Help Wanted: Identifying conditions that can complicate retrofits

32tev__gPhius Senior Scientist Graham Wright weighs in here with a guest post about some on-the-ground research he did regarding retrofits. Graham conducted a brief street-view survey of residential housing in Portland, Oregon (Glenfair, Glendoveer, Rockwood neighborhoods), and documented conditions that would complicate panelized retrofit solutions. He invites you to do the same in your neighborhood, and to submit what you find to advance research on panelized retrofit solutions.

It looks like I will be pivoting to concentrate my work on retrofit for a while. This is in connection with the Advanced Building Construction Initiative (ABC) of the U.S. Department of Energy. Under the program, RMI was funded to set up a collaborative and phius is a member. The vision shared at the recent summit is to figure out how to decarbonize ALL BUILDINGS by 2050. A study of the building typologies is underway, led by NREL.

It is already clear that single-family detached houses are the vast majority of buildings by number, they probably also dominate the aggregated “thermal loads” of heating, cooling, and hot water that comprise most of the energy/emissions savings opportunity.

The NREL data set does not have all the building properties that one would need to identify the technical barriers to deep energy retrofits. There is general awareness on the ABC team that the U.S. housing stock is very diverse and that this is a challenge to the concept of industrialized retrofit. So to get a better sense of this I spent a couple of hours looking at houses within walking distance of where I live in east Portland, Oregon. I looked for conditions that would complicate an exterior panelized envelope insulation retrofit, or that would complicate air-sealing. I looked at 33 houses and noted 30 separate conditions. These are assigned four-letter codes as shown in the table below. Some were much more common than others, such as attached garages, and some were so universal I did not even list them, such as gutters/downspouts.

My takeaway from this excursion was that the number of conditions that one would need to have a plan for is large but not endless. There are obviously some missing, such as balconies and widow’s walks. It’s not a large sample and I could only see one or two sides of the houses from the sidewalk. Many of the houses pictured are on crawl space foundations as indicated by vents, and that could also be considered an air-sealing complication, though I did not call it out here.

Here’s a slide show with problem conditions annotated:


Please send photos of houses near you! If possible, annotate conditions as I have in the gallery, using  the codes in the table below, or adding other conditions not listed, that also seem troublesome from the point of view of exterior retrofit and air-sealing.

Here are the problem conditions I classified, along with the number of cases I identified on my walking tour:

ACOD – air conditioner outdoor unit (3)
AGAR – attached garage (10)
CATV – cable tv line (1)
DISH – satellite dish (5)
DRYV – dryer vent (2)
E@RF – electrical mast through the roof (8)
EMTR – electrical meter (3)
EOUT – electrical outlet (1)
FENC – adjacent fence (13)
FCHM – fireplace chimney (17)
GCHM – gas appliance chimney (5)
GMTR – gas meter (3)
HOSE – hose bib / reel (3)
MLCA – mature landscaping close aboard (9)
MSXT – masonry extension from wall (5)
OV@R – overhang attached at roof (5)
OV@W – overhang attached at wall (5)
PBVT – roof plumbing vent (3)
PBCO – plumbing clean out (1)
RFVT – roof vent (4)
SKLT – skylight / sun tunnel (3)
SOFF – overhang with soffit (3)
STOV – wood/pellet stove chimney (1)
TCOM – telecom or mystery wall box (7)
THIC – change in cladding thickness (5)
TITE – can’t add wall thickness (20)
WART – wall art (1)
WBOX – window box (2)
WING – wing or fin wall (1)
XTLT – exterior light fixture (12)

RESNET 2012 Recap

Just a quick status report from the trenches, err, trade show booth: PHIUS just packed up the table at the RESNET 2012 trade show in Austin, Tex. The booth was generously sponsored by Jim Conlon of Elysian Energy in Silver Spring, Md. Jim was one of the first  folks to become a CPHCSM, and was among the first group of RESNET Raters in the country to take the new PHIUS+ Rater training last December; he’s now qualified to perform the PHIUS+ RESNET QAQC process. Thank you, Jim, for your work and your generosity!

PHIUS promoted its newly launched  PHIUS+ project certification to the RESNET stakeholders, who are the linchpin of the process. PHIUS+ RESNET raters perform passive house specific on-site testing protocols and generate HERS index numbers that accurately reflect passive house performance. PHIUS is offering a two-day certification training for experienced HERS raters to specialize in passive house and passive building QAQC and testing. Only passive houses that pass this rigorous quality assurance process receive the certificate.

During the conference, PHIUS held another 2-day class for raters: one day in the class room and one day on site. Yes, Austin

Take a video tour of Nicholas Koch's project.

already has two passive houses and one of them, Nicholas Koch’s retrofit project, was used for the on-site testing and the ERV balancing and commissioning protocol. The class had the special opportunity to use a new product from Minneapolis Blower Door; it can provide extremely low-flow ventilation air testing and balancing. Thanks to the company’s owner—Gary Nelson—instructors  John Semmelhack and Ryan Abendroth used equipment right off the trade show floor for PHIUS+ RESNET Rater on-site training.  Thank you, Gary!

Ryan and John also presented a conference session on Wednesday afternoon that outlined the PHIUS-RESNET, program details and benefits to raters and consumers.

Overall, RESNET 2012 was a great success with close to 1000 participants! Indeed, energy efficiency is on people’s minds and on government’s radar.

For me, the most important message was RESNET’s pledge to devote its resources in 2012 to make performance-based incentives a reality. This is awesome, of course, for everyone building to the passive standard, as these buildings—that offer maximumperformance—will receive maximum incentives.

Also very encouraging: lots of RESNET raters are extremely well-versed on passive house principles and aware of the PHIUS+ RESNET program. What better group of professionals to help build market confidence in quality-assured passive buildings? There was lots of interest in taking the two-day PHIUS+ RESNET rater training, and many raters also are interested in taking the CPHC training and becoming Certified Passive House consultants. On that subject, we’ll be announcing more PHIUS+ training sites and dates very soon!

I’m in Portland for the Passive House Northwest Spring Conference, and I’ll check in next from Boston at NESEA BE12 (if you’re going, sign up for my workshop on passive house mechanical systems).