A Web-Based Information Resource From the DOE

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A Web-Based Information Resource From the DOE

The Building America Solution Center aims to be a one-stop information library for energy-conscious builders

Posted on Sep 9 2016 by Martin Holladay

The Building America program, a branch of the U.S. Department of Energy, funds research on ways to improve the energy performance of new and existing homes and provides advice to new home builders and home-performance contractors. In recent decades, Building America has provided millions of dollars of research grants to energy consulting companies, including the Building Science Corporation, Consol, Florida Solar Energy Center, IBACOS, Passive HouseA residential building construction standard requiring very low levels of air leakage, very high levels of insulation, and windows with a very low U-factor. Developed in the early 1990s by Bo Adamson and Wolfgang Feist, the standard is now promoted by the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt, Germany. To meet the standard, a home must have an infiltration rate no greater than 0.60 AC/H @ 50 pascals, a maximum annual heating energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (4,755 Btu per square foot), a maximum annual cooling energy use of 15 kWh per square meter (1.39 kWh per square foot), and maximum source energy use for all purposes of 120 kWh per square meter (11.1 kWh per square foot). The standard recommends, but does not require, a maximum design heating load of 10 W per square meter and windows with a maximum U-factor of 0.14. The Passivhaus standard was developed for buildings in central and northern Europe; efforts are underway to clarify the best techniques to achieve the standard for buildings in hot climates. Institute U.S., and Steven Winter Associates.

One of the latest projects funded by Building America is a web site called the Building America Solution Center (BASC), created by employees of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The web site’s aims are announced on its home page: “The Building America Solution Center provides access to expert information on hundreds of high-performance construction topics, including air sealing and insulation, HVAC(Heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). Collectively, the mechanical systems that heat, ventilate, and cool a building. components, windows, indoor air quality, and much more.” The creators of the web site hope that builders will visit the site to educate themselves on building science issues and to find answers to questions on home performance.

Are you a fan of checklist-based certification programs? Whether you love them or hate them, you can review a collection of “program checklists” on the BASC web site. The web site also includes links to research papers and builders’ guides, as well as an image library and a collection of videos.

Finally, the web site includes a great many tips for sales personnel and marketing professionals.

An overview of the web site

The web page offers links to six main sections:

  • Program checklists. If you click this link, you can learn (for example) that the EPA Indoor airPLUS Program requires that “Duct systems [be] protected from construction debris.”
  • Building Components. The title of this section of the web site offers few clues to its contents. The section is a grab bag; suffice it to say that the section tells you almost nothing about building components.
  • Climate Packages. This is poorly titled section of the web site is a library of case studies.
  • Building Science Publications. This section of the web site includes links to a variety of papers and articles.
  • Mobile App. This link allows you to download an app that provides access on your smart phone to a collection of images and Building America Guides.
  • Sales Tool. This is an Orwellian page that seeks to convince builders to adopt DOEUnited States Department of Energy. jargon instead of using common English words for building components and systems.

In addition to these six main sections, the home page has a sidebar that directs users to several other web pages, including pages called “code briefs,” “image gallery,” “videos,” and “sales tool.”

The vocabulary police introduce new jargon

On page called “Building Components,” you can choose an option called “Business Processes” option. If you do, you are offered several links, including the “Building Science-to-Sales Translator.” (That option can also be accessed another way — directly from a link on the home page labeled “Sales Tool.”)

The BASC page discusses this document: The Building America Building Science Translator — a document that is a full-fledged disaster.

Here’s the premise announced by the document: “Building America and DOE Zero Energy Ready Home believe that we need to more effectively communicate the value of high-performance homes.” Sounds good to me. I'm all in favor of effective communication. Tell me, Building America, how do we do it?

According to the Translator, we “begin this process by providing a new glossary of ‘Power Words’ that can be used across the industry to consistently reinforce the value of high-performance homes. This includes applying this new language consistently to all consumer-facing materials used by government programs and industry alike.”

Here are some example of the new “power words” we should all be using:

  • Instead of saying “compact fluorescent lighting,” we are instructed to say “advanced lighting technology.” But if we follow that advice, don't we end up with a loss of clarity rather than an improvement in clarity?
  • Building America teaches us to banish the phrase “radiant barriers.” We need to start calling them “sun barriers.” (Needless to say, radiant barriers are effective against all forms of radiant heat, even when the radiant heat comes from a wood stove or a hot surface that has nothing to do with the sun.)
  • No more “blower door test.” Now it’s called a “draft control test.”
  • Instead of talking about “reduced thermal bridgingHeat flow that occurs across more conductive components in an otherwise well-insulated material, resulting in disproportionately significant heat loss. For example, steel studs in an insulated wall dramatically reduce the overall energy performance of the wall, because of thermal bridging through the steel. ,” salespeople should talk about “continuous thermal blanket construction.” Lots more letters are required, unfortunately.
  • Instead of saying “kickout flashing,” we’re supposed to say “roof-wall water deflector.” I guess using more letters makes it sound fancier.
  • No more “air-source heat pumpHeating and cooling system in which specialized refrigerant fluid in a sealed system is alternately evaporated and condensed, changing its state from liquid to vapor by altering its pressure; this phase change allows heat to be transferred into or out of the house. See air-source heat pump and ground-source heat pump..” Instead, we have to say “high efficiency or ultra-efficient heat pump.” Really? Isn’t “air-source” a necessary part of that phrase, to distinguish these heat pumps from ground-source heat pumps?
  • Instead of talking about a “transfer grille or jump ductFlexible duct that connects a room to a common space to balance pressure and to provide a pathway for return air in forced-air heating and cooling systems. Jump duct grilles are typically located in the ceiling.,” salespeople are advised to talk about “comfort vents.” We all know what a comfort vent is, right?
  • Instead of saying “manifold plumbing,” we’re supposed to say “on demand hot waterSystem to quickly deliver hot water to a bathroom or kitchen when needed, without wasting the water that has been sitting in the hot-water pipes, which circulates back to the water heater. plumbing.” Hunh? I don’t get that. Those are different things.
  • Instead of talking about an “HVAC thermostat,” salespeople are advised to talk about the “comfort control.” For example, we can tell a customer, “I think your comfort control is broken.”
  • No more “variable-speed HVAC system.” Instead, we need to say “advanced comfort flow technology.” That’s clear as a bell!
  • We’re not supposed to talk about “tight duct sealing.” We’re supposed to say “professionally sealed comfort delivery system.” Ouch!
  • Instead of saying “passive solar home,” we’re supposed to say “natural comfort home.” Everybody knows what a natural comfort home is, right?
  • Instead of talking about “thermal mass,” we’re supposed to talk about a “natural comfort balancing system.” If you say so, boss.
  • I propose a contest for GBAGreenBuildingAdvisor.com readers. Here’s the contest question: What would be a good fate or assignment for the government bureaucrats who spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to develop this document? Maroon them on a desert island? Sentence them to a year of cleaning out damp crawl spaces in a rural southeastern state? Post your suggestions below.

    What is the “Building Components” section all about?

    The phrase “building components” is vague — what does it mean, in this context? If you click the “Building Components” link, you come to a page that announces, “The Building Components tool will help you find new and existing homes guides.” Hmm… what are “new and existing homes guides”? What do these guides have to do with building components?

    If you click one option, “Whole-Building Design Strategies - Building Science Principles,” you are taken to a new page with six options, including an option labeled “Class I Vapor Retarders Not Installed in Above-Grade Walls in Warm-Humid Climate.” If you click that option, you arrive at a new page where the opening sentence reads, “In warm-humid climates, do not install Class 1 vapor retarders on the interior side of air-permeable insulation in above-grade walls, except at shower and tub walls.” That’s pretty good advice, I guess.

    Another one of the six options on the “Whole-Building Design Strategies - Building Science Principles” page is titled, “Combustion Appliance Zone (CAZ) Testing.” If you click that option, you are taken to a new page, and the opening sentence reads, “Combustion safety testing is required by code (NFPA 54) for natural draft appliances using indoor or outdoor air for combustion and flue gas dilution to ensure safe operation.” OK, that’s a code tip — and an interesting one, as far as it goes.

    But one has to wonder: Of all of the pieces of advice that one could give, why did these two items — advice on Class 1 vapor retarders in warm humid climates, and a code tip concerning combustion safety testing — end up on a list of just six items in a section called “building science principles”?

    Dead links

    The Building Science Principles page also offers an option called “Passive Solar Design.” If you choose that option, you are brought to a page that announces, “There are currently no guides for this topic.” In other words, it’s a dead link.

    If you choose an option called “Renewables / Solar Water Heating,” you come to a page with 13 options. One of the 13 options is titled, “Anti-Freeze – Solar Hot Water.” On that page, you can read the following advice: “Choose an accredited solar water heating installation company and size the system according to the home’s hot water demands. Mount the system on an unshaded, southern exposure if possible. Ensure that the roof mounting system avoids water intrusion and damage to the roof structure.” So far, so good. (Although one has to wonder about that phrase, “if possible.” The document implies that it's sometimes OK to install a solar thermal collector in the shade.)

    If you click the “Sales” tab on the “Anti-Freeze – Solar Hot Water” page, you come to a new page that advises sales personnel to use this pitch: “Solar hot water systems use the free energy of the sun to produce hot water. What this means to you is all the hot water you want at lower cost. Isn’t it time homes used advanced technology components?”

    Is that a good sales pitch? Maybe — but in fact, solar hot water isn’t really “free.” Nor is it true that those who buy a solar hot water system end up with “all the hot water you want at lower cost.” (One has to wonder: A lower cost than what? Most conventional methods of heating water are cheaper than using a solar hot water system.)

    Some links lead to useful details

    Let’s go back to the “Building Components” page and choose a different option. This time, we’ll click “Foundations and Floors / Air sealing and Insulation.” We end up at a page with 28 options, including one called “Rigid Foam Insulation Installed over Existing Foundation Slabs.” This time, we get detailed advice. That’s good. (See image at right.)

    Experienced builders might offer different opinions on this detail — for example, some builders might prefer to see a layer of plywood above the rigid foam — but at least it’s an example of detailed advice.

    Code briefs

    If you click on the link to “Code Briefs” on the home page, you arrive at a page with links to 25 different documents, each of which has the words “code compliance brief” in the title.

    For example, the document titled “Recessed Lighting - Code Compliance Brief” quotes relevant code passages, including: “2015 IRCInternational Residential Code. The one- and two-family dwelling model building code copyrighted by the International Code Council. The IRC is meant to be a stand-alone code compatible with the three national building codes—the Building Officials and Code Administrators (BOCA) National code, the Southern Building Code Congress International (SBCCI) code and the International Conference of Building Officials (ICBO) code., Section E4004.9. Recessed Luminaire Installation. Thermal insulation should not be installed above a recessed luminaire or within 3 inches (76 millimeters) of the recessed luminaire’s enclosure, wiring compartment, ballast, transformer, light-emitting diode driver, or power supply except where such luminaire is identified for contact with insulation, Type IC. [410.116(B)].”

    I found the code compliance briefs to be quite useful.

    Climate Packages

    Another option on the home page is called “Climate Packages.” Clicking that option sends you to a page that advises readers, “Use the interactive map below to find climate-specific guidance on Building America’s Optimized Solutions for New Homes.”

    I experimented by clicking on the part of the map labelled “Cold / Very Cold Climates.” That brought me to a page with links to four case studies: one in Connecticut, one in Massachusetts, one in Utah, and one in Colorado.

    The web site designers should probably rename the “climate packages” page “case studies.”

    Building Science Publications

    Another option on the home page is called “Building Science Publications.” If you follow the link, you come to a new web site.

    The site allows you to search a long list of publications. You can sort the publications by author, by the organization that published the document, by construction type (new home or existing home), and by climate.

    The documents range from research papers to articles from GBA.

    Some of the links — including the link to an article called “How Attached Garages Poison our Indoor Air, and What Builders Can Do About It” — are dead links.

    Links to useful research papers, along with a few more dead links

    A different link on the home page — the “References and Resources” link in the sidebar — takes you to a page that resembles the “Building Science Publications” page in many ways. However, some of the documents listed in the “References and Resources” section (for example, some of my articles, including “How to Perform a Heat Loss Calculation” and “All About Larsen Trusses”) are missing from the “Building Science Publications” list.

    The vast majority of the documents listed on the “Building Science Publications” page and on the “References and Resources” page are valuable articles worthy of inclusion. Finding a relevant article, however, involves a fair amount of combing through long lists.

    The “References and Resources” link brings readers to a multi-page list of publications; each title is a link. I tested a few, and quickly found four dead links:

    • A web page called “Extension: Information providing an interactive learning environment delivering the best, most researched knowledge from the best land-grant university minds across America.”
    • An article called “How Attached Garages Poison our Indoor Air, and What Builders Can Do About It.”
    • An article called “Stucco that Works.”
    • A link to the “JLC Field Guide to Residential Construction.”

    Unfortunately, the search box on the “References and Resources” page doesn’t work. If you search by an author’s name — for example, “Lstiburek” — you get zero results.

    Some of the documents have been mysteriously re-titled. For example, there is a link to a GBA page, the “Building Plans for the Energy StarLabeling system sponsored by the Environmental Protection Agency and the US Department of Energy for labeling the most energy-efficient products on the market; applies to a wide range of products, from computers and office equipment to refrigerators and air conditioners. Thermal Bypass Checklist,” that provides links to GBA detail drawings. But on the BASC web page, the document has been re-named; it is listed as “Conceptual 3D Advanced FramingHouse-framing techniques in which lumber use is optimized, saving material and improving the energy performance of the building envelope. Drawing.” Why? I don’t know; the title isn’t particularly informative.

    Some links — for example “Choosing High-Performance Caulks: A Guide to the Endless Array of Products on the Caulk Aisle” — take you to a web site that informs you that the article is behind a paywall.

    Some links — for example, the link to “The JLC Guide to Moisture Control” — simply take you to an Amazon.com page from which you can buy the book. (The JLC book will set you back $77.41.)

    Not all of the listed articles are valuable. For example, there is a link to a fairly useless web page created by the American Lung Association called “Top 10 Questions to Ask Your Builder.”

    There is also a link to a remarkably fluffy article called “The Best Furnace Filters to Buy” published by — wait for it — Family Handyman magazine.

    All of that said, the vast majority of the documents listed in the “References and Resources” are valuable. The section includes links to building codes; to papers by respected researchers; and to accessible articles on building science issues.

    The video library includes a few ads

    By clicking the “Videos” link on the home page, you can select from a video library.

    I clicked one called “Application of Spray Foam Insulation Under Plywood and OSB Roof SheathingMaterial, usually plywood or oriented strand board (OSB), but sometimes wooden boards, installed on the exterior of wall studs, rafters, or roof trusses; siding or roofing installed on the sheathing—sometimes over strapping to create a rainscreen. .” The title is misleading; it actually sends you to a one-minute video of a worker installing closed-cell spray foam on the underside of board sheathing, not plywood or OSB sheathing. There is no narration at all. The subtitle of the video is, “Video describing how to air seal attic rafters with spray foam” — but since there is no narration, there isn’t any “describing” going on.

    Another video link, “Ducts Buried in Attic Insulation and Encapsulated,” wasn’t even a video at all. It turned out to be a PowerPoint presentation without any sound.

    Several videos are ads. The video titled “Flashing at Bottom of Exterior Walls” was produced by DuPont; it is basically an ad for Tyvek-brand products.

    Another video, “Light Tubes,” was produced by an installer of cylindrical skylights. The video is basically an ad for SolaTube skylights.

    The image gallery

    If you click on the words “Image gallery” on the home page, you’ll arrive at a page filled with thumbnails. The site has 16 pages of images, with 100 thumbnails per page — in other words, there are about 1,600 images.

    The images have tags, but these tags aren’t always helpful. For example, if you click on “appliances,” you’ll get 22 images. One “appliance” image showed the termination of a dryer exhaust duct; another “appliance” image showed a portable CO monitor; and still another “appliance” image showed an illustration of a solar hot water system.

    If you have the patience to scroll through the images looking for an image you want, you may find a few images that are useful for illustrating PowerPoint presentations. Note, however, that almost all of the images are small, low-resolution images.

    Copyright issues

    Documents published by the U.S. government are in the public domain. That means that these documents aren’t copyrighted, and anyone can reproduce them.

    Not all documents on the BASC web site fall into the public domain, however. For example, the site includes links to copyrighted articles from sources like the Journal of Light Construction and Green Building Advisor.

    Since the copyright status of the shared documents isn’t explicit, I asked the web site developers for clarification. I received a detailed response from Michael Baechler, a senior program manager at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. Baechler wrote, “We ask all contributors of photos, drawings, CAD files, or other images (including videos) that do not originate in the public domain to fill out a form providing permission to use the images and making clear that the images will become public domain, meaning they are available for free and unrestricted download and use.”

    On the other hand, the listed articles from non-governmental sources like the Journal of Light Construction and Green Building Advisor are included in the lists by permission of the copyright owners, but are not in the public domain.

    It’s a work in progress

    The creators of the Building America Solution Center web site are ambitious. They hope to create a go-to site for residential designers and builders who want to learn more about building science issues and high-performance construction.

    I hope that the developers of this web site have enough funding to solve its current problems, because the site has the potential to be a tremendously valuable resource.

    The web site developers have taken on a big challenge. They’ve still got a long ways to go. Right now, the most useful sections are the “Building Science Publications” section, the “References and Resources” section, and the “Code Briefs” section.

    The “Building Science Publications” and the “References and Resources” section are flawed, however, by the uneven quality of the listed articles, by dead links, and by a broken search feature. The site has lots of hidden gems, but finding the gems is tricky.

    The design of the web site is a mess, and it appears that the site lacks an active editor. Editors provide a variety of functions: they can update dead web links; assess document lists in order to separate the wheat from the chaff; cull out ads from video libraries; and provide introductory paragraphs to provide guidance and help readers find what they're looking for.

    Whether a government-sponsored research laboratory like the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory will be able to come up with such an editor remains to be seen.

    Martin Holladay’s previous blog: “Being a Carpenter Isn’t Simple Anymore.”

    Click here to follow Martin Holladay on Twitter.

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Image Credits:

  1. Image #1: Building American program / U.S. Department of Energy

Sep 9, 2016 4:17 PM ET

Language is a social contract
by Dana Dorsett

"Here’s the contest question: What would be a good fate or assignment for the government bureaucrats who spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to develop this document? Maroon them on a desert island? Sentence them to a year of cleaning out damp crawl spaces in a rural southeastern state? Post your suggestions below."

Hmmm... is there really a suitable consequence for having spent money & time creating the "governmentally sealed bullshit delivery system"? I'm not sure.

On their own time & dime, make them translate their magnus opus into grammatically correct Hangul & Telegu, perhaps? But that could be considered cruel to readers of the same, unless it was read as farce, and would probably take less time than it took to come up with the original.

Sam Rashkin is one of the instigators (http://www.samrashkin.com/sams-bio ), Lindsay Parker is the other (https://www.linkedin.com/in/lindsay-parker-8b2a8945 ).

Perhaps they should be sentenced to "helping" manage rebuilding of flood damaged homes in Louisiana, using only their new terminology, without resorting to the lingua franca of the trades. (He's an experienced licensed architect, after all, but I'm not sure what she would bring to the table, based on her linkenin CV.)

At the bottom line language is still a social contract: Words & terms mean what users of those words & terms think they mean. Creating a list of new terms only the agreed upon by the authors and publishing it is not likely to change anything in the real world. New terms are only useful if express true differences. Here the terms are different, but different without a distinction, there is nothing compelling about them, no reason to use them, and they will go nowhere.

Esperanto, anyone?

Thatzit! Force them to translate it into gramatically correct Esperanto, and only use Esperanto terms when talking to their colleagues! :-)

Sep 9, 2016 4:29 PM ET

Response to Dana Dorsett
by Martin Holladay

I like your suggested sentence for the developers of the Building Science Translator -- force them to work on a job site, but forbid them to call a duct a duct.

Instead, insist that they refer to ducts using the new, improved terminology, as "comfort delivery systems." For example, "Hey, Bob, the comfort delivery system in the crawl space is undersized."

Sep 9, 2016 10:25 PM ET

by Malcolm Taylor

Are you now a Comfort Advisor, or a Comfort Communicator?

Sep 10, 2016 5:44 AM ET

Response to Malcolm Taylor
by Martin Holladay

GBA's new tagline for the web site is "comfort information delivery site." My title is "comfort information delivery site coordinator."

Sep 10, 2016 12:48 PM ET

Comfort information delivery request.
by Charlie Sullivan


We are thinking about buying a new couch. What kind is most comfortable? And do you deliver in New Hampshire?

Sep 10, 2016 6:34 PM ET

Response to Charlie Sullivan
by Martin Holladay

Hmmm... I thought that using "power words" would help me achieve more effective communication. But apparently the power words aren't working their magic as expected.

Sep 14, 2016 12:32 PM ET

Edited Sep 14, 2016 12:34 PM ET.

After School
by Rob Rowan

"Here’s the contest question: What would be a good fate or assignment for the government bureaucrats who spent tens of thousands of taxpayer dollars to develop this document?"

Rather than just punish them, let's educate/rehabilitate them. Give them a giant chalkboard, several cases of old-fahioned writing chalk, and make them stay after school (= after work) every day for as long as it takes to copy out the entire text of George Orwell's 10-page essay "Politics and the English Language." One hundred times. Okay, 25 times -- but no fewer.

That MIGHT drain the "power words" out of their systems. If not, then banish them to damp crawl spaces (where they might actually be useful) with a clean conscience.

Sep 14, 2016 12:50 PM ET

Orwell's essay
by Martin Holladay

In the essay you cite, Orwell wrote, "A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?"

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