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Musings of an Energy Nerd

Where Can I Find Good Advice?

A new book repeats discredited ideas on the best way to build an energy-efficient house

The author of Super House, Donald Wulfinghoff, provides advice on designing a superinsulated home. He claims that anyone who follows his advice can build a house that can be heated and cooled using only 10% to 20% of the energy needed for a conventional house.
Image Credit: Energy Institute Press

Donald Wulfinghoff is an energy consultant who works in Maryland. In 2015, he published Super House, a 700-page book that explains how an ordinary person without architectural training can design a superinsulated home that (he claims) will use only 10% to 20% as much energy for heating and cooling as a conventional home.

The book is lavishly illustrated and comprehensive. Right off the bat, the author shares his lack of respect for architects: on the first page, he writes, “Is it really possible for a person with no prior experience to design a home that is far ahead of contemporary residential architecture? It certainly is.”

Even for readers who are put off by Wulfinghoff’s exaggerated energy savings predication or his architect-bashing, the book (at first glance) shows a lot of promise. Wulfinghoff is a big believer in superinsulation. Much of his advice aligns with recommendations from energy-efficiency researchers and experienced builders. For example:


BOOK REVIEWS BY MARTIN HOLLADAY


A cranky uncle?

So far, so good. The advice quoted above resembles advice from many experienced builders of high-performance homes.

But once readers dig a little deeper into the book, they start to notice that much of Wulfinghoff’s advice is idiosyncratic. He’s like a cranky uncle with firmly held but arbitrary opinions:

Some of these opinions are defensible, of course. But after a while, readers get the impression that Wulfinghoff’s personality is a little — how shall I put it? — inflexible.

Advice that’s just plain bad

So far, we’ve discussed Wulfinghoff’s good advice and his cranky opinions. There’s a third category of advice in the book, however: bad advice. Wulfinghoff’s advice is so often bad that his credibility evaporates as quickly as dew in Las Vegas:

Why is…

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4 Comments

  1. Malcolm Taylor | | #1

    Book reviews
    These are among my favourite of Martin's blogs. I imagine him shouting indignantly to his wife in the other room: "Listen to what he says about insulation!". His wife probably replies (much like mine does when I do the same) with a "Yes Dear" and continues what she was doing.

  2. Andy Kosick | | #2

    Really appreciate the book reviews
    "The answer to the first question is complicated" is the answer. It is complicated and most people (builders even) fail to recognize that. There are usually several ways to do something correctly and even more ways than that to screw it up.

    For some reason this reminds me of how some years back it seemed like every other issue of Fine Homebuilding had some structural engineer write in about a previous article saying what amounted to "no builder or carpenter should ever cut a single 2x4 in a house without consulting an engineer", at least that's what it sounded like because it just ticked me off at the time. How stupid did they think we were? As time has passed and I've delved deeply into building science, I have a great deal more respect for the concern of those engineers but still feel they would have done better using the platform to argue for more stringent licensing of builders rather than talk down to the many good builders that read the magazine.

    Anyway, I think it's still fair to say that the desire alone of an individual to build a truly high performance home makes them more qualified to do so than the average builder, but they should maintain a great deal of humility throughout the process.

    Lastly (but certainly not leastly) is there a detailed wall section of a "tandem" window available, because I would pay to see that. This could potentially end the innie vs outtie debate; best of both worlds. May I suggest a companion volume "The Window Washers Guide to Tandem Windows"

  3. User avater GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #3

    Response to Andy Kosick
    Andy,
    I agree that finding the right tone when advising builders can be tricky. No one wants to be treated like an idiot -- but I was certainly an idiot when I started building (which is why my own house is so leaky). I'm sure I occasionally strike the wrong tone, but when I'm being mindful, I like to approach advice this way: What would I have wanted someone to tell me when I was starting out (and about to make 12 mistakes)?

    I'm not sure whether your tongue is in your cheek or not when you ask for tandem window details. I'm sure there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Among the most important things to think about:

    1. Which panes are likely to suffer from condensation, and how can this condensation be avoided?

    2. Are tandem windows safe in an emergency, when sleepy people are looking for an egress window?

  4. Andy Kosick | | #4

    Definitely Tongue in Cheek
    Sorry it didn't come through clearly, but of everything you mentioned, I found the idea ridiculous to the point of humor. The more I thought about it the worse it seemed and I hadn't even thought about emergency egress. Setting aside whether or not this could be done successfully (unlikely without vinyl and a WRB), with such a variety of window performance and price available who would intentionally install a permanent storm window. It makes me think the author has never tried to keep a house with storm windows clean.

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