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


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Home Energy Magazine Online July/August 1997


Quality and Performance at Affordable Comfort

Lance Pustin demonstrates how to measure duct airflow using a pressure pan and manometer at the Affordable Comfort Conference. This workshop, like many others at the conference, gave attendees a chance to use diagnostic tools in the field.
Nearly 1,000 participants and presenters assembled in downtown Chicago this past April for the Affordable Comfort '97 conference. This year's event, Beyond Technology to Quality and Performance, took a broad look at the issue of how to create safer, more durable, affordable, comfortable homes that are energy and resource efficient. And as in the past, the conference offered an abundance of practical courses in building techniques, from the fundamentals to advanced methods.

William McDonough, dean of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, set the tone for the conference in his keynote address: Redesigning Design Itself: Why Can't a Building Be Like a Tree? He asked who, upon seeing a blossoming cherry tree, would be inspired to exclaim, Boy are you inefficient! How many blossoms does it take? Like many things in nature, a cherry tree functions without producing waste; everything from the tree feeds the soil. McDonough said that designers needed to embrace this principle and eliminate the very concept of waste from their designs--not just aim to reduce it.

Throughout the conference, design recurred as a theme, along with quality and performance. At a construction site tour led by Gary Klein of the California Energy Commission and Lance Pustin of the Sustainable Resource Center in Minneapolis, participants examined the thermal and pressure boundaries of a newly finished house, using a blower door and infrared camera. After identifying major leaks in the floor and walls, the group walked over to an identical but unfinished home. There, they were given an anatomy lesson that showed how design and construction can lead to a leaky envelope.

In another session, the problem of construction defects was examined from the liability perspective by Stan Luhr of Pacific Property Consultants. Luhr, who serves as an expert witness in liability suits, said that 86% of the mutifamily developments in the San Diego area have been involved in legal actions. He provided a long list of reasons for the problems, including the fact that increasing specialization is causing fewer and fewer [builders and contractors] to know what's going on in the house as a whole.

He added that most builders do not want to pay for good designs. Instead, they purchase plans from architects that only give them enough lines on paper to get a permit. Such bare-bones designs, known as builder's sets, do not include critical features, such as where to install ductwork. It is thus no surprise that many buildings have inspired legal battles.

Brendan Reid of Retrotec uses a smoke stick in the exhibitors' hall at the Affordable Comfort Conference.
One of the more popular sessions of the conference was Joe Lstiburek's workshop on Where Codes Fail, which brought in a standing-room-only crowd. Lstiburek emphasized that following the building code is no protection against building failure. He also argued that the different climatic regions of the United States demand different strategies. For example, he claimed that, in regions with less than 30 inches of rain per year, simply face-sealing a wall (for example, by caulking or sealing stucco joints, wood siding, and windows) will generally provide adequate moisture protection. However, in wetter climates, face-sealing alone is not enough. To ensure adequate protection, wall assemblies in rainy climates require some type of drainage plane (tar paper or building paper) and, in the severest exposures, a drainage plane with a vented air space. Unfortunately, the current code system does not recognize these differences and requires only a face-sealed assembly regardless of whether you are in Las Vegas, Nevada, or Seattle, Washington.

Nevertheless, Lstiburek was confident that the tide is beginning to turn in favor of better building performance. He cited a landmark case from Halifax, Nova Scotia, where a group of homeowners successfully sued the city for damages resulting from multiple building failures. The Halifax houses had experienced severe rot, stemming from moisture that had penetrated a supposedly impermeable house wrap. The city was held responsible, since the city set the code requirement and a city building inspector inspected the house.

The Halifax case is just one example of the growing pressures to radically alter how buildings are built in North America. Lstiburek expects that code authorities will eventually move in the direction of objective, performance-based standards. He likened the current situation in the building industry to the U.S. automobile industry before the public became aware that they were being sold an inferior product.

This was encouraging news for all the quality home performance contractors in attendance. This year there were more sessions devoted to helping them succeed in a competitive environment where low bid is the norm.

If you missed this year's Affordable Comfort, mark your calendar for next year. Madison, Wisconsin will host the 1998 conference during the week of May 3-8. Presenters are encouraged to get their applications in early. For more information, contact Jude Rutkowski, Affordable Comfort Incorporated, 894 Beaver Grade Road, Coraopolis, PA 15108. Tel:(412)299-1136; Fax:(412) 299-1137.

--John Nagiecki

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