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A change in seasons sparks energy efficiency retrofits

Posted by:
October 27, 2010

Matthew Harris By Matthew Harris, Sustainable Building Program Coordinator

Well I have to say this fall has been eventful. I'm teaching Solar Energy International's online course on Green Building Design & Construction, where we look at applying building science and green design strategies to the built environment.

That’s my professional life. I spend my days working with course participants so they understand how these principles can be strategically and effectively implemented into their living situations.

Flip to my personal life, and things appear to be a fantastic case study for the online course.

I live in western Colorado, in a quaint log cabin in town. I am a renter and by nature of my profession, I'm an active renter. Luckily my landlord (let’s call him Cam) is open to renter participation. So I thought if Cam wants to know more about his house, he should have an energy audit. I can provide a pretty good assessment from what I know, but an energy audit from a third party would give Cam a list of issues with his house he can choose to confront. Cam was game, and it worked out perfect because I had invited Solar Energy International instructor Bart Laemmel to our office to teach a webinar for our online course on applied building science case studies. Since he planned to be here and energy auditing is his profession, we scheduled Burt for two audits, one on Cam’s house and one at the SEI office.

You're probably thinking this doesn't sound so eventful, but I had to set up the story. To prep for the audit, I started to explore Cam’s house with a pre-assessment. Upon investigating the gas furnace filter status, I decided having the gas company service the furnace might be a good idea heading in to winter. Let's just say the can of worms was opened. Anyone ever see the movie "The Money Pit?" It’s a classic, so try it out on Netflix. The gas company service man took one look at the furnace and noticed the heat exchanger was cracked in three places. We took a look with his mirror and it was ugly. Luckily we were not running the furnace or we could have risked CO poisoning. So long story short, we were out a furnace heading into the coldest days of a Colorado year and we needed a new one fast. This turned out to be a great opportunity for Cam to participate in the Colorado rebate ‘game’ and purchase a high-efficiency furnace and ENERGY STAR® programmable thermostat.

Shortly after this discovery, Bart came by for the energy audit. The discovery was not surprising, or I should say not an anomaly. There are many houses out there like Cam’s. Bart discovered that half of the house sits over a noninsulated crawl space and does not have a vapor barrier on the earth below, so basically half the house can be considered a tent. Bart also performed a blower door test and discovered the house has 75 percent air exchange, which basically means there is a lot of air leakage. So from my standpoint I'm thinking great, we do not have a furnace right now and the house leaks like a sieve. Better get out the caulk gun and start weather stripping.

My fiancée and I got to work in our cold house while we waited for the furnace to arrive, sealing up as many cracks and holes as we could and installing weather stripping, pipe insulation and the like. The nights were tolerable until a small winter storm hit last week, and two days of rain and cold hit us. One day during the storm, I came home and my fianceé said the furnace had arrived but was not installed. I was excited anyway, so I went down to the basement and took a look at our new (well Cam’s new) 95 percent-efficient gas furnace. Unfortunately, I also found water dripping on the basement floor. Oh no this is not happening, I thought. With a flashlight, I discovered a leak from the peak of the roof traveling down the old chimney stack and hitting the floor boards of the main house level, soaking through to the floor of the basement. Oh Cam ...

The next day, I went to work at SEI and a co-worker had told me that the basement of the office, which used to be a residence, was leaking. We have had this problem four times before in varying degrees, but this time was the last straw. I discovered that the entire west wall of the basement (cinderblock) was leaking from ground water infiltration as well as from cracks in the cement floor. So I rolled up my sleeves. Well, first I had a little chuckle and thought about all my students, then I rolled up my sleeves, tore out the carpet and padding and cleaned up. Then I thought you really could teach a course around a case study of someone’s house.

There are 121 million homes in the United States, and about 1/3 of them were built before 1945, before building codes, before we knew how applied building science can affect a building's durability and comfort, before we really thought about how groundwater can affect a building. Today, however, we are smarter and know more about how to live and build in our homes efficiently. We have science and systems in place to help us understand. One of those systems is the ENERGY STAR® Homes program.

To earn the ENERGY STAR®, a home must meet strict guidelines for energy efficiency set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. These homes are at least 15 percent more energy efficient than homes built to the 2004 International Residential Code (IRC), and include additional energy-saving features that typically make them 20–30% more efficient than standard homes. More than 1 million ENERGY STAR® homes have been built in the United States since the program first began labeling homes in 1995.

The reason I bring up ENERGY STAR® is because one, it has done great things for the building industry and two, SEI is lucky to have invited Laura Bartels of GreenWeaver Inc. to give a webinar presentation on A Natural Approach to High Performance Energy Star Homes. Laura is building her straw bale home, called the Second St. L.I.F.E. Project (Low Impact Future-proof Ecohouse), and is a demonstration of compact, sustainable, affordable living on an infill lot in downtown Carbondale, Colorado. Her presentation will look at project goals, deepening education in straw bale, energy star elements and rating, low impact materials meeting low operating energy goals, natural building opportunities, and marketing and selling straw bale.

This presentation is a great compliment to Solar Energy International’s online course on Green Building Design & Construction and is a case study on the opposite end of the spectrum from my recent experiences at Cam’s house. Laura’s project is a great example for Cam of low-impact and natural approaches to high-performance homes, affordable and small footprint design, and environmentally friendly building practices and products. I would add that whether you are building a new home or live in one that you are looking to retrofit, this webinar will be an excellent spark to get you thinking on the right path. If you are available on Nov. 3 at 3 p.m. MST we would be happy to have you participate.


Topic: A Natural Approach to High Performance Energy Star Homes
Host: Chris Turek
Date and Time: Nov. 3, 2010 3:00 p.m., Mountain Daylight Time (Denver, GMT-06:00)
Event number: 668 532 412
Panelist password: The Event has no Panelist Password

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If you have experienced anything like my recent experiences, I would love to hear about them. Write me in this blog thread and share your stories with us, and if you are inclined to learn more SEI’s online educational experience is a great place to start. Well, back to the caulk gun.

Matthew Harris is a SEI instructor and natural builder, and happy to be in a warm home. E-mail Matthew questions here.



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