musingsheader image
3 Helpful?

A Bold Attempt to Slay R-Value

A group of building science researchers is trying to invent a new metric for measuring the thermal performance of walls and ceilings

Posted on Aug 19 2011 by Martin Holladay

R-valueMeasure of resistance to heat flow; the higher the R-value, the lower the heat loss. The inverse of U-factor. is the poor stepchild of building science metrics. Although it is often essential for builders, designers, and engineers to know a material’s R-value, this useful metric is regularly abused, derided, and ridiculed for its shortcomings. “R-value doesn’t measure assembly effects: thermal bridges, air movement, thermal massHeavy, high-heat-capacity material that can absorb and store a significant amount of heat; used in passive solar heating to keep the house warm at night. , moisture content — all of which can all affect thermal properties,” explained Chris Schumacher, an engineer and researcher at Building Science Corporation, at a summer symposium in 2009. “R-value doesn’t do a good job describing the entire system.”

To R-value defenders, however, creating a list of things that R-value doesn’t measure is a trivial and pointless exercise. After all, a similar list can be developed for any metric or measurement device: for example, a thermometer doesn’t measure relative humidity or wind speed.

Even critics of R-value, including Schumacher, note that the metric has certain strengths. “R-value is widely accepted and FTC-regulated,” Schumacher noted at this year’s Building Science Symposium in Westford, Mass. “It is simple to measure. You can communicate it easily — it’s just one number.” On the other hand, Schumacher points out, “R-value implies that the thermal performance of a material is constant. But that is only true if the effective conductivity is constant, if there material has no temperature sensitivity, if the material has no airflow sensitivity, if there is no moisture adsorption, and if the material is homogenous.”

Did the developers of R-value make a mistake?

As I noted in an earlier blog, R-value (defined as the inverse of U-factorMeasure of the heat conducted through a given product or material—the number of British thermal units (Btus) of heat that move through a square foot of the material in one hour for every 1 degree Fahrenheit difference in temperature across the material (Btu/ft2°F hr). U-factor is the inverse of R-value. ) was first proposed in 1945 by Everett Shuman, the director of Penn State’s Building Research Institute. Since 1979, the Federal Trade Commission has incorporated a definition of R-value into federal law. Insulation manufacturers and insulation installers must report R-values according to the FTC definition. The main reason for fixing the definition of R-value — beyond the obvious scientific advantage of pinning down a potentially moving target — is to prevent insulation manufacturers from testing their products in unconventional ways in order to present their products in a more favorable light than is shown by a standard R-value test.

R-value tests are performed at a mean temperature of 75°F. Not all insulation manufacturers are happy about this specified mean temperature for testing, however. It turns out that certain insulation materials could obtain a higher R-value if the testing standards allowed testing at lower temperatures. On the other hand, certain other insulation materials would obtain a higher R-value if the testing standard allowed testing at higher temperatures. To prevent such shenanigans — tweaking the test to obtain favorable results — the test protocol has stayed pegged at a mean temperature of 75°F.

“There is a valid reason why 75 degrees Fahrenheit was chosen in the ASTMAmerican Society for Testing and Materials. Not-for-profit international standards organization that provides a forum for the development and publication of voluntary technical standards for materials, products, systems, and services. Originally the American Society for Testing and Materials. standards,” explains Andre Desjarlais, the program manager for building envelopeExterior components of a house that provide protection from colder (and warmer) outdoor temperatures and precipitation; includes the house foundation, framed exterior walls, roof or ceiling, and insulation, and air sealing materials. research at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). “If you look at a wall system across the 48 states, and if you look at conditions for winter and summer, 75 degrees is not bad for a national metric. It is a simplification, but it was chosen for economy’s sake, so that the standards wouldn’t require a lot of experimental testing.”

Fiberglass batts perform better in cold temperatures

Building scientists have known for years that the rate of heat flow through insulation materials varies at different temperatures. Many researchers have tested insulation materials at a variety of mean temperatures, and their results have long been published. At this summer’s conference, Schumacher summarized a few well-known facts. “If you measure the R-value of an R-13 fiberglass batt, you’ll get different results at different outdoor temperatures,” said Schumacher. “If the outdoor temperature rises, the R-value goes down. If the outdoor temperature drops, the R-value rises. Why? Because as you move to a higher temperature, you get more radiation happening, and therefore a lower R-value. But at lower temperatures, there is less conductionMovement of heat through a material as kinetic energy is transferred from molecule to molecule; the handle of an iron skillet on the stove gets hot due to heat conduction. R-value is a measure of resistance to conductive heat flow., less convection, and less radiation — and therefore a higher R-value. On the other hand, polyisoPolyisocyanurate foam is usually sold with aluminum foil facings. With an R-value of 6 to 6.5 per inch, it is the best insulator and most expensive of the three types of rigid foam. Foil-faced polyisocyanurate is almost impermeable to water vapor; a 1-in.-thick foil-faced board has a permeance of 0.05 perm. While polyisocyanurate was formerly manufactured using HCFCs as blowing agents, U.S. manufacturers have now switched to pentane. Pentane does not damage the earth’s ozone layer, although it may contribute to smog. doesn’t perform as well at low temperatures. That’s because the trapped blowing-agent gases start to condense at cold temperatures.”

Many energy-savvy builders are aware that the performance of some insulation types can be degraded by 20% at very cold or very hot temperatures. If you care about this problem, the solution is fairly simple: just install thicker insulation.

Slaying the dragon

Many of the researchers at the Building Science Corporation (BSC) are unhappy about R-value. Four years ago, in August 2007, BSC principal Joseph Lstiburek announced in a presentation at his annual summer symposium that it was time for R-value to die. “R-value took us a long way down the path,” Lstiburek said. “Fifty years is a long time.” Not only did Lstiburek announce his intention to slay R-value; he also announced that he would develop a new metric to replace R-value — a metric that would be more useful to architects, engineers, and builders. When I first reported on Lstiburek’s bold plan (“Wrestling with R-Value,” Energy Design Update, October 2007), I proposed that Lstiburek’s new metric (as yet unnamed) should be dubbed the “Joe-value.”

Lstiburek's proposed Joe-value is not intended to be a single number. Rather, he proposes developing a graph that would depict insulation performance at a range of temperatures and, if possible, a range of pressure differences. In the future, such graphs might be displayed on insulation packages or in building science textbooks.

Lstiburek’s main point — that the R-value of the insulation in a wall is insufficient information to determine the wall’s thermal performance — is indisputable. “R-value is intended to be a metric for material performance,” Lstiburek said. In other words, Lstiburek claims, the test standard was developed to test small samples of insulation material. He continued, “Now we need a metric for assembly performance” — in other words, to rate the performance of entire walls and ceilings, including all of the different components found in all the layers.

The standard already exists

What Lstiburek failed to mention in his 2007 presentation is that a test method for measuring the rate of heat flow through building assemblies already exists; the metric used is — you guessed it — good old R-value.

ASTM long ago established a test procedure (currently ASTM C1363, “Standard Test Method for the Thermal Performance of Building Assemblies by Means of a Hot Box Apparatus”) for measuring the R-value of building assemblies. (ASTM C1363 is different from ASTM test methods for insulation materials — for example, ASTM C518, “Standard Test Method for Steady-State Thermal Transmission Properties by Means of the Heat Flow Meter Apparatus.”)

As it turns out, heat transfer through building assemblies has been tested for decades by many laboratories; perhaps the best known of these is ORNL, where researchers have made detailed measurements of the whole-wall R-values of 40 different wall construction types. “There is already a lot of guarded hot-box data out there,” said Desjarlais. “ASHRAE has published catalogs and catalogs of data on guarded hot-box testing. Others have compiled data from hundreds of guarded hot-box tests.”

Although it’s not quite accurate to say that R-value can’t be used to measure building assemblies, Lstiburek is irked by two perceived flaws in the current ASTM test method. While the ASTM method specifies that there should be no pressure difference across a tested building assembly, Lstiburek thinks it would be more realistic to test building assemblies exposed to a pressure difference designed to induce air flow across the assembly. Moreover, he wants to test building assemblies at different temperatures than those specified by ASTM.

Researchers with experience performing hot-box tests on building assemblies respond that although Lstiburek’s proposals are interesting, there are huge technical hurdles to be overcome before such testing can be performed in a way that yields consistent results. Moreover, even if the hurdles are overcome, the proposed testing would be very expensive.

Undaunted, the BSC researchers built a test facility

In 2007, Lstiburek announced that he was going ahead with plans to build a double-guarded hot box able to measure heat and mass flows — that is, flows of air as well as heat — across full-scale building assemblies. The device would be able to test wall panels measuring 8 ft. by 12 ft.

Lstiburek lined up eight insulation manufacturers — Dow, U.S. Greenfiber, Honeywell, Huntsman Polyurethanes, IcyneneOpen-cell, low-density spray foam insulation that can be used in wall, floor, and roof assemblies. It has an R-value of about 3.6 per inch and a vapor permeability of about 10 perms at 5 inches thick., CertainTeed, and Johns Manville — to help fund his research. “The objective is to develop a new metric to characterize the in-service performance of installed materials,” said Schumacher. “Joe says he wants to develop something like an NFRC label for wall assemblies.”

In his 2007 announcement, Lstiburek proposed a lengthy test protocol for each wall assembly. “Walls will be tested under no pressure difference, and then under a 2-pascal, a 2.5-pascal, and a 5-pascal pressure difference,” he promised. Schumacher explained that the walls would be tested at several temperatures. “The idea is to have room temperature on one side,” said Schumacher. “On the climate side we want to go from -18°F up to 136°F.” The maximum temperature was later raised to 144°F.

Lstiburek was confident that his new facility would yield quick results. When I interviewed him in September 2007, he said that BSC should be able to announce the results of the first round of testing at the January 2008 ASHRAE meeting in New York City.

Schumacher was assigned the task of fulfilling Lstiburek’s dream. Said Schumacher, “Joe and John [Straube] told me, ‘We don’t know how to do this, but we promised it.’”

Experienced researchers predicted a rocky road ahead

Desjarlais was one of several experienced researchers who thought that Lstiburek’s schedule was optimistic. When I interviewed him in 2007, he listed the daunting technical challenges facing the BSC team. “In the ASTM test, you purposely balance the pressures across the assembly — the whole experimental design is to eliminate the problem of pressure differences,” said Desjarlais. “I think he is taking on something technically hard, especially the inclusion of air leakage with the thermal measurement. That’s a hard nut to crack. In the ASTM test, you want to measure the heat transfer across the wall, using heating and cooling equipment, while measuring the energy input to all of these puppies. But now, if you have air flowing through the assembly, you need to be sure that the air entering the chamber is at exactly the same temperature as the air leaving the chamber. When you get variable flows or extremely small flows, that becomes more and more difficult. The question is, how do you capture the heat transfer due to air leakage in the test?”

Desjarlais also thought that Lstiburek was underestimating the cost of his project. “We have been operating guarded hot boxes for 20 years or so — we have two of the largest in the world,” he told me. “I think they [the BSC researchers] significantly underestimate the cost of the task at hand.”

When I interviewed Dave Yarbrough, a research engineer at R & D Services in Cookeville, Tennessee, in 2007, he agreed with Desjarlais’s assessment. “When it comes to combining air leakage with a regular hot-box test — well, the task group for the ASTM hot-box committee had that on the agenda for quite a while, but it is no longer on their agenda,” Yarbrough told me. “That technique has been tried many times, and the results have been different degrees of disaster. To say it is very challenging is an understatement. The problem is that you have to have a perfectly sealed perimeter, and you have to keep track of where the air is going. One lab that attempted it finally gave up, and they decided to give the money back to their customer. So Joe’s prospects for success are not too high.”

BSC researchers admit: it’s harder than anticipated

Desjarlais and Yarbrough turned out to be right. Lstiburek had no results to report in January 2008 — nor, for that matter, in January 2009, January 2010, or January 2011. “We’re four years late,” Schumacher says. “It was supposed to be done in a year.”

But on August 3, 2011, Schumacher proudly announced, “Now we have some results. We are two-thirds of the way through a testing program.” However, Schumacher’s presentation at this year’s summer symposium was mostly a tease. Although he released a few tidbits of information, he always withheld essential details. When one person in the audience mentioned that he had snapped a picture of one of Schumacher’s slides, Schumacher got a little nervous.

After Schumacher showed a graph with the results of one test, he refused to answer a basic question: what type of insulation was used in the wall under discussion? Evidently the project sponsors aren’t yet ready for full disclosure.

Was any useful information released?

Although Schumacher was reluctant to provide full details on his test results, he did share some useful information.

One tidbit: Lstiburek’s bold plan to test the wall assemblies at a range of pressure differences has been seriously scaled back. Instead of testing the walls at a 2-pascal pressure difference, and then a 2.5-pascal pressure difference, and then a 5-pascal pressure difference, the researchers settled on just one pressure difference — 10 pascals — in addition to baseline tests without any pressure difference or airflow across the assembly.

I came away from Schumacher’s presentation with three other nuggets of information, contained in these quotes:

  • “Higher R-value walls show a higher drop in performance when the wall is leaky than is shown by lower R-value walls.”
  • “Some of our results indicate that the moving air is recovering heat.” This would indicate that in some cases, infiltration doesn’t necessarily entail an energy penalty. (More research is certainly needed on this point.)
  • “I think you need two air barriers — one on the inside and one on the outside. It actually makes a difference at extreme temperatures.”

In response to several questions from the audience, Schumacher noted, “We’re not sure exactly what’s going on” and “we need to look into that further to figure it out.”

“I’m not so sure”

Back in 2007, Lstiburek made a list of several fundamental insulation questions that remained unanswered, even after years of debate. “When it comes to fiberglass batts, what is the effect of inset stapling versus face-stapling versus friction-fit batts? We know there is airflow, but how much? I’ve been doing this for 25 years, and I’ve gone from thinking that this is maybe a really big factor, to thinking that this is maybe a really small factor, to now, when I’m not so sure.”

I hope the BSC team is successful with its testing program, because more data are always useful. Unfortunately, though, until the BSC’s testing program is completed and the results are published — ideally in a peer-reviewed journal, with all the facts clearly explained — Lstiburek’s 25-year-old questions remain unanswered.

Last week’s blog: “Insulating Old Brick Buildings.”

Tags: , , , , , ,

Image Credits:

  1. Building Science Corporation

Aug 19, 2011 8:41 AM ET

Fossil energy used per person
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Fossil energy used per person per year and their sustainable energy used per year and finally the number of offspring they have and pets! LOL China limits offspring. When they raise their flag over the capitol we will too start to limit births which is the only true issue, no r value measured in complex ways.

Just sayin

Aug 19, 2011 10:02 AM ET

Infiltration heat recovery
by Doug McEvers

I can't say I agree with the second nugget but I do agree with 1 and 3. Infiltration degrades R-value in highly insulated walls and you need an air barrier on the inside and outside of the wall at extreme temperatures.

Aug 19, 2011 2:58 PM ET

Heat recovery in assemblies and questioning the value of this
by Brennan Less

Martin, for further reading on your nugget # 2, check out this report my colleagues released 8 years ago about heat recovery in building envelopes.

If I recall correctly, this was a modeling exercise, but it should help illuminate the issue.

Ultimately, I question what the utility of this research effort is. Do we expect very different responses to temperature and air flow between different materials and assemblies? Between poorly constructed and well-constructed assemblies, I imagine the answer is yes. But with assemblies of similar air flow resistance and R-value (as currently measured), the differences of thermal performance would be quite small (I imagine). Also, it seems to me that the moisture content of the assemblies would have a large impact on performance, given the rates of sorption and desorption at different temps/humidity levels. If one were attempting the sort of whole picture thermal analysis that is being proposed, then leaving out changes in performance due to moisture is a folly. Of course, this would just make things more expensive and difficult to accurately control.

So, what is the purpose of this? Are we trying to aid designers in better climate-responsive decision making? Are we trying to improve energy performance modeling/prediction? Honestly, this could be a case where more info just leaves the vast, vast majority of professionals scratching their heads as to how best to proceed.

Great article.

Aug 19, 2011 3:00 PM ET

Messed up link
by Brennan Less

Whoops, that link doesn't work properly, for some reason. You can click on Infiltration, under Residential Buildings. Then scroll to the bottom. The paper is third from the bottom.

Aug 19, 2011 3:16 PM ET

Edited Aug 19, 2011 3:22 PM ET.

Response to Brennan Less
by Martin Holladay

Thanks for your comments and the link. Here's a direct link to the article: "Heat Recovery in Building Envelopes"

We'll see whether your prediction -- that the BSC researchers using their double-guarded hot box may not end up with data that are truly useful to the building community -- comes true. I certainly understand why you might think that; like you, I have my doubts about the outcome of the project.

However, the researchers doing the work are top-notch engineers and scientists struggling with a tough challenge, and I wish them the best.

Aug 19, 2011 10:12 PM ET

by j chesnut

Much appreciated blog.
I enjoy learning more about physics applied to building issues.

Aug 21, 2011 12:36 AM ET

Edited Aug 21, 2011 12:37 AM ET.

Why such high temps?
by Sam Marsico

In Lstiburek's tests is 144deg used because of the potential for an attic to reach that temp?
Also, are we talking vapor permeable or impermeable interior air barrier. In Tahoe/Truckee area we are required to install a vapor retarder on the interior of walls. It is commonly done by the insulation contractor in a not-so-craftsmanlike way, but would be an air barrier if installed properly. I'm guessing the purpose is to stop a convection loop??

Aug 21, 2011 1:05 AM ET

Regarding both side barriers:
by Sam Marsico

Regarding both side barriers: see page 5 of Lstiburek's "understanding vapor barriers"
Seems like a direct contradiction.
Now Im really confused!

Aug 21, 2011 5:10 AM ET

Edited Aug 23, 2011 7:02 AM ET.

Response to Sam Marsico
by Martin Holladay

You are confusing air barriers and vapor barriers. An air barrier stops air movement but not necessarily vapor movement. (For example, gypsum drywall is an air barrier but not a vapor barrier.)

A vapor barrier stops vapor diffusion but not necessarily air movement. (For example, vapor-retarder paint and the kraft facing on fiberglass are both vapor retarders but not air barriers.)

Lstiburek and other building scientists warn that in some types of wall assemblies, a double vapor barrier can be a problem. But a double air barrier is not a problem, as long as at least one side is vapor-permeable. (The Airtight Drywall Approach is one way to install a vapor-permeable air barrier.)

For more information, you might want to read these articles:
Questions and Answers About Air Barriers

Vapor Retarders and Vapor Barriers

Forget Vapor Diffusion — Stop the Air Leaks!

Aug 21, 2011 6:03 AM ET

Another response to Sam Marsico
by Martin Holladay

Yes, attics can reach 144°F.

And you guessed correctly that the reason that some experts recommend that walls have both an interior and exterior air barrier is to prevent the exchange of air between the stud bays and either the exterior or the interior air -- especially when fibrous insulation might allow a convective loop to develop.

Aug 21, 2011 11:29 AM ET

Convection loops. Years ago
by aj builder, Upstate NY Zone 6a

Convection loops. Years ago Pop Science had an article explaining that double envelope homes once thought to set up a convective loop actually transferred energy via tiny eddies if I remember right. So whenever I see convection loops mentioned....

So should we say, "micro-eddy energy transfer phenomena?"

Aug 21, 2011 12:24 PM ET

Good and bad loops
by Doug McEvers

Convective loops between panes of glass or inside walls is to be avoided. A convective loop within a building envelope that is very airtight is desirable and will minimize stratification. I have found buildings built airtight with adequate insulation on all sides have close to even temperatures throughout. Open floor plans in multistory homes are the main beneficiary of the convective loop.

Aug 22, 2011 10:00 AM ET

Martin, do we stand any
by Dick Russell

Martin, do we stand any chance of getting everyone to drop the term "vapor barrier?" We ought to replace it with "water vapor diffusion retarder" (WVDR) or something else that distinguishes better between transport by diffusion vs. convective flow.

Aug 22, 2011 10:06 AM ET

Response to Dick Russell
by Martin Holladay

I don't think that we need any new terms. "Vapor retarder" and "vapor barrier" are clear in my mind.

Vapor retarders and vapor barriers are intended to lower vapor diffusion rates. Air barriers are intended to stop or reduce the flow of air. It's really not that complicated.

The confusion arose in the 1980s, when a lot of builders started calling 6-mil polyethylene a "vapor barrier." Of course, 6-mil poly is a vapor barrier -- but it is also an air barrier. The fact that poly can perform both functions confused builders.

Aug 24, 2011 8:59 PM ET

by Dennis Hayes

The single biggest factor responsible for superior energy efficiency in a home is its shape. Shape makes all the difference in the world. As mentioned before of all possible geometric forms the pyramid has the least amount of exposed exterior surface area per square foot of heated or conditioned floor space. Heat loss or gain is a direct mathematical function of surface area.
A common term used in construction today is "R" value when talking about insulation in the roof or walls. This is a very misleading term and is often misunderstood. It is supposed to indicate the relative energy efficiency of a material in stopping the flow of heat through a wall or roof. The coefficient of heat loss, which is a small decimal point number describing the heat flow in BTU’s per hour per inch of thickness, is the "U" factor and the reciprocal of that decimal number, or 1 divided by the U factor, is called the "R" factor, which is a whole number. The larger the "R" value then the better the home’s efficiency, right? Well, not exactly! Insulation’s "R" value is only one small part of the formula used in calculating a building’s total heat loss or heat gain. A claim of any percentage amount of comparative energy efficiency is quite misleading as well. A humorous but true old adage says that "figures can lie and liars can figure" should suffice to remind us that we should examine the whole picture when it comes to claims of energy efficiency. A truer statement that actually proves any buildings energy efficiency is the actual energy bill history paid by the homeowner. Those are the numbers that actually count. An analogy for instance: in the automobile industry would be to say that, this vehicle gets 15% better gas mileage than a comparable sized auto.
It seems much clearer, when we can measure miles per gallon, and judge for ourselves the relative efficiency of any particular vehicle.
A building’s exterior surface area measured in square feet multiplied times the material’s "U" factor and the design temperature difference between the interior and exterior surfaces (Delta T) will yield an overall heat loss in BTU’s per hour. A perfect vacuum within the exterior shell of a structure would lose zero BTU’s to the outside environment. If a building leaks air like a sieve through all the joints, doors and windows it would lose all of its heat energy in a very short time. The point being that the shape of the building and the air tightness of it are much more important in determining energy efficiency than simply the "R" rating of the insulation.

Aug 24, 2011 9:04 PM ET

R-value continued
by Dennis Hayes

The lower total outside surface area results in greater heating and cooling savings. The following comparisons between a pyramid, a dome, and a box show the efficiency rating as a percentage of exterior surface square footage to the amount of interior floor space enclosed. A one to one ratio would be 100%; a 2:1 ratio would be 50% efficient. Therefore, a higher percent of efficiency is better in this comparison. Look at the numbers that compare three approximately same sized geometric forms that have similar ground footprints.
A comparison of the Pyramid Home to the Geodesic Dome Home and the Standard Box Home
32 ft. x 32 ft. pyramid (footprint of 1024 sq. ft.)
1553 sq. ft. total floor area (first floor & second floor)
1663.3 sq. ft. total outside surface area
The ratio of floor area to surface area = 1553/1663.3 = 93.4% efficient
35 ft. diameter dome (footprint of 962 sq. ft.)
1661.5 sq. ft total floor area (two floors)
1990 sq. ft. total outside surface area
The ratio of floor area to surface area = 1661.5/1990 = 83.5% efficient
23 ft. x 50 ft. box (footprint of 1161.5 sq. ft.)
1150 sq. ft. total floor area
2337.5 sq. ft. total outside surface area (14.8% more area than a dome)
The ratio of floor area to surface area = 1150/2337.5 = 49.2% efficient
This comparison shows that a pyramid is almost twice as efficient as a box and more than a dome when comparing exterior surface area to interior living space. Isn't this by far the most important consideration?
The percentage advantage here, along with the pyramid's perfect heat-flow shape, can save 75% of your monthly heating and cooling costs.

Aug 24, 2011 9:11 PM ET

Air infiltration heat recovery
by David Elfstrom

Air infiltration heat recovery through has been studied, in both theory and in tests. See Timusk J, "Performance Evaluation of the Dynamic Wall House", 1987, University of Toronto, as well as many papers by Calridge DE, such as "The energy impact of infiltration through an insulated wall" 1992. My thought is that despite possible heat recovery through a wall, it's still preferable to restrict air movement through the building assembly as much as possible and introduce mechanical heat recovery for minimal required ventilation.

Aug 25, 2011 3:56 AM ET

Canadian researchers are developing a wall energy rating (WER)
by Martin Holladay

Like the researchers at Building Science Corporation, a group of Canadian researchers has been using a guarded hot box to develop a new way of rating the thermal performance of wall assemblies.

The researchers (Hakim Elmahdy, Wahid Maref, Mike Swinton, Hamed Saber,and Rock Glazer) hope to develop a metric that they dub the wall energy rating (WER). For more information, see Development of Energy Ratings for Insulated Wall Assemblies.

[Thanks to André Fauteux for pointing out the existence of this paper.]

Aug 25, 2011 10:53 AM ET

ORNL standards
by Ed Dunn

For 20 years, I have been following the standards for insulation in floors, walls and ceilings from Oak Ridge National Labs. I have built homes that use less than 1/8 chord of wood per year, or just a few gallons of propane for heat. No cooling is required here in Flagstaff, AZ. This is far below the average natural gas cost of $250 in January.
I never worried about the issue of true representation of insulation value. Just follow the recommendations! Let's not get too geeky about sustainable building. We know what works, just do it.

Aug 25, 2011 1:13 PM ET

R-Value thoughts of Dennis Hayes
by Neil Porter

Dennis, your thoughts on the shape of a home and how this affects the total surface area is one I've considered before as well.

Personally I'd like to see you do the calculations again and make the homes more comparable - almost identical. As a realtor, I can say that 1,600 SF living area in southwest Florida is a size desired by many and a good starting point. Here virtually all homes are single story but I can see that that wouldn't work efficiently with a dome or pyramid. So stick with two-story homes but also for the box home. Calculate the ceiling height at 8' and add one foot for the second-story floor thickness. Make the outside walls one foot thick. The box home should also be a cube, not a rectangle, to make it more similar to the other two homes. Consider the box-home roof to be flat with the insulation on the attic floor. Please report the surface areas of the second floors in the dome and pyramid homes.

As I have come to realize through the years of my researching green building, rarely is it good to make a major decision based on one issue. This is no exception. This whole discussion is, in my opinion, mainly theoretical. Most people would probably not choose a dome or pyramid shape for their home. Sloped interior walls become almost useless for the way most people use them: hanging pictures and decorations, cabinets and book shelves. The curved walls in a dome would not work well with furnishings that are based on walls being straight. Neither domes nor pyramids fit in well with most neighborhoods. Most home owners would not want to live in a home that doesn't fit in with the neighboring homes and some neighbors would certainly find it unacceptable.

So, even though a dome or pyramid might be more efficient mathematically, for most people there are other issues involved that would be more important to them than energy efficiency. That brings us back to finding a good compromise. With your thoughts in mind, I would say, choose the smallest home that works for you and then make it as close to square as possible. Eliminate all windows on the east and west walls, if possible, because they bring in a huge amount of heat in the summer and often don't provide much heat gain in the winter. Now build the home with the highest affordable energy efficiency.

Aug 25, 2011 6:43 PM ET

R-value and wall systems
by Anders Lewendal

Great information. However, I think there is more to talk about. Our 09 energy code still allows us to use a 2x6 wall with R-21 fiberglass. The builders I work with think this an inferior wall system when we're trying to achieve ACH numbers around one. On top of that, we are interested in finding a wall system that evaluates not just thermal performance but dew point, material savings, total embodied energy, thermal short, usable square footage savings, total cost, industry acceptance, sustainability, installation performance/failure rate, air infiltration performance, adaptability to other climate zones, time savings, and insulation diminishing returns.

Some sort of point system covering the above criteria would help us and our state in finding a suitable wall system for future building standards.

Aug 26, 2011 5:02 AM ET

Response to Anders Lewendal
by Martin Holladay

I agree with you that a 2x6 wall with fiberglass batts makes a lousy wall system. If your point is that the current code is poorly written and not very stringent, you'll get no argument from me.

Until someone invents a new metric, we'll need to find a way to write our building codes in a way that defines wall performance in a different way from just saying, "Look at the label on the insulation package from the lumberyard." The next version of Energy Star is trying to do that; there are other ways that the code could be written.

Code writing isn't rocket science; it's just a type of technical writing (something I do for a living). Up until recently, it's been done quite poorly.

Register for a free account and join the conversation

Get a free account and join the conversation!
Become a GBA PRO!