Before beginning a remodeling project, contractors routinely consider its impact on the design and construction of the rest of the home - but not everyone considers the impact on whole-house performance. This can have ill effects on the home and/or occupants.
What is home performance? In simple terms, home performance addresses five basic attributes: safety, health, durability, comfort and efficiency. These attributes are measured by evaluating areas such as indoor air quality, resource and energy efficiency, customer satisfaction, and building and material durability.
A whole-house approach requires that every change made to an existing home be considered in the context of its interaction with the building envelope, mechanical systems, landscaping, neighboring houses, orientation and climate. [See "Actions for optimizing home performance on (almost) any job"] It ensures that you're taking every step you can to maximize the performance of the home while doing no harm to the structure or occupants.
To avoid doing harm, you must start with a good understanding of building science. Lack of education has resulted in many of the health and mold issues we see in homes today. For example, in the 1970s, builders made homes too airtight with overuse of airtight drywall, extensive vapor retarder application, caulking and adhesives, and higher-performing windows. These techniques increased energy efficiency but weren't undertaken considering the impact on the rest of the house, says Courtney Moriarta, executive director of the Building Performance Institute in Malta, N.Y. "These strategies resulted in a number of issues with heating systems back-drafting," she says, "as well as moisture issues that we're still seeing today."
1. It's not easy being green: Get educated
In new homes, it's simple to define acceptable levels of home performance and to design and build to those standards. In existing homes, improving home performance involves evaluating current home performance, determining weak points and then developing cost-effective strategies to address those points. Achieving the same level of performance might mean a reasonable effort in one existing home and an unrealistic effort in the next.
"It's been scary for a lot of contractors to take on because taking on any one part so dramatically impacts another, and they simply don't understand the science and principles behind the approach," says David Grubb, owner of David Construction in Berkeley, Calif. He helped develop the San Francisco NARI chapter's Certified Green Building Professional program.
A number of programs that address whole-house performance in remodeling are popping up around the country. Some certify projects based on checklists; others certify individuals based on their completion of educational programs. There are also several federally funded research initiatives to evaluate better approaches to increasing home performance without dramatically increasing upfront cost.
2. Testing, 1, 2, 3
Understanding and employing solid analysis when you step into a home saves you endless headaches and provides you with a far more efficient (and therefore more profitable) method for approaching your work. "We try to give people some baseline for making decisions so they can identify problems coming in the door instead of causing problems going out the door," Moriarta says.
An existing home's performance can be tested using a number of methods. [See "Diagnostic tools for analyzing home performance"] This includes, first and foremost, a thorough, educated visual inspection. Key to this is understanding and looking for visual clues, such as moisture, cracks or settling, that need further diagnosis. It's important to check areas that people don't normally enter, such as attics and crawl spaces. Finally, as the Building Performance Institute says, "Test in and test out." In other words, make sure what you had intended to do worked by testing the final product as well. If nothing else is done in the home, combustion diagnostics and pressure tests should be done to ensure occupant safety and health.
Also remember that diagnostic tools can be hands-on tools that might assist you in convincing homeowners to do additional work.
3. Put first things first
How do you prioritize activity cost-effectively? No matter what kind of job you're doing, start with anything that affects occupant health and safety and then worry about the home. "Combustion appliances are the occupants' number one enemy if not functioning right," Moriarta says. "Moisture is the building's number one enemy."
First, ensure that all combustion appliances (furnace, water heater, gas stoves, dryers, fireplaces) are performing appropriately. Next, take care of moisture, from leaks (from pipes and external sources) to high levels of humidity that might cause mold to grow. Depending on the level of moisture intrusion, you might need a contractor who specializes in moisture remediation. Whatever the case, ensure that all moisture-damaged areas have been cleaned and dried, with water-damaged building materials replaced before attempting additional construction.
Then you can address energy efficiency and comfort issues with strategies for insulation, airtightness and mechanical systems. In a whole-house approach, comfort and efficiency can go hand in hand.
|After remodeling, the Green House improved its HERS score to 89. It houses the Sustainability Institute, an organization that educates homeowners on sustainable remodeling approaches.|
Completed in 2002, the Green House renovation project in North Charleston, S.C., is helping scientists with the Department of Energy's Building America program evaluate whole-house approaches to increasing energy performance. IBACOS Inc. planned and managed remodeling work on the 870-square-foot home, which is roughly 60 years old.
Before the renovation, the home had a HERS (Home Energy Rating System) score of 57. Energy and durability improvements focused on:
After the work was done, the home reached a HERS score of 89. The home is being monitored for energy performance as well as dehumidification performance.
|A blower door test measures leakage through the building envelope.|
|A duct blaster tests leakage in existing duct systems and certifies the quality of a new installation.|
For more information on these tools, try The Energy Conservatory at www.energyconservatory.com.
Certified Green Building Professional courses, www.sfbanari.com
Building Performance Institute, www.bpi.org
Energy and Environmental Building Association Institute, www.eeba.org