Historic Book Review

May 06, 2009
May/June 2009
A version of this article appears in the May/June 2009 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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EDITOR'S NOTE: It is unusual for Home Energy to publish a review of a book that is not named, as we do here. The review was written and included as a way to honor and salute a pioneering 1980s text. The review is also a commentary on the reality that it has been (and continues to be) a difficult challenge getting a high percentage of energy-efficient (and comfortable, healthy, safe, and sustainable) homes built, even though much of the building science currently being promoted was known when Home Energy premiered 25 years ago. So here’s a tried and true—and still relevant—tool for your toolboxes. For the younger among our readers who may not know of the book reviewed on this page, its title is revealed on p. 62.
This is a published book on energy-efficient homes. Can you identify it?

The purpose and content of this book are best summarized based on author comments in the preface, such as “it draws on innovative methods and products, all tested in the field”; “it brings together pertinent information. . . into one resource volume”; ”it can be used on many levels”; and “it can serve as a practical building guide.” The book not only achieves these ambitious and challenging goals, but does so in an informative and well-written format.

The information presented in the book is based on advances in building science and the house-as-a-system approach. The technical content is provided in sufficient depth and detail to make the book a useful and valuable reference for a diverse audience that includes industry professionals, homeowners, students, educators, and researchers.

The book is divided into two major sections: Principles (chapters 1–6) and Practices (chapters 7–14), which are supplemented with an appendix.

Chapter 1 provides an overview of the main features of energy-efficient homes and discusses their many benefits in addition to saving energy (such as comfort, health, safety, durability, and affordability).

Chapters 2–5 are devoted to insulation, air sealing, ventilation, and the basics and manual calculation of heat loss and gain. Relevant and timely concepts and topics include the magnified effect of thermal defects on effective R-value; air transport (as opposed to diffusion) as the primary mechanism by which water vapor moves into walls and ceilings; the major role of air leakage in heat loss and gain; and the importance of controlled ventilation. The discussions and explanations are well supported with data, calculations, figures, and tables.

Chapter 6 addresses the building design process, from setting initial goals through the final construction documents, with emphasis on energy efficiency. Relevant and timely concepts and topics include room placement and window orientation relative to the compass directions, and ratios of exterior surface area to floor area. This chapter also includes a discussion about, and examples of, readily available software programs useful for completing the energy analysis and ratings of various designs.

Chapters 7–10 cover walls, foundations, roofs and ceilings, and windows. Additional information about air and vapor barriers is included in Chapter 11. The detailed discussion and well-drawn figures in these chapters clearly explain, describe, and facilitate the comparison of the many options for materials and methods that exist for these building components. Relevant and timely concepts and topics include various aspects of advanced framing; placing crawlspaces inside the thermal envelope; insulated roofs in rooms with kneewalls; and high-performance windows.

Heating and ventilation systems and energy-efficient appliances are covered in Chapters 12 and 13. Relevant and timely concepts and topics include air and ground source heat pumps; balanced ventilation systems; heating systems for very small design loads; CFLs; and tankless water     heaters. The final chapter addresses the important subjects of performance testing and evaluation. The uses of blower doors, infrared thermography, and billing data analysis are discussed at length.

The appendix is extensive and filled with useful information, including tables of R-values, pertinent weather data for selected cities, lists of manufacturers and their products, and sources of additional information. The book includes a detailed index.

Overall, the book deserves to be rated highly. However, the division into separate Principles and Practices sections is often arbitrary; information about a particular topic is often located in two or more places and is sometimes repeated. As a result, the reader must assume the task of integrating the material, which is frustrating and time-consuming. Likewise, the entire content of Chapter 11 (air/vapor barriers) could be integrated into other chapters. The book would also be better if it included more information on the principles and application of psychrometrics, home design for hot climates, and cooling loads and air conditioning.

This book is packed with content that is comprehensive, science based, state of the art, and understandable. It will make an excellent textbook, and it should occupy a prominent place in offices and individual libraries. It will be a constantly consulted reference source for years to come. Although the concepts and topics presented in this book are well known to professionals in the field of energy efficiency, they have not been considered or adopted in standard building practices. We can only hope that this unfortunate situation will change rapidly within the next few years.   

Allen Zimmerman is a professor of engineering technology and technical physics at the Ohio State University, Wooster Campus.
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