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1 or 2 improvements to convince a builder to adopt

Tyler Keniston | Posted in General Questions on

I’m Zone 6a—Maine—looking for thoughts on the 1 or 2 things worth trying to convince a builder/homeowner to adopt in the name of energy efficiency/carbon reduction.

It almost feels easier to talk about deep-in-the-rabbit-hole science with aficionados—zero-energy and passivehaus geeks—than to convince someone that there are a few simple things worth doing with tangible payback.
I’m hoping to make a sensible case so that they feel it is in their best interest and not just mine. 

The two things that come to mind are air-tight sheathing and adding a bit of R-value to the wall design.

But if I convince them to built tight, they need to consider an HRV, or at least a well-thought out ventilation strategy, right? How many designers and builders in places like Maine are actually installing HRV’s? Suddenly it feels like I’m convincing them to build a space-ship instead of a house (from their perspective).

If I convince them to increase R-Value, how do they do this simply? Building another (double) stud wall would come off as a ludicrous endeavor (build another wall inside the first, just for insulation? what!?) and exterior insulation may or may not be realistic for costs and builder familiarity. 

I’m thinking if they are looking at trusses, suggesting raised heel is an easy one…

What do you think, what simple things can I convince them (to then convince the builder) to pursue? Ideally these are things that can be convincing over the course of a dinner conversation or the like, and doesn’t require them to peruse GBA for months on end, or have me performing a perceived soliloquy.

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Replies

  1. Andy CD Zone 5 - NW Ohio | | #1

    Tyler, I've been flabbergasted by the unwillingness of my progressive, environmentalist friends to even CONSIDER efficiency in remodeling and building. When they shrug and move on to other priorities, I find myself vengefully sneaking it in to the work when I can. Adding a raised heel truss might be one of the cheapest and most cost-effective way to increase efficiency. In the absence of any other airsealing measures, this leads a builder to POSSIBLY install code-min depths of (very cheap) cellulose in the attic and above the exterior double-plate which can actually, on top of the very beneficial R-value, achieve some level of airblocking AND mitigate the danger of ice damming. (Homeowner and builder may not realize until later the slightly increased cost of exterior siding.)

    Another idea that sometimes has a bit of traction is my passion for cutting the gas line. In our town, NG service costs about $35/mo in connection fees alone, so I tell them that going all-electric saves $400 a year right off the top. Then I tell them about heating AND cooling my entire house with 2 x 9kBTU minisplits, mostly only using one of them at a time. That sometimes keeps the conversation moving to the next topic, continuous exterior foam, which I argue is aso much of a no-brainer that even Habitat for Humanity is doing it with volunteer, unskilled crews.

  2. Expert Member
    Zephyr7 | | #2

    Exterior foam is probably an easy upgrade. Code minimum levels of exterior foam (the minimum need to avoid moisture problems) usually isn’t too much of a problem for exterior trim details, and it gains a LOT of insulation performance for the wall. Low hanging fruit, so to speak. Exterior rigid foam also doesn’t really change the appearance of the home any, so there is no compromise or downside here. It’s a one-time cost that helps with efficiency for the life of the home. I agree, it’s a no brainer.

    Using a little better windows, with better air sealing, is another simple upgrade that doesn’t really change any of the visual details of a home. You get some comfort benefits here too with last drafts. It’s just a one-time cost at construction time.

    Going with minisplits instead of a central system is something a lot of people aren’t familiar with, and there is a visual downside, so that becomes a harder sell. This is when you will probably get more pushback since it’s not just an extra expense during construction, it’s something the will change how the home operates and looks and that’s when you get more pushback from homeowners.

    In Maine, I’d push the climate zone too, and higher than average energy costs. Any efficiency upgrades are going to have a much quicker payback up there, so the extra cost at construction time gets easier to justify.

    Bill

  3. Walter Ahlgrim | | #3

    At always the two most important things are.
    1 Doing a good job of air sealing especially at the highest and lowest points.
    2 Attic insulation yes on raised heel trusses.

    Walta

    1. John Clark | | #12

      +1

  4. Shawn Baldwin | | #4

    Hi Tyler,
    I sympathize with your struggles. I often pitch the same things with pushback because it's not what they have done in the past. I think the only aspect they hear is the financial one. Either identifying payback for upgrades or resale value etc. Often times our adopted building codes are 10 years behind and building a house to the newest energy codes can be sold as a way to ensure it wont be outdated for resale. Good luck, dont give up!

  5. Andy CD Zone 5 - NW Ohio | | #5

    "But if I convince them to built tight, they need to consider an HRV, or at least a well-thought out ventilation strategy, right? How many designers and builders in places like Maine are actually installing HRV’s? "

    Zone 6 is basically the same as the southern half of my home province of Ontario, which has been requiring HRV's or equivalent on ALL residential builds for over 20 years, and code enforcement is universal. But you raise a good point--if a reluctant client accepts one or two suggestions, and suddenly you're into HRV territory, that's the expensive spaceship stuff that will kill the goodwill. Settle for exhaust-only bathroom fans?

  6. Robert Opaluch | | #6

    Tyler,

    Are there some things you could show your friend that you did yourself, that worked out well? Or that someone else you know did, and they benefitted nicely?

    Personally I'd ask them about the cost of their central heating system, including everything, not just the furnace/boiler. Distribution system, oil storage tank or gas connection costs, expected yearly maintenance, occasional repairs and replacements needed a few decades later. Mention outages, fuel shortages, cost increases, or disruptions. Note that they could allocate some or all of this money into air-sealing (cheap during construction), increased insulation (cheap during construction) and a mini-split (cheaper than a central heating system). And they may benefit from rebates??

    Some of the nice things about insulation and air-sealing is that there is no yearly maintenance, no repairs, no replacements, and it helps during electrical outages or fossil fuel disruptions, making their home not only more comfortable every winter, but more resilient during some crises.

    A minisplit is much cheaper than a central heating system. You didn't mention the size of the home but if they are so short on money, I assume this is a smaller place and one minisplit may serve an open floor plan and help heat (and cool) bedrooms. Small electrical heaters could be used in bedrooms to boost temps overnight; and the installation cost of them is very low, and operating costs not so high since they are only used to boost temps part-time. It would be important to note to them that mini-splits provide 2-3 times as much heating (and cooling) energy as cheap electric resistance heaters (heat pump technology).

    Not suggesting you try all of this if you feel its too much. And thanks for trying to help your friend and the rest of us who are promoting this new type of sensible construction instead of wasteful fossil fuel traditions.

  7. Tom May | | #7

    Well it is up to the individual to decide what they want to do. You are sounding like the government telling us what is right and wrong instead of letting us make that decision for ourselves. I don't use AC and don't even turn my boiler on during the winter. Should I do all these things to my house that you suggest, costing me more money that doesn't need to be spent? A lot of these money saving investments may not make sense to someone who isn't paying that much money to begin with. You don't need to jump on the bandwagon, especially if you don't like the music.

    1. Robert Opaluch | | #8

      Tom,

      No one here said Tyler's friend should not be allowed to decide. Pointing out ways to build a more comfortable house for less initial cost and less maintenance and replacement cost isn't "costing more money", its the opposite. And what's this got to do with government?? You seem to have some "issues" and not be listening to what people are discussing here.

      You don't turn on your boiler on during the winter? Then why have one?

      1. Tom May | | #11

        It was already there, so no sense removing it. Future occupants may need it.
        Issues? Don't let your psychology interfere with your common sense.

  8. Tyler Keniston | | #9

    Thanks for the thoughts.

    The intent here is to pass on information to a friend for them to do as they please with. Sharing information and ideas is, to me, not about telling people what to do. Perhaps using the word 'convince' comes off wrong. I simply mean to make a case that they find relevant and useful. They're a good friend and I'm not selling anything.

    A lot of it will simply come down to who they are working with professionally, but my goal was to provide a few ideas that could be 'presented' to the builder for discussion (not knowing at this point anything about the builder).

    The ventilation issue is definitively a tough one, and a realm I don't necessarily want to get caught up advising on. It seems in these parts, active ventilation is a bit alien (but perhaps that's changing for new construction).

    1. Expert Member
      Michael Maines | | #10

      Tyler, what kinds of things motivate your friend? Are they into the environment, frugal money-oriented people, appreciate comfort and luxury, or some other traits you can identify? It can be hard to convince people to do something their neighbors are not doing, but understanding what motivates them can help.

      HRVs are still uncommon in Maine, unfortunately, but if I recall you're in Gardiner? The Breathable Home in Augusta has been installing ventilation systems in homes for 20 years.

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