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Cracking the Energy Code: What will it Cost Me? Alistair Jackson responds.

TRAVIS ROHRER OF TOPLINE BUILDERS ( ASKS: The upcoming change in the Washington State Energy Code is really raising the bar. I appreciate the need to conserve energy, but as contractors, how can we meet the code without losing our shirts?

AAlistairJackson-webLISTAIR: You are absolutely correct about the fact that WSEC is raising the bar in a big way. Washington’s Energy Code has been one of the strictest in the country, and with the changes planned to take effect July 1, 2010 (the WSEC 2009), it will certainly be continuing this legacy. With the current economy and construction market, it’s easy to view this as a big barrier to recovery. However, for the smart contractor, this could actually be an opportunity.

First, let’s summarize the kinds of changes coming up:  The code increases insulation requirements in roofs and some wall conditions, and requires more efficient windows. Under the infamous Chapter 9, it also provides a range of prescriptive options for the additional performance requirement from thermal envelope and infiltration upgrades, to increased equipment efficiency; there’s even credit for smaller than average homes and a “debit” for very large homes.

Perhaps the biggest change the Code offers is the provision for performance testing for both envelope infiltration and duct leakage. For some time, we’ve known that getting a blower door test on a home is at least educational and occasionally a revelation. The result is better upstream detailing and construction management, more comfortable homes and happier customers.

Field 039 Failing a building inspection is one thing – a finished house that can’t get an Occupancy Certificate until the leaks are found and sealed is a liability nobody wants. Far worse are callbacks from an unhappy general contractor or homeowner. And even worse are lawsuits due to mold or durability issues. For a home to be high performing energy- AND durability- wise, properly sequenced detailing will be key. And frankly that means proactively reviewing your construction process and practices, TESTING the outcome and improving them if necessary. Proactive testing can prevent headaches and save you money in the end, whether you’re talking envelope infiltration or duct sealing. In one of our projects, an HVAC contractor was sealing their ducts with mastic and thought they had Energy Star sewn up until we showed up with the duct blaster. What started as a teaching moment ended with a team of installers signing each new duct system with pride, competing for the tightest system of the month. Despite the “difficult” start to the relationship, Lyle Kargel of Air America had this to say of O’Brien & Company: “The best experience in the 23 years of being a HVAC contractor was working with your group. My hat’s off to your group.” Talk about turning lemons into lemonade!

There will undoubtedly be some upfront costs associated with the Code changes. In a WSU study done for the Washington State Energy Office, Chuck Murray estimates an extra $0.50 to $2.04 per sq. ft. This includes the cost of blower door and duct blaster testing. But if you treat the blower door test as “end of the line” Quality Control (QC), the real cost comes when you get a failure and have to track down and seal leaks in a finished home – we once had a project that had to take out one wall of a finished kitchen to seal up an old sheathing penetration for a range hood that was repositioned; Ouch! The secret to controlling those costs is Quality Assurance (QA) – Identify where your construction system is weak, develop prescriptive steps to fix them, educate your crew, check for implementation, stop work and correct as necessary, learn from the results, update as necessary.

Using this approach, including a pre-insulation air sealing inspection and rough-in blower door test, Dave Brogan of Bellingham Bay Builders ( just brought their first LEED for Homes project in at about 0.9ach50. Nice work, Dave!

There’s a learning curve cost with this approach but once you have a system, the cost is minimal. Then the payback comes not only in referrals from comfortable customers with lower energy bills, but in avoided rework costs and reduced callbacks; that goes straight to the bottom line. It’s important to keep in mind the rationale behind these changes. Energy Independence, Climate Change, and Green Construction Jobs. Don’t forget, more jobs mean more people who can afford homes.

Let me close with this. For all the hubbub about increased costs, it’s possible to build a very tight stick-built house (<3 ach50) for the addition of a couple of hundred dollars of caulk and foam. Here’s how: • Hire someone to test the last house you built and identify where the leaks are (Yes – we can do that ;-); • Develop a thorough Quality Management Plan; • Use Energy Star Critical Details and Thermal Bypass Checklist, Built-Green Trade Tips and/or LEED for Homes Durability Plan to help take the fear out of July 1, 2010.

Alistair Jackson (LEED AP, CSBA) is Principal-in-Charge of O’Brien & Company’s residential green building services team. Learn more about O’Brien & Company’s Code Prep Diagnostics and more at

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