This article was originally published in the January/February 1997 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online January/February 1997


Education Melts Icicles at City Hall

by Gregory Thomas

Gregory Thomas is past president of Affordable Comfort Incorporated and is currently chair of the Affordable Comfort Housing Performance Association.

The top photo shows a Brand X non-profit builder's home built to existing codes. Note the icicles along the edge of the roof. The bottom photo shows a Time of Jubilee Home built to NY-STAR standards. The only icicles visible in this picture are on neighboring homes!

Your response to a simple call for attic insulation can create a whole new market for your services. Integrated Energy Systems (IES), a home performance contractor in Syracuse, New York, has seen it happen. In 1994, IES received a call from a city housing development official asking for an estimate on insulating his own house. This began a long trail of education and publicity that has led to performance contracting by some of Syracuse's affordable housing developers, and a significant new market for IES' home performance services.

Instead of showing up at the official's house with just a tape measure and flashlight, IES president Al DeDominicis also brought a blower door, a digital manometer, slides, a slide projector, and a screen. This was more than an estimate or an audit; this was an educational event. The focus of his presentation was the problem-solving ability of diagnostics and whole-house treatments.

The city official had direct experience with building failures. In the Northeast, buildings often suffer from ice dams, peeling exterior paint, poor indoor air quality, mold and moisture damage, and high heating bills--all symptoms of performance failures. The city of Syracuse and the affordable housing groups it funded had experienced all of these problems in both new and renovated housing.

IES won this official's respect for its work. So when the company went to city hall to promote high-performance construction for builders involved in low-income housing, it found receptive ears.

IES had another advantage in approaching the city: the company had been certified as a Quality Assurance Provider (QAP) by NYSTAR. NYSTAR is New York's energy efficiency certification program for new homes. QAPs are the field inspectors for NYSTAR, reviewing plans, checking insulation, testing with blower doors, and offering advice to builders who want NYSTAR certification for their houses. Being a QAP gave IES more credibility as it pointed out the public benefit of the whole-house approach being advocated. It showed that IES was more than just another money-hungry contractor.

IES teamed with NYSTAR to submit a proposal for the city to fund a low-cost, citywide educational effort for builders of affordable housing. The submission gave IES a chance to present its home performance case to a wider range of city officials and advisory board members. The company collected letters of support for the concept of high-performance housing from cities with existing programs, regional and national not-for-profits, and mortgage lenders with energy-efficient mortgage programs. The city was especially receptive because NYSTAR had already developed locally applicable standards for high-performance housing.

Public officials and builders were concerned about the expected effect of high-performance construction on the building budget. They questioned the calculation basis of estimated energy savings. They also wanted to understand why these would be healthier homes to live in. Once they understood more about the benefits of well-built homes, city officials were convinced.

The city council agreed to pay IES to provide NYSTAR training to local housing groups. IES expanded the training by inviting groups from outside the city to attend for a fee, which helped defray the cost of the training. The workshop brought the builders' attention to home energy performance failures. In particular, the architect and the construction supervisor for Time of Jubilee Homes (a local not-for-profit housing developer) were impressed by the potential to improve the quality of the housing they built.

IES took its diagnostic equipment to Time of Jubilee architect Michael Geraghty's house. After a blower door test and a diagnostic audit, Geraghty began to see that building performance was more than the listed efficiency of the specified equipment and insulation levels. Beginning with his next round of houses, he specified air sealing, spray cellulose, advanced framing, sealed-combustion heating, and a mechanical ventilation system.

The extras added some initial cost, but this was offset somewhat by reductions in framing and the elimination of building wrap. Time of Jubilee contracted with IES for the spray cellulose walls, open-blow cellulose attics, air sealing, duct sealing, and mechanical ventilation. Construction manager Pat Dumas adjusted the work schedule to accommodate the advanced specifications.

Once the buildings were done, IES certified that they were up to NYSTAR standards. As part of the certification, IES tested every building with a blower door. To avoid the possibility of improprieties in the self-inspection, IES retained all test results so a NYSTAR representative could eventually confirm the certifications with random testing. Being a QAP, IES was able to provide both installation services and NYSTAR certifications for a lower total cost than if Time of Jubilee had paid both a contractor and another QAP or energy rater.

After several buildings were complete, Time of Jubilee and IES coordinated an open house that was attended by the mayor of Syracuse, Roy Bernardi. The open house included a computer kiosk running a slide show about the home's NYSTAR features, a small poster at each feature's location, and DeDominicis' presentation of a NYSTAR certificate to Time of Jubilee. Even though there was a blizzard outside and the ventilation system was running on high, the amount of hot air produced by the proceedings required that the heating system be turned off for the duration.

IES received a side benefit from the open house. Neighbors noticed that the new house did not have any icicles, while the houses next door, built the year before, had icicles down to the ground. IES picked up some more diagnostic energy audits.

After all the good press, IES and NYSTAR submitted another proposal for city funding. This time, they wanted to train city inspectors and housing program subcontractors in home performance techniques, and to improve the city's rehab specifications. The proposal, originally submitted at $14,000, was eventually funded for $5,000. The Norwest Mortgage Foundation, the charitable wing of the largest mortgage company in the country, is also contributing to the effort to increase home performance.

With the start of this heating season, Time of Jubilee is building 12 more houses, all following NYSTAR standards. The construction process has smoothed out and things are moving along briskly. In addition, the local utility now has a full-scale promotion for certified home performance contractors after a pilot project with IES. But that's another story.



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