stop by the Saint-Gobain and CertainTeed exhibit #4359 at Greenbuild 2012.

Tips For Rebuilding Following Hurricane Sandy

Aerial view of New Jersey shoreline

Aerial view of New Jersey shoreline

Many of us in the Philadelphia area have been recuperating from Hurricane Sandy although we did not get hit as hard as our neighboring state, New Jersey. Some of our co-workers do have family members with shore homes so I have had a chance to look at the building codes and other guidelines for rebuilding in flood prone areas. I wanted to share some information about rebuilding and the things you need to keep in mind.

Many of the houses have damage to the first floor and what we are seeing it is not the ‘business as usual’ building codes that have previously been acceptable in New Jersey. There are new building codes that are in effect that follow more closely the FEMA guidelines. For example, the guideline requires that you:

  • Remove the drywall and insulation to two feet above the high water mark.
  • Dry out and treat the entire cavity.
  •  Following the gutting of the cavity – remove all the drywall and insulation exposing all the studs to the back side of wood sheathing or house-wrap – this area must be treated with a mold inhibitor.
  • When you reconstruct the wall you can only us certain insulations:  either closed spray foam insulation or extruded polystyrene foam boards foamed into placed.  While anyone can install the extruded foam panels (if they can find the right thickness- remember you need to be an R13 in New Jersey now so that will be an XPS board at least 2.6” thick).  Spray foams need to be installed by a certified contractor.
  • The wall needs to be finished with a paperless drywall – it can’t be the mold and moisture resistant drywall – and the drywall needs to be stopped with a ½ inch space between the new and old drywall to create a capillary break. The gap can then be finished off with a chair rail or other element to hide the wallboard gap. I think the reason they are requiring a gap is so that in the event that a flood happens again, the water can’t wick up the wall and affect the old wall structure.

When I saw this I thought ‘this is not normal.’  Because it isn’t normal – it is an exceptional code being applied to flood prone areas as designated by FEMA. These are what townships are putting into place to minimize the damage if another storm hits.

It is clearly not business as usual for East Coast communities affected by Hurricane Sandy.