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My Forays Into Multifamily Affordable Housing

Green certifications, quality installation of fiberglass batts, and getting invited to late “to the dance”

Posted on Feb 23 2011 by Carl Seville

After a decades-long career in high-end, single-family renovation and construction, and a relatively new business providing consulting and certification services for the same market, I recently became involved in several multifamily projects. Starting with National Green Building Standard (NGBS) certification on a market-rate apartment building that was completed in 2010, I am now in the early stages of LEED certification for several affordable projects throughout the southeast.

First off, let me say that it is very exciting to see how much affordable housing is being built to green home standards. It appears to me that between various incentives available, and housing authorities recognizing how sustainable building can positively affect the long-term value of their properties, that high-performance housing is well entrenched in this sector. This is reinforced by current statistics from LEED for Homes showing that over 50% of their certified units are in the affordable sector.

So What’s The Problem?
For those of you who follow my other posts on this site under the Green Curmudgeon banner, you must be thinking, “when will he start whining about something?” Patience, gentle readers, we will get there soon enough.

It is always been interesting to me to compare different projects and how they score in various rating systems. Since most green building programs provide significant incentives for density and location in walkable communities, multifamily urban projects tend to start out with a point advantage over less dense, more remote projects.

The NGBS project was a 282-unit, eight-story concrete and steel-framed building. Since I was brought in fairly late in the process (just before insulation, actually), there were challenges in obtaining the certification. Budgeted for fiberglass batt insulation, we spent many weeks training, inspecting, and retraining their installers to aim for Grade 1 installation quality.

Now anyone who has read my recent post on batt insulation knows, I am not a fan of batts, regardless off what they are made out of, and my experience with recent projects has done nothing to change my opinion.

A Recurring Problem
The same problem came up recently on another project, this one 100 units of affordable duplex gut renovations in Macon, Georgia, home of The Allman Brothers and Little Richard, among notables. This project, known as Felton Homes is an interesting project, consisting of a neighborhood of slab-on-grade, solid brick 1940s era buildings that are being gutted, slightly expanded, and completely remodeled.

All the homes are planned to be certified as Energy Star, EarthCraft House, and LEED for Homes. Although I submitted my proposal for LEED certification months before, I was not brought in to start the process until the first building was just about ready for insulation, which leads to the first concern.

The existing brick walls are being coated with 1½” of high-density spray foam between furring strips on both the interior and exterior, and the roofs will have low-density spray foam applied to create conditioned attics — both very good decisions. But here’s the rub — for some reason, they specified fiberglass batt insulation in the new exterior wall sections, of which there are very few. And to add to the problem, these walls are framed with metal studs, providing an excellent thermal bridge in the walls.

Our first site inspection led to removal of every batt (thankfully not too many in this case) to point out gaps and compressions, and extended discussions with the project team about proper installation. Of course, the cost to upgrade to a spray or blown-in product came it too high to change, but they are still in negotiations on that subject. This is an example where a generally very well designed and specified project could have been even better had energy and green building consultants brought in early in the design process rather than as an afterthought.

Anticipating a problem
On yet another project, 18 affordable townhomes in Chattanooga, Tennessee, also scheduled for LEED certification by myself and Abe Kruger of Kruger Sustainability Group, we were brought in towards the end of the design process, just as documents were being released for bids.

In our discussions with the architect, we expressed our concerns with batt insulation, but they made it into the specs. Now, as construction is just getting ready to start, we are in discussions with the contractor and his insulation subcontractor about Grade 1 installation. While this quality was written into the specifications, it appears that the installer doesn’t really understand what it takes to achieve it, we are advising them to anticipate having to remove and reinstall most, if not all, of the batts for the first few buildings unit they get it right, and we are urging them to upgrade to a blown or spray product. It will be interesting to see how this resolves itself.

Wasted Breath and Good Decisions
Sometimes I feel like I am wasting a lot of breath going over the issues with batt installation with project teams, but in the case of Felton Homes, the day after we left the job site, I was copied on an e-mail from the project manager, directing his supervisor to remove the batts and install spray foam on the first two units in order to get ready to hang drywall. When the added cost of the spray foam was weighed against schedule delays, it came out the winner. Once I clearly communicated to the project team how difficult it would be to get Grade 1 quality, they made a good field decision.

Interestingly, Grade 1 insulation is not a specific requirement of LEED for Homes, while it is necessary to achieve EarthCraft House Platinum level certification.

Overall, I am heartened by the amount of high-performance affordable housing currently under construction and renovation. I appreciate the opportunity to work on these projects, offer my expertise, and help make them as efficient as possible, all while working within budget constraints. I’m looking forward to seeing upcoming projects break ground, and, hopefully, work on many more in the future.

Closing mote
An introduction is in order: Carl Seville, GBA’s Green Curmudgeon, joins Amy and Peter on the Green Communities blog. Welcome aboard, Carl!


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1.
Feb 23, 2011 6:00 AM ET

Grade 1 installation
by Martin Holladay

Carl,
Good blog. Many people are now discussing whether Grade 1 installations are even possible with fiberglass batts. The consensus seems to be that Grade 1 installations are so difficult to achieve that once contractors understand the difficulties, they will quickly realize that it is cheaper to switch to blown-in insulation.

Here's an alternate prediction: raters will be under pressure from builders to accept sloppy batt installations, and few raters will have the backbone to insist on Grade 1 installation.

Since Energy Star Version 3 requires Grade 1 installations, all of this will play out at thousands of job sites next year. Sam Rashkin of the EPA predicts that builders will quickly abandon fiberglass batts, but I am cynical enough to imagine that raters (under pressure from builders) will be reluctant to fail sloppy batt jobs.


2.
Feb 23, 2011 11:29 AM ET

on "affordable"
by 5C8rvfuWev

From what you say, Carl, it sounds as if certifying groups (like LEED) may have $$ measurements, or some other, in mind for "affordable." -- (your paragraph 2 in the blog) If so, how is that broken down? And I'm curious, too: are the certifying standards any different for "affordable" and "high end"?

Joe


3.
Feb 23, 2011 1:52 PM ET

Affordable Specs
by Carl Seville

Joe - LEED requirements are the same for affordable and market rate projects, as they are for most programs. One exception is that ENERGY STAR is allowing affordable projects to be certified under the current version for another year past the date when version 3 is required for all market rate projects, primarily so as not to penalize any affordable housing that was contracted before version 3 was finalized. My main point in the article is that quite a bit of affordable housing is seeking green certifications, often even more so than market rate projects.


4.
Feb 23, 2011 11:01 PM ET

Grade ? insulation being
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Grade ? insulation being shown off along with tank for $11,000 solar hot water heating system.

We greenies are thieves

r-SOLAR-PRODUCTS-TESTING-large570.jpg


5.
Feb 24, 2011 6:37 AM ET

Edited Feb 24, 2011 6:38 AM ET.

Response to AJ
by Martin Holladay

AJ,
It's unclear that the photo is the scene of a crime. It's possible that this home was not visited by any greenie thieves.

1. The concrete basement wall could be insulated on the exterior.

2. The fiberglass batts in the basement ceiling could have been existing batts in an older home that were not the responsibility of the solar thermal installer.

3. The fiberglass batts in the basement ceiling could be entirely within the home's thermal envelope and therefore the quality of their installation might be irrelevant.

Of course, it's also possible that the photo depicts a crime scene and that the homeowners were victims of greenie thieves.


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